The somewhat immodest title of this volume should be understood less as an exact description of the contents than as an ideal aim which by its very nature can be realized only imperfectly. It may also serve to distinguish the purpose of the present book from that of other visual anthologies, especially those following the pattern of André Malraux's "museum without walls." Historic significance, rather than aesthetic appeal to modern sensibility, has been the determining factor in the choice of the works of art--and the photographs--here reproduced. Although the plates do not discourage the leisurely browser, they are intended primarily for a more disciplined and systematic perusal in conjunction with an introductory lecture course or with one of the numerous available one-volume surveys of the history of art. Such books do, of course, have illustrations of their own; but these are likely to be too small in size or number to provide an adequate visual documentation of the text. The lantern slides used in lecture courses are not, as a rule, subject to such limitations; on the other hand, the audience cannot study them at leisure. After remaining on the screen for a minute or two, the slides disappear and few of them are honored by a return engagement in the same course.
Key Monuments is designed to fill this gap by providing a basic stock of large, well-printed reproductions independent of (but, I trust, compatible with) any current interpretation of the history of art. Nevertheless, the selection has not been a completely impersonal, "objective" process; there is no statistical magic by which a Key Monument can be identified without fail. How, then, did I arrive at this particular choice? My starting point was a hypothetical situation: supposing that twenty leading art historians had drawn up independent lists of about 1,000 works of art for a volume such as this, on which items would they be likely to agree? The great classics, obviously--monuments such as the Parthenon and its sculpture, Chartres Cathedral, the Sistine Ceiling. By tabulating these, and checking them against the judgment of friends and colleagues, I obtained a "core list" of some 300 Monuments, not all of them necessarily of the same artistic rank, owing to the accidents of preservation, but all equally indispensable to the art historian of today. A hundred years ago--even a few decades ago--this core of acknowledged classics would have looked different in a good many significant ways; it would probably have included some artists now regarded as secondary, such as Thorvaldsen, whereas El Greco and Piero della Francesca would have been absent. These gradual shifts of art historical perspective are subtly but inescapably linked with the changing taste of every period. They affect some works of art more strongly than others, yet no work of art is wholly immune to them-- there is no such thing as a perennial classic. On the other hand, the dethroned favorites of yesteryear still hold some important lessons for us, however catastrophic their fall, and I have included a number of them here (e.g., the Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoön Group) because of their tremendous impact on the taste of our forefathers.
But the agreed-upon classics do not, by themselves, constitute the history of art. As peak achievements, they are comparatively few and far between. Were we to disregard the intervening territory we should lose all sense of continuity. In these areas the historian is faced with a vastly greater number of works to choose from, and his preferences will depend on which route he takes in moving from one peak to the next. Thus the chances of agreement among the experts are correspondingly smaller, but since the individual monument does . . .