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Great Artists of the Italian Renaissance

Great Artists of the Italian Renaissance

Professor William Kloss M.A.
Independent Art Historian

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Great Artists of the Italian Renaissance

Great Artists of the Italian Renaissance

Professor William Kloss M.A.
Independent Art Historian
Course No.  7140
Course No.  7140
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

No era of artistic achievement is as renowned as the Renaissance, and no country holds a higher place in that period than Italy. The supreme works created in Florence, Rome, Venice, and other Italian cities by such masters as Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian have never equaled and have established a canon of beauty that pervades Western culture to this day.

"These Arts, in their highest province, are not addressed to the gross senses, but to the desires of the mind, to that spark of divinity which we have within."
—Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1786

To view these works is to enter a world that is incomparably rich, filled with emotion and drama that is palpable, though sometimes mysterious to our modern sensibility.

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No era of artistic achievement is as renowned as the Renaissance, and no country holds a higher place in that period than Italy. The supreme works created in Florence, Rome, Venice, and other Italian cities by such masters as Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian have never equaled and have established a canon of beauty that pervades Western culture to this day.

"These Arts, in their highest province, are not addressed to the gross senses, but to the desires of the mind, to that spark of divinity which we have within."
—Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1786

To view these works is to enter a world that is incomparably rich, filled with emotion and drama that is palpable, though sometimes mysterious to our modern sensibility.

To study these works with an expert is to penetrate that mystery and gain a new appreciation for how these masterpieces were created and what they meant to the artists and people of the time.

Experience the Vision of Great Art with an Expert Guide

Professor William Kloss is your guide through this visual feast in an artist-centered survey that explores hundreds of paintings and sculptures by scores of artists.

An independent art historian, scholar, and curator, Professor Kloss is a frequent lecturer for the Smithsonian Institution's seminar and travel program. He has served on the Committee for the Preservation of the White House by presidential appointment since 1990, and he is the author of several books and exhibition catalogs.

Commenting on Kloss's eloquent writing, The Washington Post marveled that "his pointed and persuasive perceptions are not easily resisted."

Unlock the Mysteries of Renaissance Art

Take Botticelli's Primavera, a bewitching allegory of springtime featuring two gods, three goddesses, the three Graces, and Cupid, set in a lush orange grove. Its sheer beauty transfixes visitors to Florence's Uffizi Gallery, where it hangs today. But what does it mean?

Noting that for centuries scholars have debated the painting's symbolism, Professor Kloss directs your attention to a few intriguing details:

  • The orange tree foliage makes a halo around the central figure of Venus, connecting her with the Virgin Mary. According to Renaissance thought, Venus may also represent humanitas—culture or civilization.
  • On the right, flowers float from the mouth of the nymph Cloris, and her finger is merging with a flower in the gown of Flora, goddess of spring. One is metamorphosing into the other as spring arrives in this ideal glade of divine love.
  • Meanwhile on the left, Mercury is waving his staff to dispel a tiny patch of clouds. He is clearing the atmosphere—the intellect—for the three Graces who represent culture and the arts.
Professor Kloss then points out another equally rich interpretation and concludes, "A bad artist could do terrible things with such a complex story, but fortunately a great artist was at hand to visualize this elaborate subject."

The same can be said for all of the artists in this course, and it is through their distinctive styles, innovations, and matchless skill that you learn about this remarkable period.

What Is the Renaissance?

These lectures cover art history at the times of the Early Renaissance and the High Renaissance, which extended from about 1400 to about 1520. Italy is the first and principal location of the Renaissance, and it was in Florence that it took its deepest root.

The word renaissance means rebirth, and it is the name given to the transition from medieval to modern times in Europe, when the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman culture sparked a creative revolution in the humanities, the sciences, and the arts.

Humanism, a philosophical, literary, and artistic ideal, went hand in hand with this rebirth. It emphasized the dignity and potential of humanity and inspired secular studies, as well as the creation of art that reflected the forms and ideas of the Classical era. Renaissance society—and art—was permeated with religion.

