Art books fall into many categories' glossy accounts of movements like Impressionism with lots of colour and minimal text' monographs on individual artists which, if properly illustrated, sell well if the individual is Rembrandt or van Gogh or Picasso' and those tomes on relatively obscure subjects written by academics for other academics. These books can be trying for the reader interested in art but not in the more arcane aspects of dating or attribution, and are often in the form of a doctoral thesis, mildly gussied up for publication by a university press and frequently both unreadable and indigestible.
Jules Lubbock's book, which deals with a relatively narrow subject, a fairly short period - from 1298 to 1465 - and then only with only a handful of works by a mere seven artists, could so easily have fallen into the dull and boring category of professors scoring points off other professors, best saved for the technical journals. It is in fact as scholarly as any don could demand but, in the lucidity of its writing, the skilled use not just of illustrative plates, but of genuinely helpful photography - much of it by the author himself - it is an absorbing interpretation of some severely difficult but luminously rewarding great art. It can be appreciated by both the lay enthusiast and that quasi-mythical beast, the general reader.
In his preface, Lubbock traces his interest in the narrative art of the early Renaissance to a student encounter, 40 years ago with The Beheading of Saints Cosmos and Damian, the predella panel from an altarpiece once in San Marco, Florence and now in the Louvre. It is by Fra Angelico, not one of his seven chosen artists, but: "The sense of the rhythm of the executioner swinging his sword as he moved around the circle of kneeling martyrs, three already beheaded, two awaiting their fate' the simplicity of the background with its five cypress trees and the five towers of the walled city' the pure and brilliant colours and clear morning light all helped to stimulate the vivid impression that the event was actually taking place before my eyes. I felt that I could 'read' the picture as easily as a book."
This prompts Lubbock to the view that while, over the years, art historical theory has gone through many phases, even fashions, "the [current] neglect of narrative is regrettable". One can only applaud his view, which opposes, in his terms, the equivalent of the move in academic literary criticism away from plot and character to deconstruction and the death of the author.
Lubbock's entire book is not a plea for narrative since, in the Renaissance, it was always at the forefront of art, but a highly sophisticated celebration of painting and sculpture as narration, as storytelling. He devotes chapters to three painters and four sculptors. The painters are Duccio with his Maest, the 11 scenes of Jesus's Trial on the altarpiece for the High Altar of the cathedral in Siena' Giotto's frescoes for the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua and, perhaps the most familiar to us, Masaccio's frescoes for the Brancacci Chapel in Florence. It is not in any way to minimise the importance or the excellence of the painting chapters if I do not deal extensively with them here. Lubbock's interpretations and analyses are essential reading for all who admire these painters and these particular works.
If I concentrate on what Lubbock has done for the sculptors - Giovanni Pisano with his Pistoia pulpit and his pulpit in Pisa' Ghiberti and Brunelleschi with their second baptistery doors in Florence' Ghiberti again with the Gates of Paradise in Florence' Donatello's pulpits in San Lorenzo, also in Florence - it is because, for me at least, these are the most revelatory. It is so much easier to "read" a narrative painting than a highly complex relief sculpture, even if one discounts the added problems of both paintings and sculptures being placed in elaborate religious buildings, often at a considerable distance and an awkward angle from one's frequently fallible eyes. …