Painter, architect and art historian
Born Arezzo, Italy 1511
Died Florence June 27, 1574
It could be said with some justice that Giorgio Vasari is the founder of the discipline of art history. Although he was a fairly talented artist and an important architect in Florence, he is famous above all for his book known in English as Lives of the Artists (first edition 1550, second edition 1568). This offers the best account we have of many of the leading figures in the Italian Renaissance, and introduced a new viewpoint on art where the artist is seen not just as a craftsman but as a genius.
Vasari was born in 1511 in Arezzo
, which was then part of the republic of Florence, the son of a potter. As a boy he studied painting under Guglielmo da Marcilla
; then, aged just 13, he moved to Florence where his main teacher was Andrea del Sarto
. In Florence he also met Michelangelo
, and started to make a name for himself as a painter.
However, his patron Duke Alessandro de Medici was assassinated in 1537, and Vasari decided to leave Florence. He wandered through Italy for some time, arriving in Rome in 1542. There he rapidly found his way into high circles, and in 1546 following a conversation at Cardinal Farnese's house he decided to compile a catalog of artists and their works. The result of his endeavours was Vite de' più eccellenti architetti, pittori e scultori Italiani (The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects), published in Florence in 1550 and dedicated to Grand Duke Cosimo de' Medici.
Meanwhile Vasari had moved back to Florence, where Duke Cosimo commissioned him to make a series of works in commemmoration of the history of the Medici family. Vasari designed the Palace of the Uffizi (built 1560-1565) and the Vasari Corridor (1564) which runs between the Palazzo Vecchio and Pitti Palace, home to the Medicis, as well as a number of murals and interiors. In addition to architecture, he continued to paint and founded an academy of drawing in 1561.
He then decided to expand his Lives of the Artists by including more living painters (the original had focused on the dead or retired, except for the inclusion of Vasari's idol Michelangelo). He spent a number of years travelling around Italy researching this, and the result was published in 1568. With this second edition he also took the opportunity to correct errors in the first, such as in the attribution of Giorgione's works.
Vasari was knighted by Pope Pius V in 1571, and died in Florence on June 27, 1574.
Before Vasari, few people had considered it worthwhile to record details of the lives of the painters who we now consider some of the greatest figures of Western art. At the time, artists typically painted according to commission
s, producing mainly portraits and religious works, intended as decoration
, and there was not the view we have today of the artist as an individual figure expressing himself or herself through deeply personal acts of creation; a painter was little different from a potter
or even shoemaker. Vasari introduced the idea of the artist as a genius, sent down by Heaven to excel in a particular art form or multiple fields, seeing people such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci
as fitting this description.
Also central to Vasari's writing was a theory of art as historical progression. He divided history into periods, and saw a passage from the glories of antiquity through the decay of the medieval era before a new burst of artistic talent which began in the fourteenth century and continued through his own time. Vasari coined (or at any rate popularised) the term Rinascimento (Renaissance) to describe this rebirth in art.
Vasari saw the essence of art as being the reproduction of nature, and viewed the history of art as being a progression in which nature was more and more exactly represented as the techniques of artists developed. He thought Renaissance art followed such a process of refinement which moved from art's infancy with Giotto and Cimabue through a youthful period including Donatello, Ghiberti, Masaccio, and Brunelleschi, coming to maturity with the art of Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo.
However, it should not be assumed that the Lives of the Artists is a largely theoretical work; it is lively, full of facts, trivia and anecdotes, as well as critical judgments. Although its historical accuracy has been questioned on many points, its intelligent and impartial criticism remains highly regarded. Though the book's style is sometimes a little flowery, it is still fascinating reading for anyone interested in Italian Renaissance art.
The popularity of the work also inspired imitiators: Karel van Mander who documented much of Flemish art, Juan Bernabe Palomino in Spain, and Joachim von Sandrart in Germany.
While he is reckoned a first-rate architect for his works in Florence and a god among art historians, Vasari's painting is considered inferior to many of those contemporaries he wrote about. As an artist, Vasari was heavily indebted to the style of Michelangelo. Like Michelangelo, he painted in a Mannerist
idiom; Vasari is commonly considered to use the worst aspects of the style - which can be very theatrical and over-complicated - occasionally coming off like a parody of his hero. Nonetheless, he was not without talent and had a considerable influence on Italian Counter-Reformation
Vasari produced frescos for the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, his own house in Florence (now a museum) and the Palazzo della Cancelleria (Vatican Chancellery), Rome. He also produced series of pictures for the Duomo (Cathedral) in Florence and the Sala Regia (Royal Hall) at the Vatican. A number of his paintings are on display in Florence (The Prophet Elisha, Perseus and Andromeda, Assault on Siena's Fortifications) and in Rome. Other works are now in the Louvre, Paris, the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
You can see the limitations of Vasari's art if you compare his Perseus and Andromeda (1570) with Titian's painting of the same title (c. 1555) in the Wallace Collection, London, or Pieter Paul Rubens' (1622) in the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg. While Titian's painting is insanely dramatic, a hideous monster in the background and Andromeda exposed up front thrust right in the viewer's face, and Rubens gives an elegant tableau of Perseus flanked by Andromeda and Pegasus, Vasari seems determined to fill the canvas with as many frolicking bathers and sunbathing locals as he can squeeze in, as well as a dramatic landscape, watching crowds and too many other details to mention; the individuals are well-drawn but the cumulative effect is of clutter.
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Giorgio Vasari website.
Web Gallery of Art.
"Life of an Artist - Biographies and Galleries".
Books and Writers. 2004.
Selections from Lives of the Artists.
Internet Medieval Source Book.