A convincing account of one of the defining moments in art and history.
Walker offers no new or startling information, but his strength lies in his ability to flesh out the historical framework—while providing enough thoughtful speculation to keep both layman and expert entertained. He presents the two key figures in this drama in true human proportions, stripped of much of the accumulated mythology that has made them appear as unassailable giants in the cultural pantheon. Building upon the earliest biographical account, written several decades after the principals’ deaths, Walker establishes the atmosphere of Florence at the beginning of the 15th century as a city-state on the verge of collapse from plague, famine, warfare, religious schism, high taxation, and economic stagnation. With such a backdrop, the Renaissance becomes less a rebirth than a first birth, when the first strains of humanism, individualism, and the artist-as-hero are heard. Lorenzo Ghiberti, the gifted sculptor who designed the panels for the bronze doors of Florence’s famous Baptistery, and Filippo Brunelleschi, who later designed the cathedral’s dome, are introduced as youthful competitors whose intense rivalry fueled the artistic developments of the next half-century, including emotive realism and the principles of mathematical perspective. Though the account becomes sidetracked at times, such as when the author presents an unnecessary enumeration of fellow artist Donatello’s ancestors and a lengthy explanation of one of Brunelleschi’s convoluted pranks, these digressions are more embellishments than distractions. Ultimately, the reader is presented with a rich tapestry woven from the tangle of influences whose convergence resulted in a seeing of “Man as an active participant in the Universe” and led to the prodigious flowering of the artistic, philosophic, and political movements of the next half-millennium.
No research surprises, but a skillful and engrossing story of one of the watershed events in Western civilization. (8 pp. b&w photos, not seen)