Sarah Dunant’s top 10 books on the Renaissance

Novelist, broadcaster and critic Sarah Dunant is the author of eight novels. Her latest, The Birth of Venus, is a tale of art, passion and politics set in Renaissance Florence.

1. A Florentine Diary from 1450 to 1516 by Luca Landucci

Landucci owned an apothecary’s opposite the Strozzi palace in Florence at the end of the 15th century and he lived through it all: from the opening of Ghirlandaio’s great frescoes in Santa Maria Novella (apprentice: Michelangelo) through the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent to the rule of the fundamentalist monk Savonarola. What for us is history, for him was life.

2. Forbidden Friendships by Michael Rocke

The job of the night police in 15th century Florence was to poke their noses into dark alleys to root out sin. This study of their records allows Rocke to construct a fascinating portrait of Renaissance homosexual culture and its treatment by the state.

3. The Craftsman’s Handbook by Cennino d’Andrea Cennini

Written in the early 15th century, this is the ultimate “how to” book on Renaissance art. Pigments, brushes, the art of fresco, techniques and tricks, it’s all here. Where else would you learn that while the yolk of country eggs is good for reproducing old skin tones, town eggs are better for young flesh?

4. Virgins of Venice by Mary Laven

Comprehensive, erudite and most of all highly readable study of convent life in the Venice of the late Renaissance and beyond. From the sacred through the profane to the simply fashionable. Riveting.

5. The Inferno by Dante Alighieri

Predating the Renaissance but its influence on the iconography of art and thinking is huge. Dante’s imagination when it comes to thinking up punishments apposite to the sins is truly fabulous.

6. The Boundaries of Eros by Guido Ruggiero

The history of the bedroom (or the dark alley) is much harder to document than the lives of politicians or governments. But Ruggiero’s analysis of court records in 14th- and 15th-century Venice uncovers a fascinating portrait of sex, sexuality and transgression.

7. Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari

The first and still the foremost authority on the great names of the Renaissance. Though written in the mid-16th century, it’s still unbeatable for its mix of fact, biography, art criticism and gossip.

8. The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici by Christopher Hibbert

A clear, solid but never less than readable account of one of the great families of the Renaissance and their journey from statesmanship, scholarship and patronage to avarice and decadence. Never a dull moment.

9. The Merchant of Prato by Iris Origo

Based on a tranche of family letters found in 1870, this is a rare glimpse into mercantile, domestic and marital life on the cusp of the Renaissance. Unique for the way in which you can really hear the voice of a woman – the merchant’s wife – amidst the male cacophony.

10. The Companion Guide to Florence by Eve Borsook

Because you can’t just read about it; you also have to see it. This is still the best guide to Florence ever written. Take it everywhere and read on and off the hoof.


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