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The best books on Northern Renaissance

recommended by Christopher S. Wood

A History of Art History by Christopher S. Wood

A History of Art History
by Christopher S. Wood

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The Renaissance had quite distinct manifestations in Northern Europe and Italy: if the Southern Renaissance was all about abundance and positivity, the dominant theme of the Northern Renaissance was negativity, says New York University Professor Christopher S. Wood. He recommends what to read to learn more about the Northern Renaissance, from Bosch's fantasy bestiary of the demonic and the grotesque, to Bruegel's comic and badly proportioned peasants.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

A History of Art History by Christopher S. Wood

A History of Art History
by Christopher S. Wood

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Tell us about the most recent of your books, A History of Art History. How does it relate to books about the Northern Renaissance?

Despite the apparent obscurity or overly specialised quality of the title, art history is a very self-reflexive discipline. More so than any of the other Humanities, you might say. There’s a lot of literature on art history’s history. It’s a self-absorbed discipline. Pioneering figures from the 19th and early 20th centuries are still widely read and discussed and debated. There’s an almost obsessive involvement with art history’s own traditions. My book comes out of that context. I’ve always been writing on the history of art history. Amazingly, few people try to synthesise, which is what I set out to do, in telling one big sweeping story from what I see as the beginnings of art historical thinking in the late Middle Ages in Europe. But it’s also about China to some extent. China is the other tradition which has a lengthy and profound historiographical tradition. My access to that tradition is limited, as it’s based on translations, but nevertheless I try to do it some justice.

I began in the late Middle Ages with Lorenzo Ghiberti who’s a predecessor of Vasari’s. Most readers will know that Giorgio Vasari was an Italian painter of the mid-sixteenth century, a disciple of Michelangelo who wrote the first full-dress history of art, you might say. Vasari’s account is still the story we tell about Italian Renaissance art. Giotto, Masaccio, Leonardo da Vinci and culminating in Michelangelo. After Vasari, though, it gets much more complicated. I would say that with Vasari and the other early historians of art, what we’re talking about is a kind of annals of great artists. The story that he tells us is basically that civilisation achieved great things in art then went into decline during what we call the Middle Ages, only to recover that greatness and those lofty standards in the Renaissance. The major plot line of my book is the discovery in modernity—and by that, I mean the later 18th and 19th centuries and on into the 20th century—of the merits of all the art that Vasari despised and condescended to. The discovery for example that medieval art, clumsy as it may look for its apparent lack of mastery over perspective and so forth, contains great treasures and great achievements.

That seems like second nature to us today. Every cultivated person today loves medieval art, doesn’t compare it invidiously to Italian Renaissance art. Although in fact this point of view was an invention of the late 18th and early 19th century, around the period of Romanticism. So that in a word is the essential plot line in my book.

The Northern Renaissance is central to the argument of my book because in comparison to the Italian Renaissance, the Northern Renaissance plays the same role in the history of art that medieval art did in previous accounts. It is seen as lacking ideality, as unbalanced, regressive and lowly and never enjoying the same prestige that the Italian Renaissance did. Modernity rediscovers the Northern Renaissance masters and finally puts them on the same footing. So this dialectic of Italian and Northern or Italian and medieval is the inner structure of the book.

Why is it important to distinguish the Northern Renaissance from the Southern Renaissance, or the Renaissance more generally?

What do I mean by Northern Renaissance? I mean German and Netherlandish art of the 15th and 16th centuries. Think of Jan Van Eyck, Roger van der Weyden, the great Netherlandish painters of the 1400s. Then around 1500 the Germans start to dominate: Albrecht Dürer, Matthias Grünewald, Lucas Cranach. But the Netherlandish artists reassert themselves: Hieronymus Bosch, and in the 16th century Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

That’s the tradition. There has been major work on this tradition in the 20th century. Erwin Panofsky, the great German art historian, played a huge role writing major books both on Dürer and on early Netherlandish painting. My own historical field is the Northern Renaissance. That’s what I’ve written about mainly for the last 30 years, so I chose that span of time to identify five books on the topic, beginning with Michael Baxandall’s The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany.

