Best Renaissance Art Books


We've reviewed a handful of key texts below for those who want to continue learning more about Italian Renaissance art. While you are in Italy, you should also look for the monographs published by Mandragora and by SCALA which are relatively inexpensive, have good color plates, and are readily available on location in places that you are likely to visit.


The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry
by Walter Pater

Pater's slim volume of essays is a wonderful antidote to the orthodox textbooks on the Renaissance. In the terms of Isaiah Berlin's metaphor, Pater is a hedgehog among the foxes--not striving for circumspection, he digs deep and pops up in unpredictable places. Pater's handful of essays are like core samples which probe the depths to reveal some subtle aspect of Renaissance temperment and artistic sensibility.

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In sharp contrast to scholarly efforts at comprehensiveness and clarity, Pater's essays are partial and meandering. It is not easy to see where he is headed, and it is not always clear even at the terminus exactly where one has been. His method is one of indirection and one has to give up the expectation of finding structured argumentation. Pater's essays are, rather, responses to or reflections upon some aspect of the period which has struck a chord for him.

His primary concern as a critic is the articulation of artistic sensibility, and the indispensible starting point for such work is, as he asserts, the critic's own refined capacity for receiving impressions:

What is important, then, is not that the critic should possess a correct abstract definition of beauty for the intellect, but a certain kind of temperment, the power of being deeply moved by the presence of beautiful objects... The question he asks is always:--In whom did the stir, the genius, the sentiment of the period find itself? where was the receptacle of its refinement, its elevation, its taste? "The ages are all equal," says William Blake, "but genius is always above its age." (p. xxvii)

Pater throughout expresses his distaste for thought which is no more than an expression of systematic reseasoning, that mode of discourse of which, as Blake tells us, angels are so fond. Those whose sympathies, like Pater's, lie with the devil's party recognize the need for subtler tools if they are to grasp such slippery stuff as the "stir" and "sentiment" of an age.

In the first essay after the introduction, "Two Early French Stories", Pater brings to our attention a late medieval French tale which he feels is a harbinger of that sensibility which will come to flower in the Renaissance. When the protogonist, Aucassin, is threatened with the pains of hell if he makes Nicolette his mistress, he declares that he prefers to descend with the good scholars, the actors, the fine horsemen, the men of fashion, and the "fair courteous ladies who had two or three chevaliers apiece beside their own true lords", rather than climb heavenward with a "feeble and worn-out company of aged priests" (p. 21). In the spirit of this tale, in the worldly mysticism of the Franciscan order, in Provencal poetry, in the antinomian sentiments of the times, Pater sees the emerging signs of the Renaissance sensibility he so admires, where "there are no fixed parties, no exclusions: all breathes of the unity of culture in which 'whatsoever things are comely' are reconciled, for the elevation and adorning of our spirits" (p. 22).

The free expression of thought and feeling, the love of beauty, the conviction that truth must be beauty--these are at once Pater's own values and the values which he believes are given expression in Renaissance culture. In his essay on Pico della Mirandola, he makes no attempt to resuscitate the mystical cabalistical fantasy world of Pico's philosphical writings. Yet he admires unreservedly the passion and the guiding vision that animated Pico's work and the work of kindred spirits, "great rather by what it designed than by what it achieved" (p. 26). Pater concludes his essay with a paean to Pico's humanism which, if it falls wide of the mark in faithfully describing Renaissance Humanist philosophy, certainly gives voice to Pater's own vision of what truly matters in the sphere of human endeavor:

For the essence of humanism is that belief of which he seems never to have doubted, that nothing which has ever interested living men and women can wholly lose its vitality--no language they have spoken, nor oracle beside which they have hushed their voices, no dream which once has been entertained by actual human minds, nothing about which they have ever been passionate, or expended time and zeal. (p.40)

We could say much the same about Pater's own work on the Renaissance. As we read through his essays, we begin to recognize the lietmotifs which repeat amidst the changing topics, and we can never be sure if we are really seeing the Renaissance as it was or if we are seeing Pater's dream of the Renaissance. But is there any other way to get at the "stir" and "sentiment" of an age? Surely we need to respect the known facts, but ultimately the facts provide only the raw materials for interpretation. With a writer like Pater we can see clearly what fantasy we stand in as we look back through the centuries, whereas with so much of modern scholarship we stand blindly in an unacknowledged fantasy of art history as the objective history of technical breakthroughs in the resolution of problems of representation.

