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

Who am I?

I am an art historian from Rome and a professor at the University of Virginia, where I also served as associate dean for the arts and humanities and chair of the art department. Ever since as an undergraduate I heard a lecture from a professor on how important science was for Renaissance artists, I have been fascinated with this topic. I look at scientific images, such as maps and diagrams, as works of art, and interpret famous paintings, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, as scientific experiments. Among my books are The Marvel of Maps: Art, Cartography and Politics in the Renaissance, The Shadow Drawing. How Science Taught Leonardo How to Paint, and the digital publication Leonardo da Vinci and His Treatise on Painting.

I wrote...

The Shadow Drawing: How Science Taught Leonardo How to Paint

By Francesca Fiorani,

Book cover of The Shadow Drawing: How Science Taught Leonardo How to Paint

What is my book about?

Leonardo da Vinci has long been celebrated as the painter who gave us the Mona Lisa, and the inventor who anticipated the advent of airplanes and other technological marvels. But what was the connection between Leonardo the painter and Leonardo the scientist? Historians have long supposed that Leonardo became increasingly interested in science as he grew older and turned his insatiable curiosity in new directions. 

I offer an entirely new account of Leonardo the artist and Leonardo the scientist, and why they were one and the same man. Ranging from the teeming streets of Florence to the most delicate brushstrokes on the surface of the Mona Lisa, I argue that Leonardo became familiar with science when he was still an apprentice in a Florence studio—and used his understanding of science to perfect his painting techniques. 

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Michael Baxandall,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book is both an introduction to fifteenth-century Italian painting, and a primer in how to read social history out of the style of pictures. It examines the commercial practice of the early Renaissance picture, trade in contracts, letters, and accounts; and it explains how the visual skills and habits evolved in the daily life of any society enter into its painters' style. Renaissance painting is related for instance to experience of such activities as
preaching, dancing, and gauging barrels.

This second edition contains an appendix, the original Latin and Italian texts referred to throughout the book, giving the student…

Book cover of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Why did I love 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.

By Stephen Greenblatt,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Swerve as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the winter of 1417, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties plucked a very old manuscript off a dusty shelf in a remote monastery, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. He was Poggio Bracciolini, the greatest book hunter of the Renaissance. His discovery, Lucretius' ancient poem On the Nature of Things, had been almost entirely lost to history for more than a thousand years.

It was a beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functions without the aid of gods, that religious fear is damaging to…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Ross King,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Bookseller of Florence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Renaissance in Florence conjures images of beautiful frescoes and elegant buildings—the dazzling handiwork of the city’s skilled artists and architects. But equally important for the centuries to follow were geniuses of a different sort: Florence’s manuscript hunters, scribes, scholars, and booksellers, who blew the dust off a thousand years of history and, through the discovery and diffusion of ancient knowledge, imagined a new and enlightened world.

At the heart of this activity, which bestselling author Ross King relates in his exhilarating new book, was a remarkable man: Vespasiano da Bisticci. Born in 1422, he became what a friend called…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Dale Kent,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Cosimo De' Medici and the Florentine Renaissance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Cosimo de' Medici (1389-1464), the fabulously wealthy banker who became the leading citizen of Florence in the fifteenth century, spent lavishly as the city's most important patron of art and literature. This remarkable book is the first comprehensive examination of the whole body of works of art and architecture commissioned by Cosimo and his sons. By looking closely at this spectacular group of commissions, we gain an entirely new picture of their patron and of the patron's point of view. Recurrent themes in the commissions-from Fra Angelico's San Marco altarpiece to the Medici Palace-indicate the main interests to which Cosimo's…

Book cover of The Companion Guide to Florence

Why did I love 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.

By Eve Borsook,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Companion Guide to Florence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is a book to read before you go, to carry with you and to re-read on your return. SPECTATOR

A sure and illuminating guide. SUNDAY TIMES

The city state of Florence led the rest of the western world in art, science and political idealism in the middle ages. This early richness, the importance of the achievements of its famous sons, including Dante, Giotto, Leonardo and Michelangelo, the great quantity of visible remains, make Florence as a city to visit both alluring and challenging.

In true Companion Guide manner, this book describes, with the knowledge and insight distilled from long…

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