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Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574)

 

Italian painter, architect, and writer. Vasari's Vite de' più eccellenti architetti, pittori, et scultori Italiani (1550-68, The Lives of the Artists) is perhaps the most important book on the history of art ever written. In this work Vasari made famous the term 'Rinascita', or Renaissance. The Lives is an invaluable source of information about the early artists of Italy, although Vasari was locally patriotic he favored Tuscans  and there are many errors respecting the earlier masters.

"It goes without saying that the arts must have been discovered by some one person; and I realize that someone made a beginning at some time. And of course it is possible for one man to have helped another, and to have taught and opened the way to design, colour, and relief; for I know that our art consists first and foremost in the imitation of nature but then, since it cannot reach such heights unaided, in the imitation of the most accomplished artists." (in The Lives)

Giorgio Vasari was born in Arezzo in Tuscany, the son of an ornamental potter. At that time the town was subject to the republic of Florence. Its most important family was the Medicis, who were great patrons of art. Cosimo Medici (1389-1464) was regarded as the model for Macchiavelli's The Prince.

Vasari's father died in 1527 in a plague. While still a boy Vasari was introduced to Cardinal Silvio Passerini who put him to study in Florence, in the circle of Andrea del Sarto and his pupils Rosso and Pontormo. Vasari came into close contact with some of the leading humanists. Among his teachers was Piero Valeriano, a classical scholar and the author of the Hieroglyphica. In Florence he met Michelangelo, who was soon called to Rome. However, Vasari idolized him as an artist for the rest of his life. Vasari's father died of the plague, leaving him a family to support. He started to practise architecture, and earned enough money to arrange the marriage of one of his sisters and place another in the Murate at Arezzo.

Vasari left Florence when his patron, Duke Alessandro, was assassinated. He wandered from town to town, filling his notebooks, and sketching. The Cardinal Ippolito de Medici, Pope Clement VII and the Dukes Alessandro and Cosmo, successively engaged him in their service. Vasari worked between Florence and Rome as a painter. During this period he started to plan his book about artists. One evening, in Cardinal Farnese's house, probably in 1546, the bishop of Nocera spoke of the need for a literary account of famous artists. Vasari volunteered to help Paolo Giovio in the project, but when Giovio gave up the idea of writing the book, Vasari accepted the challenge.

In his thirties Vasari was a well-paid and successful painter, whose works were more or less Michelangelesque. As an architect he was more independent, and his temporary decorations for state ceremonies offered him opportunities for experiment. Among his principal works in Florence are Palazzo Vecchio's frescoes, but he never completed the decoration for the cupola of the cathedral. In Rome he made the greater part of the historical decoration of the Sala Regia at the Vatican and the so-called '100 days fresco' in the Sala della Cancerria, in the Palazzo San Giorgio. In the cathedral of Arezzo he painted The Lord's Supper and his own house in Arezzo is now a museum.

As an architect Vasari designed with Vignola and Ammanati the Villa di Papa Giulio in Rome. Several buildings were built from his designs at Pistoia, where worked on the Madonna dell'Umiltá, begun in 1492 by Ventura Vitoni. In 1555 Michelangelo wrote to Vasari about the completion of the staircase in the Biblioteca Laurenziana, saying that he was confident that Vasari and Ammanati would be able to execute it.

Vasari's only important independent architectural work is seen in the Uffizi Palace, which was begun in 1560. The Uffizi was designed as the government offices of the new Tuscan state. Its most important occupants were the nine Conservatori, with their Scriptori, their Audienza and their Chancellery. The Uffizi has a beautiful narrow courtyard stretching down towards the river. The finest point of the design is the airy loggia overlooking the Arno. Vasari's other works include the Palazzo dei Cavalieri at Pisa, the tomb of Michelangelo in Santa Croce, and the Loggie in Arezzo.

Vasari's fame rests on the book Vite de' più eccellenti Architetti, Pittori, e Scultori Italiani... Its first edition appeared in 1550. It dealt with artists who were dead or had completed their work. The only exception was Michelangelo. Vasari believed optimistically in historical progress. His aim was to show how the greatness of Ancient Rome died in the "dark ages" because of the destructiveness of barbarian tribes and the Christian antagonism to pictures. From Giotto the Tuscan started a revival of art. Vasari emphasized Giotto's fidelity to nature. The ultimate perfection was reached in the hands of Michelangelo, also a Tuscan.

In the first edition Michelangelo is the climax of Vasari's story, but the 1568 2nd edition  includes a number of other living artists, and also Vasari's own autobiography. The words in lingua Toscana were dropped from the title page because the Tuscan dialect had by then become the accepted literary language. For this enlarged and improved edition, Vasari made another tour round Italy and gathered new material and checked his facts. The work included 144 portraits of the artists, enclosed within an architectural frame.

In Vasari's concept of history, art and culture pass through three phases, from infancy to full maturity, and to "infinite improvements in everything." For him Antiquity meant glory, the Middle Ages decay, and his own time, the High Renaissance, the "revival". He viewed the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, represented by such artists as Cimabue and Giotto, as the infancy of art. A period of youthful vigour followed, seen in the works of Donatello, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, and Masaccio, who was a "modest, friendly, peaceable, thoughtful man to whom clothes, food and other worldly goods were a matter of indifference." Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo embodied the mature period.

Vasari's view of Michelangelo reflects a new element in the Renaissance perception of art  the discovery of the concept of genius. According to his belief, "the benign ruler of heaven" decided to send "into the world an artist who would be skilled in each and every craft", and determined to give Michelangelo "the knowledge of true moral philosophy and the gift of poetic expression, so that everyone might admire and follow him as their perfect exemplar in life, work, and behaviour and in every endeavour, and he would be acclaimed as divine."

