Agony and Ecstasy

Ross King’s Italian Renaissance Book Bag

The author of Leonardo and the Last Supper picks his favorite biographies of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance.

The Lives of the ArtistsBy Giorgio Vasari, translated by Julia Conway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella

This is the book, first published in 1550, that kicked off both art history and artist biographies. Vasari was a painter, architect, and friend of Michelangelo. His collection, which covers 250 years of Italian art, from Cimabue to Michelangelo, is very much an insider’s guide. Its gossipy anecdotes are lively, memorable, and at times gloriously unreliable.

Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man and His TimesBy William E. Wallace

Don’t be intimidated by Wallace’s reputation as one of the world’s leading authorities on Michelangelo: this is a highly readable, and often very funny, tour through Michelangelo’s life and career. It gives a fresh assessment of Michelangelo, showing him not as the moody genius of legend so much as a deft business manager who, among other things, gave his workmen nicknames like Stumpy and Fats. Modern CEOs could learn much from him.

Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and ProfaneBy Andrew Graham-Dixon

Caravaggio is a painter whose life has always seemed as dramatic as his paintings. A murderer and sexual adventurer, he specialized in beheadings and other gruesome acts of violence, depicted in lurid spotlight. But Graham-Dixon downplays Caravaggio’s legendary rowdyism to give a much more well-rounded portrait. One of art history’s clearest and most insightful explicators, Graham-Dixon also throws his own illumination on these mesmerizing paintings.

Titian: His LifeBy Sheila Hale

There is no need to downplay Titian’s antics. Hale shows that this supreme painter of vibrant color and beguiling female flesh led a surprisingly modest and upright private life. But anyone wanting the splendor and sordidness of the Renaissance will not be disappointed. Hale’s marvelous evocation of 16th-century Venice includes wealthy housewives teetering on platform heels, and nuns with sex toys made of Murano glass. Real Housewives, eat your hearts out.

Leonardo da Vinci: Flights of the MindBy Charles Nicholl

Author of books on Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, among others, Nicholl specializes in trifling up obscure but telling biographical facts—the minutiae of everyday life that he uses to cast a raking light on his subjects. Leonardo’s intellectual capers are the perfect subject for Nicholl’s combination of scholarly spadework, forensic insight, and impish humor.