In the arts, this new approach encompassed powerful new techniques for representing the human figure and the visible world, and also new attitudes about the roles of artists in society. From a modest rank as craftsman, the artist gradually rose to a status comparable to poets and philosophers.

Examine Works by More Than 40 Great Artists

The first 25 lectures examine the artists of Central Italy, where Florence is located, then the focus shifts to Northern Italy. You cover the works of more than 40 artists, among them:

  • Filippo Brunelleschi and Donatello: One an architect, the other a sculptor, they were the principal founders of the Renaissance style. Florence cannot be properly understood without looking at Brunelleschi's buildings, notably his dome for the Florence Cathedral. The influence of Donatello's sculpture was unequalled before Michelangelo.
  • Masaccio: The greatest painter of the Early Renaissance is studied in two lectures; he is compared to Giotto, the great "proto-Renaissance" master of a century earlier.
  • Piero della Francesca: Now considered one of the greatest Renaissance painters, he was primarily associated with smaller urban centers such as Urbino and Arezzo, where he created the fresco cycle The Legend of the True Cross.
  • Botticelli: Two lectures are devoted to this master whose wistful grace gave way to anguished expression as the religious climate in Florence took a fanatical turn under the reformer Savonarola.
  • Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael: For many, this triumvirate is synonymous with the High Renaissance. Their influence and fame have scarcely waned from their day to our own. Seven lectures are devoted to their work.
  • Andrea Mantegna: Master painter in Padua and Mantua, his art has a sculptural quality combined with rich color and a spirit of pathos. He was also an innovator in spatial illusionism in painting.
  • Carpaccio and Gentile Bellini: This pair excelled in rendering contemporary Venice in vivid narrative cycles. They are included in an eight-lecture sequence on Venice, the proud center of culture in northern, Adriatic Italy.
  • Antonello da Messina and Giovanni Bellini: Both working in Venice, they achieved such brilliant effects with the new oil medium that they inspired many other artists to adopt it. Giovanni Bellini was the younger brother of Gentile.
  • Giorgione and Titian: From Giovanni Bellini's workshop came two artists who helped define the Venetian High Renaissance. Giorgione altered the development of Western art, and Titian blended the achievements of Giorgione, central Italian painting, and his own coloristic genius into a style of stirring beauty.

Some of the Art You See

The visual content of this course puts it in a class with heavily illustrated art books. Some 500 images of paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, maps, buildings, and architectural details are featured. Many works are explored in considerable depth, with searching commentary by Professor Kloss that is both enlightening and personal. For example:

  • Church of San Lorenzo, by Brunelleschi: "Brunelleschi's architecture reflects the scale of the human being. I have a greater sense of calm and comfort and well-being in that church than any other Italian church until we get to the work of Palladio well over 100 years later. It's an extraordinary experience."
  • St. George, by Donatello: "The widespread legs of the figure and the central axis of the shield lead us up to the head, the vigilant, intelligent head, a thinking head. We take it far too much for granted, but Donatello has been able to give the power of thought to the head of George."
  • Ginevra de' Benci, by Leonardo da Vinci: "The strangely unemotional character of the face, the dreamy eyes, don't really connect with ours. This seems to be more of a projection of Leonardo's own secretive personality than a record of the sitter's. I think that it is generally true of portrait artists that they project themselves to a large degree onto their sitters."
  • The Sistine Chapel Ceiling, by Michelangelo: "Do I think that the Sistine Ceiling was the victim of a poor or careless restoration? No, I do not; emphatically, I do not. These are the colors that we should have expected to see. These are in fact the colors of much later 16th-century Italian painting. We always knew that Michelangelo invented the poses of the human body that were used by everyone for the rest of the century. Now we know that he may have invented the colors as well."
  • Baldassare Castiglione, by Raphael: "Look in his eyes. Look at the wonderful blue-green of his eyes against the flesh tones and against the grayish background. The color scheme of the whole thing is a flawless consonance of gray, black, flesh tones, of perfectly defined volumes, persuasive description, and in every sense it's the true likeness of the man. It is what we call a speaking likeness."
  • The Tempest, by Giorgione: "This is one of the most puzzling paintings in art history. My preferred explanation: The soldier and the broken columns symbolize fortitude or constancy. The woman and child stand for Christian love. The threatening storm over the town and the country is a symbol of fortune or chance. What is distinctly uncommon here is the subordination of the emblematic devices to the evocative landscape. This is the first instance of Italian painting in which a landscape is given the principal role, not just a supporting role, but the principal role."
You discuss many other major masterpieces in detail, from Giotto's frescoes for the Arena Chapel and Ghiberti's bronze doors for the Florence Baptistery to Leonardo's The Last Supper and Michelangelo's Last Judgment.

