Now that books are shedding weight and dematerialising into electronic pads, I worry about the fate of coffee tables. Books of a certain kind need to be bulky, and they also cry out to be displayed. Leafing through them can be as much of a tonic as the coffee on the table beside them.The Vatican: All the Paintings: The Complete Collection of Old Masters, Plus More Than 300 Sculptures, Maps, Tapestries, and Relicsby Anje Grebe, Ross King Tell us what you think: Star-rate and review this book
A prime specimen is Anja Grebe's huge, heavy The Vatican: All the Paintings (Black Dog & Leventhal). The subtitle is almost a threat: yes, every last painting is here. Grebe conducts you on an exhaustive tour of the ecclesiastical spoils, concluding with an unexpected display of modern religious art. Ross King's introduction calls the papal HQ "a place sacred to the arts"; I'd say it was a place sanctified by the arts, since the Catholic church almost atones for its iniquities by its habit of commissioning artists. It's good to know that the genius loci predates Christianity: the hill behind St Peter's was once the symbolic resort of Apollo, the god of poetry and music.
Jonathan Jones's The Loves of the Artists (Simon & Schuster) is an antidote to Grebe's pious inventory. For Jones, Renaissance painting is a pornotopia, and the artists he studies are sexual radicals, flagrantly disrupting convention. Their scandals, in his racy telling, are tabloidesque: the erect penis of Fra Lippo Lippi is a symbol of Christ's resurrection, and Donatello's David sports kinky "bronzie lingerie". A painting's "tactile values", as Berenson called them, are only too palpable when Jones appraises the mammaries of Titian's models or the "bulging codpiece" of a figure in Giorgione. Sometimes he gets overexcited. I find it hard to envisage Brunelleschi's dome in Florence as "a soaring airborne breast", and do Venetian windows really resemble slit skirts?
After the worship of Eros in Jones's Renaissance, Vic Gatrell in The First Bohemians (Allen Lane) deals with the late 18th century and its rowdier urban delights, exemplified by Boswell picking up hookers in Covent Garden and adjourning to Green Park for consummation. Jones sees artists as libertines; Gatrell comes close to equating them with whores, since both lived off rich patrons. This is dense, jostling, ripely enjoyable social history, a memento of a time when central London, not yet an over-priced shopping mall, had its own raffish left bank.
Michael Petry's Nature Morte (Thames & Hudson) is equally lively, despite being about corpses. The fauna in this anatomy of contemporary still life is perverse – a two-headed sheep knitted into a jumper by Elaine Bradford, a china dog made of cigarettes by Sarah Lucas – and so is the flora, which includes Petry's own shamelessly randy flower sculptures. Still life, however, is a euphemism, and the final section about death includes work "by the artist who goes by the moniker Jim Skull". Petry's book is a cabinet of curiosities, both beautiful and weird – and it's the first I've ever seen with a lenticular cover.
Turner & the Sea by Christine Riding and Richard Johns (Thames & Hudson) is about the pictorial challenge of a subject that does not stay still and has no fixed form or colour. Contemporary reviewers who grumbled that Turner's works underwent "dissolution" before they reached the canvas paid him an inadvertent compliment. His chaotic storms, blurry mists, smudged rain showers and shimmering rainbows captured the most unstable element and transformed bad weather into great art; even Nelson's naval victories disappear into a luminous haze.
Norbert Wolf in Art Deco (Prestel) begins by rounding up the usual icons – the beaky gargoyles on the Chrysler building, the sharp sleek prow of an ocean liner – but then extends his survey to include Christ extending his arms on a mountain above Rio de Janeiro and Lenin with upraised arm on a design for the Palace of the Soviets. The predatory German eagle, spreading its wings in a Third Reich poster, also qualifies for inclusion. The book is large and lavish, but its sober text saves art deco from the frippery of all those multi-coloured Miami hotels and Erté mannequins: this was the style of the machine age, coldly dehumanised, and Wolf finds in its mannerisms a chilling prognostication of war.
Derek Jarman's Sketchbooks (Thames & Hudson) began as little leatherbound volumes bought in Italy. Jarman painted over the covers, blackened the pages and wrote on them in gold ink, turning them into profane missals that he stuffed with stray feathers, pressed flowers, newspaper cuttings and saucy male pin-ups, even a £10 note, which was his entire fee for directing a film of Britten's War Requiem. This facsimile is a precious relic of an era that was "pre-latop, pre-PhotoShop", when creativity was manual not digital; it is also an entrancing vindication of the book – whether handmade or printed – as an object of art.