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Art and history book recommendations

I have a woefully inadequate knowledge of art and history. This has been made painfully clear on our trips to Europe. I must not have been paying attention in these classes, and I sure regret that! I'm trying to find ways to fill in my knowledge gaps to make traveling a richer experience. I read Rick Steves' Europe 101 book, which I really enjoyed. I am looking for some recommendations of other resources you may have read on art or history that you really enjoyed. I am especially interested in brushing up on Italian history and the art we will see on our tour there next year, but ultimately we have plans to travel to many different areas so I'd like to learn about other regions too. If you have any resources you have loved, I would appreciate your recommendations!

Posted by
681 posts

To begin with, there are a couple of good histories of art that cover pretty much everything: H.W. Janson, The History of Art and Laurie Schneider Adams, Art Across Time. (These are expensive new, but Amazon or Abe should have reasonably-priced used ones)

For more detailed works on Italian art:

Frederick Hartt, History of Italian Renaissance Art (also expensive new)

Peter Murray, The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance

Nikolaus Pevsner An Outline of European Architecture is a classic on European Architecture generally.

For Gothic architecture, The Gothic Enterprise by Robert Scott is excellent.

For individual artists, there is a series of books published by Taschen that is excellent. You could look, for example, at the one on Vermeer (by Schneider) on Amazon, and the others will be recommended on that same page. These are quick reads, well-written and really informative, and only about $10 each.

I'll look around for something good on Northern Renaissance art and post that if I can find (or remember) anything.

Posted by
18800 posts

A Distant Mirror. the Calamitous 14th Century , Barbara Tuchman
History of England, Italy, but primarily France in the 1300's. Touring Florence Cathedral, I remember seeing the huge fresco of Sir John Hawkwood, which was also a plate illustration in the book. He was a "contractor" (mercenary) of whom was coined the saying, "An Italianized Englishman is the Devil Incarnate."

Posted by
24 posts

The resources already mentioned are excellent. I would add one to get you started, without overwhelming you: Art of the Western World by Michael Wood. It's a wonderful, quirky multi-part documentary seen here in the U.S. on PBS some years back. It covers from Ancient Greece/Rome through the Renaissance (since you're headed for Italy, I think you'll probably be most interested in these episodes) all the way through to the Modern day. It's wonderfully watchable-you can get DVDs from the usual places (Amazon, B & N, or check YouTube. There's also a companion print version-I'm looking at it on my bookshelf right now. Also check with your local library; a good reference librarian can point you in the right direction. Use it as a launch pad and see where your interest takes you!

Posted by
610 posts

Thank you all so much for your responses. These look great! It looks like I have some homework ahead of me this year!

Posted by
2766 posts

This isn't a book, but The Great Courses put out lectures on either DVD or CD (and download) on all sorts of topics, including history and art. The list prices are extremely expensive, but every course goes on a huge sale (like 75% off) at least once a year.

All the ones I've used have been good, many have been great. Favorites of mine are Great Tours - Medieval Europe, Museum Masterpieces - Louvre, and The Other 1492. I just bought Guide to Essential Italy. The first episode is great, I can't speak to the rest of it yet.

Posted by
681 posts

Just a few more from an Art History obsessive :-) The first two are very good on the Northern Renaissance:

The Mirror of the Artist: Northern Renaissance Art in its Historical Context, by Craig Harbison

A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic, 1585-1718, by Mariët Westermann

And here is one on older art:
Classical Art: From Greece to Rome (Oxford History of Art)
by Mary Beard and John Henderson

That Oxford History of Art series has many titles, virtually all well done; you can browse through them on Amazon (search Oxford History of Art series), and check reviews if you want.

Posted by
1994 posts

I have a few recommendations for when you are closer to your trip.

The Blue Guides are amazing guide books for art and architecture. For major sites, they will often walk you through every piece of art, which is really helpful when I'm attracted to a painting that's not on the typical tourist itinerary. I buy the relevant regional blue guides, cut the binding off, and have Kinko's bind only those sections that I need – otherwise they can be heavy. I know they're also now available in electronic format, although I've not tried those yet.

In Italy, I would suggest scheduling some walking tours with context travel. Their guides are well-trained academics who are interesting, speak excellent English, and have degrees relevant to the topic. For example, I toured the Vatican with an art historian who teaches at the university level in Rome and whose specialty is Baroque art. Also, they limit their groups to six, which really helps in crowded venues.

Finally, your smart phone can be really helpful. A number of museums have apps that can help you in planning your trip. Also, there are some interesting art history apps that provide an overview of the type of work that specific artists have done and will link you to biographical information.

Posted by
3553 posts

One of our textbooks in Art History class was Gardiner's "Art Through The Ages". I'm sure there are a ton of them for sale cheap online or in used book stores. Or go to a university book store. A history of all art movements and architecture, in all countries, and the history that goes along with that. Italy is featured prominently in the book, for obvious reasons.

If there is a large university near you, you could "audit" a History Of Art And Architecture class. That means you are not signed up as a student. You would not take mid-term tests or the final exam. You would be in the class as a visitor. At some universities, this is free. At others, you pay a small fee when you register to audit the class, say $12. or $25. The lectures with slide show can be a lot more interesting than sitting at home reading a book (although I enjoy that). You would audit for the entire semester or quarter. A lot of universities have night classes, say on Monday and Wednesday nights, or Tuesday/Thursday.

This is an easy way to digest a little at a time, plus your university professor teaching the class will be glad to answer your questions. The textbook for the class would be a great resource for years to come.

Posted by
9855 posts

I was just in a large used bookstore and saw many copies of both Gardner's and Janson's classic textbooks for about $4 each. These are the 101 litterally and figuratively.

Another enjoyable source is art history videos from the BBC. I've seen a lot of them on YouTube.

Posted by
610 posts

Thank you all so much for so generously taking your time to answer this! I must admit, I'm a bit embarrassed how much I still have to learn, but I am looking forward to diving into some of these resources. I didn't think of looking for shows on YouTube, perhaps I'll try that for the times when my eyes are too tired to read. I also love the idea of auditing a class, I'll have to look into that for the next semester. Thank you again! I'll bookmark this thread so I can refer back to it.

Posted by
5677 posts

Tamara, you might also check out your local art museum to see if they offer and courses or training. I know my sister took a course in Rochester NY. I think that they used Gardner's Art through the Ages.

Another type of textbook that you might consider are the ones designed for Art Appreciation courses. These books usually have an introductory section on why study art, then a series of chapters on the different media and end with a short history of art. They are usually global in scope which is important today if you are visiting modern art museums. My favorite is the one I marketed by Mark Getlein. Mark is very, very thoughtful about the examples that he includes and stays up on the latest art. But, you don't need to buy the most recent edition. Here's a link to the ninth edition that I worked on. I would strongly recommend getting a print copy. It's beautifully printed. Mark goes to the press to make sure that the reproductions are as accurate as possible. The ebook does include all the art, but most of them are time limited.