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Required Reading: Francesca Fiorani

Francesca Fiorani
A UVA associate professor of art history, Francesca Fiorani also directs two study abroad programs in Italy. She wrote The Marvel of Maps: Art, Cartography and Politics in Renaissance Italy (2005) and is currently completing a book on Leonardo da Vinci’s shadows.

What book have you read the most times?

Lately, I am reading over and over again two wonderful books on shadows. Roberto Casati’s Shadows: Unlocking Their Secrets From Plato to Our Time (2004) looks at shadows from the point of view of cognitive science, philosophy and perception. A Brief History of the Shadow (1997) by art historian Victor Stoichita is an insightful excursus of how artists painted shadows from ancient times to today. I am reading again Merleau Ponty’s essays on modern art, which I find inspiring for the interpretation of Renaissance art. Soon I will read again Omar Pamuk’s Istanbul, an incredibly sophisticated and enjoyable book in which the author discovers the city by reading old books on its history and by walking through its neighborhoods at night. At the same time, he finds out about his own art.

As the director of study abroad programs in Rome and Florence, can you recommend a book of art history for someone planning to visit Italy?

Among the most fascinating texts on Renaissance art is the classic Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy by Michael Baxandall, an approachable and compelling account of the visual culture that artists and patrons shared in the period. In preparation for their study abroad, my students read this book and some additional basic texts on Renaissance culture. But I have to say that once they are in Italy, their learning experience is grounded chiefly in seeing rather than in reading.

By and large, Renaissance art was made to serve specific purposes for distinct patrons. It was displayed in highly defined settings and viewed under regulated circumstances. For Renaissance artists, the original spatial context of their works was of paramount importance in their creation and it should be of equal significance to our modern interpretation of the period. In the classroom, students learn about the original spaces and displays of Renaissance art only indirectly, through slides and digital images, but during on-site programs they experience these places first-hand and repeatedly, thus achieving an in-depth knowledge of Renaissance art and culture.

What are you reading now?

I read many things at once. I am fascinated by the working of the brain, especially how it affects the way artists conceive art. Now I am reading some of Antonio Damasio’s popular essays on the brain and an anthology of essays, The Artful Mind: Cognitive Science and the Riddle of Human Creativity (2006), in which a group of art historians, cognitive scientists and philosophers share their knowledge in explaining the working of the brain in the most unique of human activities, art making. I am also reading Mona Lisa: Inside the Painting (2006), a masterful analysis of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting by a team of curators, conservators, engineers and chemists from the Musée du Louvre. Written in a very accessible language and lavishly illustrated, this book brings together traditional art history with science and modern technologies of visualization. It reveals what is behind the painted surface, making it possible to follow Leonardo’s work step by step, as he selected the plank of wood for this portrait, mixed his colors and experimented with his varnishes.

Where is your favorite place to read?

Any place that provides a frontal view of the sea and very few people around.