Terms and Techniques

Professor Kloss offers other insights as well. Did you know that it is incorrect to refer to Leonardo as "da Vinci," which is not his last name but the indication of his town of birth? Or that the Renaissance was put on hold for half a century due to the Black Death? Or that Renaissance marble sculpture was sometimes painted?

You also learn how to recognize saints from the symbols that accompany them: St. Paul by his sword, St. Peter by his keys, and St. Jerome by the stone in his hand with which he strikes himself in penance for his sins.

Of great use in your further studies are the terms and techniques that Professor Kloss explains:

  • In Italian, the 14th century is called the Trecento. The literal meaning is 300, but it is shorthand for the 1300s. Likewise, the 15th century is called the Quattrocento and the 16th the Cinquecento. These Italian terms are commonly used in art historical writing and speaking about Italian art.
  • Fresco means fresh in Italian. The technique involves painting on a shallow layer of freshly troweled wet plaster (the intonaco) with water-based pigments, which penetrate into the plaster. Rapid execution is required before the plaster sets overnight, allowing one working day. The area that can be covered is thus called a giornata (day, or day's work).
  • In linear or one-point perspective, the vanishing point corresponds to the spectator's viewpoint, and that is why the pictorial space can be felt as an extension of the viewer's real space. Leon Battista Alberti, the architect who first published a formulation of these principles in 1435, likened the picture surface to a window.
  • Drying oils such as linseed oil and walnut oil form a solid film when exposed to the air for long enough time. Because they dry slowly, they can be applied evenly over a wide surface. The color, bound in the oil, has a richness and a luminosity that comes from the translucency of the medium.
  • Uffizi, the name of the famous museum in Florence, in English means simply offices—the original function of the museum building.

The Renaissance: 120 Years That Transformed Art

In the final two lectures, Professor Kloss looks at the Renaissance as a whole and surveys the political, social, and religious events of the early 16th century that brought profound change to Italy and the rest of Europe. He then examines how art inevitably changed as a result.

Altogether, the Renaissance lasted about 120 years, and the period of the High Renaissance a little over 40 years. No later Western art can be discussed without reference to this era—especially as it matured and flourished in the cities of Italy.

