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Book Forum: History and Society   |    
History of Italian Renaissance Art, 5th ed.
RICHARD D. CHESSICK, M.D., Ph.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2005;162:2415-2417. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.162.12.2415
View Author and Article Information
Evanston, Ill.

By Frederick Hartt and David G. Wilkins. Upper Saddle River, N.J., Prentice Hall and Harry Abrams, 2003, 768 pp., $93.00.

When I took my children on their first grand tour of Europe around 1970, I insisted they go over a book by Frederick Hartt called History of Italian Renaissance Art(1). At that time I considered it the best available introduction to Renaissance art. Now I might go about it differently because there is a spectacularly good series of taped lectures by William Kloss put out by The Teaching Company (2), by far the best introduction to the artists of the Italian Renaissance. So today I would have my children start with that and then move on to the book under review here, which is Hartt’s book in its fifth edition and is without a doubt the basic text for this subject.

David G. Wilkins, Professor of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, revised the fourth edition, and in this fifth edition he adds more color reproductions and some new works to expand and enhance the late Professor Hartt’s original vision but still retains the organization of the text. Wilkins adds secular works to Hartt’s emphasis on religious art and also adds a series of portraits of important patrons and personalities of the period as well as some extracts from Renaissance texts. The book is logically divided into three parts: the Late Middle Ages, the Quattrocento, and the Cinquecento. Hartt’s model was the classic by Vasari (1511–1574), Lives of the Artists, but he also attempts to unfold the story in an interesting and integrated way. I cannot praise this book highly enough; it is a work of art in itself. It belongs in the library of every educated person.

The fifth edition is in marked contrast to the first edition, in which the photos were in black and white. An example of the wonderful changes from the first to the fifth edition is evident immediately on opening the latter, which begins with what is called a "Portfolio," containing some magnificent color pictures of Florence and several other Italian cities and sites prominent in Renaissance art. We are then offered a "Prelude" that consists of chapter 1 of the first edition, titled "Italy and Italian Art," sensibly separated out by Wilkins from the first section of the earlier book, which deals with the late Middle Ages. Subsequent chapters in the book have subsections on painting, sculpture, and architecture. The addition of many colored illustrations enhances what Hartt first attempted to present in his initial edition, even though Hartt’s written text is mostly preserved.

Of course we do not really have a good explanation for the incredible upsurge of painting that took place at the time of the early Trecento. Cimabue, who was praised by Vasari as a founder of Renaissance painting, appeared just before that period. However, Hartt declares, "In reality Cimabue belongs not at the beginning of a development but at the end. His altarpieces show him to be the last Italo-Byzantine painter" (p. 70). This runs against the popular conception of Cimabue and surprised me; I cannot say that I am in agreement with it. The ultimate test is to look at Cimabue’s paintings. Of course, Hartt still considers him a great painter.

I was fascinated by the reproduction, included at this point, of a painting by Cavallini done about 1290 showing the first interest in the function of light to realize form, which Hartt considers "a fundamental revolution in artistic vision" (p. 77). For Hartt, the centerpiece of the opening of Renaissance art is the work of Giotto. We are told that his best preserved works are in the Scrovegini chapel, sometimes called the Arena chapel because it was built over a Roman arena. (This wonderful chapel is not always open to tourists; when I took my grandchildren to see it in 2001 we arrived in Padua only to find it closed for "renovation.") It is interesting that Hartt refers to the rivalry between Cimabue and Giotto cited by Dante in the Divine Comedy (xi, 94–96). Dante makes it clear that Giotto stole Cimabue’s fame, and, according to Hartt, Dante’s statement is literally true. It is frightening to realize that in World War II the Arena chapel was almost destroyed by an Allied bomb that fell close to it and left a big crater.

