Refreshing views of Italian art


New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 132 pp. and photos. $45


by Annamaria Petrioli Tofani and Graham Smith

New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. 250 pp. $35


by Jacob Burckhardt, Edited and translated by Peter Humfrey

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 240 pp. $75

A FEW hours at a comfortable table with any of these books reinvigorates the spirit.

The most incisively wrought of the three, Michael Hirst's ``Michelangelo and His Drawings,'' traces the artist's methods of expanding the possibilities of his ideas. It has been particularly difficult for scholars to date and to connect his enormously varied types of drawings with completed works of painting, sculpture, and architecture. But Michelangelo's ability to develop the drawing into a work of art in its own right gave to his finished drawings ``an importance never before accorded to [drawings] in the history of art'' in his own day, Hirst says.

Michelangelo waited till the last moment to make preparatory drawings for architecture or paintings, then worked with ``spontaneity of invention and speed of execution'' under pressure. Hirst's concern is to learn how Michelangelo drew, the purposes of his drawings, and why they look as they do.

Within a loose chronology, Hirst addresses each type of drawing in Michelangelo's working sequence. From the tiny detailed ``first thoughts'' which served as notations to himself of inventions, Michelangelo developed composition drawings of grouped figures. In other figure drawings the artist invested an ancient sculpture with new life or observed graceful motions in daily life. That led, for example, to the fresco painting of a woman drying her hair, one of the recently cleaned lunette paintings in the Sistine Chapel.

Hirst teaches as he writes and writes with the warmth of a teacher. We learn more than the circumstances of Michelangelo's projects. We see Michelangelo's responses to commissions in drawings of supreme economy of line, and we see his independent designs brought to an unimaginable degree of finish - once for a Christmas present!

Hirst demonstrates the tremendous effort the artist expended in preparing multiple-viewpoint drawings for works of sculpture. And through the drawings Hirst confirms how Michelangelo wanted his sculpture to be viewed, including figures now set up somewhat incorrectly in the European churches that house them.

Michelangelo is the artist ``admired unconditionally'' by the 16th-century Florentine, Giorgio Vasari, writes Annamaria Petrioli Tofani, director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, in the new catalog ``Sixteenth-Century Tuscan Drawings from the Uffizi.''

For Vasari, who published the first history of art in 1550, drawing is the parent of the three arts of architecture, sculpture, and painting. The immediacy of the conceptions in the drawings from the first part of the century, as well as the elegant manner in the drawings of the mid and later (often neglected) part of the century, confirms Vasari's high assessment of Florentine drawing, the norm by which he judged paintings in other cities.

Tofani writes with particular flair about Vasari's own figural drawings. Graham Smith, a professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, offers other insights from the point of view of the student of architecture and the decorative arts. Both scholars have assimilated a daunting literature to establish the artistic context for each of the 100 drawings.

A beautiful red chalk drawing of the virgin and child, attributed to Andrea Boscali from the very last years of the 16th century, eloquently recalls both Michelangelo's sculptured ``Medici Madonna'' in Florence and Raphael's painting of the ``Madonna di Foligno'' in Rome, illustrating the continuities and vitality of the century of Florentine design.

It was in Raphael's altarpieces that the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt found the ``mood of quiet concentration'' that he preferred. Peter Humfrey's new translation of Burckhardt's 1893-94 German essay as ``The Altarpiece in Renaissance Italy'' and the addition of numerous high-quality color plates (many of recently cleaned paintings) make accessible a text that has influenced many eminent historians of art.

Burckhardt argues that the altarpiece as a ``place of special holiness and reverence'' is also the ``birthplace'' of realistic representations of human individuality, air, clouds, and landscape. Humfrey opens the book, in fact, with an oil painting by Raphael's Venetian contemporary, Giovanni Bellini, that is still in the church of S. Zaccaria near the basilica of San Marcos in Venice. Bellini's radiant altarpiece of 1505, one finds, amply demonstrates the painters' discoveries. Before a golden half-dome, the tender madonna and child, young musician, and monumental saints share the sunlight and fresh air of the spacious landscape glimpsed just beside them.

Burckhardt's sense of the delight of each new pictorial invention - such as the beautiful small children, mischievously or ``sublimely'' animated - is provocative. And certainly Burckhardt's recognition of the potential in each subject from the annunciation and nativity to the resurrection, as well as in nonnarrative topics, is appropriate to the Christmas season.

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