Books Of The Year: Art: What to savour in gallery or gondola

Renaissance art is full of worldly temptation, even when it's dealing with things of the spirit
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The Independent Culture
The best art book this Christmas is Megan Holmes's Fra Filippo Lippi (Yale pounds 45), a beautifully designed and illustrated account of the Florentine master. Colour printing is terrifically good these days, but whatever the technical advances it's still the case that artists from Florence are better served by publishers than artists from Venice. The Florentine clear line, air of innocence and lucid colour are especially beguiling in such a volume as this. Furthermore, one suspects that Megan Holmes has been influenced by the Florentine environment in which she tracked down the documents that relate to Lippi. She makes us feel how his painting was a part of the general life and culture of the city. Both her prose and her formidable scholarly apparatus are light and precise.

The core subject of her book is Lippi's response to being a member of the Carmelite order. Holmes, as it were, brings Christianity within sight. Another book about the meaning of Christian art within a secular world is Painting the Word (Yale pounds 14.95) by John Drury, who is the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. Some of his chapters, he tells us, began as attempts to make his sermons more interesting. Other parts of his book are meditations on his favourite paintings in the National Gallery. But why does Drury so often sound uneasy? It must be because renaissance art, which he so obviously likes, is full of worldly temptation.

Three National Gallery curators, Jill Dunkerton, Susan Foister and Nicholas Penny, show a total command of the paintings they describe in Durer to Veronese (Yale pounds 45), an expert, only occasionally forbidding guide to the NG's 16th-century paintings. The book isn't too hefty to carry the next time that you can spend a few hours in the gallery. Special thanks are due to Dunkerton, who is in the NG's conservation department at Trafalgar Square. It's not often that scientific studies of ancient painting techniques are explained in such a friendly fashion.

Tom Nichols's Tintoretto: Tradition and Identity (Reaktion Books pounds 45) is a bold account of a painter whose awesome imagination tends to inhibit cautious historians. Nichols must have more material in his notes than he has printed. This should have been a bigger book, and its illustrations are cramped. Paul Hills's Venetian Colour (Yale pounds 45) describes Venice before 1550, so is only partially concerned with Tintoretto. The book deals with marble, mosaics and glass as well as painting. It's a lovely exploration of a palette that belongs to the city as a whole, the buildings melting into the waters, dusks and dawns. Hills, a sensualist of the eye, has written an appropriately dreamy book, to be read in a gondola as well as a university library.

Books about British art are led by Lionel Lambourne's very large Victorian Painting (Phaidon pounds 39.95). The subject is hackneyed, or so one might think. Yet we can dig deep into this account. Lambourne has produced an intriguing survey. He has two important credentials: not only wide knowledge but a genuine relish for minor artists. A giant like Tintoretto would make him run scared. Lambourne quite rightly lingers among watercolours and has sections on sporting art, the fresco revival, art that recorded the colonies and the aesthetic movement. He makes particularly good use of pictures from small provincial galleries.

Lambourne is a former keeper at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which has found an almost ideal chronicler in Anthony Burton. His Vision and Accident (V&A Publications pounds 45) doesn't quite dare say how unhappy the museum has become in recent years. None the less we get his drift.

Burton genuinely loves the V&A. He's good on its Victorian origins and presents neat summaries of the fortunes of the departments that care for textiles, furniture and the other artefacts that are stored under one South Kensington roof. A rare thing - an institutional history that can be read with relaxed enjoyment.

Only a couple of tube stops away is the former artists' area described in Caroline Dakers's The Holland Park Circle (Yale pounds 39.95). An area for for late-Victorian successful artists, that is. In this part of London lived Watts, Leighton, Val Prinsep, Hamo Thornycroft and so on, people who had thrived by their work with the brush and were sometimes millionaires. Dakers is a social historian fascinated by style and wealth. She remarks that many of the artists' houses are nowadays occupied by monied people who are themselves artists of a sort, chaps like Michael Winner.

John Constable's Skies (University of Birmingham Press pounds 40) is by John Thorne, who is by profession a meteorologist. Thorne looks at Constable's paintings, one by one, and demonstrates that the artist was a precise observer of the skies. This we already knew, in a general way. Thorne is specific and makes the whole subject into a sort of aerial treasure hunt. I found the book really helpful in its understanding of Constable's enterprise. And it's charming too.

The Whitney Museum in New York has celebrated the millennium with The American Century (Norton, two volumes, each pounds 40), a catalogue-cum-book that accompanied the recent controversial exhibition. An even bigger two- volume American book is the giant catalogue Georgia O'Keeffe (Yale pounds 99.95). More manageable volumes from the States are Edward Hopper Watercolours (Norton pounds 25) and James M Saslow's Pictures and Passions (Viking pounds 25), which is a nicely presented history of homosexuality in the visual arts, as seen from an American viewpoint. Saslow is a good writer. His book would make a fine present, and also deserves to be taken seriously.