In 1980 when this book was published, I was a student and it had a huge and direct impact on me. Baxandall was a British scholar who died a few years ago, who was associated with soft Marxist social art history, looking at social and economic conditions. He had studied in Munich just after the war and had been introduced to this material which at the time few in the anglophone world knew. Baxandall discovered these religious works, altarpieces mostly, carved in the limewood of the title of the book. Limewood is the wood of the linden tree, left bare in these works, left unpainted. That’s one of the great features of these artworks. They are made of this mellow, very expressive and very beautiful substance. Baxandall’s book is highly attentive to materials. This wood is soft, and is carved into flowing and expressive forms. It’s highly seductive art, although it comes from an alien world. What Baxandall tries to do is to reconstruct this world for us, including the liturgical functions of these works, the religious context of the Protestant Reformation with its notorious hostility to images, so these sculptural images were under a very real threat from reformers; the market for this work, meaning how artists were paid and how they were organised into guilds, who the patrons were and who the artists were.

“It’s simply an exemplary synthetic work of art history, beautifully written”

Featuring the limewood in the title was a master stroke because nobody knows much about it. Famously, in a chapter he describes with the help of botanists the nature of this wood. He explains how its cell structure lends itself to this kind of carving and how it guides formal and structural thinking. Nobody in the history of art history had really ever gone into such depth into a discussion of materials. He’s also attentive to the real-life conditions of viewing these works in the time they were made. There is a passage where he talks about an altarpiece in a chapel in Germany where it stands surrounded by windows. He observes that there’s a “dead period in the middle of the day,” when the altarpiece in question lacks direct lighting and so it looks dull, flat as if it were in a photograph, and you suddenly realise that the guy’s been standing there all day camped out in the church to watch the play of light as the sun moved over the altar.

At the time of its publication this book was hailed by many as a triumph of the so-called ‘new art history’, oriented towards social conditions and the like. Everyone was very impressed with the way that Baxandall reconstructed the social dimension of life in this distant world. In fact, however, with the passing of time, this book just feels more and more classic. He balanced the claims of form and content, the claims of the object and of the world that produced it. It’s simply an exemplary synthetic work of art history, beautifully written. I go back to it even now and find it suspenseful.

This was one of the books that provoked me to go into this field. The German Renaissance was an opportunity at the time, and this relates to the history of art history. German scholars after World War II were largely reluctant to work on this material, and in general shied away from German art because the field had been opportunistically occupied by nationalist and even Nazi-leaning historians during the 30s and 40s who had cast a kind of shadow over this whole field. German historians opted to look instead at the early Middle Ages or Italian art, but not to venture into this German material which had somehow been compromised. Baxandall and then the next generation, American and British scholars of my generation, leapt in to fill this vacuum. Collectively, we have produced an entire body of work on the German Renaissance which in a way overtook the Germans. Now a younger line of German historians of course is catching up.

Another of Baxandall’s books that we featured elsewhere on the site is Painting and Experience in 15th Century Italy. What I found striking about this work, like his earlier book, is that Baxandall situates you, the reader, very much in the position of somebody attending a liturgy or experiencing these works first hand. Aside from the lingering attention to the materials is the attention he pays to lines of sight and perspective, the very physical experience of being confronted with one of these works.

Absolutely. Because we’re talking about something three-dimensional, this is one step beyond the two-dimensional plane of the painted picture, that materiality takes on an even greater importance. Here is a sub-segment of Renaissance art with very few big-name art celebrities. The German Renaissance sculptors were almost completely unknown outside a small circle of scholars. Only a scholar like Baxandall, who had already written the book you mention, standard reading for every art historian—this is one of the most influential books ever written in art history, a smaller and more versatile volume and in some ways less arcane in its references—who had already established himself could have gotten away with what he did in this book.

Despite the fact that the limewood sculptors remain largely unknown to us today, one of the things Baxandall alights on is the emergence of individual style as one of the major cultural characteristics of the age. Even if these were religious artefacts that were created to a particular formula, each artwork nonetheless carries the very distinct signature of its maker.

These works are on the threshold between cult images and art works. Many of us art historians, my own work included, retell the story of the Renaissance again and again as the drama of the transformation of the cult image into an autonomous secular artwork. How did the habits of viewing associated with autonomous artworks come into being? This book strikes right at the heart of that.

