Reading the Renaissance
The Renaissance Complete
Thames and Hudson
Merrell Publishers Ltd
The Renaissance Complete and Renaissance are two well researched, truly international, image-intensive catalogues of one of the most striking periods in European history. Both are user-friendly, thematically-arranged information resources and provide timelines and a gazetteer of museums and galleries. Both give precedence to subject matter over art history, allowing the viewer’s eyes to do most of the talking, but also engage with the sheer complexity of the period under study through the use of lucid introductions, commentary and marginalia. This dualist movement of text and image creates in both cases a fascinating admixture of awe and understanding for both the beginner in the field as well as the enthusiast.
The two books are at some pains to show that the Renaissance was not simply an unmediated continuation of the culture of the Ancient world or derived exclusively from a sort of pristine Christian vision, as per the unsophisticated and rather Eurocentric commonplaces. Masters, for example, demonstrates the range of contingent influences on the movement from current warfare to courtly life, and maps out its interaction with Byzantine and Islamic civilisation, mentioning for example, the hybrid nature of Gentile Bellini’s art. Similarly, Aston engages with the transformations of the period, including a cross section of material from the Reformation, Iconoclasm and the Counter-Reformation. She also conceptualises her analysis of the classical influences as an active ‘rebuilding’ of antiquity, rather than a passive copying.
The Renaissance Complete is perhaps, in terms of the visual, the more wide-ranging work, since it covers not only artwork, but also coins, architecture, cartography and scientific treatises, etc. it aims to encounter, in fact, as much of the stylisation of life in the period that it can, with the use of over 1000 images. However, what Renaissance lacks in this sheer diversity – although it deals with a not insubstantial forty illustrations per chapter itself – is made up for by the more extensive treatment it gives of its chosen subject matter of painting, including beautifully reproduced full-page pictures which one may examine comfortably at some length.
Master’s is probably the more populist work and shows occasional flashes of humour. It is suited more to the student of art. Aston’s work has much more of the feel of historiography about it. Both writers are extremely lucid and illustrate beautifully in terms of prose the principle of brevity without superficiality. As fascinating and erudite introductions and collections of source materials, it is difficult to conceive of a better selection of books.