Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 17, 1999
Gene Brucker Florence: The Golden Age, 1138–1737 Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Paper $29.95 (0520215222)

The scene that adorns the cover of this book, a detail from Giovanni Maria Butteri’s late sixteenth-century painting The Return from the Palio, is recognizable to anyone who has experienced Florentines when they have stepped outside to be at home in their city. It resembles the hour of the passeggiata, the last marketing moment of the day, or the assemblage of diverse citizens for a festival. The scene is a street of which two sides are lined by palazzi that form a kind of canyon ready-made for a perspectival exercise. Only the irregular height of the buildings, each with its overhanging eave, suggests the private and piecemeal assemblage of this stage-like setting. Some people look out from windows, while others spill forth into the street; many talk, some gesticulate, and the attention of most seems focused on a young man who guides a riderless horse in the direction of the viewer. But for the conspicuous presence of a horse, and the notable absence of motor cars, motorini, and modern moda, this tableau could easily be a representation of a contemporary moment in a city that is forever inseparable from its Renaissance past.

Through Butteri’s telling view of Florence and its Florentines, the city’s past is vividly communicated through a wealth of information about that world: its urban appearance, the reserved look of its domestic architecture, the convergence of activities in confined spaces, and the identity, appearance, and mingling of its social classes. As a repository of information about that world and its people, Butteri’s painting might well serve as a metaphor for the complex context and history of medieval, Renaissance, and early modern Florence. And this, in fact, it does on the cover of Gene Brucker’s book about Florence in its “Golden Age.” Like an invitation to yet other layers of meaning, the perspectival system of the painting leads the eye directly away from the confusion of the Renaissance street to a vanishing point deep within or even beyond the image itself; we are led, so it seems, to a vanishing point of clarification and exploration as we enter the content of Brucker’s book where the complexity of the Florentine world of Butteri’s painting is extensively but not exhaustively revealed by the author.

First published in Italian and English editions in 1983 and 1984, respectively, Brucker’s Florence has now been issued in its first paperback edition. The work is divided into seven chapters in which the author traces the political, social, economic, and cultural history of Florence from the early years of the commune to the end of the Medici principate. Interspersed with his text the author has inserted a series of separate sections that address issues as diverse as Florentine topography and cartography, the economy, trading routes and banking establishments, the wool industry , the guilds, the monastic experience, the artist’s workshop and artistic techniques, domestic architecture, fashions in clothing, and furniture. The work is abundantly and lusciously illustrated, mostly in color, and each image is accompanied by a rather extensive explanatory text that treats the represented item less as a work of art than as a piece of visual evidence of some aspect of Florentine history. The work concludes with a narrative chronology of Florence (which extends the parameters of the book both before and after 1138 and 1737); a useful index of Florentine families; a Medici family tree; and a short glossary of place names and terms important to the study of Florentine history and art.

This is an inviting book in the best and every sense of that description. In truth, however, Brucker has produced more than one book with this volume and that is the principal reason why Florence: The Golden Age, 1138-1737 presents the reader with both difficulty and delight. There is the book of Brucker’s main text, the book of its images and their informative captions, the book of the illustrations themselves, and the book of the interspersed sections. These “books” will certainly frustrate any reader who expects to read and follow an author’s argument from start to finish in an unwavering, linear manner. This simply cannot be done with Brucker’s several “books” in one. The distractions from one “book” to another are just too many, too present, too seductive, and too rewardingly informative. Scholars will do well to adopt the procedure of the more casual reader who is more likely to open the book at its middle and flip from here to there in pursuit of an independent path among the many trails so ably established by the author. To succumb to the book’s complexity is to enjoy and learn of the very complexity of Florence. Of course, this is not to suggest that the book is without a thesis, for Brucker does establish in his first chapter that his focus in on the extraordinary nature of Florence and of Florentine achievement in its “Golden Age,” and he sets out in the rest of his text to explain the various facts—economic, social, political, and cultural—that lay behind the particular Florentine ingegno.

But it will be plain to anyone with eyes, with experience in commercial book stores, and with a low piece of furniture at home between the couch and the easy chair, just what Brucker has produced for the general rather than the scholarly market: a coffee table book. While it has become fashionable among academics to criticize such publications and even to speak ill of colleagues who write them, I rather like such books, especially when they are written, and written so well, by noted authorities. Gene Brucker, arguably the doyen of postwar American historians of Renaissance Florence, was the right person to write this commendable book. In it a vast amount of scholarship and learning—much of it drawn from the author’s own substantial contributions to the field—is well synthesized for the general reader.

So, should this book be reviewed for scholars in this scholarly and academic context? Certainly. As a scholar of Florentine Renaissance art, I learned much from this book; I will use it, here and there, in my research as an initial reference guide to any number of issues pertaining to the history and art of the city; and I will assign this very informative and very affordable book to my students for introductory reading about Florence. Scholars will no doubt find fault here and there with the book, and I, too, cannot resist this professional obsession and failing. I wish to make my point, however, on a matter that should be of concern as much to the general reader as to the scholar.

My point pertains to the way in which works of art and architecture, and many other objects as well, are frequently cropped in Brucker’s text, often without any reference to the fact that the reader is looking at but a portion of the original whole. Two examples of this problem will suffice to illustrate the problem in general. On page 87, Brucker provides a full-page illustration of a fresco from the workshop of Ghirlandaio that represents the taking of a domestic inventory. Unfortunately, the illustration crops the fresco, resulting in the awkward omission of two of the four figures clearly involved in the task. In all fairness Brucker does observe that his illustration is a detail, but still this cropping hinders a full understanding of the fresco. Then, on page 180, Brucker publishes Francesco Granacci’s painting of the entry into Florence of the French King Charles VIII in 1494. The image has been cropped so that only the rump of the king’s horse and a portion of the king’s armor are visible, even though the picture was illustrated precisely as a visual reference to the king’s entry. As an art historian, I am perhaps all-too-sensitive when works of art are taken out of context or altered visually in reproduction from their original forms. I have nothing per se against works of art being used primarily as historical evidence, and not as examples of an artist’s personal oeuvre. But when the purpose is to show the king and the king is shown with but half of a body and much less of a horse, I think that there is a problem in the illustrative accompaniment to a book. In this respect Brucker was perhaps ill-served by those who laid out the pages and managed the acquisition and placement of the photographs. Still, taking note of these and other infelicitous croppings, I enjoyed the act of looking at this book as much as I derived considerable benefit from reading Brucker’s text. Now where should I place or display this fine book? Perhaps I’ll just move my coffee table into my study and eliminate the problem.

Roger J. Crum
University of Dayton