7 art history books to read before you visit Florence

Know about the art you’re looking at

Anna McGee
August 1, 2016 - 10:17

Florence is bursting at the seams with art. But where to start? Vast collections of Renaissance paintings fill the museums, all around magnificent sculptures look down at us from their bases, note-worthy buildings are to be found on every corner… Though wonderful, the sheer quantity of Florentine art and architecture can be overwhelming. It might therefore be useful to read up on the art history of the area, but this needn’t be a daunting, dryly academic experience. We’ve chosen seven Florence art history books that provide a great route into the massive subject: the first three act as general introductions, while the second four offer alternative ways of approaching Florentine art.


The inside of Florence's Duomo - fresco by Vasari (Photo: Alexandra Korey) The inside of Florence's Duomo - fresco by Vasari (Photo: Alexandra Korey)


An Art Lover's Guide to Florence

Judith Anne Testa (2012)


It is clear Judith Testa is an art lover from the emotive way in which she describes the paintings and buildings around Florence, and such enthusiasm is infectious. Many books of this kind try to cover a large number of artworks and in so doing give none the in-depth attention they deserve; An Art Lover's Guide to Florence, on the other hand, takes time to explain the social, political and historical context of the Florentine Renaissance, and then picks out key works and analyses them in depth. The chapter on the Ospedale degli Innocenti is particularly fascinating, and a good introduction to the building and its history before you visit the new Innocenti museum.


Buy An Art Lover's Guide to Florence on Amazon.com



Florence: The Paintings & Frescoes, 1250-1743

Anja Grebe and Ross King (2015)


It is easy to see why this book is a New York Times Bestseller of 2015: 2,000 lush, full-colour reproductions of Florence’s best-loved paintings combine with Ross King’s insightful analysis to delight the reader both visually and verbally. This is the most comprehensive book of its kind, and includes – among many others – every painting in the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace, with some stunning, double-page details. However, the book is almost 700 pages long, and is best used to whet your appetite before going to Florence’s museums and churches or as a gorgeous post-visit memento – not one to haul from gallery to gallery!


Buy Florence: The Paintings & Frescoes, 1250-1743 on Amazon.com



Florence: The City and its Architecture

Richard Goy (2002)


Architect and historian Richard Goy guides you through Florence’s infrastructure by means of this comprehensive but accessible guide, reminding you of all Florence’s landmark buildings but also introducing you to some hidden gems. The focus is on Renaissance architecture, but the city’s Roman origins and modern-day architectural additions set Florence in its entire urban context. It is thrilling to read the book and look at the pictures when you know that these buildings are sitting right on your doorstep, ready for you to see in the flesh. Architects’ biographies, a glossary of Italian terms and a fold-out map make Florence: The City and its Architecture a practical guide, too.


Buy Florence: The City and its Architecture on Amazon.com




Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence

Jane Fortune (2009)


While we could probably go on for hours about the genius of Michelangelo or Botticelli, most of us would struggle to do more than name a female artist from the Florentine Renaissance. Jane Fortune scoured the attics and archives of Florence’s biggest museums to redress the balance, to reveal the talented female artists of the period. Why not learn about Florence’s art history through a totally different lens?


Buy Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence on Amazon.com



The Medici, Michelangelo, & the Art of Late Renaissance Florence

edited by Cristina Acidini (2002)


None of the works of art you will see in Florence can be treated in isolation; each one is intimately linked to the cultural climate in which it was made. This book – a selection of essays – emphasises the huge impact the patronage of the Medici dynasty had upon Florentine art from the fifteenth century onwards. We realise that these magnificent artworks did not only reflect dynastic power, but also helped secure and promote it. Though this book is perhaps more academic and historical in its approach, it is by no means dull: rich descriptions evoke the fiery nature of the Medici and their tumultuous relationships with the artists whose work they commissioned, while hundreds of coloured illustrations keep you visually excited too.


Buy The Medici, Michelangelo, & the Art of Late Renaissance Florence on Amazon.com



Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture

Ross King (2013)


The Duomo of Florence Cathedral is awe-inspiring, and the story of its construction, though little-known, is just as remarkable. Though art-historically accurate, this book has the pace of a dramatic novel, and so is a perfect holiday read. It documents the feuding and the betrayal behind the twenty-five-year-long construction of Filippo Brunelleschi’s majestic dome, as well as the technical innovation which brought it to fruition: architectural history meets soap opera. So next time you gaze in wonder at the Duomo or wend your way around its narrow staircase, you’ll really be able to imagine the incredible story behind it. This isn’t the history of a single monument, however, and understanding Brunelleschi’s dome helps unlock the art historical mysteries of the period in Florence as a whole.


Buy Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture on Amazon.com



From Marble to Flesh. The Biography of Michelangelo's David

Victor Coonin, 2014


Perhaps the most famous work of art in Florence, Michelangelo’s David has a long story behind his making, and after his installation in piazza della Signoria. Victor Coonin tells this story as if it were a biography, and the likeable professor’s voice shines through in an easy to read, yet historically rigorous, book. Particularly interesting is the chapter about the influence of the statue on contemporary artists, especially in LGBT interpretations.


Buy From Marble to Flesh for Kindle on Amazon.com

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brian valentine

8 days and 15 hours and 21 minutes ago
Great recommendations. I've read several of these. I would add Eve Borsook's The Companion Guide to Florence, which is the best introduction to the art and history of Florence ever written.