So, when Pater looks at Leonardo he sees someone who, like himself, "had been always desirous of beauty, but desired it always in such precise and definite forms, as hands or flowers or hair... (p. 106). When he turns to Michelangelo, it is the poetry he examines, seeking in between the lines of his sonnets a glimpse of Michelangelo's ordinary humanity, the trail of sentiment which threads through even the bold expressions of Neoplatonic idealism. When he looks at Botticelli, he sees foremost the sad, wistful Madonnas "who shrink from the pressure of the divine child, and plead in unmistakable undertones for for a warmer, lower humanity" (p. 49), "one of those who are neither for Jehovah nor for His enemies" (p. 46).

Pater's Renaissance, then, is a time in which the divisive ideological polarizations which exhaust intelligence and sympathy in later ages have not yet hardened into permanent oppositions, an age in which many of the most representative figures live "in that middle world in which men take no side in great conflicts, and decide no great conflicts..." (p. 45). It is a period which appreciates the particularity of things and does not devour them in the sweeping generalities of idealist philosophies. It is an era which seemed to know that "Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. (p. 197).

Pater pleads the case of the Many against the One, of the lived texture of experience against life-denying abstractions. In the next century William James would give formal expression to this sensibility in articulating his philosophy of radical empiricism, most eloquently in his final work, A Pluralistic Universe. In modernist poetry Wallace Stevens would claim that:

"There are many truths
But they are not parts of a truth..."

In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts...

     (On the Road Home)

And James Hillman would articulate his vision of a pluralistic psychology in Re-Visioning Psychology, drawing inspiration, much like Pater himself, from the rich sources of the Italian Renaissance (while nodding also to James in the concluding words of his text).

Like William Blake and Victor Hugo, whom Pater suggests are unaware that they are the true sons of Michelangelo, perhaps we may come to recognize in Pater an unacknowledged pater familias of this century's own tribe of radical pluralists, living in the light of the moment's glow.

Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy
by Michael Baxandall

Michael Baxandall sets out to do an unusual, difficult, and intriguing sort of study. His topic is the painting of the fifteenth century as it was seen by men of the fifteenth century.

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He approaches his task through a variety of interesting avenues through which he seeks to investigate the perceptual constructs that a fifteenth century audience was likely to bring to its encounter with painting.

The first section of Baxandall's work explores Quattrocento painting as a social transaction involving contractual agreement between artist and patron, and his study of contracts leads to some interesting discoveries. For example, whereas we might assume that a painter's choice of colors was dictated solely by aesthetic considerations, from Baxandall's research we learn that the choice of colors as well as the quality of various pigments was often specified in detail in agreements between patrons and artists. We are forced to acknowledge that an artist's use of certain shades of silver or ultramarine was sometimes not an aesthetic consideration but, rather, a contractual obligation.

In the major segment of his work, "The Period Eye", Baxandall explores various aspects of Renaissance culture which may have affected the ways in which painting was perceived. For example, given the pervasiveness of religious preaching, Baxandall suggests that the text of popular sermons from the period should give us access to the popular mind, to the kinds of knowledge which painters would have presumed to exist on the part of their audience. (A contemporary analogy might be the way in which a Mel Brooks' movie parody presumes familiarity with the original genre on the part of its audience.) His other explorations of gesture in paintings, based also on his reading of instructions to preachers for effective gestural communication, provide a fascinating gloss on the vocabulary of gesture in Quattrocento painting. This frame of reference allows Baxandall to explore the gestural vocabulary of Annunciations with a degree of subtle differentiation that is breathtaking. His work also reminds us that we can not blithely make assumptions about the universality of non-verbal languages.

