Books: Fun for a Reni day

Luscious flesh, recipes, scholarship, and a game: Tim Hilton rounds up new books on art and photography (right) for Christmas presents; ART BOOKS
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Most art books are written by art historians, who are a changing breed. Not long ago, the most exciting of them studied the 20th century. Today, it's the old-master specialists who are passionate and personal. Richard E Spear's The "Divine" Guido (Yale, pounds 40) is subtitled "Religion, Sex, Money and Art in the World of Guido Reni". In his introduction, Spear talks about his wife, who is an artist but suffers from "critical neglect", how he learnt that his brother is gay, and how recent political movements have affected his views of 17th-century culture.

And then, as we read this account of Reni, we find that this is indeed an illuminating approach to the baroque master who was a gambler, certainly neurotic, a misogynist, perhaps a homosexual and - as is suggested for the first time - a painter in whom we may find postmodern irony as well as grace. Why did his contemporaries call him "divine" when he wasn't? Why did he paint so many desexualised, suicidal women? What is the meaning of his late style? This book is not only the fullest account of Reni to have appeared, it is also continually original.

However much Spear changes one's estimation of Reni, Titian remains the more satisfying artist. Rona Goffen's Titian's Women (Yale, pounds 45) is avowedly partial; but in concentrating on one sex, her interpretation enlarges our feelings for the artist. "Ultimately, the subject of Titian's women is Titian himself," she argues. Here is a rich account - it's scholarly but readable, never tendentious, and tells us a lot about the wisdom and luxuriance of Renaissance Venice.

Jaynie Anderson has some excellent new material in her rather strict account of another Venetian, Giorgione (Flammarion, pounds 65). In her catalogue raisonne, she reveals a previously unknown Giorgione fragment once owned by Ruskin and later by Kenneth Clark. One is startled to learn that it was cleaned by his son Alan, the present owner, with the result that, as Clark confessed to Antony Blunt, "a certain amount" of the paint "has come away". A gentler treatment of a masterpiece is recorded in Michelangelo, "The Last Judgment": A Glorious Restoration (Abrams, pounds 49.95) which records the recent cleaning of the fresco on the rear wall of the Sistine Chapel.

If you are looking for a Christmas present, I recommend Graham Hughes's delightful Renaissance Cassoni (Art Books International, pounds 35), a survey of painted marriage chests from 1400-1550. Surprisingly, cassoni have been little studied, although they were painted by Uccello, Botticelli, Mantegna and so on. This is the first book on the subject in English, and some of the wooden panels are reproduced in colour for the first time. Hughes is not a professional art historian (he was for many years Head of Design at the Royal Mint). His book shows how much can still be achieved in the field by private, "amateur" enthusiasts. Someone ought to give him a medal, or perhaps he can design one for himself. Anyway, congratulations.

Back in academe and the world of museums, one 16th-century painter is particularly well served. Lorenzo Lotto: Rediscovered Master of the Renaissance (National Gallery of Art, Washington, pounds 40) is a sumptuous exhibition catalogue, while Peter Humfrey's Lorenzo Lotto (Yale, pounds 35) is a magisterial, yet not stodgy, resume of knowledge about an artist whose character has recently become more distinct.

There's still so much to say about old-master painting. I've been trying to learn the pictures in the National Gallery since I was a teenager and know that the exercise will never end. This Christmas provides a new angle on the National Gallery with Gillian Riley's A Feast for the Eyes (National Gallery Publications, pounds 14.95), a collection of recipes, some of them ancient, inspired by pictures in Trafalgar Square which include food. This is more than a gift book. Riley is a food historian who also has many pertinent things to say about historic paintings. She is also a sensible woman in the kitchen (just what Guido Reni needed). I have tried a number of her recipes and can report that they work.

A pity that the late Sir Lawrence Gowing's Vermeer (Giles de la Mare, pounds 14.99) wasn't reissued in time for the artist's retrospective in Washington and The Hague in 1995-6. Although it isn't a new book, few people will have read it - I hadn't - and, as Ernst Gombrich says in his introduction, some writings about art "remain valid" even though their author's researches have been superseded. That is, they belong not to writing about art but to the literature of art. Gowing's book is of this sort. How did he come to write such remarkable prose? Perhaps because he was an inadequate painter. His Vermeer was first published in 1952. It can be interpreted as a mystic celebration not of the Dutch artist but of the Euston Road School to which Gowing then belonged. The Euston Roaders were all terrible artists. In Gowing, however, they inspired a truly significant writer of the 1950s.

Another exhibition catalogue is The Private Collection of Edgar Degas (edited by Ann Dumas et al, Abrams, pounds 50), a show on until 11 January, should you happen to be in New York. The collection is generous in a way that Degas (personally) was not. Besides his revered Delacroix and Ingres, we find numerous works by his contemporaries, bought by an aesthete with some amount of charitable feeling. Perhaps there are not enough pictures of horses. My Christmas present to Degas is Graham Budd's Racing Art and Memorabilia: A Celebration of the Turf (Scala Books, pounds 39.95). Without any interest at all in horses, I actively enjoy sporting paintings. They are so jolly and fresh. I also have the heretical opinion that Sir Alfred Munnings is underrated, old bugger though he certainly was. Horses apart, who in this century has a better feeling for Suffolk skies and clouds?

A lot of the above books are pricey. If you haven't got an income, always go for the Thames & Hudson "World of Art" series. This Christmas I recommend the new books by Nigel Spivey on Etruscan Art (pounds 6.95), Christopher Allen on Art in Australia (pounds 7.95) and Robert E Fisher on The Art of Tibet (pounds 7.95). The best stocking filler is Thames & Hudson's Drawn and Quartered (pounds 7.95), "aimed primarily at Professors of Art History and children under ten". Twenty-two images of the human figure are divided into four, so you can reshuffle them in 234,256 ways (below). Who devised this brilliant game/book? Some anonymous person at Thames & Hudson. They won't tell me who it is.