Vast vista is not for the lightweight visitor

The Monuments of Italy

November 1, 2002

This is a work of dedication and a lengthy labour of love, the like of which rarely finds a publisher in this day and age. Michael Oppenheimer has gathered information and observation about the architectural and artistic highlights of Italy in five large and well-produced volumes arranged by region, and within that provinces, starting in the north and working south, and ranging from classical to modern. In the sixth volume, Oppenheimer has put together an extensive glossary of names, terms, historical events, places and so on, along with a shorter "Biographical index of architects and artists" - which usefully gives references to the other volumes in which their works can be seen - and a brief list of dates. There is also an index to the places discussed in the five main volumes.

The volumes contain a number of mostly good-quality black-and-white photographs taken by the author showing a sample of the buildings and artworks discussed in the text. The work does not contain any kind of bibliography or bibliographical references, and this obviously limits it as any kind of scholarly or serious student tool.

However, Oppenheimer's aim is "to encourage and assist those who are not experts to study Italian art". To this end he sets out to take the reader, via a brief grounding in history introducing each region, on a journey from place to place, usually starting with the major towns and covering an extensive range of settlements and isolated remains. His accounts range from detailed descriptions of the architecture or artworks of one building or complex to the briefest of mentions of a structure, monument or artwork. Sometimes works are dated specifically, but often not beyond a generic "medieval" or "15th century", yet this may satisfy many readers.

Not only would the work have been vastly extended if everything was fully identified and discussed, but it would have been a lifetime's enterprise. And given the intended audience, it would perhaps have been surplus to requirements. For a number of readers, too, there may well be a certain enjoyment in the varying rhythms and degrees of detail and information provided.

Oppenheimer acts as a reasonably informed companion to sites. In his more detailed accounts he not only tells the reader who made something and when, and the functions and histories of individual works, but often points out details and features. These give a sense of visual context that goes some way towards providing an idea of the physicality of the objects; a hard task in literary form. One would hope that this will encourage readers who do get a chance to see the works for themselves to notice and look actively, and thus enhance their experience of Italian art and architecture.

The quality of these accounts does vary, though, and the often-deadpan and factual descriptions of visual material may not be to every reader's taste. I am not sure what purpose many of these descriptions are intended to serve. This is particularly the case given that the size and number of the volumes means that a visitor to Italy is unlikely to take them along on their travels, despite their nature as quasi-guidebooks, and this further limits their readership and scope. I can see, though, that they might well be of some use as a guide for serious-minded visitors, but the straightforward descriptions of artworks, iconography and architectural features, for example, are probably of more use to a reader standing in front of an object.

There is a series of schematic maps at the back of each volume that show each province or area discussed with places indicated by numbers linked to the text so that the reader can find the appropriate locations. Although these are useful as a generic guide to the relative positions of places mentioned in the text, these could have also provided more interesting information - for example, some sense of topography other than the occasional lake or river, since a relationship with geography and topography are essential parts of the make-up and nature of Italian towns, castles, villas and so on.

The glossary and biographical index in volume six are as wide ranging as the sites and art covered in the other five volumes. The glossary extends from "Abutment" and "Aacanthus" to "S. Zeno" and "Ziri", via archaeology, art and architectural history, biblical and Christian references, classical history and mythology, geology, history and modern-day Italian terms.

The biographical index also covers a wide range of figures. In these two sections, both the strengths and weaknesses of the The Monuments of Italy are displayed. The expert may quibble with details and characterisations (as also with some of the accounts and presentations in the other volumes), and some of the entries are excessively brief and uninformative, for example "Bembo, Bonifacio ( c . 1447-78) Painter from Brescia", which says nothing of his importance as a painter and illuminator at the Sforza court in Milan. Other entries, though, are very readable summations of artists and architects, and one can detect Oppenheimer's enjoyment, engagement and pleasure in the subject matter.

Overall, The Monuments of Italy provides the interested reader with an account of Italian art and architecture that is a mixture of a Blue Guide and The Buildings of England (the volumes on English architecture originally written or edited by Nikolaus Pevsner). In some ways Oppenheimer provides an English version of the Italian Touring Club Italiano red guides - rich, scholarly guidebooks that list almost all Italian archaeological sites, buildings, and accessible art collections and are, and will remain for all who read Italian, the invaluable and portable companions of serious students of Italian art and architecture on their travels.

Oppenheimer's somewhat idiosyncratic but dedicated work should provide readers of the same bent of mind with many hours of interested exploration and discovery. It is not a work to be read from cover to cover, but one to be delved into for informed and often informative nuggets that can enliven and enrich the experience of looking at and understanding art and architecture in Italy.

Georgia Clarke is lecturer in Renaissance and Baroque architecture, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London.

The Monuments of Italy: A Regional Survey of Art, Architecture and Archaeology from Classical to Modern Times

Author - Michael Oppenheimer
ISBN - 1 86064 570 4
Publisher - Tauris
Price - £295.00
Pages - 1,870 (six-volume set)

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