A friend asked me what were some good books to read if one wanted to do more research into the Renaissance. I assembled this list for her and thought it might also be of some use to people reading this blog! So here you go – if you want to research the Renaissance, this is where I would start. This is not an exhaustive list, but it’ll give you a good comprehensive grounding on some of the ins and outs and how to structure any further research you choose to do.
Margaret King’s The Renaissance in Europe
This is a fairly good informative textbook – King works more or less thematically through the Renaissance and it gives you a nice grounding in just about everything. It is definitely the book I would go to first before delving into more heavier researching.
Gene Brucker’s The Society of Renaissance Florence – A Documentary Study
My Renaissance and Reformation professor made a comment once in class, that just about everything that ever happened in the European Renaissance – you could find an example of that happening in Florence. He’s yet to be proven wrong. Florence is an amazing case study for the Renaissance as a whole, and that’s due in no small part because Florence is obsessively well-documented. Where the rest of Europe will have a hundred documents or so total – Florence (not to mention the rest of Italy) has thousands upon thousands of documents. Like King, it is organized thematically – but the documents that Brucker has selected give a very good picture of what day to day life was like.
Kenneth Atchity’s The Renaissance Reader
This compilation gives access to selections from the important literary, artistic, social, religious, political, scientific and philosophical texts of the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Louise Labe, Bruni, Dante, Chaucer, Villon, Malory, Copernicus and Shakespeare, as well as illustrations representing the work of Giotto, Donatello, Bellini, Da Vinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael and Brueghel. It also provides first-hand encounters with the Renaissance in the form of letters, diaries, poetry and art.
Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in 15th century Italy 2nd Edition.
The Renaissance was a highly material and visual culture – there are social cues and codes incorporated into the paintings of the time. This book is both an introduction to fifteenth-century Italian painting and as a text on how to interpret social history from the style of pictures in a given historical period, this examines early Renaissance painting, and explains how the style of painting in any society reflects the visual skills and habits that evolve out of daily life. Renaissance painting, for example, mirrors the experience of such activities as preaching, dancing, and gauging barrels. The volume includes discussions of a wide variety of painters, including Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, Stefano di Giovanni, Sandro Botticelli, Masaccio, Luca Signorelli, Boccaccio, and countless others. Baxandall also defines and illustrates sixteen concepts used by a contemporary critic of painting, thereby assembling the basic equipment needed to explore fifteenth-century art. This new second edition includes an appendix that lists the original Latin and Italian texts referred to throughout the book, providing the reader with all the relevant, authentic sources. It also contains an updated bibliography and a new reproduction of a recently restored painting which replaces the original.
Craig Harbison’s The Mirror of the Artist – Northern Renaissance Art in its Historical Context
This book looks at the Northern Renaissance and how that transformed differently from the Southern (Italian) Renaissance – it places the art inside the historical context of the time and overlaps with the Reformation. Fascinating reading and has some amazing pictures of the kinds of Northern Art that existed or developed.
These last two names are more along the lines of primary source material, but both are rather essential for sort of understanding Renaissance-era thought.
Niccolo Machiavelli – The Prince and Discourses I & II (Free)
Machiavelli wrote more than just the Prince -which should be required reading for everyone, everywhere, but I digress. His Discourses are also very valuable readings with regards to political thought – and he was more than a simple theorist, being the foreign minister of Florence in the early 1500s–until thrown out of office and tortured by the Medici in 1513–his Discourses and the Prince illustrate Renaissance Italy’s dangerous political environment, on which Machiavelli drew for his insights on political conduct.
Baldassare Castiglione – “The Art of the Courtier” (free)
This book is amazing. It addresses the constitution of a perfect courtier, and in its last installment, a perfect lady. It is the definitive account of Renaissance court life. The book is organized as a series of fictional conversations that occur between the courtiers of the Duke of Urbino in 1507 (when Baldassare was in fact part of the Duke’s Court). In the book, the courtier is described as having a cool mind, a good voice (with beautiful, elegant and brave words) along with proper bearing and gestures. At the same time though, the courtier is expected to have a warrior spirit, to be athletic, and have good knowledge of the humanities, Classics and fine arts. Over the course of four evenings, members of the court try to describe the perfect gentleman of the court. In the process they debate the nature of nobility, humor, women, and love.
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