Books / Italian history

Reads for Renaissance Lovers

Whether categorized as a collection or a fascination/obsession, one topic which is well represented in my home library is the Renaissance. I tend to purchase a book or two during my travels, sparked by something amazing I’ve seen and unable to resist the always strategically placed gift shops.

Examples:

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Above: Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King is a must-read for those enchanted by Florence’s Duomo.

Below: I was smitten with The Last Supper when I saw it in Milan last summer, and loved reading Leonardo and the Last Supper, also by Ross King, while still in Italy.

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Following is an extended review. For a list-only version of this post, please click here. (Although, this post took quite a while to write, so I’d love for you to read on!)

15 Renaissance Reads

1. Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered by Dianne Hales (2014, 317 pages)

Mona Lisa is a tesorso (treasure) of a book, which reads like historical fiction but uses fact to take us through the life of Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, the woman believed to be the model behind the world’s most famous painting. Through her painstaking research and seamless writing, Dianne takes us through a magic portal and plants readers into Florence in the 1400s, allowing us to see life from Gherardini’s eyes, a woman born of nobility and married to a successful Florentine silk merchant. I came to understand Mona Lisa as not just the woman behind the most famous smile in the world, but as a wife and a mother — una donna vera, a real woman — to use Dianne’s term.

Thoughts: I devoured this book in three days and truly savored every single page. I have now read it three times and enjoyed it each time. I even got to walk Mona Lisa’s Florence with Dianne herself! Click here to read about that experience. Click here for a more detailed review of Mona Lisa.

2. Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King (2000, 193 pages)

“Brunelleschi’s Dome is the true story of how the Florentine goldsmith Filippo Brunelleschi bent men, materials and the forces of nature to build an architectural wonder we continue to marvel at today. Denounced at first as a madman, Brunelleschi was celebrated at the end as a genius. He engineered the perfect placement of brick and stone, built ingenious hoists and cranes (some among the most renowned machines of the Italian Renaissance) to carry an estimated 70 million pounds hundreds of feet into the air, and designed the workers’ platforms and routines so carefully that only two men died during the decades of construction—all the while defying those who said the dome would surely collapse and personal obstacles that at times threatened to overwhelm him.” (RossKingBooks.com)

Thoughts: This book reads as easily as historical fiction, and is a primer on both the construction of the cathedral dome and Florentine life in the 1400s. Even though it was pretty detailed on the architecture, that actually allowed me to greater appreciate the display of tools I stumbled upon that time I accidentally climbed to the top of the Duomo. A must-read if you love the Duomo.

3. Leonardo and The Last Supper by Ross King (2012, 336 pages)

“After a decade in the court of Lodovico Sforza, the duke of Milan, Leonardo was at a low point: at forty-two, he had failed, despite a number of prestigious commissions, to complete anything that truly fulfilled his astonishing promise. The commission to paint The Last Supper was anything but appealing, and his odds of completing it were hardly favorable…Leonardo nonetheless created the masterpiece that would forever define him.”

Thoughts: It was Dianne Hales’ Mona Lisa book that sparked in me an attachment to Leonardo, which I believe laid the foundation for me to fall in love with The Last Supper when I saw it in Milan last summer. And being so smitten with the masterpiece made King’s detailed account of the creation of this work very enjoyable. (It’s at the top of my Re-Read Pile). It was a bit heavy on Milanese history, particularly wars/conflicts, but, since I wasn’t well versed in that theme, it was a good education.

4. Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King (2003, 373 pages — Detecting a pattern, here?)

This book “recounts the four extraordinary years Michelangelo spent laboring over the vast ceiling while the power politics and personal rivalries that abounded in Rome swirled around him. Battling against ill health, financial difficulties, domestic problems, the pope’s impatience, and a bitter rivalry with the brilliant young painter Raphael, Michelangelo created scenes so beautiful that they are considered to be among the greatest masterpieces of all time.”

Thoughts: An enjoyable read, although the longest of the three King books included here. I felt like I knew Michelangelo the man after finishing this book. I also appreciated the art history details included, and became familiar with many of the technical terms, especially those related to the art of fresco. If you have a strong interest in the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica, I would pair this read with the next book.

5. Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter’s by R.A. Scotti  (2006, 315 pages)

“In 1506, the ferociously ambitious Pope Julius II shocked Christendom by razing the original St. Peter’s, which had stood for over a millennium, to make way for a magnificent new church. Scandalous from its inception, the construction of the new St. Peter’s would take two tumultuous centuries to complete, challenge the greatest visionaries of the Renaissance — Michelangelo, Raphael, and Bramante — and provoke the Reformation.”

