Part of prepping for my trip to Italy, now less than two weeks away, was to slowly read Irving Stone's magnificent life of Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Agony and the Ecstasy. Written in 1961, it is a sprawling book that taught me about the life and times and works of Michelangelo (i.e., Renaissance Florence and Rome).
It also taught me about fresco painting, sculpting marble, and provided an excellent orientation guide to Florence and Rome. I really enjoyed the thought processes that Stone gave to Michelangelo for each of his works of art--why he chose to carve David or the Pieta or Moses as he did or why he chose the particular scenes from the Bible that he did for his Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes.
I also learned about the Popes and the Medicis and the Borgias, as well as fellow artists, Leonardo Da Vinci, Raffaelle, Brunelleschi, and a host of other Renaissance giants.
It was immensely readable, the pacing was great--a long book, it started with Michelangelo as an 11 year old apprentice, and ended with his death at 89.
Stone has written a number of historical biographies of artists and other notable figures--there are a number of them that appeal to me. Here's the list, lifted from Wikipedia:
Now I want to want the movie version, with Charlton Heston as Michelangelo and Rex Harrison as Pope Julius II. I know the casting sounds hokey, but it's gotten good reviews!