Italian Renaissance Art: Understanding its Meaning

Viragi Gunasekara

Art 335

Book Review

Italian Renaissance Art: Understanding its Meaning. By Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier.                                 (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. 252 pp.).

The Renaissance was one of the most significant cultural movements in European history. It began in Italy and lasted from 14th to 17th century. This movement brought about a renewed spirit regarding life and a great revival of art and literature. The Renaissance was so important because it marked the transitional period between the middle ages and modern history. In her book Italian Renaissance Art: Understanding its Meaning, Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier does an excellent job of describing pivotal works and figures in the Italian Renaissance and analyzing it: what it was, what it means, and why we should study it. She discusses the development of art and architectural design throughout the Italian peninsula. By focusing her attention on just Italy rather than the entire continent of Europe, the author is able to give more in depth analyses of arguably the most important works of Renaissance art.

The author discusses many famous Italian Renaissance artists including painters, sculptors and architects. Their works are shown with colored illustrations, descriptions and formal analyses. One of the most significant Renaissance architects was Filippo Brunelleschi. During the 1430’s, Brunelleschi built the Ospedale degli Innocenti, which was an orphanage for foundling children. He introduced new structural arrangements by building arches that were supported by columns which were re-combined to create new forms. Brunelleschi created the Church of Santo Spirito during the 1440’s. The author compares the architecture of this building to the Palazzo Spada built by Giulio Mazzoni. The author describes the architecture of Church of Santo Spirito as “…white walls and grey arches and columns clearly articulated as white plaster and grey edges that define with absolute clarity not only the geometric surfaces but also the spaces they create. Here the difference between wall and space is very clear” (p.31). Then she compares it with the Palazzo Spada, stating that “the walls of the Palazzo Spada, built in Rome during the 1540’s with stucco decorations by Giulio Mazzoni, have almost disappeared. They are covered with lavish stuccowork that confuses the spectator, who is unclear whether it should be viewed from close up or from a distance” (p.31). There is a clear distinction between the two buildings because of the open concept of the front of the Church of Santo Spirito and the more closed-off walls in front of the Palazzo Spada. Even though both of these were built during the Italian Renaissance, there are still differences in style and technique.

One of the most iconic works of art associated with the Italian Renaissance is the statue of David by Michelangelo. Created in 1504, the main theme of this statue was the human body being seen in a heroic manner. From the strong, angry expression on David’s face to his frozen movement gives it a very intense and dramatic mood. Michelangelo had many followers at the time, among which was Florentine sculptor Baccio Bandinelli. Bandinelli’s sculpture Hercules and Cacus (1534) exemplified the influence of Michelangelo’s style. Since Bandinelli did not understand the depth or the poetry of Michelangelo’s creations, his works bore only a superficial resemblance to those of Michelangelo. The author states that “Compared to the depth and intensity of this symbol of civic virtue, Bandinelli’s figures seem like more colossal giants – graceless, expressionless planks that belong not to the history of art but to the history of imitation” (p.181). By analyzing the details and characteristics of these works, the author does a very successful job of explaining how even though their styles in sculpture are very similar, Michelangelo’s work is more profound and of higher quality than that of Bandinelli.

There are many books written about the very intriguing and prosperous period of time which was the Renaissance. Many of the art history books on the Renaissance simply describe artists and their works during this time. What makes Joost-Gaugier’s book stand out from the rest is that it helps the reader understand the meaning and the feel of the Renaissance as a lifestyle rather than just focusing on specific artists or works of art. When the author analyzes different works of art, she relates them back to the idea of the Renaissance and explains how this idea influenced those works. The title of this book Italian Renaissance Art: Understanding its Meaning is a very direct reflection of what the book is about because the intent of the author is clearly to help the reader understand the art movement that was the Italian Renaissance. This is a fantastic book for art students, teachers and anyone who is interested in learning about Italian Renaissance art.

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