Reading (Into) Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists

June 26, 2020

Although art history as a scientific discipline was officially formed during the 18th century, the pioneering attempts of classifying and analyzing specific artists and their domains were undertaken during the Renaissance. After the Middle Ages, there came a time when an entirely new paradigm was formed based on the philosophical thought of the Classical period. Art and science blossomed in the urban environments, especially in Italian cities-states where wealthy patrons supported innovative practices.

In such a fruitful atmosphere, Giorgio Vasari (1511 - 1574), the prolific Italian painter, architect, and writer was formed. His entire practice was an embodiment of the Renaissance principles, while his writing Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori) is the most valuable document that illustrates the practices of his contemporaries and is a tremendous contribution to art history.

Now, to understand better how Vasari came to the point of developing the volume that defined the very term Renaissance, it is mandatory to revisit his outstanding painterly style, as well as the interest in architecture.

Giorgio Vasari - Gregorio XI returns to Rome from Avignon
Giorgio Vasari - Gregorio XI returns to Rome from Avignon, 1572-73. Image via creative commons.

The Artistic Development of Giorgio Vasari

Giorgio Vasari was born in Arezzo, Tuscany, and thanks to his cousin Luca Signorelli, who was another significant painter at the time, he became an apprentice in the workshop run by a skillful painter of stained glass, Guglielmo da Marsiglia. At the age of sixteen, Cardinal Silvio Passerini sent Vasari to Florence where he became the part of Andrea del Sarto’s circle and became friends with Michelangelo. He spent a great deal of time closely observing the works of Raphael and other artists of the Roman High Renaissance.

As a painter, Vasari was quite established and appreciated for his Mannerist paintings, especially after decorating the hall of the chancery in Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome in 1547. He was regularly commissioned by the Medici family in both Florence and Rome and worked in Naples, his native town of Arezzo and other places in Italy.

Many of his works are well preserved and can be found in public spaces, churches and public buildings across the country; of special mention are the wall and ceiling paintings in the Sala di Cosimo I in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, as well as the frescoes inside the vast cupola of the Duomo started by Vasari and completed by Federico Zuccari and Giovanni Balducci.

As mentioned, Vasari was also an architect, and an acclaimed one too. He designed the loggia of the Palazzo degli Uffizi, a unique piece of urban planning that functions as a public piazza, as well as a long passage, now called Vasari Corridor, which connects the Uffizi with the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the river. The renovation of the medieval churches of Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce was conducted by Vasari in Mannerist fashion, while in 1562 Vasari constructed the octagonal dome on the Basilica of Our Lady of Humility in Pistoia.

Left Giorgio Vasari - Deposition from the Cross Right Giorgio Vasari - Self-Portrait
Left: Giorgio Vasari - Deposition from the Cross, circa 1540. Oil on canvas. Height: 311 cm (10.2 ft); Width: 210 cm (82.6 in). Collection Santi Donato e Ilariano, Camaldoli / Right: Giorgio Vasari - Self-Portrait, 1550-67. Oil on canvas, 101 x 80 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Image creative commons.

Lives of the Artists - The Chronicles of An Epoch

The initial idea to write Lives of the Artists came to Giorgio Vasari from the writer Paolo Giovio who wished to write a treatise concerning contemporary artists at a party in the house of Cardinal Farnese. However, he asked Vasari to provide him all the relevant information and gradually passed the whole idea to him.

And so, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects was published in two editions. The first one was published in 1550 by Lorenzo Torrentino in and was dedicated to Cosimo I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. The second edition was extended in 1568, it provided woodcut portraits of artists, and was characterized by a special focus Vasari has put on Venetian art in the second edition.

Lives of the Artists is a consistent homage to Florentines that tends to present them as the leading figures in the development of Renaissance art, while the Venetian production was ignored, as well as of the rest of Europe. However, before writing the extended edition Vasari visited Venice and presented Venetian art (including Titian).

By combining the tradition of biographical writing with a modern critical approach including a pinch of gossip, Vasari created an excellent work that provides significant portrayals of masters such as Brunelleschi, Giotto, Mantegna, Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Titian, including his own biography at the end of the volume. Lives of the Artists was also used very often by the scholars as a classical reference guide for the artists' names, which differ from one source to another. As mentioned, the book was dedicated to Cosimo I de' Medici so it starts with a preface focused on his personality, continuing with technical texts about architecture, sculpture, and painting. 

Title page of the 1568 edition of Le Vite e' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori by Giorgio Vasari. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The Legacy of Giorgio Vasari

For a very long time, Lives of the Artists was the most relevant source regarding the Italian Early Renaissance that was used by the generations of scholars, even though it practically ignored the Renaissance production of the rest of Italy and the rest of Europe. Even today, translated into many languages, this particular book is unsurprisingly considered the most influential guide through the history of Renaissance art since it stands as a prime pioneering example for writing artist biographies and is an instrumental book for surveying the Italian Renaissance and the role it had on Florence and Rome. 

Editors’ Tip: The Lives of the Artists

In his Lives of the Artists of the Italian Renaissance, Giorgio Vasari demonstrated a literary talent that outshone even his outstanding abilities as a painter and architect. Through character sketches and anecdotes he depicts Piero di Cosimo shut away in his derelict house, living only to paint; Giulio Romano's startling painting of Jove striking down the giants; and his friend Francesco Salviati, whose biography also tells us much about Vasari's own early career. Vasari's original and soaring vision plus his acute aesthetic judgements have made him one of the most influential art historians of all time.

Featured image: Giorgio Vasari - Le vite de' piu eccellenti pittori scultori e architettori, Florence 1568. Image via smarthistory.org.

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