Picture This!

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Once upon a time there was a grandmother who loved Italy. She wanted her young grandson to learn to love its culture and people as she did. So she bought him two books: Everyday Life in Ancient Rome and Everyday Life in the Renaissance. Back home she had a closer look at her purchases. First she peered into one book, then into the other. She was fascinated. When the grandson came to visit, the grandfather reminded her about the books. She blushed. She was sorry, she said, but she wanted to keep them for herself. The grandson started to cry. So the grandfather rushed out to buy two more copies, and everyone lived happily ever after. This is a true story!

The books are part of McRae Books’ ongoing series, Uncovering History, 48 pages long and richly illustrated. Aimed at the 8-12 year-old group, they will appeal to anyone from 8 to 98 interested in, or visiting Italy. The brief and informative texts are on a wide range of topics, which will satisfy the reader’s curiosity about how people lived and worked hundreds, even thousands, of years ago. Enough history is given at the beginning of every chapter (each chapter covers two facing pages) so that the reader has a sense of context, but the emphasis is on fascinating details. The plentiful and colourful illustrations consist of photographs of objects as well as specially-commissioned drawings. It’s the drawings of human activities that really captivate the reader, not least of all because the people portrayed look just the way we’d look dressed up in ancient costumes, making it easy to relate to them and, if we have lots of imagination, making us feel as though we could step right into the picture and become part of the scene.

The very special feature of the books are the acetate overlays of architecture, produced with the greatest precision, allowing us to see the exterior, and by turning over the page, the interior of various important buildings or building types. The overlays for Ancient Rome include public baths, the Colosseum, a Roman house and an apartment block. Those for the Renaissance show Brunelleschi’s dome of Florence Cathedral, Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling, a Northern European merchant’s house and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

The books are not only visually stimulating, they’re also a handy and reliable source of information. Both the texts and drawings are based on careful research, which includes newly discovered information. For instance, the overlay with the reconstruction of Michelangelo’s scaffolding in the Sistine Chapel is based on evidence that has recently come to light, replacing the romantic notion of a platform that required Michelangelo to lie on his back while painting the ceiling.

Neil Grant, Everyday Life in Ancient Rome, Florence: McRae Books Srl, 2005, €15.
Antony Mason, Everyday Life in the Renaissance, Florence: McRae Books Srl, 2005, €15.

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This page last updated: November 18, 2006.