Sunday, March 2, 2008

Some Texts I Am Using in the Renaissance History Course

So far (beside many Internet sites, okay, mostly Wikipedia), I’ve used the four books below. The first two I bought and the second two I borrowed. By the way, PaperBack Exchange is the place to go in Florence for these types of text books – forget Edison or Seeber stores.

History of Italian Renaissance Art
The History of Italian Renaissance Art is a pleasure to read and is loaded with pictures. Painting, sculpture, and architecture are covered. (The front cover? Orvieto duomo facade.) The book was originally published in the 1960s and has gone through several editions, adding an author along the way. The original author, Frederick Hartt, organized the book using the biographical approach which means artists’ lives and works are discussed, more or less, individually. It’s an interesting approach that makes the reading more intimate and accessible. The book focuses mainly on Florence, Rome, Siena, and Venice. If I had to buy one book, so far it would be this one.

The Lifes of the Artists

The biographical approach to art history had its biggest advocate in Giorgio Vasari and his influential 1550 book The Lives of the Artists. To this day this book continues to be an important source of information about and introduction to Renaissance artists (mostly Tuscan). Each chapter is based on a particular author, with chatty, sometimes humorous and sometimes inaccurate stories. For me, it’s not a particularly interesting read though everyone raves about it. Maybe it will become interesting the deeper I delve into this subject?

Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy
The book Wealth and Demand for Art in Italy, 1300-1600 is a recommended text for the course. On first glance, it seems dry, after all no art works are actually discussed. But on subsequent inspections, it opens up and tells you a lot about what life was like leading up to and during the Renaissance. It presents the kind of information that other art books don’t cover. For example, page 67 (1993 edition):

"The timing of the Renaissance as a consumer phenomenon was very much a function of the political situation – the emergence of strong oligarchical and despotic governments in the towns, ending the secular instability of communal factionalism; the success of the popes in establishing an independent state in central Italy and transforming Rome into a European capital; the general, if percarious, stabilization of the political scene in the mid-fiftenteenth century; and the overwhelming presence of Spain in the sixteenth century, freezing the political system throughout the peninsula into a permanent stability as well as transforming Naples into a significant new market and giving yet another infusion of wealth to Italian interests."

Interesting, huh? Seriously, I like this book.

The Scientific Renaissance
The last book,
The Scientific Renaissance: 1450 – 1630
, was not part of the recommended reading, but I was interested to know if there was a scientific renaissance (yes there was) and who were the key players. This book at times is hard to read, but if you stick with it you get a good sense of some of the scientific work in this period. In particular, the author spends a chunk of time talking about Copernicus and the Copernican Revolution: “the paradigm shift away from the Ptolemaic model of the heavens, which places Earth at the center of the Universe.”[1] After reading this book I came away with the notion that Copernicus wasn’t out so much to topple the old paradigm just to do so, but more that he was really trying to solve a practical problem of the day which was that of calendar reform. (For example, the church had a hard time figuring out where to place Easter.) The Ptolemaic model of spheres within spheres was too inaccurate for keeping precise calendars and astronomical events so, another method was needed. So inaccurate was the old model that even astrologers were complaining! Copernicus’ book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium 1543 laid out the new system of the heavens and a new way to calculate astronomical events. While by far not perfect, it started the slow wheel of change and opened the door for subsequent astronomers to fine tune the model.

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