Another avenue which Baxandall explores is the possible role of conventional figures from religious theater influencing the "staging" of religious paintings--the role of the festaiuolo, a choric theatrical figure, corresponding to that omnipresent figure in Quattrocento paintings who points and directs the viewer's attention toward some significant event being represented.

But perhaps most interesting of all is Baxandall's inquiry into the possible impact of the commercial education of the merchant class on the idioms and practices of Quattrocento painting. He identifies the learned schoolboy games which Uccello plays with geometric figures in his Battle of San Romano. He points out that the shape of the tent in Piero's Madonna del Parto served as a standard textbook problem for determining the surface and volume of geometrical forms. Through such examples Baxandall invites us to recognize the various and divergent aspects of fifteenth century life reflected in painting in the juxtaposition of different perceptual modes.

There is, perhaps, an unstated and mildly arrogant assumption on Baxandall's part that his way of investigating Quattrocento painting is an example of how art historical studies ought to be done. The lack of reference to any other secondary texts and the occasional didactic tone give one the sense that he feels he is writing an exemplary text. While hardly adequate itself as a language for art, Baxandall's methodology clearly demonstrates its utility by grounding us in the perceptual constructs of the period and adding a measure of complexity to our perception of its arts.

The Italian Painters of the Renaissance
by Bernard Berenson

Although one of Bernard Berenson's major efforts was to organize and systematize our knowledge of Italian painting, for which he will always be honored within the halls of Accademia, his essays tend to be polemical and impressionistic in a manner that modern scholarship largely disdains.

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Reading Berenson allows us to see the world of the Renaissance intimately through late-nineteenth century Victorian eyes. Berenson's rhetoric is peppered with notions like "race" and "nobility" and "possessing the Earth", terms which have lost some of their shine in the post-Holocaust era. He dreams openly and unabashedly about the Renaissance as having the gaiety of youth in contrast to the maturity of his own period. He sees, however, profound similarities between the Renaissance and his own period in the unlimited faith in the capabilities of science and human achievement. His naive optimism situates us clearly in the period before the horror of this past century's World Wars, and it helps us to see how much has changed in the century since he wrote these essays.

In The Italian Painters of the Renaissance, a collected volume of what were initially four separate studies of regional art of the Italian Renaissance, Berenson sets forth his vision of what matters in art, what "quality" truly means, which painters have it and which ones don't. He tries to provide a rationale for identifying the most vital art and the most significant artists in a particular locale and in a specific period. And he tries to formulate this in terms of the degree to which they were able to realize the principles of Art in their works.

At the top of his list are "tactile values", that sense of palpable reality in a painting without which, Berenson argues, we can never really care about the situation of the figures because we lack all conviction of the reality of their circumstances. This, he suggests, was Giotto's radical innovation and major contribution-to create figures which had mass and volume and physical presence, figures we could believe in and care about. This tactile sense vanished later in the fourteenth century but reappeared after a hundred years in the work of Massacio. Berenson describes Masaccio as a reborn Giotto for whom he reserves only the highest accolades:

In later painting we shall easily find greater science, greater craft, and greater perfection of detail, but greater reality, greater significance, I venture to say, never. Dust-bitten and ruined though his Brancacci Chapel frescoes now are, I never see them without the strongest stimulation of my tactile consciousness. I feel that I could touch every figure, that it would yield a definite resistance to my touch, that I should have to expend thus much effort to displace it, that I could walk around it...How quickly a race like this would posess itself of the earth and brook no rivals but the forces of nature!...Compared with his figures, those in the same chapel by his precursor, Masolino, are childish, and those by his follower, Filippino, unconvincing and without significance, because without tactile values. (p. 81)

One of the pleasures in reading Berenson is the joy of encountering a fully formed, sharply defined sensibility which expresses itself vigorously and unapologetically. Whether we agree with Berenson or not, it is refreshing to encounter a voice that does not hesitate to set forth principles, to value and to judge, to champion certain artists and to disdain others.

