Paul Robert Walker makes the competition and rivalry between the artists Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti in the Italian Renaissance a central pivot for his history of their groundbreaking work in Florence in the first half of the fifteenth century. Given that the author’s list of previous publications consists almost exclusively of books on the Wild West for young adult readers, it’s worth asking what he has to contribute to a discussion of the era.
The first difficulties arise in a history book when you attempt to answer the questions: How do you tell the story of those days? And where do you begin the story? Several pages set the scene of a Florence torn by local wars, beset by a movement of religious purists. And suddenly: “Over a century earlier, when the poet Dante was young, the noblemen of Florence had ridden into battle to defend their city.” Perhaps an interesting tidbit, but it’s not clear how Dante got into this. We move in and out of close-up at an unpredictable speed, and can’t help but wonder if it’s all equally important: e.g., a humanist movement had begun over a century before – why are learning about that here? Or a pocket history of Rome as papal capital and then not and then once again is provided – but not chronologically, as Walker starts with the situation around 1400 and goes first backward and then forward. Frustrating.
Walker tells us in the Source Notes that this is a personal book based on a personal journey, which is a valid explanation. But as the intention is to write something for many readers with differing backgrounds, the question can be asked: who is he writing for? A sentence like, “At issue was not what we would call homosexuality, a broad-ranging concept for which the Florentines did not even have a word” is politically correct, but I wonder who needs it. If I’m slightly familiar with the era, it’s superfluous; if I’m reading about the era for the first time, the author has at least nodded toward those concerned with political correctness.
The writing is sometimes poor: “To their eternal credit, the Florentines spent some of that money on public art. To their even greater credit ...” What should be greater than eternal? And there are sudden shifts in tonality: “We can imagine Filippo gazing at the finished work and saying, ‘Donato, this David looks like something from Lorenzo on a good day; but the head of Goliath – ahhh! There is your art.’”
Official documents from the time are Walker’s main source, in addition to the huge amount of secondary literature accumulated over the centuries. He informs us that he made ample use of help offered him by informed Italian architects and historians, especially in deciphering the meaning of documents. He is only being honest when he tells us that such and such an action could mean this ... or could mean that ... or could mean nothing at all. But it remains rather unsatisfying for the reader. Though it contains many interesting anecdotes and stories and observations, the book unfortunately does not cohere as a whole.
[In this reviewer’s advance copy, it was not yet clear how the book would ultimately be illustrated. There were many junctures where a photograph or a drawing would have been of great assistance in understanding a verbal description. It can be hoped they will be provided in good quality in the edition for sale.]