We’ve also spoken elsewhere on the site about the printing press as an agent of change. Elizabeth Eisenstein’s book is one you’re familiar with, and I was reminded of this in reading David Landau and Peter Parshall’s book The Renaissance Print. Like the printed word, the printed image was a means of cultural transference that created the conditions for the spread of Renaissance ideas across Europe and beyond. 

That is also a major theme in my own History of Art History. It’s no coincidence that Vasari’s art history, which was not illustrated by the way, he did not feature woodcut or engraving images, was nonetheless coming out of a print culture. Everyone, artists and patrons alike were collecting, comparing, poring over prints, often so-called reproductive prints which reproduced paintings. So art historical knowledge disseminated but also accelerated cultural change, in the sense that now people didn’t have to travel to see works of art. You could buy a piece of paper which reproduced famous images, all of which we take for granted now. This institutes a kind of feedback effect within art history. Artists as a result can keep tabs on one another. They are also reading, Vasari’s printed books and others, and so printed books with printed images all initiate this feedback loop which effectively creates the subject matter of art history. That’s a big theme in my book and was a very important phenomenon in the Northern Renaissance.

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Parshall and Landau’s was a book that surprised everyone. I remember feeling gratitude because I’m very partial to prints and have worked on them extensively. I was always enamoured of printmaking and resentful of its slightly second-class status in scholarship. It’s rarer than you might think to work on Renaissance art and to work on both prints and paintings. Even today the field pretty much splits into painting people and print people. I can really count on one hand the people even of my generation who are completely comfortable in both. There’s something about the print medium, perhaps that has to do with the way they are stored differently in museums—prints are kept in print cabinets—and so the conditions of viewing are also very different from paintings. You have to make an appointment to see an old print, the experience today is more like going to a library than visiting a white-walled gallery.

Having said that, Parshall and Laundau are very much print people, eminent print scholars. Landau works mostly on Italian art, Parshall mostly on Northern European art, they’re not ambidextrous in that way but that doesn’t matter. I was grateful for this book because it synthesises so much information, telling us this story which had really never been told in one big sweep. It’s a kind of monumental survey. I very much admire books that do that. A lot of scholarship is fragmented into article-length, focused studies or even book-length studies which are monographic, i.e., the focus is a single artist or single theme. They’re often argument- or thesis-driven, so they tend toward the tendentious and generally have a short shelf life, because within 10 years or so it’s likely that argument will no longer seem so compelling. More encompassing work can be found in other historical fields, but not that many art historians, eminent scholars in particular, are willing to invest the time required to write a 400-page book which covers so much material without really putting forth an argument. The argument of The Renaissance Print would be that you can’t understand the Renaissance unless you understand this body of material.

“Dürer was the greatest of all print makers and the one who brought woodcut and engraving to their maximally eloquent and powerful forms”

Prints are important because they disseminate information. They reproduce, fix and standardise information. Maps, diagrams, portraits and so forth, all kinds of pictorial knowledge get established and amplified. Technical information, too. The forerunner of the instruction manual was devised at around this time. The guilds and crafts had controlled a lot of knowledge, prior to the effective invention of the ‘how-to’ book, by passing it on through word of mouth and apprenticeship. Suddenly, print broke that all open. They leaked all this knowledge from the workshops. And that is a story in its own right, and one which meshes with the story that Parshall and Landau tell, which is not so much about information, but about prints as artworks and in particular the tension between prints that make a claim to be independent artworks, not derivative from other works. I’m thinking of the woodcuts and engravings of Albrecht Dürer in particular.

Dürer was the greatest of all print makers and the one who brought woodcut and engraving to their maximally eloquent and powerful forms. His prints, although they were multiples, made in editions, were not copies of paintings. They were not in any way dependent on works in another medium. They were ‘medium specific’ we would say as modernists. They took advantage of and exploited the formal properties of woodcut and engraving and etching, the three major media in the Renaissance. These are independent works of art and are in dialectic with reproductive engravings, which were typically engravings, and sometimes woodcuts, which try to convey the properties of another work of art, reproducing a faithful copy of the image, apart from colour.

