Working as a private tour guide in Rome and Florence, conversations range from your usual suspects like history and art analysis to artist’s biographies, dramatic anecdotes and human psychology through the ages. How were people living hundreds of years ago different from us and how were they the same?
The following books were fundamental for me in helping to further these kinds of conversations that take a guided tour to the next level. You might start one of these books thinking you’ll learn about the past and find, to your surprise, that you’re learning about yourself and the foundations of the modern world.
If you want a sneak peak behind how a professional guide prepares for the job, please enjoy this list of eight books on Florence and the Renaissance!
by Tim Parks
This book is hands down my favourite book about the Medici family and the banking practices of 15th century Florence. You can split the Medici “reign” into roughly two parts: 1400s banker bad asses and 1500’s grand duke weirdos. This book focuses on the 1400s Medici and it’s absolutely fascinating. How did money, art, power, guilt, ones eternal soul and ones social standing all play off each other? This book answers those questions in a very readable and enjoyable way while tracing the family from Giovanni di Bicci to Cosimo (at one point the richest man in Europe) through his grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent.
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
by Stephen Greenblatt
What does “Renaissance” mean? Rebirth. That is, of ancient Roman ideas that had fallen out of favour throughout the medieval period and were rediscovered and reinterpreted during the late 1300s and 1400s. This book goes into the details of how one humanist scholar uncovered a document (Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things”) that would profoundly shake the foundations of how people saw themselves in the world and essentially swerve in a new direction. It won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. Read it.
The Collector of Lives: Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of Art
by Ingrid Rowland and Noah Charney
Giorgio Vasari basically invented art history. Before artists like Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael, art and artists were considered technical craftsmen and skilled workers but not subjects of adoration like they have become today, holders of some insight into humanity that others don’t possess. Vasari’s 16th century book, “Lives of the artists” compiled the biographies of artists from Giotto through the high Renaissance and beyond and turned mere men into idols. But when do you really want to sit down with two volumes of 16th century prose? This book brings all the artists to life (and corrects some of Vasari’s fabrications) alongside a biography of Vasari himself. If you’re looking for more insight into the world of Renaissance painters, this book is for you.
Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture
by Ross King
The Dome of Florence remains the largest masonry dome in the world and it’s engineer is known as the Father of Renaissance architecture. The dome’s construction was complex and revolutionary and the man behind the genius, Filippo Brunelleschi, was quite the character! (If you’ve been on a tour with me, you’ll have heard me tell the anecdote about how the city of Florence had to stop him from attacking other artists …. with sonnets. Definitely a man worth knowing more about.). King takes you through the construction of the dome and the life of the architect in an educational and entertaining way. Also by this author: Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling.
Leonardo da Vinci: The Biography
by Walter Isaacson
Ok, this book is LONG. But Isaacson clearly wanted to do two things: explain the biography of Leonardo as well as delve into the art history and symbolism behind each of his works of art. So what you get is everything you ever wanted to know about Da Vinci but you’ll also be ready to debate his style and symbolism on your next visit to the Uffizi. He takes apart some of the mythology behind Da Vinci to reveal the man who is perhaps even more remarkable than the legends have described him.
Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces
by Miles J. Unger
I was drawn to this book because this biography of Michelangelo is grounded in six of his famous works so while we are learning about the Renaissance master, we’re also getting insight into what you can actually see and visit when in Florence and Rome. Unger takes you through the anecdotes and stories behind the following works: the Pieta, The David, The Sistine Chapel Ceiling, The Medici Prince Chapels, The Last Judgement (also located in the Sistine Chapel) and the architecture of St. Peter’s Basilica. The result is a picture of a complex and brilliant man.
Colour: Travels through the Paintbox
by Victoria Finlay
Disclaimer: This book is not specifically focused on Florence or the Renaissance but I wanted to include it in this list because one of the subjects I talk about a lot in Florence’s museums are paints and colours. The book follows the author’s travels around the world in pursuit of the origins of colours, how their production impacted societies and what specific colours meant to people. For example: The sacredness and secretes of Ochre in Australian Aboriginal communities, the South American battles (mostly waged by Europeans) to get bright red dyes, how Cleopatra used yellow saffron for seduction and how even Michelangelo, one of the best paid artists in history, couldn’t afford the colour blue for his own paintings.
Florence: The Biography of a City
by Christopher Hibbert
If you’re looking for an “origins to present day” overview of the history of Florence, this is a good place to start. Chapter by chapter the book takes you from the beginning of Florence in the first century bc all the way to the 1990s in just over 300 pages. It also has a clever format. Each monument or building mentioned in the history is accompanied by easy to find endnotes that will give more insight into the artists, architects and construction of the building. So you can read through the history and skip the art/architecture details or pause to go more in depth on the buildings that interest you. With a large hefty size and color photos, it’s also lovely to look at and would make a good coffee table addition.
I am always looking for more books about Florence (I’m book addicted, I admit it) so if you have a favourite book about Florence let me know in the comments below!
Coming soon: Books about Rome, Fiction set in Italy.