One of the great assets of this textbook is that the pictures referred to in the text are either on or very close to the page of the text in which they are discussed, and the colored pictures in this fifth edition are really wonderful. There is a leisurely tone to the text and a careful examination of a great number of magnificent pictures, which, if closely followed, could lead to a great improvement in the reader’s capacity to appreciate and analyze a painting.

How odd it is that the Early Renaissance, the 15th century, "was an era of bitter conflict and of challenges never more than partly met; seldom, however, in history is the gap between human problems and their solutions more evident" (p. 181). Throughout that time Florence, for example, was in an atmosphere of crisis and in a stalemate with enemy forces on many sides of the city; yet the great advances in Renaissance art were made at the same period. Hartt writes,

The Florentine humanists thought that geometric principles could unlock mysteries at the heart of the universe and reveal the intentions of a God who was, if one only knew how to go about it, eminently understandable and had created the universe for human enjoyment. (p. 195)

It is hard to reconcile this statement with the fact that Florence was under military siege for a long period of time. Many of the 15th-century Florentine sculptures, Hartt points out, represent propaganda for the Republic of Florence. Although the statues produce ideals of the virtues demanded in a crisis that it was hoped the populace would develop and follow, according to Kloss, "More significant artists were born and more epochal art created in Italy in the 15th century than in any comparable place and century in the history of art" (2, part 2, p. 1). This all seems a dramatic mystery to me.

One of the most interesting sections of the book devotes itself to a comparison of the work of Ghiberti and Brunelleschi, two giants of Renaissance sculpture. Ghiberti produced the first truly Renaissance nude and blended naturalism and classicism into a vision of what a human being can be; Brunelleschi was still somewhat constrained. In 1403, after Brunelleschi lost the competition for the commission to make a set of bronze doors for the Florentine baptistry to Ghiberti, he abandoned the art of sculpture and dedicated himself to architecture. His most famous work, of course, is the dome of the Florence cathedral, and Hartt illustrates and discusses his other well-known, remarkable architectural masterpieces.

The figurative style of the Renaissance was produced first in sculpture and only later in painting, heralded by the work of the extraordinary Gentile Fabriano (c. 1385–1427). He was one of those artists who was not sufficiently appreciated, according to Hartt, who writes, "Gentile abandons, for the first time as far as we know in Italian painting, the flat gold or undifferentiated blue background in favor of representing a sky of atmospheric and luminary effects" (p. 226). Fabriano also seems to have been the first Italian painter to depict shadows cast consistently by light from an identifiable source. This new concentration on background landscape was brought to its fullest development by the famous Masaccio, a young genius who died a tragically early death. Hartt cleverly juxtaposes the Temptation fresco by Masolino in the Brancacci chapel that was painted in 6 days with the Masaccio Expulsion in the same chapel, painted in 4 days (p. 234). The latter, my very favorite Early Renaissance painting, shows the emotionally explosive genius of Masaccio, and Hartt compares this with the work of Masolino, a very competent Renaissance painter of the 1420s. Masaccio and Masolino were friends and worked in the same chapel together. These paintings are in color in the fifth edition and reveal how much was left wanting in the black and white versions in the first edition.

The text moves from Masaccio to his contemporaries Fra Angelico and Fra Filippino Lippi and on to those painters who, "with Alberti embody the ideals of the second Renaissance style" (p. 293): Paolo Uccello, Domenico Veneziano, Andrea del Castagno, and, most remarkable of them all, Piero della Francesca. Hartt threads the narrative together very nicely and continues in this fashion all the way to the end of the book, which, appropriately, closes with examination of some of the famous mannerist painters of the 16th century.

The final third of the Quattrocento was dominated by five artists, Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Andrea del Verrocchio, Sandro Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, and Domenico del Ghirlandaio (p. 359). Hartt discusses them as well as all the well-known and the not so well-known Italian renaissance painters and their work, in addition to the sculpture and architecture of their time. Because there are so many painters, sculptors, and architects mentioned, it would have been helpful to the reader to include a much more detailed table of contents, and I hope the sixth edition of this book will contain one.

