If it’s Thursday, this must be Michelangelo—a stimulating and sophisticated, if rapid, tour of the Italian Renaissance (with the emphasis on the visual arts in the 15th and 16th centuries).
In one of the first of the original works of history and politics commissioned by the Modern Library (see Islam, p. tktk), Johnson (A History of the American People, 1998, etc.) sets a lively standard for the series. Beginning with a brief review of the economic and political forces propelling the medieval period, Johnson gives Dante the credit for launching the Renaissance in the 14th century—not only because of the eloquence of The Divine Comedy (and the fact that he chose the Roman Virgil as his guide), but because he wrote in the Tuscan dialect (which became the language we now know as Italian). Giving respectful but not overawed recognition to Petrarch, Machiavelli, and Chaucer as early authors, Johnson moves on to sculptors—ranging from Ghiberti (responsible for some of the famous baptistery doors in Florence’s Duomo) to Donatello (“one of the greatest artists who ever lived”), Michelangelo, and Cellini. Next on stage are builders and architects such as Brunelleschi, who studied Roman and Greek buildings and reinvented them for his own time. Renaissance artists dominate the next canvas, ranging from Giotto’s early humanist efforts in the 14th century to Tintoretto’s 16th-century precursors of modernism. (The organization by specialty, interestingly, highlights the overarching talents of Renaissance men like Michelangelo—who sculpted, painted, crafted, and engineered.) Missing, however, are thorough discussions of the social, economic, political and religious influences of the Renaissance, but then this is a short history. Appendices include brief biographies of key Renaissance figures and a bibliography, plus an introductory chronology.
Respectful but not overawed, a look at the Renaissance that will energize general readers to revisit and re-evaluate Renaissance art and architecture.