Giorgio Vasari

Giorgio Vasari, Portrait of Alessandro de’Medici, 1534, Palazzo Pitti, Florence

Giorgio & Me

For the past four months, I’ve been snuggled up with Giorgio.  Before you gasp in horror that my husband might be reading this, rest assured that the Giorgio in question is Giorgio Vasari, a Florentine artist, architect as well as the father of art history, whose dates are 1511-1574.  Hence the lapse in blog action.

While he might not be remembered for his art, his recounting of the other artists of his era make him a must-read for anyone looking for primary source material about the artistic life of 16th century Italy.  How did he come to write such a work?  My guess is that he complained to enough people that there should be a comprehensive treatise on Italian artists that someone finally said, “So why don’t you write it?”  And so he did, giving us and posterity The Lives of the Artists.  The first edition was published in 1550, followed by a second, revised edition in 1568.  While the first edition did not include contemporary artists, the second one did.

Since this year celebrates his 500th birthday, I thought it would be a good time to teach a class on Vasari.  As every art historian, I have read excerpts from Vasari from the day I started studying the discipline.  However, I had never actually sat down with the Lives until planning for this course.  When it arrived on my doorstep last September, my enthusiasm was somewhat diminished by its 500+ pages, written seemingly in 6 pt. print.  However, with class filling up with students, it became clear in January that it was time to dive in. 

It is impossible to not have an appreciation for Vasari’s endeavor.  It was he who first coined the term Renaissance (Rinascente).  And as this was written primarily for artists, his use of Italian was such that he played a crucial role in finally making the distinction between artist (artefice) from craftsman (artigiano).  Prior to this, the two were considered one and the same.  This means that a painter, such as Raphael, would have been accorded the same status as the artists who painted the foliage or faux marble in the same room at the Vatican.  Not that the latter lacked talent, mind you.  It was just a different specialty.

Part I is incredibly tedious.  Take the chapter on Giotto, for instance.  There is an incredible, as well as implausible story of how Giotto came to work with Cimabue.  The latter came upon the lad in a field and, seeing his talent, asked the boy’s father if he could take the youngster with him to Florence to teach him to paint.  The father agreed and the rest is history.  Then there is the litany of every work done by Giotto and where to find it, with little other explanation.  It also requires a back and forth with the endnotes as some of the work is no longer attributed to Giotto, etc.  However, the fact that Vasari lacked any modern means, from decent transportation to Google to double check his facts, makes this work quite a feat.  For the record, I did use Google in trying to track the images.  It took 2 frustrating hours to read 2 pages. 

The reward for slogging through Part I is reading Parts II & III, in which Vasari discusses the art of his day.  Part of the joy of reading Vasari includes wonderful first hand accounts of what was going on, from the sublime, such as the little known but remarkably talented painter Antonello da Messina’s move to Bruges to learn oil painting from the master himself, Giovanni da Bruggia (Jan van Eyck), to the deliciously prurient, including details as to how the “brutish, licentious, and eccentric” painter Giovan Antonio came by the nickname that we all know him by, “Il Sodoma”. 

Vasari also shatters many sacred cows.  Rome in the 16th century was a mostly male administrative center rife with rivalries, jealousies and grudges.  With renovations and additions going on at the Vatican and elsewhere artistic competition was extremely fierce.  As Vasari had been a student of Michelangelo, much of these last two parts is a paean to this master.  But the story Vasari tells of Michelangelo’s commission to paint the Sistine Ceiling is particularly harrowing and somewhat dampens my enthusiasm for Raphael.   Donato Bramante oversaw the art and architecture at the Vatican.  It was he who brought his relative, Raphael Sanzio, there to work.  There was such concern between the kin that Michelangelo would become Pope Julius II’s favorite artist that they were the ones who pushed to have Michelangelo painting the ceiling, in the hopes that he would embarrass himself thereby making Raphael the favored artist.  When the Pope summoned Michelangelo and handed him this assignment, Michelangelo protested, arguing that he was a sculptor, not a painter.  He suggested Raphael for the job.  With Bramante in the background telling the Pope not to take no for an answer, Michelangelo was forced into the commission.  Now here’s the kicker.  During one of Michelangelo’s famous snits, where he would return to Florence to lick his wounds, Bramante and Raphael snuck into the Chapel, explicitly against Michelangelo’s wishes, to see how he was progressing.  They were so overwhelmed by his work that Raphael immediately redid his Isaiah in a chapel at Sant’Agostino in this new style.  You can imagine, this did not sit well with maestro Michelangelo.  More sulking, continued soap opera at the Vatican.  Better than fiction.    

The other surprise was the (short) chapter devoted to Properzia de’Rossi, a sculptress from Bologna who famously carved fruit pits before landing a commission in marble San Petronio in that city.  The chapter includes several odes to women, including a long paragraph on all the accomplishments made by women in the arts, economics, warfare, etc.  He also includes two other female painters, Sister Plautilla (Nelli) and Sophonisba Anguissola, who eventually becomes a lady-in-waiting to the Queen of Spain.  The inclusion of these talented women is remarkable for the time.

Suffice it to say that by the time the course was over, all roads, as well as all conversations, seemed to lead to Vasari.  And yes, my poor husband suffered through those long months.  He graciously endured it when, at every gathering, the opportunity seemed to present itself, “You know Vasari talked about just that. . . . “  I’ll let you know if I catch him reading The Lives with the same admiration that I now have for it. 

© Nancy Israel 2012