Thoughts: An excellent, highly readable book, particularly if you have a fascination with Rome or St. Peter’s. I appreciated learning the detailed history of this iconic cathedral. The version I read also includes four detailed walking tours of Papal Rome.

The next six reads take us pretty deep into Renaissance Florence…

6. The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall by Christopher Hibbert (1974, 363 pages)

“The Medici were a banking family with more wealth, power and passion than any in history. Patrons of unknown artists and scientists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Galileo, the Medici influenced statesmen, builders and even popes for more than three hundred years.”

Thoughts: In 2010 after returning home from my first visit to Italy in more than 25 years, the number one topic I was burning to know more about was La Famiglia Medici, and picked up this book. It had me immediately, with its opening chapter placing us in the center of daily Florentine life in the 1400s, and continuing to cover the highlights of Florence and the Medici family members until they died out in the mid 1700s. An excellent resource for readers who want to delve deeper into the Medici and Renaissance Florence.

7. The Last Medici by Harold Acton (1980, 327 pages)

“While biographies of the early Medici abound, this is the most important work dealing specifically with the decline of that great family whose name is inseparably connected with Florence and the fine arts.” The book takes us through the last century of the dynasty, from Cosimo III’s rule in 1670 until the final days of the Medici in 1743.

Thoughts: I highly enjoyed this book and recommend it for others with a serious interest in the Medici family. In my readings about the family, I developed a desire to know more about how the family lineage ended, with particular interest in Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, the last surviving member, about whom there is limited written information.

8. Dino Compagni’s Chronicle of Florence Translated by Daniel E. Bornstein (1986 — translated from a text written in Compagni’s lifetime 1260-1324 — 110 pages)

“…A translation of Dino Compagni’s classic chronicle of thirteenth-century Florence. The Cronacia gives a detailed account of a crucial period in Florentine history, beginning about 1280 and ending in the first decade of the fourteenth century. During that time, Florence was one of the largest cities in Europe and a center of commerce and culture. Its gold florin was the standard international currency; Giotto was revolutionizing the art of painting; Dante Alighieri and Guido Cavalcanti were transforming the vernacular love lyric.”

Thoughts: I greatly appreciate being able to read from a primary source, which, when dealing with Italian history, are often difficult to find printed in English. I was thrilled to come across this book at the used bookstore, and read more about Florence just as the Renaissance was about to burst forth.

9. A Florentine Diary from 1450 to 1516 by Luca Landucci (translated in 1927, 308 pages)

“I record that on the 15th of October, 1450, I, Luca, son of Antonio, son of Luca Landucci, a Florentine citizen, of about fourteen years of age, went to learn book-keeping from a master called Calandra; and, praise God! I succeeded!” (opening paragraph of A Florentine Diary)

Thoughts: Landucci goes on to become an apothecary, and from his shop on a busy Florentine street (eventually located across from where the Strozzi palace would be constructed), records life as it passes by. Landucci’s writing is friendly and informative, I imagine if he were alive today he’d be a most successful blogger, sharing various anecdotes with a loyal following. Here’s an excerpt I love:

27th May [1471]. A Monday. The gilt copper ball was put up on the lantern of the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore.” Talk about a primary source!

10. Dante: A Life by R.W.B. Lewis

“Lewis traces the life and complex development — emotional, artistic, philosophical — of this supreme poet-historian, from his wanderings through the Tuscan hills and splendid churches to his days as a young soldier fighting for democracy, and to his civic leadership and years of embittered exile from the city that would fiercely reclaim him a century later.”

Thoughts: Being a student of the Italian language and armchair Italian history major, forming an interest in Dante Alighieri is quite natural. Many biographies exist; this was a quick, easy read and exactly the overview I was looking for to know more about the man who is credited with developing modern Italian.

11. Giovanni and Lusanna: Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence by Gene Brucker (1986, 138 pages)

“In 1455, Lusanna, a beautiful Florentine woman of the artisan class, brought suit against her wealthy, high-born lover Giovanni, claiming that she and Giovanni had been secretly married during their clandestine twelve-year affair. Blending scholarship with insightful narrative, Brucker portrays an extraordinary woman who challenged the unwritten codes and barriers of social hierarchy of her time.”

Thoughts:  An interesting and fast read which delves into the specific, real-life story of these two Florentines, with background on their relationship and detailing the official complaint to the court registered by Lusanna. Also a good source for love and marriage amongst the more privileged in Renaissance times.

12. Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel (2000, 419 pages)

“Inspired by a long fascination with Galileo, and by the remarkable surviving letters of his daughter Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun, Sobel has crafted a biography that dramatically recolors the personality and accomplishments of a mythic figure whose early-seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion…Moving between Galileo’s grand public life and Maria Celeste’s sequestered world, Sobel illuminates the Florence of the Medicis and the papal court in Rome during the pivotal era when humanity’s perception of its place in the cosmos was about to be overturned.” (Summary from Amazon)

Thoughts: Thinking I had picked up a book focusing more on Galileo’s daughter, while reading this book I was a bit disappointed, because the daughter played a small role, in my opinion. However, upon finishing the book, I realized that I had completed a very thorough and readable biography of Galileo himself, and felt very satisfied with that. So while you will encounter details related to Galileo’s daughter, I recommend this book instead for those who want a detailed view on Galileo himself. A well-researched and written biography.

13. The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo by Irving Stone (1961, 775 pages)

“The Renaissance was a turbulent time of plotting princes, warring Popes and the all-powerful de’ Medici family, the fanatical monk Savonarola…and the brilliant young artist Michelangelo Buonarroti. [In this] classic work, both the artist and the man are brought to life in full, in a compelling portrait of his dangerous, impassioned loves and the God-driven fury from which he wrested the greatest art the world has ever known…”

Thoughts: My apologies, but I’m not loving this one, despite it being a longtime classic. Even though it contains many historical tidbits on Michelangelo’s life which I have come across in other works, this book just feels too fictionalized for me. There is a fine line with historical fiction, between wanting an intriguing and enjoyable read that is also historically accurate. Given that I am 225 pages in, I am determined to finish, eventually. My favorite part of the novel is the index, which features a detailed bibliography (broken into categories such as history, art techniques and original sources), a glossary of Italian terms used in the novel, and a breakdown of present-day locations of Michelangelo’s works.

14. The Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari (From the 1991 Bondanella translation of a text written during Vasari’s lifetime 1511-1574; 586 pages)

Giorgio Vasari, an accomplished master of the Renaissance, is considered the father of art history. “This book represents the single most important contemporary source on Italian Renaissance art. Vasari’s collections of biographical accounts are filled with facts, attributions, and entertaining anecdotes about hundreds of artists, ranging from the greatest figures (Giotto, Masaccio, Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo) to those known today only to the specialist.

Thoughts: Lives is an ongoing resource for me which I highly enjoy. I pick it up here and there as I want to learn more about a particular Renaissance artist and their works. As for accuracy?  “Quite naturally, Vasari’s extensive biographies contain errors of fact that contemporary art historians have gleefully pounced upon.” (from the Bondanella introduction) however, “Vasari’s Lives deserves to be considered as one of the masterpieces of Italian Renaissance prose…” Agreed!

15. Sprezzatura: 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World by Peter D’Epiro and Mary Desmond Pinkowish (2001, 396 pages)

“No one has demonstrated sprezzatura, or the art of effortless mastery, quite like the Italians. From the rise of the Roman calendar and the birth of the first university to the development of modern political science by Niccolò Machiavelli and the creation of the modern orchestra by Claudio Monteverdi, Sprezzatura chronicles fifty great Italian cultural achievements…”

Thoughts: A collection of articles covering some of the most important contributions of Italian history. A fantastic read for those interested in a wide variety of Italian history, such as art, science, language, music, politics.

Renaissance Reads in the Queue

Always one to take on a bit more than I can realistically handle, I have a basket full of books to be read devoted to the Italian Renaissance (not to mention several on my Amazon wish list, not included here). Most are suggestions taken from sources cited in the titles above. Long have I wanted to get through The Divine Comedy and The Decameron, and this year I plan to finally tackle them through an audio book/podcast.

  1. The Divine Comedy by Dante
  2. The Decameron by Boccaccio
  3. History of Italy and History of Florence by Francesco Guicciardini
  4. How to Do It: Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians by Rudolph M. Bell
  5. Leonardo: The Artist and the Man by Serge Bramly
  6. Michelangelo: Life, Letters and Poetry
  7. The Deadly Sisterhood: A Story of Women, Power and Intrigue in the Italian Renaissance by Leonie Frieda
  8. Lucrezia Borgia by Sarah Bradford
  9. The Book of the Courtier by Castiglione
  10. The Pazzi Conspiracy by Harold Acton
  11. The Renaissance Reader edited by Kenneth J. Atchity
  12. The Italian Renaissance Reader edited by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Mark Musa

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And there you have it friends, 27 titles to quench your thirst for Italian Renaissance history. Thanks for sticking with me through this lengthy post — I hope you have found a new title to add to your reading wish list this year!


This post first appeared on Prayers and Piazzas. All book cover images from Amazon unless otherwise noted; all book summary quotes taken from the book jacket/back cover unless otherwise noted.

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