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Osprey Publishing, Limited
The Secret Language of the Renaissance: Decoding the Hidden Symbolism of Italian Art

The Secret Language of the Renaissance: Decoding the Hidden Symbolism of Italian Art

by Richard Stemp
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An illustrated key to unlocking the mysteries of paintings, sculpture and architecture by the great Italian masters, this book also provides fresh insight into the currents of Renaissance thought, from humanism to myticism to religious reform.

We may never know what the Mona Lisa is really smiling about, but we do know that there's much more to the masterpieces of Renaissance art than the beauty that meets the eye. There are layers of significance hidden below the surface of the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Fra Angelico, Donatello, Michelangelo and many others. This magnificently illustrated guide by expert art historian, Richard Stemp, gives you the key to unlock those secrets for yourself. 

Split into three parts, Part One is a vivid immersion into the culture of this remarkable period, tracing the profusion of innovations in literature, painting, sculpture and the decorative arts that date to this time.  Part Two offers a wide-ranging guide to the essential elements of symbolic language in Renaissance art, including colour, geometry, light and shade, proportion, perspective and body language. In Part Three, the heart of the book, Richard Stemp analyzes more than 40 works grouped around a dozen themes, including mythology, war and peace, and death and eternity.  Each work is shown in full colour and each is then deconstructed to reveal the symbols it contains and the enigmatic meanings behind them.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781844833221
Publisher: Osprey Publishing, Limited
Publication date: 10/28/2006
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 9.60(w) x 11.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Richard Stemp studied Natural Sciences and History of Art a the University of Cambridge and has a Ph.D in Italian Renaissance sculpture.  After a year at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts, he now divides his time between art history and acting.

Table of Contents

Introduction 6

Part 1 New Art from Old Ideas

Literature 12

Painting 16

Sculpture 22

Architecture 26

The Decorative Arts 30

Part 2 The Language of the Renaissance 34

Objects & their Meanings 36

Emblems & Abbreviations 40

Colour 44

Light & Shade 48

Perspective 52

Proportion 56

Sacred Geometry 58

Where & Why 62

Old & New 66

The World around Us 70

Body & Mind 74

Gesture & Body Language 78

Patronage 82

Male & Female 86

Form & Function 90

Stories & Statements 94

Layers of Meaning 98

Men & Angels 102

Saints 106

Virtues & Vices 110

Gods & Goddesses 114

Part 3 The Thematic Decoder 116

The Bible 118

The Church 128

Heaven & Earth 136

The Antique 144

Mythology 152

Allegory 158

Scholarship 166

Government 174

Power & Wealth 184

War & Peace 192

Life & Society 200

Death & Eternity 208

Chronology 216

Further Reading 217

Index 218

Acknowledgments 224

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The Secret Language of the Renaissance: Decoding the Hidden Symbolism of Italian Art 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Poquette on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Of all the art books/coffee table books I own, this is one of the few I've actually read cover to cover. On the whole, I liked it, but it wasn't exactly what I was expecting, nor is it a particularly scholarly work. There's nothing new here -- just the packaging is unusual. More about that presently.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 ca
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am an Art History lecturer specialising in the Renaissance. I travel all round Italy for my work, both for research and lecturing purposes. It would rarely occur to me to write a review but for this book i have made an exception. Because it is exceptional. I have read most introductory Renaissance books and they are usually generalised, sweeping affairs, and often actually a little dull. This book on the other hand has pulled off the incredibly sophisticated task of being both an accessible and most enjoyable read for the newcomer and yet offering depth and originality to the more informed reader. You will find all manner of gems here regarding the very fabric of Renaissance culture - the popular ideologies of the time, the nature of society, the politics of the day, and of course religion, along with more unusual sections addressing matters such as astrology, sacred geometry, and the promise of Eternity. Richard Stemp veers effortlessly from close analysis to a broad all-seeing perspective. Satisfyingly laid out in 3 sections 'New Art from Old Ideas', 'The Language of the Renaissance' and 'the Thematic Decoder', it is also beautifully illustrated throughout. Sections of paintings are isolated and enlarged for greater clarity of communication and in many cases the paintings are given a whole page or even two. I highly recommend this to you as i do to all of my students. It is not merely recommended reading, but essential. A joy!
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a teacher of the history of art to seventeen and eighteen year-olds I have long wished to find a book - on any period, but particularly on one of the periods most studied, the Renaissance or French art in the Nineteenth Century - which opened the door to a real enjoyment of the subject. Gore Vidal said that if you wanted to meet someone who hated books, find a critic. Equally, if you want to find someone who hates pictures, find an academic art historian who will suck the life out of them. This author wears his learning lightly and shows us how understanding is the key to great pleasure. This book may change lives.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a fascinating introduction into renaissance art. For anyone not already an expert in the field (like me) this was a wonderful way in. The presentation is of course beautiful and the way the detail is highlighted through commentary and visual illustration makes the subject really come to life. What I found most enthralling however is the way that a subject (Art) that on the surface could come across as elitist and marginal is shown to be a central part of renaissance history. Mr Stemp brings to life a time when art was not something that was hidden away on gallery walls, merely decorative or a record of history but as very much part of the shaping of history and his book gives you an insight both into the influences inherent in these works and also the influence of these works upon the world in which they existed. The secret of title is the very lives, events and desires of the period. The author's range of knowledge of the people and the wide range of influences which affected them effortlessly (for us) unlocks this secret. As a first step into a many faceted subject or a satisfying overview either way you will be fascintated by the subject and delighted by its delivery.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have always wanted to enjoy wandering round galleries and understanding what I was looking at - this book is just *wonderful* and fills in the gaps in my knowledge in a great way. Stemp is neither superficial nor patronizing but just has a knack of bringing something to life. The illustrations are gorgeous and even if I can't travel round Europe seeing these things for myself at least this book gives me a lovely way to enjoy them from home. Have bought copies for three friends for Christmas and would recommended to *ANYONE* who just wants a better insight.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an exquisitely well-produced book that will fascinate anyone interested in Renaissance art. Assuming that the reader has no previous knowledge, the author explains how to look at Italian art and understand both the artists' intentions and the cultural and geographical context of their work. The text is clear, witty and interesting, and the artwork is really outstanding. There are many double-page spreads of renaissance paintings, followed by reproductions of some of the details of these paintings, helping us to understand how and why the artist created them. I picked up this book as a novice to the subject and really enjoyed it. I finished the book with a real urge to look at more renaissance art and felt very informed about how to look at it. It's such a beautiful work that I've already bought copies for some friends. I highly recommend it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a superficial attempt to cover an extraordinarily complex subject. Many subject areas are introduced with little or no substantive analysis. The reader would be better off reading such works as Jocelyn Godwin's The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance or works by Frances Yates and Hilary Gatti.