Guide to Italian art in the 1400s
Beth Harris, Smarthistory
Steven Zucker, Smarthistory
Copyright Year: 2020
Conditions of Use
The book is quite comprehensive and covers all the main topics in Renaissance Italian art. It consists of four parts: An introductory part, entitled A Beginner's guide; Part two, dedicated to painting in Central Italy - mostly Florence; Part... read more
The book is quite comprehensive and covers all the main topics in Renaissance Italian art. It consists of four parts:
An introductory part, entitled A Beginner's guide;
Part two, dedicated to painting in Central Italy - mostly Florence;
Part three, dedicated to Sculpture and Architecture in the same region;
Part four, dedicated to general art and culture in Venice, Ferrara and the Marches.
I particularly appreciate the first section as a valuable effort for setting the stage for understanding Renaissance Italian art. In traditional volumes, this is generally a short and dense introduction that is too complex for new students to understand. In this book, the editors try to immerse the public in Renaissance culture before they approach individual artists.
This section is in the style of Arnold Hauser's Social History of Art, or Evelyn Welch's Art in Renaissance Italy, It looks at general topics, rather than at individual artists. The problem with Hauser's and Welch's books is that they, on their own, are not sufficient to teach a course in Renaissance art: one needs to follow up with another book that looks at artists one by one, or else the students will not remember who they were or what they created. In this volume the two approaches are working seamlessly together,
The book is generally accurate, but some of the information is offered in a way that is not clear and begs for further explanations and clarifications. This is something that I have noticed throughout the volume. Some statements raise additional questions that remain unanswered and can confuse the students. One of the first articles, entitled Do you speak Renaissance, chooses Crivelli's Madonna and Child as an example of Renaissance art, while it is generally considered more in line with the International Gothic style and the difference between the two is one of the conversations one has in Art History classes. Another example is the explanation of the harrowing of hell (correctly mentioned, but not well explained) or of the nature of female virgin martyrs in the article on Bellini's altarpiece in the Church of San Zaccaria in Venice: Saint Catherine was not martyred simply "for choosing faith over forced sex", and this simplification of her role in the Christian tradition is a bit disorienting. Another example are the two articles on Mazzoni's Lamentation and Renaissance emotions, which lack references to other important examples of Lamentation iconography, including Giotto's groundbreaking fresco in the Scrovegni chapel. Any art historian would immediately and instinctively have compared the two, especially since students who have taken a survey of Western art would be familiar with Giotto's image. A research on mourning customs in Renaissance Italy would also have revealed the use of hired mourners, who were supposed to express full emotions by weeping, screaming and pulling their hair, creating a distinct contrast with the composure of the aristocratic family. I wonder if these omissions may be the result of restrictions on how many words each article should use.
In general, the book is accurate, and the content is solid. It would be the teacher's duty to provide clarifications when needed.
As an online book, this volume has the option of always updating its information. Of course, the art of fifteenth century Italy is relatively set, although attributions do change and new discoveries are made, but new scholarship as well as general improvements in structure, images and approaches, can easily be added. I deeply resent art publications that constantly issue new editions that have the same content, but change the pagination: there is no reason for that other than to compel students to buy the new edition. This is the main reason why I will be adopting this volume when I teach Renaissaince art.
All the articles, and especially the conversations, are very clear and approachable. The language is simple, the sentences short. Any article could be read in just a few minutes,
The book consists of many voices, some more informed than others, but the general tone is consistent and follows the pattern set up by the editors' conversations. These conversations constitute a large part of the volume. The original approach, to discuss the painting while physically looking at it in a museum, works very well. It forces a close reading of the image in 'real' time, making it more present to those using the book. Although some of the articles are by a single author and only in written form (not videos), the style remains consistent with that of the conversations in terms of the close observation of the object.
The conversations are obviously much better on video than on the transcript, as in the video one can use the eyes to observe the very elements described by the authors while listening to the description, much like listening to a docent during a museum visit. When looking at art in its original setting the videos are priceless. Having the transcripts, however, is also very valuable, as it provides the stable text students can refer to.
While there is no problem with modularity, there is at times a problem with organization - see comment below. The readings are short, as are the viewing - generally under 7 minutes - and several could be assigned for each class time. Merging a few into sub-sections would be helpful.
There is a problem with the organization, as some related articles are separated from the videos on the same topic, some would better serve following a different order and others should be merged together into one.
This particular book has all the material, but lacks in editing.
I had no problem with the online interface. However, a great improvement would be the possibility of enlarging the images.
The authors seem to talk, rather than write, through the articles, as if these were recordings of a lecture (which they may well be). I have not encountered any major grammatical problem, and the tone is light and approachable.
This is not a volume for graduate students, but it serves well for undergraduate courses.
I would recommend this volume for undergraduate upper division courses in Italian Renaissance Art and I will be adopting it in the future. I believe that, in print, it would be a hefty book, as it covers many topics and artists. While reading it I have found some flaws, but the topics investigated are interesting and enriching.
Smarthistory's Guide to Italian Art in the 1400s consists of the collected content--essays and conversations--the organization and its contributors have produced to date on this topic. It is divided into four parts: an introductory section... read more
Smarthistory's Guide to Italian Art in the 1400s consists of the collected content--essays and conversations--the organization and its contributors have produced to date on this topic. It is divided into four parts: an introductory section acclimating readers to Renaissance culture; two sections analyzing central Italian art; and a final section devoted to northern Italy. As such, this volume is not entirely comprehensive in covering art produced throughout all of Italy during the period in question. Notable lacunae involve southern Italy, particularly the cities of Rome, Naples, and Sicily. In general, the majority of content dwells on central regions, namely Florence and its conventional status as the cradle of the Italian Renaissance. One wishes for more content focusing on northern court cities, Venice, and somewhat marginalized cities of Bologna, Bresica, and Mantua.
