Byline: BRIAN SEWELL
Italian Panel Painting of the Duecento and Trecento, edited by Victor Schmidt (Yale, pound sterling45)
This is not a beginner's guide to the Masters of the Goose Turd Greens (pace Aldous Huxley), but 23 entirely separate essays on aspects of painting, primarily in Florence, between AD 1200 and 1400. Investigative and deeply scholarly, they probe ideas and origins, meaning and function, typology and narrative and yet, academic though they are, they do not exclude the reader whose knowledge of the field is restricted to the large handful of pictures in the National Gallery that fit with them in time and place. No more engrossing book has come into my hands this year and I am mightily amused to find that art historians are still wrestling with problems that mystified my generation of students half a century ago; some will never be settled.
Cosmatesque Ornament by Paloma Pajares-Ayuela (Thames and Hudson, pound sterling60)
The Cosmati were a family of Roman stonemasons whose name is given to others of the trade and to the patterns of inlaid coloured stone and glass with which they embellished pavements, altars, pulpits and tombs in the 12th and 13th centuries. There are examples of this complex post-Byzantine architectural ornament in Westminster Abbey. The underlying geometry reflects Christian and cosmic symbolism and has parallels in metalwork, bookbinding and other crafts. A great deal of Cosmati work survives in Rome, still in sound condition, yet compared with architecture and painting, is scarcely noticed by visitors; this scholarly and beautifully illustrated book may well rescue it from obscurity.
Picasso: Style and Meaning by Elizabeth Cowling (Phaidon, pound sterling75)
I have read no book on Picasso that is a greater aid to understanding him - but it must be read, not treated as a picture book, though it has 700 pages and almost as many illustrations. It deals primarily with his formative periods, is written with the pace and thrill of great detective fiction, and must convince even the most sceptical that here was an artist bound hand and foot by the ancestral traditions of western art, no matter what other influences came into play. It is, quite simply, wonderful.
A Sum of Destructions: Picasso's Cultures and the Creation of Cubism by Natasha Staller (Yale, pound sterling40)
How disappointing it must be to find that 20 years of research have been pipped at the post by Elizabeth Cowling's book. The examples are different, the period is limited to the years between boyhood and the development of Cubism, there is a great deal of lateral observation and a steeper slant towards biography, but the purpose is much the same.
Dr Staller's insights are, however, those of the trophy hunter - exciting, but with not quite the essential analytical depth and sense of order - so that she seems to suffer, to use her own term, the curse of fervid imagophilia. Even so, an art historian who uses "discombobulated" can be forgiven almost anything.
Engaging Symbols by Adrian WB Randolph (Yale, pound sterling45)
I confess to having read this book day after day in the Underground - a mark of its engrossing quality. Randolph deals with Florence in the 15th century, but as much with sex, politics, society, power and influence as with art and symbolism. The Medici loom large and so, particularly, does Donatello, his sculpture and the probability that he was a pederast - but since Michael Rocke's Forbidden Friendships (OUP 1996) we seem to believe that this was true of all male Florentines. We have come a very long way from the simple art history of half a century ago - are we, perhaps, a shade too clever now?
Signorelli by Tom Henry and Laurence Kanter (Thames and Hudson, pound sterling48)
One of the great inventive geniuses of the Renaissance generation before Michelangelo, exciting, erotic and unprecedented, Signorelli deserves a better book than this. In two parts, the first is an essay in hypothesis transmogrifying into fact, the second a lucid and concise catalogue raisonne compiled and written with fine old-fashioned academic discipline. It is for this last, the notes on the plates and the plates themselves that the book should, indeed must, be bought.
Renaissance Rivals by Rona Goffen (Yale, pound sterling30)
The 90 pages of footnotes in small print are a book in themselves, a treasury of facts and lateral insights complementing the author's thesis that rivalry, competition and even mutual dislike were, as much an influence and Zeitgeist, a source of energy and invention for the great artists of the Italian Renaissance. Here Leonardo is laid bare, Michelangelo revealed as something of a monster, and Raphael almost as a plagiarist; Titian's borrowings have always been seen as the pure painter's search for the sculptor's sense of form; and the book ends with Bandinelli and Cellini both claiming to be the sole heir to Michelangelo. The arguments are biased in favour of the thesis, but they are lively and readable and the amateur should not be deterred by the book's apparent weight. The chapter on Titian is essential preparatory reading for the National Gallery's exhibition opening in February.
The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence by Cristina Acidini et al (Yale, pound sterling45)
This catalogue of an international exhibition is more valuable than the exhibition itself in that it expands far beyond the limitations of exhibits so diffuse, random and minor as to make nonsense of the grandeurs promised by the title. Essays establish their context among such major works as Michelangelo's Laurentian Library and Medici Chapel, and notes on four sculptures by Pierino da Vinci (the neglected, short-lived genius who was a nephew of Leonardo) and the questionable attribution of minor works to Michelangelo are all of interest to the specialist. The tail is wagged by Allori, Bronzino, Pontormo and Vasari, Ammanati, Giambologna and Cellini.