What clearly motivates Berenson's judgments and his desire to communicate them to his readers is his passion for art. He is one of those rare critics who seems to have had both the self-understanding and the honesty to remind us that what draws us ultimately to painting is the pleasure we experience in contemplating a work of art.

Berenson's pleasure is intimately connected with tactile values; in Jungian typological terms, we might recognize here the voice of a highly self-aware, sensate type. Whereas Berenson favors tactile values, critics of different temperment might well value above all the mysterious intuitions or emotional colorations of their favorite artists. Yet, once we get past the arbitrary quality of certain of his judgements, we can begin to appreciate his ability to give eloquent expression to his preferences and prejudices, to take us profoundly into the heart of an articulate sensibility. He permits us to see clearly the relationship between his personal psychology and his artistic valuations, a relation which most critics, philosophers, and scholars do their best to conceal from their readers, and, all to often, from themselves as well.

Italian Art 1250-1550
by Bruce Cole

Bruce Cole's introduction to Renaissance art is most worthy of praise for the way it helps us understand the ritual purposes which different types of art objects fulfilled. Cole's organizational schema distinguishes between art which was intended for the home, art which was made for the church, and art which was designed for public, communal purposes. We learn that each of these three spheres of life-domestic, religious, and civic-had its own characteristic genres of art objects.

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Within the home Cole introduces us to cassoni, the ubiquitous painted chests which were decorated with moralistic tales and which were used for all manner of storage in this dark age before closets; to the spalliere, the wall panels painted to add grace to domestic interiors: we learn that paintings like Signorelli's School of Pan, Piero di Cosimo's Hunting Scene, Bellini's Feast of the Gods, and Corregio's Jupiter and Io were all wall panel paintings commissioned for domestic interiors; to deschi, painted platters which Cole suggests were presented to newlyweds as a talismanic objects intended to promote fertility (although they are usually identified by other scholars as the trays upon which a new mother was served her first post-partum meal).

In the religious sphere we are introduced to altarpieces, frescoed chapels, triptychs and diptychs. Cole succeeds in giving the reader a vital sense of the religious significance of each of these different art forms, an approach that takes us well beyond mere stylistic analysis. We are reminded that this art was originally created for ritual purposes, and we begin to sense how much we miss if we remain ignorant of the social and religious contexts within which these objects found their meanings. In the civic arena, as well, we find that objects like Donatello's Judith and Holoferness or the numerous statues of David done by various artists were commissioned for specific purposes and that they all carried certain messages within the political arena quite apart from their aesthetic virtues.

Leveraging off of this systematic organization of the arts of the period, Cole's work is rich with insight into the ways that specific works support and achieve their "niche" functions through their formal and thematic properties.

Cole's simple strategy of dividing things up by home, church, and city hall-each with its attendant types of art--is tremendously useful in helping one gain an overview of these three arenas of artistic activity during Renaissance times. In some sense the most remarkable thing about the way in which Cole has organized his survey is simply that no one seems to have done this before him. Finally having someone point it out these basic division to you is a bit like having someone point out that you've been driving at night with your lights off.

Among contemporary Renaissance scholars, Bruce Cole is one of the few who has tried to write books that make Renaissance art accesible to lay readers. Apart from his academic essays in scholarly journals, Cole has devoted much of his energies to writing highly readable texts on a broad range of topics. In general, if you want to learn about any aspect of Renaissance art and there's a book by Cole that addresses it, it's probably your best place to start.

My only complaint with this work is that, because it is a survey, its treatment of individual works is often rather brief. This is unfortunate because in many of his other works, as, for example, in his book on Giotto (Giotto and Florentine Painting), Cole often writes eloquently and with great sensitivity about individual paintings. In this context it is doubly unfortunate because Cole's stated intent in treating his subject is to "revive [paintings and sculptures] and make them the living, powerful presences they were centuries ago." (p. xxiv). Whatever the virtues of Italian Art for understanding the period and the larger shape of things, it is far less successful in animating the reader's encounter with specific works. Among survey texts this is one of the most readable and informative, but it may just be the nature of the beast that an overview/survey can never be the vehicle for profound engagement with anything.

