Published to accompany the BBC’s documentary series of the same name, Andrew Graham-Dixon’s Renaissance is yet another attempt to understand the massive cultural, intellectual and social transformation that swept across Europe between the 13th and 16th centuries and which from the 19th century onward received the term “Renaissance”. Concentrating almost exclusively on the high art of the period as represented by Giotto, Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian and Leonardo, Graham-Dixon argues that “it was through the medium of art that Renaissance man expressed himself most vividly and, perhaps, most profoundly.” He then embarks on a well-worn journey, from what he calls the “mixed origins” of late 13th and early 14th-century religious art, via 15th-century Florence, a chapter on the concept of “genius”, the relations between the Renaissance and the Reformation, the significance of Venice (“the quintessential Renaissance city”), to a concluding consideration of “the end of the Renaissance.”
All this is done with great sweeping gestures and the book is beautifully illustrated with over 130 images. However, Graham-Dixon’s fascination with tracing the Classical past throughout Renaissance art and his obsession with the belief that “It was not just the image of man, but an idea of man, that the Renaissance put at the centre of our world” becomes repetitious. His approach has also been seriously revised and even discredited by recent studies of the period. Where is the influence that the Ottoman court had upon forming taste between 1450 and 1550? Where is the impact of the discovery of the New World and seaborne expansion upon applied arts such as tapestry, not to mention Iberian architecture? For the general reader, however, Graham-Dixon’s Renaissance is a useful, if conservative introduction to this period.