Mimmo Rotella (1918-2006), Topolino, 1959. Décollage, cm 88 x 128. €150,000-200,000. 

Italian Pop Art: A Primer

Renato Pennisi, Director and Senior Specialist of Christie’s Italy, gives an essential introduction to the movement set to take the art world by storm, ahead of our Milan Modern and Contemporary sale, on 5-6 April


Leggi in italiano


Emerging after the Second World War, Pop Art radically changed approaches to contemporary art. For many, works by its artists were symbolic of a greater cultural revolution, sparked by the increasing prominence of consumer values.

Yet, though American artists including Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein became indissociable from Pop Art, the movement also became prominent across Europe. In Italy, an entire generation of Italian pop artists emerged — with an exhibition at Venice’s Guggenheim set to focus on Italian Pop from this April. 

Here, Renato Pennisi, Director and Senior Specialist of Christie’s Italy, discusses the birth, evolution and reception of Pop Art in Italy, with works from our upcoming Milan Modern and Contemporary sale, on 5-6 April. 

Tano Festa (1928-1988), Via Veneto 2, 1961. Legno, carto e tempera su tela, cm 149,7 x 179,7. Estimate €60,000-90,000. This work is offered in Milan Modern and Contemporary, 5-6 April at Christie’s in Milan

Tano Festa (1928-1988), Via Veneto 2, 1961. Legno, carto e tempera su tela, cm 149,7 x 179,7. Estimate: €60,000-90,000. This work is offered in Milan Modern and Contemporary, 5-6 April at Christie’s in Milan

What is pop art, and how did the movement emerge?

The term ‘Pop Art’ is an abbreviation of Popular Art: a ‘popular’ form of art, with popular understood as ‘mass’, in the sense that it appropriated forms of mass communication and new technologies, to create works of art. Early works of Pop Art drew upon the imagery of commercial posters, occasionally appearing to critique a contemporary world in which everything had become a form of merchandise, including art.

Begun in England in the late 1950s, the movement later took root in America, flourishing from the early 60s, before returning to Europe, where the notion of ‘mass’ culture, was embraced through a variety of forms and a new array of imagery, particularly in Italy.

But it was the 1964 Venice Biennale that was perhaps the most prominent signal of Pop Art’s arrival, presenting the most significant number of works by the New York School of Pop Artists ever seen in Italy.

Who were Italy’s Pop artists?

In Italy, a group of artists began to embrace the values explored in American Pop Art with enthusiasm, drawing upon its focus on mass-produced, everyday objects. Their works drew upon, and conceptualized, imagery encountered in Italian cities — the visual expressions of an economic boom, of history and artistic heritage, and the worlds of film and advertising. 

Collectively, the group of artists came to be know as the Piazza del Popolo: Mario Schifano, Tano Festa, Franco Angeli, Mimmo Rotella, Giosetta Fioroni, Mario Ceroli, Cesare Tacchi, Renato Mambor. Though the latter were all based in Rome, their works were echoed by artists in Milan, linked to Studio Marconi: Baj, Valerio Adami, Emilio Tadini, Lucio del Pezzo.

Tano Festa (1938-1988), ‘Cielo newyorchese’, 1965. Smalto su tela, cm 162 x 130. Estimate €60,000-80,000. This work is offered in Milan Modern and Contemporary, 5-6 April at Christie’s in Milan

Tano Festa (1938-1988), ‘Cielo newyorchese’, 1965. Smalto su tela, cm 162 x 130. Estimate: €60,000-80,000. This work is offered in Milan Modern and Contemporary, 5-6 April at Christie’s in Milan

Why were these artists important?

These artists were important because each of their works represented an Italian response to the difficulties of the earlier Arte Informale movement, drawing upon a Western influence in a manner that was both original, and very much their own. They are artists who presented works that oozed a sense of the Italian ‘dolce vita’, of the economic boom — of a crucial movement in the evolution of the society and habits of Italy during the 1960s. They were not passively taking on aspects of American culture, but drew upon aspects of it to express the richness of Italy’s own national culture, often inventing new manufacturing techniques — as was the case with Rotella’s décollage — or creating new iconography.

Perhaps the most fundamental element of their work was its ability to capture and interpret its era, bringing, as they did so, a sense of revolution and colour. Italian Pop Art was neither a critique nor an assimilation of consumerist values. It was, rather, an survey of what existed — of a changing world, and of its new imagery, drawn from everywhere: from street signs to symbols of American monetary power and the dollar, to posters in the streets, and cinema. 

Why do they matter today?

Today, these artists continue to be significant, not only because of the fantastic formal and aesthetic qualities of so many of their works — and particularly those of the 1960s — but because of what they represent. They document a change in artistic tradition and values, not just in terms of the adoption of an aesthetic drawn from Pop culture; they are works that had an irreversible impact on the way we see the world and think about art. 

What differentiated Italian Pop from its American counterpart?

The work of Italian Pop Artists drew upon an art history and sense of heritage that was thousands of years old, creating sacred, ‘Pop’ interpretations of already sacred images, such as Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. Italy’s artists demonstrate a real spontaneity, and a playful spontaneity, reinterpreting the ‘American Dream’ — I think, for example of Tano Festa’s Cielie newyorkesi, in our Milan auction. Their work should be remembered, too, for the genius of its technique, clearly visible in works such as Mimmo Rotella’s 1959 Topolino, inspired by the imagery of Mickey Mouse.

But most of all, they captured the Dolce Vita — as epitomised by Tano Festa’s Via Veneto, depicting the famous street in Rome. That street is really the symbol of the ‘Dolce Vita’ — and, at the time, didn’t we have it? They are also a response to the imagery of newspapers and the press, which occupied the imagination of so many artists of the period — fixing, in one ecstatic moment, the vision of a new present.