Cabinets of Curiosities: Patrick Mauries (Thames and Hudson, pound sterling39.95)
Be it a first tooth, a lock of hair or Napoleon's desiccated penis, we all keep memorabilia and tokens tucked away, but our forebears kept them on view in cabinets. Their appeal lies less in value than in sentiment, deviance and their surreal incongruity as neighbours, and the cabinet is an art form of which we all are capable if we have quirks of taste and the imagination to exploit them. This book is an amusingly illustrated history of the conceit from the 17th century to the present day - but neither Damien Hirst nor the surgeons of Alder Hey, supreme exponents of the genre, are to be found in it.
Bronzino by Maurice Brock (Flammarion, pound sterling54.95)
Bronzino, a Florentine Mannerist of the mid-16th century, is not much liked in Britain - his paintings are too contrived and artificial, his ideals based on other men's ideals, his art derived from art; and yet, to those who look intently, observation is at least an underlying force, even if it is frozen by his style. All this is evident in fine reproductions, Michelangelo particularly as prime source and yet uncomfortably denatured, enfeebled and affected in the borrowing; the text, however, labours and obscures too many points - not the fault of the translators, but the author - and the reader must persist in digging deep for his many worthwhile interpretations and perceptions.
Extremities by Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby (Yale, pound sterling50)
In this remarkable book six great history paintings by Gericault, Delacroix, Girodet and Gros are dismantled as though by a police pathologist searching for the explanation of a gruesome death, for a motive and a culprit. The " extremities" reach from Egypt to the West Indies, the subjects are violence and degradation, slavery, sodomy and cannibalism, and the pathologist reaches deep into the belly and bowels of mature Romanticism. The ramifications of this extraordinary text are political, social, sexual and historical, and the author goes far beyond the ordinary boundaries of art historical context.
Robert Campin by Felix Thurlemann (Prestel, pound sterling85)
After centuries of obscurity and confusion, Campin is now established as a great pioneer of early Netherlandish painting. No work by him, however, is securely documented and, in spite of general consensus in its identification and attribution, misgivings and uncertainties remain; the final resolution of these doubts is Th[cedilla]rlemann's purpose. It is unfortunate that he himself muddies the waters with hypothesis and assertion - his evidence of a journey to Italy is too insubstantial - and much turbid description (rather than exegesis) is not helped by the translation. The documents, catalogue raisonnE and illustrations are, nevertheless, invaluable.
Gothic and Renaissance Altarpieces by Caterina Limentani Virdis and Mari Pietrogiovanna (Thames and Hudson, pound sterling65)
The idea is simple: take the complex folding altarpiece that was an essential of 15th century painting across Europe, write a concise explanatory essay, reproduce it as a folding plate or plates, supplement it with astonishing details, some virtually lifesize, and mix and match 30 of them from Italy, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands - few books could be more splendid, more immediately desirable. It has been expertly done, the selection and order the only possible sources of criticism, for it is disconcerting to find Grunewald's Isenheim Altar of 1510-1516, magical, mysterious, specific and vile, immediately followed by Piero della Francesca's Misericordia, utterly serene, painted half a century earlier.
Rarities from Sardinia and Spain, Syracuse, Aix and Nice, are among the wonders of the book.
Athletes; Gymnasts by Jonathan Anderson and Edwin Low (Twin Palms, pound sterling59)
For those who were moved by The Contenders, an exhibition of photographs by Anderson and Low at the National Portrait Gallery, their volume of further studies of Athletes, active and in repose, their souls examined at least as much as their straining bodies, will seem quite wonderful, no study more telling than the battered hands of a weightlifter. It is paired with a volume devoted to nude Gymnasts, earth, air, fire and water explored and personified, the idealising imagery of the 1930s, the art and propaganda of that decade, imaginatively and ingeniously evoked.
Rolf on Art: Rolf Harris (BBC, pound sterling14.99)
Though perhaps momentarily of use to Jeremy Clarkson and other portly men who need advice on which shirts not to wear, under no circumstances should this book be opened by the young, the old, the widowed or divorced, the menopausal, the alcoholic or the lunatic.
A Hidden Love, Art and Homosexuality: Dominique Fernandez (Prestel, pound sterling49.95)
This slightly naughty book conforms to the familiar pattern of erotic images from antiquity to the present day, gathered to illustrate a thesis in which few readers will be interested. It is pornography made respectable for the coffee table, more than 350 illustrations to gently stir the loins of most old bachelors and reduce the cynic to helpless laughter.…