The Stones of Florence is a travel book, and art history book, and a history of Florence rolled into one, but it reads more like a travel journal. McCarthy gives us a sense of what its is like to be there (in the 50s, when this was written) * and weaves in the history behind what she sees, and then ties that history to the city that remains; was built and shaped by it, right down to its people. McCarthy describes the people of Florence as different from other Italians because of their unique history. McCarthy focuses on the Renaissance period as the most formative and walks us through the various political and religious upheavals in the city (or dukedom, before the unification of Italy) and the rush of famous artists who descended on the city, and the architecture which still exudes that uniquely Florentine attitude.
McCarthy is--surprisingly, I guess--not a big Michelangelo fan (she refers to him as monomaniacal at one point), much preferring Donatello, saying;
"Michelangelo was the last truly public sculptor, and his works, so full of travail and labor, of knotted muscles and strained, suffering forms, are like a public death agony, prolonged and terrible to watch, of the art or craft of stonecutting."
This lady's not fooling around, or pulling any punches. This was fun to read, not least because of the time perspective; I found it really interesting to look at the Renaissance and 'modern' Firenze through the lens of 1956 pop America.
[A closing note: I was on vacation for the last two weeks in July, and I read a bunch of books. Some of these reviews and thoughts may be out of order, and may be slightly vague in my memory now.]
* I read the 1963 paperback version of this books which does NOT include the illustrations of the original 1956 book. I just discovered this (doh!) If you're going to read this, it seems like it would be better with the illustrations.