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    Italy and the Renaissance
    This lecture examines the features of late medieval culture in Italy that paved the way for the Renaissance. In painting, Giotto di Bondone evolved a proto-Renaissance style in contrast to the prevailing late-Gothic style. x
  • 2
    From Gothic to Renaissance
    Around 1400, a European-wide style known as International Gothic flourished in Italy. Artists including Lorenzo Monaco and Gentile da Fabriano retained this style. Others, such as Lorenzo Ghiberti, developed a new style that we call Renaissance. x
  • 3
    Brunelleschi and Ghiberti in Florence
    Architecture is central to understanding the birth of the Renaissance, and it was in Florence that the first great buildings of the Renaissance were constructed. This lecture looks at the buildings of Filippo Brunelleschi and the famous bronze doors of Lorenzo Ghiberti. x
  • 4
    Donatello and Luca della Robbia
    The most influential visual artist in Italy in the 15th century was Donatello. This lecture traces his work until he moved to Padua in 1443. Also covered is Luca della Robbia, whose superb choir gallery for the Florence Cathedral is in direct competition with Donatello's choir gallery for the same church. x
  • 5
    Masaccio
    The first of two lectures on Masaccio examines his Pisa Altarpiece. Also studied is his monumental fresco The Trinity, with attention to his introduction of one-point perspective. x
  • 6
    Masaccio—The Brancacci Chapel
    This lecture looks at Masaccio's principal frescoes for the Brancacci Chapel, with special attention to their melding of style and narrative content. Masaccio undertook the project with Masolino. x
  • 7
    Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi
    Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi were the most important painters in Florence after the death of Masaccio. Fra Angelico was able to switch between a late medieval style and a more realistic Renaissance manner. Fra Filippo Lippi's paintings combine charm and inward quietness. x
  • 8
    Three Specialists
    This lecture looks at paintings by three contrasting artists in Florence. Paolo Uccello was devoted to foreshortening and perspective. Andrea del Castagno found ways to make figures look like painted sculptures. And Domenico Veneziano introduced a tonal delicacy and pastel palette from his native Venice. x
  • 9
    Donatello and Padua
    Continuing the career of Donatello, Professor Kloss covers Donatello's move to Padua to work on a bronze equestrian statue, Gattamelata. Among his other Paduan works is a wooden sculpture, Saint John the Baptist. On returning to Florence, he made the even more expressive Saint Mary Magdalen. x
  • 10
    Piero della Francesca—Individual Works
    The first of two lectures on Piero della Francesca explores works painted between about 1445 and 1470, including his Baptism of Christ and the famous Resurrection, and later paintings such as the Madonna and Child with Saints and the unfinished Nativity. x
  • 11
    Piero della Francesca—Legend of the True Cross
    This lecture covers Piero's great fresco cycle, The Legend of the True Cross, depicting the story of Jesus' cross from its origin in the tree of knowledge to its disappearance and rediscovery by Saint Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine. x
  • 12
    Pageant of Life in Renaissance Florence
    Benozzo Gozzoli and Domenico Ghirlandaio incorporated the civic life of Florence into their narrative paintings, while continuing the Renaissance exploration of pictorial space, both in landscape and in architectural settings. x
  • 13
    The Heroic Nude
    This lecture considers two artists of the male nude. Antonio del Pollaiuolo's figures are violently dramatic. Luca Signorelli used more static, contemplative poses, but he also created astonishingly physical nudes in Resurrection of the Dead and The Damned Consigned to Hell. x
  • 14
    Sculpture Small and Large
    This lecture looks at four important sculptors and their contrasting contributions to Renaissance art: Antonio Pisanello, Francesco di Giorgio, Antonio Rossellino, and Andrea del Verrocchio. x
  • 15
    Botticelli—Spirituality and Sensuality
    The first of two lectures on Sandro Botticelli pays particular attention to the Birth of Venus and Primavera (Spring). The latter is one of the most discussed paintings in Renaissance art. x
  • 16
    Botticelli and the Trouble in Italy
    In his later career, Botticelli produced works such as the disquieting Calumny of Apelles, possibly painted as a defense of the Puritanical preacher Savonarola, whose execution in 1498 initiated Botticelli's metaphysical phase culminating in the haunting Mystic Nativity. x
  • 17
    Filippino Lippi
    Filippino Lippi, son of Fra Filippo Lippi, completed the fresco cycle in the Brancacci Chapel left unfinished by Masaccio. Noted for his poetic softness and melancholy, his work took an expressionistic turn toward the end of his life. x
  • 18
    Leonardo da Vinci—Portraits and Altarpieces
    Two lectures are devoted to Leonardo da Vinci, who had already achieved a mature style by his early twenties when he painted Ginevra de' Benci. Also featured are his unfinished Adoration of the Magi, the haunting Madonna of the Rocks, Mona Lisa, and the beautiful Lady with an Ermine. x
  • 19
    Leonardo da Vinci—The Last Supper
    Professor Kloss sketches the history of Leonardo's The Last Supper, contrasting it with other representations of the subject. Despite its deteriorating state since Leonardo's lifetime, the painting has always overwhelmed viewers by its emotional power. x
