A stylish scurry across the Arno

The British have always loved Florence. George Bull enjoys a celebratio n of the jewel of Chiantishire
Florence: A Portrait by Michael Levey, Cape, pounds 25

The Florentines, like the English, have tended to think themselves special to God, even when he was chastising them. Writing his life of Michelangelo, the incomparable art historian Giorgio Vasari grandiloquently reported that, seeing that Tuscan genius had always been pre-eminent in the arts of painting, sculpture and architecture, the Almighty ''chose to have Michelangelo born a Florentine, so that one of her own citizens might bring to absolute perfection the achievements for which Florence was justly renowned''.

The Florentines and the English, moreover, have long displayed mutual admiration and regard, the former welcoming a long line of often conveniently rich expatriate English eccentrics, and (if well-off themselves) habitually employing English nannies, the latter eventually coming after the days of the Grand Tour to appreciate art in Florence and to prize the city as the cradle of the Renaissance. A unique treasury of Western art and one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Florence need not fret about being ignored by non-Tuscan Italians, for the English love her still, have created "Chiantishire'' to be near her, and now offer a glowing tribute from one of their subtlest, most literate art historians.

Michael Levey's ''portrait'' of Florence is a true travail de longue haleine, and the reader must take it slowly or soon grow breathless. Concentration as well as stamina is needed, as if on a real-life scurry through the city trying to take in Duomo, Bargello and Palazzo Vecchio, the Uffizi, San Lorenzo and the riches across the Arno; the art, painting and architecture, in large perspective and fine detail. Levey sets out to convey a sweeping historical view of Florence, of its physical development and political vicissitudes as these transformed the city between the Trecento and now, and a series of balanced appreciations of influential Florentines, thinkers, artists and politicians, as well as critical descriptions of its variegated artistic achievements.

He says, simply and boldly, that the book "is deliberately not purely a historical account, nor... an outline of Florentine art through the ages, and still less is it a guide-book. But it partakes of all three categories of approach, mingling them as history and art are mingled in the city. I recognise that at times such mingling may create some bewilderment...". Well, yes, they do, and yes, the ''Selective Chronology'' does, as Levey hopes, provide a ''handrail'' for the reader shaky on facts; but Levey carries it off because of the insights he provides, looking with a keen and educated eye into the splendours and delights of art and pictures, statues, buildings, and objets d'art of Florence.

Over the years, the erstwhile director of the National Gallery has written with perception and enthusiasm on Early and High Renaissance painting, on French and Venetian painting in 18th-century Venice, on Ottoman art, and significantly on his favourites, Tiepolo and Mozart. The story of Florence happily lets Levey bring Mozart into the picture (as composer of La Clemenza di Tito, written in 1787 to celebrate the coronation in Prague of Pietro Leopoldo, Grand Duke of Tuscany) and Tiepolo, as painting in Venice the same subject that Vincenzo Meucci showed about the same time in Florence (in a ''pretty, powder-puff rococo ceiling decoration''). In general, Levey demonstrates in his scholarly writing the qualities of sprezzatura exemplified by both of his idols.

Florence: A Portrait encapsulates a socio-political history of Florence which cannot be faulted and which every so often is more than just a summary of other scholars' work. At its best in this context, the book in its last few pages - an Epilogue on the ''revolution of taste which brought back to a central place in cultural consciousness the art of 15th-century Florence, and that of earlier centuries'' - informatively connects to the ''thrilling cause'' of the Risorgimento a little genre painting by Odoardo Borrani of a seated girl sewing the three-coloured flag of Italy, with the date of 26 April 1859, when the last Grand Duke quit Florence for ever. Politics and art can't be always linked so neatly, but Levey succeeds in interweaving his material from the different strands of Florence's history smoothly enough. On politics, he often has interesting and fresh things to say - as when he marvels, not that the ''precariously balanced, partly undefined system of government'' of Cosimo, Piero and Lorenzo de Medici came abruptly to an end when the French invaded Italy in 1494, but that it had managed to endure so long. On Tuscan literature, he writes with easy familiarity, reminding us that Dante's Florence lacked the famous and familiar buildings we see now as its very quintessence and approximated, in its heaven-protected antiquity, to the poet's own expressed ideal of a city living in ''peace, sobriety and decency''.

The interest of Michael Levey's attractively illustrated (if inadequately indexed) cornucopia of a book ultimately springs from his informed and enthusiastic descriptions of its glorious pictures, statues and buildings. Invariably he brings this art vividly to life, placing it firmly in context, and often as not boldly declaring whether or not it is novel or fresh or revolutionary. Michelangelo's Doni tondo, for instance - ''the essentially sculpted group of Virgin, Child and St Joseph... lit with dazzling clarity and set in a rocky landscape where naked youths, half-athletes, half-bathers, strangely lounge'' - invites Levey's comment: ''Nothing like it had been painted before in Florence...'' Again, of Michelangelo's statues of the Capitani in San Lorenzo, Levey affirms: ''Never before in a Christian religious environment had any men been raised at death to the status of a demi-god...''

This is not the stuff of guidebooks, certainly, but Levey's portrait of Florence is crammed with information to interest and bemuse the tourist as well as the student. He would make a marvellous guide to his beloved Florence, and would be forgiven for occasionally dragging in British politics and for introducing Michelangelo's universal David as a ''gay icon''.