One corollary of this largely object-based approach to content, despite its user-friendliness, is the somewhat deficient “big-picture” narrative usually synthesizing cultural shifts during this period.
As with the content appearing on Smarthistory.org's website, the caliber of the content is accurate, nuanced, and well-researched. The team of contributors for this volume comprise scholars holding a PhD in art history or related fields.
The essays in this volume strike a fine balance between summarizing canonical and traditional perspectives, while integrating issues of race, gender, class, and economy relevant to contemporary art history as practiced in the academy. As with the constantly evolving digital ecosystem of Smarthistory, the essays in this textbook make use of newer digital humanities projects, recent publications, as well as touchstone sources. The Beginner's Guide that starts the collection is an especially useful, student-friendly introduction to the topics at hand that stimulate sincere interest.
The contributions prove to be pithy, succinct, and informative, consisting of object-led analyses that cut right to the chase. The prose is geared strongly toward an undergraduate and graduate student readership. As such, sub-headings in each essay help attract attention, while some potentially unfamiliar or foreign words are hyperlinked to explanatory sites to aid clarity. However, the text mostly lacks the multimedia and rich-text features embedded in essays native to the Smarthistory.org site, begging the question as to whether the current format provides any advantage to accessing the same material via Smarthistory's website.
The collection of essays and conversations derive from a dozen or so different authors and were not originally envisioned as a coherent, unified collection. Thus there are minor inconsistencies, mostly in style and authorial voice, apparent throughout the volume.
Possibly this textbook's greatest advantage--indeed its raison d'être--is its potential for modularity. Virtually every single essay or conversation can stand alone as an independent reading. Although the authors subdivide the content into four parts, it would be easy to re-organize the essays into thematic groups of readings so that they align with certain topics in course syllabi. In many cases, the individual essays mention other works analyzed elsewhere in the text, meaning the connective tissue between diverse objects, sites, and themes is already present.
The essays are logically organized and grouped, primarily by geographic region, then by media (painting; sculpture and architecture). The collection utilizes a case-studies approach, what might be seen as a conglomeration of micro-histories that constitutes a deep-dive into the material. Yet the text lacks an apparatus to connect the dots so to speak, or clarify the linkages between artists, themes, socio-political phenomena, and artistic styles. Such clarification presumably is left to instructors.
Additionally, at times sections seem like a mere collection of available writing culled from the Smarthistory website, without perhaps enough judicious editorial oversight. For example, some topics are redundant or repetitive, as in multiple subsections devoted to linear perspective.
One cumbersome aspect of the present volume impeding its ease of use is format used involving numerous "conversations." More than half of the content is delivered through transcripts of dialogues from the Smarthistory site in which two interlocutors discuss a work of art, site, or topic. While this works seamlessly and effectively as a video, it is clunky and tiresome for readers to wade through.
As mentioned above, much of the multimedia native to the website is stripped out in this textbook, including the hover-over glossary terms, helpful resources occurring at the end of entries, and internal links to other relevant entries.
The prose draws readers in and is polished.
One wishes for more space devoted to issues of diversity and inclusion introduced into art history as a discipline over the last thirty or so years. More specifically, essays devoted to following could have enhanced the collection: the presence of black Africans and people of color in European art; phenomena related to a global renaissance and cross-cultural exchange; interrogations of constructions of masculinity, gender and sex; and greater emphasis on material/technical approaches to art history.
Table of Contents
- Part I. A Beginner's Guide
- Part II. Central Italy: Painting
- Part III. Central Italy: Sculpture and Architecture
- Part IV. Northern Italy: Venice, Ferrara and the Marches
About the Book
This book contains all of Smarthistory’s content for Italian art in the 1400s.
About the Contributors
Ruth received her PhD in the History of Art and Architecture from Harvard University. She specializes in the art of Europe, 1400-1700, with a particular focus on sculpture produced in the German-speaking lands. A committed educator, she has lectured widely at museums and institutions on both sides of the Atlantic and online, most recently as a Digital Fellow at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, Brandeis University.
Beth is co-founder and executive director of Smarthistory. Previously, she was dean of art and history at Khan Academy and director of digital learning at The Museum of Modern Art, where she started MoMA Courses Online and co-produced educational videos, websites and apps. Before joining MoMA, Beth was Associate Professor of art history and director of distance learning at the Fashion Institute of Technology where she taught both online and in the classroom. She has co-authored, with Dr. Steven Zucker, numerous articles on the future of education and the future of museums, topics she regularly addresses at conferences around the world. She received her Master’s degree from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and her doctorate in Art History from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
Steven is co-founder and executive director of Smarthistory. Previously, Steven was dean of art and history at Khan Academy. He was also chair of history of art and design at Pratt Institute where he strengthened enrollment and lead the renewal of curriculum across the Institute. Before that, he was dean of the School of Graduate Studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology, SUNY and chair of their art history department. He has taught at The School of Visual Arts, Hunter College, and at The Museum of Modern Art. Dr. Zucker is a recipient of the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. He has co-authored, with Dr. Beth Harris, numerous articles on the future of education and the future of museums, topics he regularly addresses at conferences around the world. Dr. Zucker received his Ph.D. from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.