The best books to understand the art and culture of Renaissance Florence

Francesca Fiorani Author Of The Shadow Drawing: How Science Taught Leonardo How to Paint
By Francesca Fiorani

The Books I Picked & Why

Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style

By Michael Baxandall

Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style

Why this book?

This is a classic study that for me—and countless others— changed the way we look at Renaissance art, the artists who made it, the patrons who commissioned it, the people who used it, and the Renaissance authors who wrote about it. Everybody knows that Masaccio, Uccello, Angelico, Botticelli, and Leonardo da Vinci were great painters. But only after reading this short and compelling essay by one of the twentieth-century most insightful art historians you understand how these great artists mirrored in their works daily life experiences and activities of Renaissance society, such as preaching, dancing, and gauging barrels.

After your read this book, if you’d like to dig deeper into how Renaissance art related to contemporary sexual, social, and political behavior the right book for you is Art in Renaissance Italy: 1350-1500 by Evelyn Welch.


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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

By Stephen Greenblatt

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Why this book?

Everybody knows that the Renaissance involved the rediscovery of ancient texts but today it’s hard for us to relate to the obsession, risks, and extensive travel Renaissance humanists went through to hunt these lost manuscripts. This book brings you right into the mind of a Florentine humanist who, in 1417, in a remote monastery, fortuitously discovered Lucretius’ poem On the Nature of Things, a radical ancient Roman text that had been lost for a thousand years and that explained how matter is made up of very small material particles in eternal motion, randomly colliding and swerving in new directions. The book tells the fascinating story of how this ancient text changed western history, philosophy, and science. Galileo Freud, Darwin, and Einstein, among others, read Lucretius’ poem voraciously.


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The Bookseller of Florence: The Story of the Manuscripts That Illuminated the Renaissance

By Ross King

The Bookseller of Florence: The Story of the Manuscripts That Illuminated the Renaissance

Why this book?

After you read about the chase of lost ancient manuscripts, you’ll want to know the story of this Florentine man of humble origins but great intellect who played a crucial role in disseminating these newly discovered texts in Europe and beyond. Along the way you’ll learn how books were made before the invention of the printing press, including a myriad of fascinating details about the production of parchment and paper, the manufacturing of inks and bindings, the creation of figures and illuminations, and the use of movable types.

You’ll step into the life of a famous Florentine bookshop, where humanists, political figures, and church people gathered and where, above all, magnificent books were made for royals and popes, books that were works of art in their own rights.


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Cosimo De' Medici and the Florentine Renaissance: The Patron's Oeuvre

By Dale Kent

Cosimo De' Medici and the Florentine Renaissance: The Patron's Oeuvre

Why this book?

Most art in the Renaissance was commissioned by specific patrons and this book superbly illustrates the complex interaction among patron, artist, and society by focusing on the greatest patron of art and architecture in fifteenth-century Florence. Cosimo de’ Medici was the most powerful figure in the city’s political and economic life, a fabulously wealthy banker, a devout Christian, but he had also an impeccable nose for great art. With the help of about 200 images, the book examines the religious, personal, and dynastic motivations behind Cosimo’s artistic patronage, both his direct commissions for the Medici palaces, villas, and chapels as well as his active involvement in the works officially commissioned by the republic. What you’ll get out of this book is a profound understanding of how art was commissioned, created, and viewed in Renaissance Florence.


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The Companion Guide to Florence

By Eve Borsook

The Companion Guide to Florence

Why this book?

There are millions of great guidebooks on Florence, but none is more entertaining, informative, and lively than Eve Borsook’s. An American art historian who lived in the city for most of her life, she unravels Florence's history, art, and politics with verve, knowledge, and insight. As one would expect in a guide, she describes systematically the city, a chapter for each neighborhood, each chapter starting with detailed descriptions of its most interesting streets, squares, buildings, and works of art. But what makes this guide invaluable are Borsook’s commentaries that follow her informative descriptions. I suggest you read this book before you go to Florence, plan your visit according to her chapters, and then, once in Florence, after you have seen the works she describes, read again the chapter on the neighborhood you visited that day. Renaissance Florence and the people who lived in it will come to life for you in very concrete ways.


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