Having read Michael Levey's From Giotto to Cezanne and A History of Western Art, I approached Florence - A Portrait thinking I knew what to expect. I did find the attention to detail, the keen critical evaluation and aesthetics that I expected. I did not envisage the book would turn out also to be quite the gargantuan work of scholarship and erudition that it is. Florence - A Portrait is much more than a history of art in the city state. It is almost a biography of the place, replete with historical, economic and political detail. What is missing, of course, is a picture of Florentine life from the point of view of the ordinary citizen, but we cannot criticize Michael Levey for not including what probably does not exist.
I visited Florence thirty years ago and have never returned. At the time, memories of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation were very clear in my mind and I focused on renaissance Florence, almost to the derision of the rest. Even after such time I found my memories of the architecture, paintings and sculptures were still fresh, however, when I read Michael Levey's descriptions. But his descriptions do more than merely list a presence or critique a style. He offers context, critical evaluation, origins and influences when he considers these - and any - works of art. He identifies flattery or criticism, idolatry or satire where an untutored eye would see only colours and shapes.
The book is presented chronologically. It walks us through the early years of the renaissance and deals with the extent of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in minute detail. Then, as a more anonymous baroque era dawns, the account speeds up somewhat.
Michael Levey also makes crucial and important points about the nature of Florentine government in this later era, an era that is so often dismissed as decadent when compared to the golden age that preceded it. The account is comprehensive, detailed and illuminating, but is written in a lively style which is never dull. It's a book that would be more interesting after a visit than before and would not work as a guide book on grounds of size and weight! But it is a truly rewarding read.
It is noteworthy in its treatment of the baroque era. Most visitors to Florence are there for the renaissance, and this later work is often dismissed as over-ornate, opulence for opulence sake, over-stated, crass bad taste. Michael Levey corrects this view by evaluating this later period in the context of and as a development of its precursor. While reading his account, I was interested to learn just how much those who commissioned works simply wanted to make a grandiloquent statement about wealth and power. So Damien Hearst's skull is conceptually right within the tradition of Western art. Michael Level, incidentally, also pointed out that late medieval and early renaissance artists were often pressured into using greater quantities of gold leaf to endow as much value as possible to their work. There is, after all, very little that's new under this sun.