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Carlo Pirovano, ed. La peinture italienne.

Carlo Pirovano, ed. La peinture italienne. 2 volumes. Trans. into French Denis-Armand Canal. Paris: Menges, 2002. Pp. 678.

This is a gorgeous, two-volume bookset about the history of Italian painting, from the early mosaics of the 4th century to the recent visual research made in the late 1980s. One can find a giant color reproduction in about every two pages. The texts were written by a dozen Italian scholars and present the paintings from a double perspective: aesthetically and historically. The original Italian version was published in Milan in 1999 by Electra (Elemond Editori).

The first volume of La peinture italienne gives a wide spectrum on the evolution of Italian painting, from the origins to the magnificent period of art that ended in the 15th century. According to Saverio Lomartire (in the first chapter), Italian art per se really emerged when some innovative artists from the Palermo area succeeded in freeing themselves from the main dominant Byzantine influences (15). We find here many paintings, but also frescos, mosaics, crucifixes, wall paintings, and miniatures from the first millennium, taken from various museums but also churches (in Rome, San Vincenzo) and cathedrals (in Venice, Aosta, etc.). In her introduction to 13th-century art, Silvia Giorgi explains that Italian art entered into a new conceptual framework, less symbolic and more naturalistic, maybe because this was the era of the crusades that brought more circulation and cultural exchanges between the Latin empire and Byzantine and Gothic artists. But the author also reminds us that many works from that century were lost or destroyed; nowadays art historians can only work from a small portion of what was produced then.

Giovanna Ragionieri presents the 14th century as a diversified, more regional, and quite influential period for Italian art. Already artists were working in a corporate system, with sponsors, apprentices, and a wider audience that still did not know how to read and therefore needed images to learn religious history (135). Although Ragionieri concentrates on painters such as Giotto and the ephemeral "Rimini School," we also discover lesser known artists such as Taddeo Gaddi, who painted some non-religious themes, and Maso di Banco, who represented a wonderful and unusual subject, the "Death of the Virgin," in 1340 (147). Elsewhere, some allegories can be considered as political propaganda, such as the series about The Good Effects of Rural Government, created in 1340 by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (168-69).

The last chapter of the first book covers the 15th century. There were more and more versions of religious subjects, such as the Holy Family, the crucifixion, and the Annunciation. Works by Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca, and Sandro Botticelli are fully described here. The authors conclude that this period, up to 1600, is the end of an era in many countries, with the beginnings of artists such as Albrecht Durer, Jerome Bosch and Leonardo Da Vinci (294).

The second volume covers the Renaissance until the late 20th century. The opening chapter on the 16th century includes works of Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, and Titian (347), but also many less famous artists from Bologna, such as Agnolo Tori, Domenico Beccafumi, and a fascinating detail from a strange painting by Pellegrino Tibaldi showing Ulysses's companions stealing cattle from the Sun King (339). The authors explain how the Renaissance was an era of change and renewal, in social, religious (the "Counter-Reformation") and political spheres as well as in artistic terms.

The following chapter by Robert Contini gives a detailed portrait of the many regional artistic schools in Italy during the 17th century, from Tuscany to Naples and Sicily. But a stylistic unification seems to appear around 1620, although many different influences--classicism, baroque, realism--simultaneously exist (397), with allegories such as "Bacchus and Ariadne" by Giulio Carpioni (434).

Stefano Zuffi confirms that the 18th century was a period when Italian artists began to lose their influence (451). Fewer European artists went to Italy and more Italian painters studied abroad. Landscapes became a subject by themselves until neo-classicism appeared, bringing again a new reading of the past, as Italian artists had done in previous centuries (461). Therefore, we also see more Italian paintings in foreign museums. The 19th century brought more allegorical themes and conceptual research, with a clear division between classical and modern artists. We see portraits, historical subjects, epic scenes, and allegories.

The editor of this monumental project, Carlo Pirovano, wrote the final chapter about the 20th century. In the quest for abstraction, avant-garde artists produce works such as "The Electric Plant" by Antonio Sant'Elia in 1914 (569), and by artists who took part in the Futurist Movement that began in Italy in 1909. We also discover many works produced during the 1930s and 1940s in Italy (603).

This wonderful book is not just for art historians but also for people who love beauty, or for any scholar interested in the ancient representation of the human body. There is, for instance, an unusual painting by Andrea Solario depicting a "Virgin with a Green Pillow," who breastfeeds her infant from a breast that seems to be just under her neck (322).

We have here a very impressive collection on Italian painting. I am sure that even specialists of Italian art will discover unfamiliar works in this book. In fact, I cannot think of a more extensive book on Italian painting than this superb work, edited by Carlo Pirovano.

Yves Laberge, Institut quebecois des hautes etudes internationales
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Author:Laberge, Yves
Publication:Annali d'Italianistica
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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