The Northern artists, and Dürer principally, were aspiring to make independent or autonomous prints. Italian artists worked mostly in reproductive engraving. There is a productive tension between these two modes and one of the achievements of Parshall and Landau’s book is that it puts Northern and Italian art on the same footing. In fact when you focus on prints, Northern art actually somehow takes the lead. It’s what appealed to me. If we give prints their rightful place within this story, it levels out the gradient between the two traditions.

Of all these books, this one conjured up an image of Europe suddenly being flooded with this incredible richness of visual information that had previously been unavailable. Perhaps it bears comparison with our own internet-led, visually saturated age.

What was distinctive about prints is that there were far fewer iconographic restrictions on image making than there were in other media during the Renaissance. It was a kind of open field because the work is not sitting on an altar in a church. Anything was possible. So artists were much freer to experiment or to import eccentric or even in some cases subversive material. This is one of the things that makes the field so compelling. It’s wild stuff!

We’ve spoken about sculpture and prints, let’s talk about Northern Renaissance painting, and The Art of Arts next. 

This was a wild card. Anita Albus is not a professional scholar and was unknown to scholars in this field before the publication of this book. She was trained as a botanical painter in the manner of the Old Masters of the 17th century. These were painters of highly detailed descriptive images. I want to invoke in this context the great book of the 1980s by Svetlana Alpers called The Art of Describing.

Alpers’s thesis was that whereas Italian art is dedicated to storytelling or visual argumentation or the standardisation of knowledge, Northern art was fundamentally descriptive and devoted itself to the task of rendering the look of things. She made that out to be an epistemological and cultural project of equal significance. Alpers was defending Northern painting against the more language-based, discursive and philosophically fortified Italian painting. But that was the 17th century, so that doesn’t count as the Renaissance.

In a way, Anita Albus wrote the prehistory of Alpers’s book, but did so in a highly distinctive way. It’s a series of poetic essays. They’re like prose poems, really, and stuffed with arcane knowledge and scholarship. She has read the primary sources and has come up with a trove of arcane lore about plants and animals, her primary focus as a painter, but also about food and medicine, about folklore and folkways.

There’s everything to be found, as audiences in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance were trained to find innumerable symbolic references in visual works—allegorical elements aplenty.

She tracks down all these fascinating references. She has the storyteller’s gift. I always assign this book in class as a kind of counterweight to the more prosaic scholarly books. This is the kind of thing that students should be reading because it’s a book that’s driven by passion, by appetite, and by curiosity. It’s a completely original model of scholarship. In fact it belongs to a new genre which she invented. It is scholarly. Everything she says is grounded and true. She animates it all with her imagination. The Art of Arts is a book that is about the tradition of painting that was inaugurated by Jan Van Eyck, the Flemish painter of the early 15th century who invented oil painting in effect and was credited with that by Vasari. Even the Italians understood that it was a Northerner who with the practical genius of an alchemist learned how to bind pigments to mediums in such a way as to create these glowing translucent surfaces, capable of describing anything in reality. Metals, glass, water, fur, hair, wood, earth, plants, animals…. Suddenly a painting became—and this is what she means by ‘the art of arts’—a kind of comprehensive medium capable of engulfing and processing everything. It simply became the mirror of reality.

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These painters like Van Eyck tended to work on small scales and they produced miniature worlds. They essentially reduced the world to a small scale and created fascination and wonder as responses which competed then with traditional religious responses to art. As a result, it’s also part of the birth of secular painting. Although she’s got lots to say about Christian iconography, you get the sense that painting becomes a secularising project. It’s about the senses, it’s about the individual’s private pleasure in these works. She brings all that pleasure to the fore. I love this book and have enjoyed going back to it over the years.

Two painters whose work is replete with symbolism are Bosch and Bruegel. One was the successor to the other in the Northern Renaissance so there’s a chronological tie, but Joseph Koerner’s book brings these two artists together in an unexpected way. 

In Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life, Koerner uses these two artists to tell us again this simple classic story about the Renaissance, namely the transformation of one world view into another. A medieval world view—xenophobic, superstitious, bound by traditions, fear of God, acutely conscious of the distance between God and man on the one hand—that’s Bosch, and on the other hand Bruegel, who is two generations younger, well into the 16th century, working with a more recognisably modern and humanist worldview—resigned to man’s alienation from God, aware that if man is going to make meaning out of his life it’s going to have to be in harmony with other human beings. We’re going to have to live with one another, Bruegel’s work seems to say, so it replaces a religious worldview or cosmology with an anthropological worldview.

Joseph Koerner is one of the great art historians of my generation. He wrote at least two other books—on Dürer and on the Reformation—which could have been on this list. I chose this one because it’s the most recent. Koerner had published some articles and had given lectures which gave a hint of the book’s argument, but the result when it was published was magisterial and stunning. Everybody loves Bosch and Bruegel. Bosch is known for his monsters and demons, his grotesque depictions of this world and others. Bruegel also painted demons and was seen in his time as a kind of new Bosch. But Bruegel is also known and perhaps more famous for his depictions of rural life. His bulbous peasants, comic scenes of peasant life, weddings and dances, are typical. What Koerner brings out in his book is art history as a history of ideas or a history of mentalities. He brings Bruegel close to Shakespeare really, suggesting that Bruegel has a secular but also a tragic sense of man’s destiny.

Koerner talks about the customs the folklore of the time as becoming suitable subjects for depiction in art with Bruegel, themes that were otherwise regarded as profane. As a result he situates the everyday at the centre of painting. It was a pretty revolutionary thing to do.

It was completely revolutionary. Bruegel did not paint altarpieces. He was living in an age of scepticism about religious images. Instead, he painted large pictures which in some ways resemble altarpieces but replaced the traditional subject matter with this new body of material. A lot of Bruegel’s subjects were already circulating, as we said earlier, in the form of prints, which were iconographically freer. Bruegel took the simple but radical step of promoting that material onto the larger stage of panel painting. He basically proposed a toleration of difference, an acceptance of a disenchanted world view. As Koerner puts it at one point, it’s the transition from divine certitude to the incertitude of being human. The paintings basically promulgated and proposed a certain acceptance of contingency. The old discourses and traditions of thought, scholastic philosophy and so forth, were no longer going to provide answers to the big questions. So Bruegel basically sets us out wandering on our own in search of answers.

“Our grasp or embrace of the world pictorially through perspectival measurement is the symbol of our self-reliance”

I see this as classic art history in the way that Baxandall in the long run turned out to be classic art history. How is Koerner’s story different from what Panofsky told us once upon a time about perspective? Perspective was also a way of saying that the world is what we can measure with our own senses, and our grasp or embrace of the world pictorially through perspectival measurement is the symbol of our self-reliance. There is no divine perspective in the arts from this moment on.

With this book, as with others in the selection, I see the argument as an updated account of a classic narrative of the Renaissance. That is emphatically not the case for our final book, Into the White.

This was a trip! We often think of the Renaissance and the early modern period as the age exploration. Technology and map making provide explorers with the tools to discover terra incognita. Only here, we’re talking about discovering the undiscoverable. The Arctic really challenged the anthropological worldview that you describe. Many of the early European descriptions of the Arctic as relayed in Christopher Heuer’s book seem to orbit around ideas of indiscernability and blindness.

What Heuer calls degraded visibility represents a breakdown of humanist stabilities and certainties. Artistic perspective, pioneered in the Renaissance, is the symbol of these certainties. Into the White is essentially saying that the experience of Arctic exploration, into the icy wilderness, was profoundly disorienting and destabilising and permanently challenged any assumptions we may have had about the efficacy of the subject’s attempt to grasp the object through representational regimes. This is a very original book. You would think there would be nothing to say about this vast emptiness.

It’s a book that’s completely unlike Koerner’s in that it’s not structured by artists or their careers and oeuvres. It’s art history as cultural history. In some ways it’s also the opposite of Albus’s book. It’s all about blankness and whiteness, about abstraction and deficiency and lack. Whereas Albus’s work is all about abundance, an early Renaissance treasury. Here we go to raid the icebox and there’s nothing in it! Explorers in the 16th and 17th century go up to the Arctic and what is they find is extreme cold, ice, death, devastation, hardship and precious few resources. Here again we have the very opposite to what was being depicted in the Italian Renaissance, which is also always about abundance and an affirmation of this world. The book is also a foil to the explorations of the New World, the Americas, where again the rhetoric and the imagery is of sensory overload, an infinity of new species of plants and animals whereas the Arctic was just the opposite.