Piero is my favorite mid-Quattrocento painter. I agree with Hartt’s description of Piero della Francesca: "The artist who seems to us today to fill the Albertian ideal of absolute and perfect painting in nearly every respect" (p. 310). I remember standing for a long time in front of Piero’s Flagellation of Christ (reproduced in this book on page 322) hanging in the palace of the paradoxical Duke Frederico da Montefeltro in Urbino, trying to figure out the significance and the identity or the allegorical meaning of the apparently preoccupied group of three men at the right of the scene. Hartt discusses this, although it is mostly speculation. There are many other enigmas in the Italian renaissance paintings. For example, Hartt discusses the famous Tempestuous Landscape With the Soldier and the Gypsy painted around 1505 to 1510 by Giorgione (p. 633), a painting filled with mystery. An unconventional 1510 painting with a similarly unclear meaning, Fête Champêtre (p. 635), by either Giorgione or Titian, had a tremendous influence on Edouard Manet when he created his notorious Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Or look at The Baptism of Christ, painted by Verrocchio (p. 367) but with parts done by the young Leonardo da Vinci, his pupil. When it is first presented under the topic of Verrocchio in the book (pp. 366–371), there is only a passing remark, and I thought the mystery of it would be ignored, but later in the book Hartt explains Leonardo’s contribution to the picture:

About most of the painting there can be little doubt, for Verrocchio’s hand is everywhere apparent. But of the two kneeling angels, the curly headed boy at the right…is in sharp contrast to his companion at the left, who looks out from deep, luminous eyes and whose hair streams from his forehead to his shoulders with the mysterious patterns of Leonardo’s water patterns. The water behind him, whose shimmering surface breaks into rapids over underlying shoals and whose juncture with the surrounding rocks is masked by mists, is by the artist who was to later paint the watercourses in the landscape of the Mona Lisa. (p. 484)

Leonardo, says Hartt, was the first to have produced a painted female portrait in which the sitter turns toward the viewer and the first to include her hands. Yet in thousands of pages of his writing, Leonardo never gave any "hint that he ever cared deeply for another human being" (p. 478). Whether the fact that he was an illegitimate child contributed to this is unknown. There is a beautiful long paragraph describing the contrast between the characters and styles of Michelangelo and Leonardo (p. 501).

It is interesting that Luca Signorelli and Piero di Cosimo in their Orvieto frescoes depict what Hartt says was most repugnant to Michelangelo, "humanity in a subhuman stage and subject to the depredations of antihuman creatures and forces" (p. 523). The artists of the High Renaissance, originating in the work of Leonardo (p. 477), attempted to raise humanity to a divine level. Chapter 16 is the highlight of the book, covering in great detail Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, the foremost painters of the High Renaissance in the early Cinquecento.

St. Anthony of Padua predicted that the heart of a famous miser would be found after his death not in his body but in his money chest. Tullio Lombardo, influenced by the Venetians’ belief they were the true heirs of ancient Imperial Rome, made a remarkable relief sculpture of this in about 1525 for the tomb chapel of St. Anthony in Padua (p. 653). Hartt concludes that, "by the middle of the Cinquecento in central Italy the Renaissance, in its etymological sense of ‘rebirth,’ was over" (p. 702). This wonderful book, which must have been a labor of enormous extent to produce and revise through five editions, closes with a very helpful glossary, bibliography, and index.

Reprints are not available; however, Book Forum reviews can be downloaded at http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org.

Hartt F: History of Italian Renaissance Art. New York, Harry Abrams, 1969
 
Kloss W: Great Artists of the Italian Renaissance. Chantilly, Va, Teaching Co, 2004
 
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References

Hartt F: History of Italian Renaissance Art. New York, Harry Abrams, 1969
 
Kloss W: Great Artists of the Italian Renaissance. Chantilly, Va, Teaching Co, 2004
 
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