  • 20
    Michelangelo—Florentine Works
    The first of three lectures on Michelangelo covers the early career of an artist called "divine" long before his own death. This lecture features his sculptures of Bacchus, the Pietá, David, the Bruges Madonna, and the only finished example of his early forays into painting, the Doni Tondo. x
  • 21
    Michelangelo—Roman Projects
    In the early 1500s, Michelangelo was engaged to paint a fresco of the Battle of Cascina in Florence. It was never completed, since he was summoned to Rome to design a massive papal tomb with sculptures that would become some of his greatest figures, including Moses and Dying Slave. x
  • 22
    Michelangelo—The Sistine Chapel Ceiling
    Professor Kloss discusses the symbolic and theological story in the ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, and the unparalleled inventiveness that Michelangelo brought to the task of designing and painting more than 5,700 square feet of ceiling surface in four years. x
  • 23
    Raphael—Madonnas and Portraits
    The first of two lectures on Raphael studies his different interpretations of the Madonna and Child theme, for which he is best known. He was also a superb portraitist, as evidenced by his Julius II, Baldassare Castiglione, and Bindo Altoviti. x
  • 24
    Raphael—History Paintings
    Raphael was a master of grand narrative painting of religious, mythological, and secular themes. His greatest works in this genre are the monumental frescoes for the official papal stanzae, or rooms. These include the Disputa, School of Athens, and Expulsion of Heliodorus. x
  • 25
    Urbino—Microcosm of Renaissance Civilization
    This lecture explores Urbino's palace-fortress, whose gem is the Studiolo, or small study, one of the most famous rooms of the Renaissance. Its beautiful cupboards are decorated with inlaid trompe l'oeil designs, some of which are illusionistic replicas of the books, instruments, and armor they once enclosed. x
  • 26
    Andrea Mantegna in Padua and Mantua
    The course moves to Northern Italy—to Padua and Mantua, where Andrea Mantegna was one of the most individualistic artists of the late 15th century. Among his works discussed are the frescoes in the Ovetari Chapel, the famous ceiling fresco of the Camera degli Sposi, and The Dead Christ. x
  • 27
    Venice—Byzantine, Gothic, and Renaissance
    The first of eight lectures on Venice surveys its setting and history. At the core of the city are the ducal palace and Basilica of San Marco, adorned with bronze horses and the enamel plaques for the Pala d'Oro, plunder from the sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade. x
  • 28
    Celebrating the Living City
    Vittore Carpaccio and Gentile Bellini were painters devoted to Venice's beauties and virtues, which they displayed in works such as Lion of San Marco by Carpaccio and Miracle of the Cross at Ponte San Lorenzo by Bellini. x
  • 29
    Giovanni Bellini—The Early Years
    The first of three lectures on Giovanni Bellini, brother of Gentile, studies his Madonnas and his moving images of the Pietá, or Lamentation. Bellini was Andrea Mantegna's brother-in-law, and their versions of The Agony in the Garden are compositionally similar but stylistically and expressively diverse. x
  • 30
    Antonello da Messina and Giovanni Bellini
    One of the major influences on Bellini was Antonello da Messina. This lecture traces that influence through works such as Antonello's San Cassiano Altarpiece and Crucifixion, and Bellini's San Giobbe Altarpiece, Transfiguration, and St. Francis in Ecstasy. x
  • 31
    Giovanni Bellini—The Late Years
    This lecture explores the serene style of Bellini in his later years, including Madonna and Child with the Magdalen and St. Catherine, the noble Doge Leonardo Loredan, the San Zaccaria Altarpiece, and the remarkable mythological painting The Feast of the Gods. x
  • 32
    Giorgione
    Giorgione's masterful use of oils and softness of touch, together with his ambiguous subject matter, have made him one of the most admired artists of his age. He is best known for The Tempest, showing a soldier and a nude woman and child, flanking the opening into a lush, storm-menaced landscape. x
  • 33
    Giorgione or Titian?
    Titian probably completed the paintings left unfinished by Giorgione, who died of plague in 1510. This lecture explores the question of attribution by looking at several "problem pictures," including Sleeping Venus and Adoration of the Shepherds, which caused a famous quarrel in art dealing. x
  • 34
    Titian—The Early Years
    Titian's influence has reverberated through the history of art from Rubens to Delacroix to Renoir. This lecture looks at eight of his masterpieces, including the famous Sacred and Profane Love, which is as enigmatic as it is beautiful. x
  • 35
    A Culture in Crisis
    The first of two summary lectures compares works from the Early and High Renaissance to judge the stylistic shift that occurred during the period. This shift is mirrored by political turmoil culminating in the sack of Rome by the troops of Emperor Charles V in 1527. x
  • 36
    The Renaissance Reformed
    The Renaissance was succeeded by Mannerism, a style well illustrated by Parmigianino's distorted Madonna of the Long Neck. Some artists resisted the trend, notably Titian. Professor Kloss closes with a final look at three vastly different interpretations of The Last Supper: Castagno's version of 1447, Leonardo's of about 1498, and Tintoretto's startling vision of about 1594. x