History of Italian Renaissance Art
by Frederick Hartt

Unlike Janson's standard textbook, History of Art, which attempts the impossible and fails, Frederick Hartt's History of Italian Renaissance Art is quite successful in approaching its ambitious topic. Although the scope is enormous, Hartt's treatment of individual artists, and of individual paintings, leaves the reader with the sense of having established a certainly intimacy with art and artist. Janson, by comparison, keeps us always moving, always on the surface, awash in clich├ęs.

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Hartt's approach is essentially eclectic, and he typically seems able to assemble the interesting insights of various critics without having any sort of strongly defined agenda of his own. All in all, although his writing (in this context) is rarely astonishing or controversial, it succeeds in providing a comprehensive, informative look at Italian Renaissance art.

A great virtue of Hartt's book is the copiousness and quality of the illustrations. Unlike the washed out colors of the Murrays' color plates or the muddy black and white reproductions found in some of Panofsky's works, the quality reproductions in Hartt's book allow something of the images' remarkable beauty to emerge.

Be advised that this is a huge tome, an acquisition for the library or coffee table, definitely not something you will casually toss into your daypack. If you fall in love with Renaissance art and experience the joys of lugging Freddie Hartt across the ocean once or twice, you'll strongly consider purchasing a second copy to leave with friends in Tuscany while you're gone.

The Stones of Florence
by Mary McCarthy

The Stones of Florence is, in a sense, the ultimate coffee table book for the erudite visitor to Florence. McCarthy appears at first to be writing for the lay person rather than for art history scholars or even art history students. Conspicuously absent are even the most modest trappings of scholarship: there are neither footnotes nor any other form of documentation of sources; there is no dating of referenced works of art; there is no bibliography; there is not even a listing of plates!

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By means of these deliberate omissions, The Stones of Florence presents itself simply as an essay by an amateur with no scholarly pretensions. Yet there are few general works on Florentine Renaissance art that require more background on the part of their readers-or reveal a more profound intimacy with their topic-than does McCarthy's work. Her omission of scholarly trappings is finally not to be read either as an indication of superficiality, nor of popularization. It is, rather, I believe, a request that her work be recognized as a literary essay in the tradition of such great nineteenth century essayists as Pater and Ruskin (one of whose titles she echoes in her own), and that it not be confused with mere scholarship.

She begins by reporting a Florentine's lament over the state of affairs that has been brought about by the popularization of art history studies. On the one hand, numerous works that were once obligatory stops for the man of leisure on the grand tour are rarely visited anymore; one the other hand, certain works have achieved such notoriety and popularity that it has become virtually impossible to see them at any time of year without the press of crowds. McCarthy, both implicitly and explicitly, leaves the reader in no doubt as to her feelings about the hoards of surfers who pack the Uffizi to stare at Botticelli's Venus. If she can hardly be accused of democratic sentiments, McCarthy certainly can not be faulted for contributing to the problem through her own writing. The Stones of Florence unabashedly addresses itself to that rare, if not extinct, visitor to modern day Florence who has the time to get to know the city in depth, who seeks to learn something of its historical and cultural traditions, and who can appreciate McCarthy's ambitious attempts to delineate the specific character of Florentine genius as expressed in its art, architecture, and institutions.

I read Mary McCarthy's book on my first trip to Italy in '91. I first found it, as I suspect many of its readers do, as a coffee table book in the home of some American friends staying in Tuscany. I read through it and marveled at the eloquence; most of the references to actual places and art works, however, were wasted on me. There was too much to assimilate, too many names of unfamiliar artists, too many anecdotes whose point I missed, too many allusions to historical personages of whom I had never heard. This is a dreadful book for newcomers to Florence and Florentine art, though I would not be surprised to learn that this group constitutes the book's largest readership.

