Books to Please the Eye and Gladden the Heart; A Selection of the Best - and Occasionally the Worst - of This Year's Art Books

Article excerpt

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. …