What books in paintings mean

The significance of books in works of art

Ludger tom Ring the Elder’s 1538 portrait of Virgil as a prophet Courtesy of the Westfälisches Landesmuseum fur Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, Munster. Photo akgimages and Thames & Hudson

The premiss of this charming book is a simple one (made explicit in the US title): to survey works of art that display books. As simple as that organising principle is, the range and depth of meaning of books in pictures are complex and various. Religious symbols, educational, professional and status markers—notably of artists themselves—indications of gender roles and identities (and mistaken identities as in Ludger tom Ring the Elder’s 1538 portrait of Virgil as a prophet), pointers to scientific quests, and markers of the evolution of the book itself are among some of the many aspects that are explored by Camplin and Ranauro. The chronological range of works is from the Renaissance to the late 20th century, in other words the period in which Western individualism and the awareness of inner identity developed.

  • Jamie Camplin and Maria Ranauro, Books do Furnish a Painting, Thames & Hudson, 256pp, £24.95 (hb), The Art of Reading: an Illustrated History of Books in Paint, Getty Publications, 256pp, $34.95 (hb)