Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 30, 2001
Laurie Schneider Adams Key Monuments of the Italian Renaissance Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2001. 210 pp.; 29 color ills.; 83 b/w ills. Paper $26.00 (0813334268)
Laurie Schneider Adams Italian Renaissance Art Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2001. 420 pp. Cloth $75.00 (0813336902)

The publication of these two intellectually engaging and visually appealing textbooks by Laurie Schneider Adams provides a good opportunity to reconsider the main options available for surveys of Italian Renaissance art. Art historians, like most academics, tend to argue the relative merits of different textbooks with great gravity, finding fault for reasons of coverage, method, or quality of reproductions. In this age of interactive web syllabi, these problems are relatively surmountable; we can link students to news articles, museum, educational, and informational websites, electronic texts, or other images to fill in the perceived gaps. But the textbook remains the basic entry into the material for our students, and as such it has enormous importance. A significant number of textbooks across the discipline have been published or revised in recent years, although only a handful have been reviewed on this website since its inception in 1998, and all of these are, interestingly enough, in non-European fields (Caribbean, Islamic, Mayan, and pre-Columbian).

A very unscientific poll of Renaissance colleagues indicates that many who were trained on Frederick Hartt’s monumental Italian Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture now teach using John Paoletti and Gary Radke’s Art in Renaissance Italy. Although all admit to having learned a great deal from Hartt as undergraduates, his largely stylistic (and mostly black-and-white) march through the Italian Renaissance no longer fits many classes or approaches. The retention of Hartt’s “inimitable voice,” as described in David Wilkins’s preface to the recent fourth edition, pays due homage to Hartt’s impressive accomplishments but does not allow the content of the book to change with recent scholarship. Conversely, Paoletti and Radke have significant discussions of patronage, female artists, and decorative and domestic arts (even to the point of putting a relatively unknown but fascinating marriage chest panel on the cover). The book also integrates color reproductions throughout the text, and presents boxed information with new interpretations and supplemental information. All of this better reflects the material and topics many of us now teach.

Both Hartt (at more than 600 text pages) and Paoletti and Radke (at 438) cover an overwhelming amount of information, much more than can be used in the average undergraduate classroom. In a perfect world, we would like students to know the stylistic characteristics of Domenico di Bartolo or the impact of fourteenth-century Angevin rule. In the imperfect world of shortened semesters and abbreviated class periods that most of us inhabit, however, we simply do not have the time to cover everything and must consequently sacrifice a percentage of whatever textbook has been selected for the course.

With this in mind, I paid particular attention to Adams’s two new textbooks. The more comprehensive of the two, Italian Renaissance Art, has 399 text pages, shorter than both Hartt and Paoletti and Radke, and the coverage is more restricted. According to Adams, the focus is on “the innovators and…works that had a significant impact on other artists and on the social context of the time” (xi). As can be expected, the highest proportion of these innovators and works are painters and paintings from central Italy and, most particularly, Tuscany in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Nevertheless, there is considerable coverage of sculpture and architecture, and briefer sections on the art of the thirteenth century and on Siena, Rimini, Pienza, Naples, Arezzo, Urbino, Verona, Ferrara, Mantua, and Venice. Sixteenth-century coverage more narrowly encompasses Florence, Milan, Rome, and Venice. Chronologically speaking, the earliest object is Cimabue’s Arezzo Crucifix (1.5), from the 1270s, and the latest is Tintoretto’s Last Supper (17.15), of 1592-1594. Although the sixteenth century makes up the last third of the book, the emphasis is almost exclusively on the High Renaissance; only the last eight pages provide an overview of Mannerist art in Florence, Rome, and northern Italy, ending with Bronzino’s An Allegory with Venus and Cupid (18.19). Neither Hartt nor Paoletti and Radke are so limited in their coverage. Because of this limitation, Adams’s textbook seems most suitable for a fast-paced one-semester survey of Italian art from ca. 1300 to ca. 1550. There simply is not enough material to sustain a semester-long investigation of sixteenth-century art.