Now, you might ask, well what does that have to do with art history? Well, Heuer’s ingenious intuition I would say is that there is some connection between this European “into the white” as he calls it and the iconoclastic or iconophobic tendencies that were roiling Europe in this period, particularly Northern, Protestant Europe. As we mentioned, Protestants were skeptical about images. Heuer invokes a painting by Bruegel where a religious scene is veiled by snow and ice. Snow interferes with our vision. This is somehow comparable to the whitewashing or concealing involved in the in Reformation. As Heuer points out, the Reformation wasn’t simply a matter of destroying images. It was often a matter of hiding or masking or disguising them. He claims that the explorations challenged ideas about representation and involved encounters with things like icebergs, which were out of scale with anything in previous European experience. If he sometimes stretches a point, I forgive him for the sheer verve and dynamism of his imagination.

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Heuer also very deftly and naturally weaves in episodes and figures from contemporary art as well. He speaks about the American critic Lucy Lippard going up to the Arctic Circle in 1969 and creating a conceptual art project, or more recently the work of Olafur Eliasson; weaving these stories into a larger narrative present throughout the book about the prehistory of the environmental movement. In a way, this book is about climate change. Heuer ends with this wonderful, menacing final phrase: the Arctic is coming for you. The ice masses are melting and heading in our direction. It’s as if we have been repressing the Arctic all along. The forgotten nightmare of the original European encounter with the Arctic has been lying in ambush all this time. He says that we have often coped with this encounter through the romantic topos of the sublimity of the Arctic wilderness. Heuer’s Arctic wilderness is not sublime at all. It’s dangerous, apocalyptic, dehumanising, dead and difficult and hard to read. He chastises the Romantic and neo-Romantic approach to the Arctic. It’s all done with great skill and grace.

Heuer’s book is in tune with the dominant theme over the ages of the Northern Renaissance, which is its negativity, its willingness to face the realities of opacity and disequilibrium, or the irrational. This takes the form in Bosch of the demonic and the grotesque. In Bruegel it takes the form of the comic and the badly proportioned. All of this in contrast to humanity’s dreams about mastery, order and reason. This is a constant theme of this field, which is still drawing younger scholars to it. The Northern Renaissance and studies about it are realistic about human nature. It does not impose idealised forms on what’s in fact an irregular reality.

This strikes me as entirely pertinent to our current age. We witness the grotesque side by side with our soaring ambitions to redeem ourselves through technology. Our rationally constructed, technologically driven world that is creating monsters that we have to contend with in our everyday lives.

In the Renaissance there was a partitioning or delegation of these worldviews to these two systems—Italian and Northern. If there hadn’t been Northern art, it would have had to be invented. In fact, it was invented. The two of them together, Northern and Italian, amount to a total philosophy.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

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Christopher S. Wood

Christopher Wood is Professor in the German Department, New York University. Before coming to NYU, he was Carnegie Professor of the History of Art at Yale University. He has been a fellow at the Society of Fellows, Harvard University; the American Academy in Rome; the American Academy in Berlin; the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton; and Visiting Professor at Villa I Tatti, Florence. In 2002 he was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Wood is the author of Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape (1993); Forgery, Replica, Fiction: Temporalities of German Renaissance Art (2008), and Anachronic Renaissance (with Alexander Nagel) (2010).

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Christopher S. Wood

Christopher Wood is Professor in the German Department, New York University. Before coming to NYU, he was Carnegie Professor of the History of Art at Yale University. He has been a fellow at the Society of Fellows, Harvard University; the American Academy in Rome; the American Academy in Berlin; the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton; and Visiting Professor at Villa I Tatti, Florence. In 2002 he was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Wood is the author of Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape (1993); Forgery, Replica, Fiction: Temporalities of German Renaissance Art (2008), and Anachronic Renaissance (with Alexander Nagel) (2010).