You don't know Pisanello from Squarcione ? You would like to know what the relation was between Perugino and Raffaello or how Antonio del Pollaiuolo got his name ? What a predella is or what the difference might be between buon fresco and fresco secco ? This is the book for you.
In this recent update of his book first written 20 years ago, James Beck gives a clear overview of the Italian "century of geniuses". 41 artists are reviewed in reasonable detail. The author uses a chronological approach, subdividing the painters in three generations (following Vasari's example) and qualifying them either as lyrical or monumentalist painters. Although these labels are questionable for at least a number of artists, it certainly enhances the clarity of the author's argument and allows the reader to follow and understand the technical and stylistic evolutions over a period of approximately 170 years (mastery of perspective and anatomy, composition, facial expressiveness, the gradual displacement of tempera by oil painting, etc.).
The text is well written - if a tad on the dry side, leaving out most of the personal drama in the artists' biographies and focusing solely on their career and artistic development : who were they apprenticed to, how did their personal style develop over the years and what were their most important artistic achievements.
The book is very richly illustrated with numerous high quality colour plates, perfectly supporting the author's arguments and giving an excellent overview of the artists' work. The only quirky - if one can call it that - choice in this respect, is that the author, in order to illustrate Michelangelo's work in the Sixtine Chapel, has chosen to show only pictures of the work before its recent restoration. Beck - who is founder and president of ArtWatch International, an organisation trying to prevent destructive restoration of artworks - is of the opinion that the restoration is a botched job (he does give his arguments to illustrate this point of view)and consequently refuses to show pictures of the restored work. Far from me to engage in this debate, but it would have made more sense in this case to show "before" and "after" pictures in order to give the reader a better idea of what the author is talking about.
Of course it is impossible for such a book to achieve absolute completeness about the subject, but the selected artists no doubt represent the top of their profession. The only obvious left out seems to me Giovanni Antonio da Vercelli (Il Sodoma). Also the fact that the book ends with the third generation, comprising a.o. Michelangelo, Raffaello and Titian, may seem a little arbitrary as this leaves out a number of later born artists who nevertheless qualify as Renaissance painters : Salvati (who was a personal friend of Vasari and painted the admirable frescoes in the Sala dell' Udienza in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio), the Venetian Tintoretto (who was an apprentice to Titian) and Paolo Veronese (reknown a.o. for his work in the Palace of the Dogues in Venice and in the Palladian Villa Barbaro in Maser) are among them.
Finally, this being a book about Italian Renaissance painting, the author restricts himself to the painting activities of the reviewed artists. This of course shows them more one-sided than most of them actually were : this was the century of the uomine universale and quite a number of these artists were not only painters, but also sculptors, designers, architects, poets, ... Moreover Beck has a rather narrow interpretation of the term "Italian Renaissance painting" : in his opinion this signifies painting by Italian artists in Italy only. The consequence of this reasoning is that paintings made by Italian artists outside of Italy are left out of the picture...
Nevertheless this is a magnificent book and probably one of the best introductions to the subject available - that is : if one wants to restrict oneself purely to painting. Considering the price, one gets tremendous value for money and this book no doubt qualifies as "best buy".