Books for Christmas: Art - Old Brits and Venetian class

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The Independent Culture
When the National Gall- ery's Sainsbury Wing opened, for the first time in living memory the 15th century sections started to get more visitors than the French Impressionist galleries. One of the reasons for the inordinate popularity of Impressionism is that the subjects are pretty easy for modern viewers to understand - service industry things like shopping, drinking, prostitution and tourism. For earlier art, especially on mythological and religious subjects, even the experts need help from guides like (no relation) James Hall's Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols In Art (Murray, pounds 15.95), or John Drury's more specific Painting the Word: Christian pictures and their meanings (Yale, pounds 14.95).

Andrew Graham-Dixon's Renaissance (BBC, pounds 25), which accompanies a six- part TV series, is a prodigious feat of compression, exposition - and package tourism. The main thesis is that in 13th-century Italy, St Francis's respect for even the most humble things in nature, gave rise to an art of unprecedented naturalism. This in turn generated interest in classical art, seen to be especially naturalistic.

Graham-Dixon sees the Renaissance as a European phenomenon, albeit centred an Italy. But his attempts to be even-handed, and to give non-Florentine art its due, make the book too diffuse, and several sections end with businesslike but platitudinous summings-up. Graham-Dixon's earlier A History of British Art (BBC, pounds 15.99), was more impassioned and idiosyncratic, and you never felt he was just lying back and thinking of England.

Graham-Dixon is good on Duccio; he draws attention to the "shiftiness" of his risen Christ. Luciano Bellosi's Duccio: the Maesta (Thames & Hudson, pounds 65) is a sumptuous picture-book documenting every square inch of the Sienese painter's master work. However the designer is a detail-addict, and several times I cried out loud: "that's more detail than I need!" For good design, you can't beat Francesco Colonna's erotic dream poem Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (trans. Joscelyn Godwin; Thames & Hudson, pounds 42). One of the great illustrated books of the Renaissance, it was published in Venice in 1499, but this is the first English translation. The 174 woodcuts of architectural fantasies, pagan festivals and pastoral scenes were hugely influential, particularly on Venetian artists.

For more on Venice, you can turn to Paul Hills's stimulating if inconclusive Venetian Colour (Yale, pounds 35). Some of Hills's attempts to define "Venetianness" are a bit cranky, but his detailed discussions of the kind and range of materials available to Venetian craftsmen and artists, and their uses, are excellent. Colour is a notoriously hard thing to analyse, but books like this make it much easier for us to do so.

Tintoretto scarcely figures in Hills's book, and Tom Nichols, in his thoughtful Tintoretto (Reaktion, pounds 45), is at pains to point out how far this at once exhilarating and exasperating painter went against the Venetian grain. Nichols persuasively shows how he cultivated "poverty", in terms of technique, iconography and professional identity. It's a good book, even if it could only have been written in the era of the Young British Artist.

Due to the strength of the Venetian collections, Durer to Veronese: 16th- century painting in the National Gallery (Jill Dunkerton, Susan Foister and Nicholas Penny; Yale, pounds 45) can act as a general introduction to Venetian art. It provides a lucid and illuminating account of the ways in which paintings were made in Europe, and how they were displayed and interpreted. Like its forerunner, Giotto to Durer (Yale, pounds 25), it is likely to become a standard work. Durer is the only well-known German Renaissance artist, but the exhibition (currently in Washington, then in New York) and beautiful catalogue devoted to the sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider (Yale, pounds 45), should redress the balance. There's more psychological subtlety in Riemenschneider than Durer.

Life's too short to take an interest in everything, and I suppose I must have banished Gainsborough to the "Babycham" section of my brain. But Michael Rosenthal's The Art of Thomas Gainsborough (Yale, pounds 40) has persuaded me of the foolishness of my ways. It is one of the best books I have read on a British artist. His discussions of Gainsborough's rivalry with Reynolds and of body language in the age of sensibility are particularly illuminating. William Vaughan almost never fails to be interesting, and British Painting: the Golden Age (Thames & Hudson, pounds 8.95), is no exception. Moving from Hogarth to Turner, he effortlessly places British art in its cultural and social context. But as there are already plenty of studies of British painting of the period, what is now required is an accessible survey of all the art forms. A study that ignores Stubbs's work for Wedgwood, or the massive sculpture programmes in Westminster Abbey and St Paul's Cathedral, is bound to be misleading.

Chris Brooks adopts a multi-media approach in The Gothic Revival (Phaidon, pounds 14.95) and his book is much the better for it. The Gothic revival began in 17th-century England, and by the 19th century had been exported around the world. This is the most complete study available, and Brooks is a confident and reliable guide. Sadly, the book's paper is about as flimsy and transparent as a fax.

You can hardly get more multi-media than The British Museum: A-Z companion, edited by Marjorie Caygill (BM Publications, pounds 25/pounds 12.95). There are entries on everything from A'a to Zulu Beadwork, taking in Credit Cards and Lindow Man along the way, in one of the most informative and attractive museum guides of recent years.

If it weren't for the hideous cover - a Brancusi "Sleeping Muse" that has been given an Easyjet-orange glow - I would have no hesitation in recommending Penelope Curtis's Sculpture 1900-1945 (Oxford, pounds 9.99). It is the most up-to-date and comprehensive study available, and very well illustrated. Curtis writes more fluently and analytically about the avant- garde, and especially about collaborative, mixed-media projects. Collaboration is a buzz word at the moment, but one might wonder why three people (Dawn Ades, Neil Cox and David Hopkins) were needed to write a slim volume about Marcel Duchamp (Thames & Hudson, pounds 7.95). However, in this case, too many cooks didn't spoil the broth, and they have written the best introduction to the artistic anti-Christ.

The literary editor asked me to make some reference to the Millennium, but that's hard where the visual arts are concerned. After all, the Millennium surely ended in 1917, with the arrival of a certain urinal.

James Hall's `The World as Sculpture' (Chatto, pounds 25) prompted Richard Gott, who reviewed it here, to exclaim `Hallelujah!' - which sounds pretty millennial to the lit. ed.