During the Renaissance, artists traditionally encoded meanings into symbols, some of which drew upon a traditional repertoire available to educated people in the era. These hidden messages which ranged from the esoteric to the political to the religious could be communicated in everything from the position of a hand to the placement of the sun and moon. The Secret Language of the Renaissance helps us discover them anew, as lecturer, author, and director Richard Stemp teaches you the art of reading these paintings.
If you've taken an art history course that covers the period from 1400 to, say, 1525, this book provides a refresher. Most of the art works covered are familiar. Just coincidentally, I recently watched a Teaching Company course entitled, Great Artists of the Italian Renaissance, taught by William Kloss, which covers much of the same material. However, Kloss organized his course chronologically. Stemp organized his book topically, and the topics make all the difference.
As I said, this book was not what I was expecting. I actually believed the dust jacket blurb which said, and I quote: "For all those who relish esoteric symbolism, cryptic codes and the riches of Renaissance Italy itself." The riches of Renaissance Italy are amply presented. Symbolism is explained to a certain extent, but as for "esoteric symbolism" or "cryptic codes," that is a gross overstatement. Perhaps it would be esoteric to someone from Mars who has never seen a Renaissance painting in his life, or cryptic to someone who is unschooled in a Western cultural and religious background, but definitely interesting to students of said Western culture, religion and mythology.
The book, like Caesar's Gaul, is divided in three parts: The first part gives a breezy introduction to the state of the arts -- painting, sculpture, architecture and decorative arts -- and literature in 15th century Italy. In the course of the book, a few representative works from the preceeding and succeeding centuries are discussed to illustrate a point. But by and large, coverage is limited to the period from approximately 1400 to 1525.
The second part of the book is called, "The Language of the Renaissance," and enumerates categories of tools used by artists to convey meaning, knowledge of which aids the viewer in anylizing a particular work of art. Such categories include objects and their meanings, color, light and shade, perspective, proportion, geometry, gesture and body language, layers of meaning, and many more. Each category is illustrated by two or more works of art, all in full color.
Part three is called "The Thematic Decoder." This section takes important paintings and analyzes them in terms of the ideas explored in the previous section, and adds a bit more in the process. Again, this section is presented topically under such headings as "The Bible," "The Church," "Heaven & Earth," "The Antique," "Mythology," "Scholarship," "Government," "Power & Wealth," "War & Peace," "Life & Society," and more. Each of these sections is illustrated by several masterpieces which are discussed in detail.
Most of the so-called mystery surrounding Renaissance art has more to do with our modern loss of cultural references that were well-known to cultured people alive at the time. We in our time obviously require detailed explanation of the seemingly irrelevant elements depicted in paintings, but I would hardly classify any of them as essoteric. They were never hidden. They merely became lost to our understanding.
Aside from the misleading blurb referenced above -- and let that be a lesson: Don't believe everything you read on a book's jacket -- my only criticism of the book is related to its apparent lack of scholarship. One doesn't doubt what is presented. That is not the problem. But while it gives the names of works, the artists, the dates and locations, it leaves out the dimensions. This can be very important when contemplating a reproduction in a book. Also there are no footnotes, endnotes or otherwise. For instance, there are numerous references to noncanonical stories of Christian saints, but it fails to mention the sources of such stories. One can surmise that many of them came from The Golden Legend, but that work is not mentioned, either.
On the whole, however, this is a very useful book, one well worth reading from cover to cover. And it is wonderful to have so many important works gathered together in one beautifully produced full color volume.