I first realised I would study art history back in my third year of high school. In Italy, every student is taught history of art for at least three years during middle school. Then, if you choose a pre-academic curriculum (liceo) like I did, you have three further years studying the subject. In this post, I would like to share some of the books that helped me cementing my interest in the visual arts during this period, eventually leading me to apply to the University of Cambridge, where I am currently completing my B.A. in art history.
- Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art: as it was written in the mid-20th century, this book is now considered somewhat outdated by art historians. Nonetheless, Hauser’s work is fundamental to understand the premises of the contemporary social art history. His prose is fluid and discursive, letting the reader navigate through the ages with incredible ease. The text progresses chronologically, focusing on the main innovations of each artistic period and relating them to the different forms taken by Western societies over the centuries.
- Sir Joshua Reynolds, Seven Discourses on Art: Reynolds (1723-1792) was the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts and one of the most brilliant British painters of his generation. The Seven Discourses gather actual speeches that he pronounced in front of the students and members of the Academy, motivating them to aspire to perfection through the imitation of traditional models. Reynolds’s style is clearly rhetorical, as one would expect given the purpose of his discourses. Nonetheless, they provide an invaluable picture of the beliefs and aspirations of painters in regards to tradition and the classical models. Reynolds reminds the reader that no man is an island and artists can only produce an original and personal style through the relation (whether stated or not) with their predecessors.
- Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Baroque & Rococo: this may not strike as surprising, since I greatly enjoy Baroque art (if you did not notice, here and here you can find some examples). However, Bailey’s book is definitely among the reasons why I am interested in the seventeenth century and its visual culture. The text is an outstanding thematically-organised survey of the concept of Baroque and its manifold manifestations both in Europe and in the countries colonised by the Europeans from the seventeenth up to the early eighteenth century. I would strongly recommend this text for the especially interesting chapters about the Baroque methods of display (such as the concept of composto, which is beautifully explained) and the influence of European art in non-Western contexts.
- Linda Nochlin, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?: probably one of the most influential pieces of feminist writing in the field of art history, Nochlin’s work analyses the premises of art history as an academic discipline in the Western world. She aims at unveiling the structural conditions that have led the art world to be dominated by men. First, Nochlin’s enquiry is a must-read to understand the relationship between art and society; second, it is a cornerstone of the so-called “New Art History”, whose interest in the social sciences has changed dramatically the purpose of art history from the 1970s onwards.
- Giulio Carlo Argan, Storia dell’Arte Italiana: as far as I know, this work in three volumes has not been translated into English. It is a pity, as I believe it is actually one of the most beautiful accounts of Italian art, from the classical world to modernity. For a long time, this has been the canonical manual for high-school students and my mother still remembers struggling with her own copy of Argan’s Storia dell’Arte. In many ways, this is now an outdated work, so that some of Argan’s statements should be taken lightly. Nonetheless, he provides some of the most beautiful paragraphs of art-history prose, connecting art to philosophy, society, and culture with a distinctively Hegelian attitude (he was indeed a Marxist and even became major of Rome for the Italian Communist Party).