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William Kloss
M.A. William Kloss
Independent Art Historian

Professor William Kloss is an independent art historian and scholar who lectures and writes about a wide range of European and American art. He was educated at Oberlin College, where he earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in Art History. He continued his postgraduate work on a teaching fellowship at the University of Michigan and was then awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for two years of study in Rome. As Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Virginia, he taught 17th- and 18th-century European art and 19th-century French art. Professor Kloss has enjoyed a long association with the Smithsonian Institution, presenting more than 150 courses in the United States and abroad on subjects ranging from ancient Greek art to Impressionism to the works of Winslow Homer. He has also been a featured lecturer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and for The Art Institute of Chicago. Professor Kloss serves on the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, a presidential appointment he has held since 1990. He is the author of several books, including Art in the White House: A Nation's Pride (2nd edition), which won the 2009 National Indie Excellence Award in the Art Category, as well as a 2009 USABookNews award for Best Book in Art. Most recently, he coauthored the United States Senate Catalogue of Fine Art. He also has written articles published in Winterthur Portfolio, The Magazine Antiques, American Arts Quarterly, and Antiques & Fine Art.

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Reviews

Rated 4.9 out of 5 by 46 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Outstanding This course prepared me very well for a "trip of a lifetime" to Firenze. When I visited the museums and churches I felt like I was visiting old friends because of the excellent introductions provided by this professor. However, there was one artist, Cimabue (13th-14th century), about whom I knew nothing until I saw some of his works in Firenze. I found his work to be quite different from that of other contemporary artists. It was more realistic, like Giotto's. And like Giotto's, his work helped point the way toward Renaissance art. But this is before the Renaissance and so outside the scope of this course. I only mention it to give a heads up to other Italian Renaissance art lovers to keep an eye open to Cimabue, too. December 14, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Great Course about the Renaissance! Delightful presentation as well as very informative. Sequence of content is perfect. Visuals are aligned with content of lecture and sufficient to illustrate the lecturer's points. Can't say enough about Dr. Kloss, his understated style and wit and obvious depth of knowledge. Gives you more than a glimpse of art historian perspective without being too much. Wonderful course. December 3, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Great investment! I took this course before visiting Florence, Italy for the first time. It elevated my appreciation for art and architecture in a way that I had not felt before on any other vacation. It made my visit the best I have ever experienced. I look forward to many other trips in my future through your courses in North America and Europe. Thank you. September 15, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Beautiful course, beautifully taught I can't add much to the many well-written, glowing reviews this course and Professor Kloss have already received. However, to anyone who may be confused by the rare negative comments about Professor Kloss, let me share my experience. This class was my first exposure both to The Great Courses and Professor Kloss several years ago. I was unsure how to take Professor Kloss for the first few lectures myself, and then I realized why: In an age where screaming often passes for genuine discussion and sincerity is a dirty word, Professor Kloss's civility and genuineness can take one aback initially. By the end of the first six lectures, I was checking to see what other courses he taught. I now own all of his courses and have watched them all several times., and I am just waiting for a new course of his to add to my collection. June 6, 2014
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