The Lives gives the reader glimpses of the financial situation of artists. Vasari mentions that Filippo Lippi could not buy himself a pair of stockings, and in his old age, Paolo Uccello complains that he owns nothing, cannot work any longer, and has a sick wife. Generally artists of the early Renaissance were not paid too badly. With the increasing demand for works of art some of the celebrated masters enjoyed a considerable income.

Vasari did not meet Leonardo da Vinci, who died in 1519. He mentions that Leonardo and Michelangelo strongly disliked each other, and that he has an example of Leonardo's drawings. As in other portraits, Vasari combines anecdotes with biographical details and analysis of works. According to Vasari, Leonardo was "so strong that he could withstand any violence; with his right hand he would bend the iron ring of a doorbell or a horseshoe as if they were lead." Vasari did his best to separate facts from legends and falsehoods, but although he could talk with confidence about most of the sixteenth-century artists, Giorgione was one of the exceptions. In the second edition of The Lives he did not attribute to Giorgione some of the works he mentioned in the earlier version of the text. 

A major purpose of the biographies was to provide models of moral behaviour, or as Vasari said, "to teach men how to live and make them prudent." Fra Angelico is seen as the embodiment of monastic virtues of humitity, obedience, and  non-greed, whereas Andrea del Castagno is a villainous character, guided primarily by self-interest and wickedness. Thus in one painting  in the Chapel of S. Maria Nuova, Castagno portrayed "himself with the face of Judas Iscariot, whom he resembled both in appearance and in deed." Michelangelo was "an exemplar sent by God to the men of our art, that they might learn from his life the nature of [noble] character ...".

In 1555 Vasari returned to Florence to serve Duke Cosimo who appointed him architect of the Palazzo Vecchio. In 1563 he founded the Accademia del Disegno  the Grand Duke and Michelangelo were 'capi' of the institution and thirty-six artists were chosen to be members. Bartolomeo Ammanati (1511-92) designed the Collegio Romano for the Society. He also addressed to it in 1582 an open letter, an important document of Counter-Reformation art theory.

When Vasari was in middle age he bought a house in Arezzo. The Casa Vasari, decorated with large wall paintings, showed his success and learning. To his friends he could say: "I was once poor like all of you and now I have three thousand scudi or more; you thought me foolish, but the monks and priests consider me to be a worthy man; I once served you and now I have this servant to wait upon me and take care of this horse; I once wore those rags that are worn by painters who are poor, and now I am clothed in velvet; I once went on foot and now I ride a horse: so. my dear Jacone, everything is going quite well; God be with you." In 1571 he was knighted by Pope Pius. Vasari died in Florence on June 27, 1574. After his death his work at the Uffizi was carried on by Bernardo Buontalenti. The Abbot Pier Antonio Pazzi in the mid-18th century produced a series of copperplate engravings based on Vasari's self-portraits in the Uffizi.

For further reading: The Life of Giorgio Vasari by Robert W. Carden (1910); Classic Art by H. Wölfflin (1952, first published in 1899); Artistic Theory in Italy 1450-1600 by A. Blunt (1956); Vasari's Life and Lives by Einar Rud (1963); Renaissance Architecture by Peter Murray (1971); Giorgio Vasari: The Man and the Book by T.S.R. Boase (1979); Theories of Art: From Plato to Winkelmann by Moshe Barasch (1985); Giorgio Vasari: Architect and Courtier by Leon Satkowski (1994); Giorgio Vasari: Art and History by Patricia Lee Rubin (1995); Vasari's Florence: Artists and Literati at the Medicean Court, ed.  Philip Jacks (1998); Victims and Villains in Vasari's Lives by  Andrew Ladis (2008) - For further information: The Catholic Encyclopedia 

Selected works:

  • Vite de' più eccellenti Architetti, Pittori, et Scultori Italiani..., 1550 (enlarged edition in 1568, other editions in 1760, 1811, annotated editon in 1868)
    - Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (6 vols., 1850-1907) / Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (5 vols., chiefly selected from various commentators by Mrs. Jonathan Foster, 1852-59) / Lives of Seventy of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (4 vols., ed. and annotated by E. H. and E. W. Blashfield and A. A. Hopkins, 1896) / Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors & Architects (10 vols., newly tr. by Gaston du C. de Vere, 1912-15) /  The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (4 vols., translated by A.B. Hinds, edited by William Gaunt, 1927; rev. ed. 1963) / The Lives of the Artists (2 vols., a selection, translated by George Bull, 1965-87) / Lives of the Most Eminent Painters (2 vols., selected, edited, and introduced by Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, 1966) / The Lives of the Artists (translated by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella, 1998)
  • Ragionamenti del sig. cavaliere Giorgio Vasari, pittore et architetto aretino, sopra le inuentioni da lui dipinte in Firenze nel palazzo di loro altezze serenissime, 1588
  • Opere di Giorgio Vasari, 1822-23 (6 vols.)
  • Capricci e aneddoti di artisti, 1859
  • Le opere di Giorgio Vasari, 1906 (9 vols., edited by Gaetano Milanesi; reprinted in 1973)
  • Vasari on Technique, Being the Introduction to the Three Arts of Design, Architecture, Sculpture and Painting, 1907 (translated by Louisa S. Maclehose)
  • Arezzo nelle due edizioni delle Vite del Vasari, 1974
  • Vasari on Theatre, 1990


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