When I reread The Stones of Florence after studying Italian Renaissance art for several years, I found myself able to appreciate at least some of McCarthy's sophisticated observations of modern and Renaissance Florence and to confirm them through my own experience. What is most impressive is the way she manages to sift through the rubble of mere fact and to extract the bits and pieces that offer a glimpse into the heart of Florentine values. There are few works either of general history or of art history that are, in my experience, more successful in depicting that vaguest of all notions, the "character" of a people, and doing so in a manner that illuminates everything to which she turns her attentions. Few books have affected the ways in which I see Florence and the achievements of Florentine art as profoundly as has McCarthy's work.

Some highlights that have stayed with me: her characterization of the hard, unadorned masculinity of Florentine architecture with its drab streets bordered by "stone fortresses"; the intellectuality of Florentine art in contrast to the mysticism and lyricism of its Renaissance neighbors; the role of the Florentines as the first artistic avant-garde, introducing innovation into whichever city state they traveled; the role of folk beliefs about animism and spirits underlying experiments in sculpture; the dark humor of the Florentines as revealed in their street names, in their jokes, in their popular tales; the contrast of the geometric church facades of the indigenous tradition and the tiger striped facades of the Moorish tradition that entered through the port town of Pisa; the image of Daedelus on Giotto's campanile as an emblem of the Florentine spirit.

For the majority of McCarthy's audience, reading The Stones of Florence must finally be a form of play acting, an opportunity to be addressed as a person of leisure and culture, as a person who can appreciate subtle observations about the changing seasons in Tuscany and about the character of its populace, as someone who has a broad familiarity with the history of the region and with the chef d'oeuvres of its master artists. In short, McCarthy's work continues to live as a classic less because it speaks directly to an audience that exists than because it creates an imaginary audience to which many of us aspire to belong.

The Art of the Renaissance
by Peter and Linda Murray

The Murrays' work has the virtue of treating both Italian as well as Northern European sources, and thus provides a useful introduction to what was happening outside of Italy during the Renaissance. Once you acquire some sense of Italian art during the early decades of the fifteenth century, it's fascinating to see what the van Eycks and Rogier van der Weyden were doing during the same period. Bold new representational techniques in Flemish and Italian art each seem to have emerged independently, much in the same way that the renaissance of medieval commerce took place separately in Venice and Flanders three centuries before.

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The Murrays' treatment of individual works is often undistinguished which makes this an unhelpful book for those who seeking an initial introduction to Renaissance art. Also, the plates provided are limited and not of high quality. However, if you already have a basic sense of the arts of the period and want to extend your understanding of their context, this is an instructive book. The Murrays are at their best when writing broadly about trends and events that impacted the arts of the Renaissance. Among their many interesting speculative insights are suggestions about the possible role of the "devotional books" of the period, such as Thomas a Kempis' Imitation of Christ, in elaborating a new iconography which later made its way into painting; about the role of the medieval mystery play as a potential source of dramatic composition in painting; about the influence of Gutenberg's invention of moveable type and other new technologies on artistic practices.

In particular, the Murrays' discussion of the impact of technology allows us to recognize in the fifteenth century the origins of our contemporary situation in which change has become the main constant of daily life. Those of us who nurture antiquarian fantasies about the good old days will be surprised to learn about the enthusiastic ways in which the Quattrocento artists seem to have embraced the latest fads in representational technology. In this respect they were not all that different from today's synthesizer musicians and multimedia authors.

While the subjects being represented may have remained traditional, the means of representation began to undergo a constant process of change. Della Robbia achieved his unique glossy surfaces by developing a process of applying vitrified lead glaze to terracotta; Durer used the new, inexpensive woodblock technique to be able to afford to self-publish; shortly after its arrival in Florence in the 1460's, line engraving was used by Pollaiuolo in Battle of the Nude Men and by Mantegna in Battle of the Sea Gods. Botticelli used a new metal engraving technique in his illustrations for Landino's Commentary on Dante (which failed). And to Leonardo's incessant experimentation with the tools of his trade we can attribute the loss of several of his great works.