The best of 2004: art books reviewed

Of gods and monsters
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The Independent Culture

The Athens Olympics, coinciding with Hollywood's current fixation on the glory that was Greece and Rome, has made 2004 the annus mirabilis of all things classical. Homer's Iliad - the book of the movie Troy - has been flying off the shelves, while David Beckham has eased himself somewhat rashly into gladiator gear. In Roland Barthes' essay "The Romans in Film", the semiotician observed that in the sword-and-sandal genre "to sweat is to think". But, for the bibliophile, to sweat is to carry home the irresistible facsimile of Collection of Antiquities from the Cabinet of Sir William Hamilton (Taschen, £100).

The Athens Olympics, coinciding with Hollywood's current fixation on the glory that was Greece and Rome, has made 2004 the annus mirabilis of all things classical. Homer's Iliad - the book of the movie Troy - has been flying off the shelves, while David Beckham has eased himself somewhat rashly into gladiator gear. In Roland Barthes' essay "The Romans in Film", the semiotician observed that in the sword-and-sandal genre "to sweat is to think". But, for the bibliophile, to sweat is to carry home the irresistible facsimile of Collection of Antiquities from the Cabinet of Sir William Hamilton (Taschen, £100).

Hamilton sold his pioneering collection of ancient vases to the British Museum in 1772, but before shipping it from Naples, commissioned a deluxe catalogue that was a milestone in the formation of neo-classical taste - a topic thoroughly explored in Vasemania: Neoclassical form and ornament in Europe (eds. William Rieder and Stefanie Walker; Yale, £40). Let's hope that the re-publication of Hamilton's catalogue will goad the British Museum into refurbishing the horribly shabby vase galleries, whose most celebrated occupant is the Portland Vase, the finest surviving antique cameo glass vessel. This is the subject of an intriguing booklet by Susan Walker (British Museum Press, £5), part of a new series on masterpieces in the BM. Walker argues the vase's much-debated frieze decoration illustrates Cleopatra's seduction of Marc Antony.

Nigel Spivey and Michael Squire's enjoyable Panorama of the Classical World (Thames & Hudson, £29.95) takes an anthropological approach to the Greeks, Etruscans and Romans, with lavishly illustrated sections ranging from the countryside and cosmetics to slaves. The reprint of Ludwig Goldscheider's Roman Portraits (Phaidon, £12.95) is welcome, as it is the standard picture-book on the most exciting Roman artform. Katharine Dunbabin's The Roman Banquet (Cambridge, £50) is a lucid scholarly study of a vitally important social event, frequently depicted in domestic homes and especially in tombs. Dunbabin gives fascinating details about ancient dining (wine was almost always diluted with water), explains why diners reclined on couches, and shows how the earliest images of the Last Supper showed Christ and the apostles reclining in the Roman manner - a motif soon rejected as being too pagan, only re-vived in the 17th-century by the archaeologically minded Poussin.

No doubt part of the popular interest in Greece and Rome is because this was a time when distinctions between the (civilised) West and (barbarian) East were first formulated. However, art historians are currently more concerned with demonstrating the permeability of borders - nowhere more so than at the V&A, the world's leading design museum. The catalogue to Encounters: the Meeting of Asia and Europe 1500-1800 (V&A Publications, £24.95, edited by Anna Jackson and Amin Jaffer) is an impressive collection of 27 essays exploring various aspects of East-West relations, from diplomacy and technology transfer to the trade in animals and porcelain.

Annemarie Schimmel's The Empire of the Great Mughals (Reaktion, £29.95) is an excellent cultural history of one of the great cosmopolitan court cultures, full of vivid anecdote and pertinent quotes. Kenneth Nebenzahl's Mapping the Silk Road and Beyond (Phaidon, £29.95) is a stimulating account of western attempts to map the East, while Susan Whitfield's Aurel Stein on the Silk Road (British Museum Press, £18.99) is a revealing account of the often perilous expeditions of the archaeologist celebrated for discovering the cave at Dunhuang in 1907, with its extraordinary stash of Buddhist paintings and manuscripts, now in the BM.

Art historians have also been keen to emphasise cross-border cultural traffic within Europe. Paula Nuttall's From Flanders to Florence (Yale, £40) is a comprehensive account of the influence of Northern European on Italian art in the 15th century. Italians were avid patrons of northern painters, and from their works Italian artists learned much about paint, texture, light, landscape and portraiture. Jeffrey Chipps Smith is even more polemical in his useful survey, The Northern Renaissance (Phaidon, £14.95). He claims that the features which Jacob Burckhardt claimed as characteristic of the Italian Renaissance - "the state as a work of art, the development of the individual, the revival of antiquity, and the discovery of the world and of man" - could all be equally applied to the north, except for the revival of antiquity. The thesis can be tested on Miklos Boskovits and David Alan Brown's beautifully produced Italian Paintings of the Fifteenth Century (OUP, £55), a catalogue of the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which includes the only Leonardo outside Europe.

Martin Kemp's Leonardo (OUP, £14.99) is a succinct introduction to the life, loafing and art by one of the world's foremost authorities, while Charles Nicholl's overpraised biography, Leonardo da Vinci: Flights of the Mind (Allen Lane, £25), is a rambling behemoth that drowns in detail, some of dubious relevance.

There's a tendency to see our current taste for impure mongrel artforms, which draw on a variety of visual traditions, as typically post-modern. Yet this was also a feature of avant-garde art from the early 20th century. The Surrealist Map of the World (1929) omitted virtually the whole of Europe, and vastly expanded non-Western countries. This cosmopolitanism is one of the reasons why Surrealism has become the most studied and exhibited of early 20th- century art movements. Mary Ann Caws's Surrealism (Phaidon, £45) enters a crowded market, but its attractive mixture of analysis, images and texts offers a lively and fresh-feeling introduction.

Of course, the main reason for the fixation with the Surrealists is their obsession with kinky sex and the kinky unconscious. The centenary of the birth of Salvador Dali has been celebrated with a major exhibition in Venice (until 16 January), and Dawn Ades' catalogue Dali: the Centenary Retrospective (Thames & Hudson, £45), is particularly notable for its "encyclopedia of key ideas, people and places" and its chronology. The full monty can be experienced in Dali: The Paintings (Taschen, £14.99).

A good motto for the modern aesthete would go something along the lines of "I am disturbed, therefore I am". The American painter Mark Rothko was one of the greatest modern exponents of the romantic agony, and his recently discovered The Artist's Reality (Yale, £16.95) does not disappoint. Written around 1940, it gives full expression to his grandly tragic worldview: "Who would not rather paint the soul-searching agonies of Giotto than the apples of Chardin, for all of the love we have for them?"

The French artist Sophie Calle is the Chardin of erotic misadventure, and in Exquisite Pain (Thames & Hudson, £22.50) she documents her disappointments and deviations on a train journey to Japan with cool yet moving detachment. Calle's "encounters" are a wry catalogue of misunderstandings, creative as well as destructive.

James Hall's 'Michelangelo and the Reinvention of the Human Body' will be published by Chatto & Windus in January

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