I was disappointed by this, because I was otherwise very impressed by Adams’s textbook. She consistently provides a readable and solidly historical background for the art. The introductory section in particular, with its clear political, stylistic, and iconographic overview and its explication of Vasari’s Lives (which are then incorporated throughout the text), is an excellent summary of the main issues. Discussion is thoughtful and engaging, with a methodological diversity and acknowledgment of contemporary opinions and issues that makes the objects accessible and interesting to an undergraduate audience. The focus on a relatively small selection of artists and monuments enables Adams to treat many of them in rich and exhaustive detail. The Arena Chapel, for example, is discussed in ten pages, with nine reproductions and a comprehensive examination of patronage, composition, iconography, and style. Text boxes provide interesting and sometimes controversial information, ranging from conservation issues to interpretative dilemmas. The frequent illustration of ancient works for comparison (although these are dated using B.C. rather than B.C.E.) is particularly impressive; few undergraduates have the ability to call up visual comparisons across different periods without such assistance.

The quality of the reproductions is generally outstanding, with an unusually high percentage of the images in large format with sharp, clear color (although not always on the same two-page spread as the discussion). This is an excellent text for study purposes, although it is unfortunate that the reproductions of the Sistine ceiling (16.15) and the Doni Tondo (15.7) are so poor; I would also have preferred a postconservation reproduction of Leonardo’s Last Supper (14.18). Reconstructions of major works, like Duccio’s Maestà, are missing, and reproductions of works in situ are rare. Although Ghiberti’s two Baptistery doors are discussed and illustrated, there is no view of the Baptistery itself; only the peaked roof appears in the far left of an overview of the cathedral complex (3.2). Some of the extended captions are rather informal; as a result, Giotto’s procreative proclivities (2.1) or Domenico Veneziano’s alleged murder (6.14) might appear as exam answers before informed discussions of the Ognissanti Madonna or the Saint Lucy Altarpiece predella. Nevertheless, even these captions can enlighten and inform on many levels.

I must admit that I found the lack of objects and types of objects from outside the traditional canon surprising. Adams’s methodological diversity would have supported a much-needed broader examination of the Renaissance. I was particularly disappointed to find no female artists, even though Properzia de’Rossi and the early production of Sofonisba Anguissola fit within the chronological parameters. A short text box entitled “Women in the Italian Renaissance” (104) establishes the basic gender roles of the time but does not go into specifics. This was a lost opportunity; boxing this information implies that it is not as relevant as other material and denies acknowledgment of artists like de’Rossi or Anguissola, not to mention the whole range of now-anonymous female illuminators and embroiderers working in convents at this time. Although Lucrezia Tornabuoni and Isabella d’Este are mentioned briefly, a more extensive examination of women throughout the text—as artists, patrons, and viewers—would have provided students with a more balanced sense of the Renaissance.

Adams’s second text, Key Monuments of the Italian Renaissance, covers the same chronological span. It is even more clearly suited to a one-semester survey or, perhaps, as a supplemental text to provide further, detailed, and sometimes contradictory information on major monuments. With half as many pages and a smaller format, it includes even fewer—and sometimes different—objects and buildings. Nonetheless, Adams provides detailed contextual background and includes information that helps move the text smoothly from one monument to the next. With careful planning, there is enough information here to carry a semester-long class. The discussion is as informative and engaging as in her longer survey, and the documentation at the end of each section may encourage students to pursue the cited texts. The proportion of black-and-white to color reproductions is unfortunately higher, but if the book is used in conjunction with another, well-illustrated survey, that problem can be resolved.

In spite of the reservations outlined above (and for many people these may not be reservations at all), Adams should be commended for providing us with two lucid and interesting options for the Renaissance survey. These two textbooks, both quite reasonably priced in paperback, go over established ground in new and engaging ways. Their clear presentation, extensive illustrations, and wide-ranging examination of select works of art make them excellent alternatives for one-semester surveys of Italian Renaissance art.

Jacqueline Marie Musacchio
Associate Professor, Department of Art, Vassar College