Art History · European Art

Giorgio Vasari, the First Art Historian

Vasari Self-Portrait
Giorgio Vasari’s self-portrait, c. 1561-6. Part of a fresco in a private collection. Photo via the-athenaeum.org.

Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) was an Italian Renaissance/Mannerist artist, architect, courtier, and art historian. He’s best remembered as the author of The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, a lengthy set of biographies of Italian Renaissance artists and architects. More importantly, Vasari is widely considered to be the father of art history. (Thanks, Giorgio!) Apparently, Vasari was the first person to think that a) artists’ biographies are worth writing, and b) learning about an artist’s life is useful towards better appreciating their work. Art lovers take both of these facts for granted today*, but they were revolutionary in Vasari’s time. The idea of art history being a real avenue of academic study didn’t come until the nineteenth century, but the authors of a brand-new biography of Vasari argue that he is responsible for the ways of thinking about art that gradually led to the development of modern art history.

*But then again, I just read a book arguing that art history is basically useless for to the art lover. Maybe these ideas aren’t completely taken for granted.

Portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent by Giorgio Vasari
Giorgio Vasari, Portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent, c. 1550-1574. Florence, Uffizi Gallery. Photo via the-athenaeum.org (Public Domain).

Despite this, Vasari wasn’t exactly the kind of objective scholar we might expect today. He was a bit biased. For one thing, he was a big Tuscan nationalist. He believed that Tuscan art and artists were superior to anyone in the rest of the world. Secondly, he wanted to use the Lives to teach moral lessons. That meant inventing anecdotes and presenting skewed representations of some artists’ lives. This has cause some problems, since generations of later art historians have taken most of what Vasari wrote at face value, when they probably shouldn’t. Some of Vasari’s prejudices have held up for centuries because he’s really our main source of knowledge for this period. Apparently, art historians are starting to reevaluate now. Interesting.

Giorgio Vasari Apotheosis of Cosimo I de Medici
Giorgio Vasari, Apotheosis of Cosimo I de Medici, details of the ceilings of the Salone dei Cinquecento, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. Photo © Guillaume Piolle (CC BY 3.0).

Vasari adored Michelangelo, his former teacher. He worked hard to protect Michelangelo’s legacy after his death. For example, he successfully advocated against altering Michelangelo’s plans for St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, which was unfinished at the time of Michelangelo’s death. I found the authors’ observation so interesting that by doing this, he might actually have been an early ancestor of modern-day artists’ foundations.

Holy Family by Giorgio Vasari
Giorgio Vasari, Holy Family, c. 1540. Private collection. Photo via the-athenaeum.org (Public Domain).

Vasari reminds me a little of Roger Fry, the British artist and art critic who was the subject of my undergraduate honors thesis. Both were artists and art historians who were later remembered exclusively for their contributions to the latter. In both cases, their artwork and life stories have been seriously neglected by history, which I don’t think is fair. Happily, this new book – it was just published within the past year – did an excellent job of looking at his entire life and work. (Much like I tried to do for Roger Fry.) Most importantly, the authors considered Vasari as a serious and very successful artist as well as a writer. He worked for several Popes and Medici dukes, and he designed the initial portion of the famous Uffizi in Florence. I also really appreciate the fact that the authors are very clear about Vasari’s shortcomings where they exist, but they don’t judge or vilify him. In fact, it’s easy to feel connected with Vasari while reading the book. Of course, they were probably much more fair than he was with many artists in his own Lives. But I’m glad that this outstanding biographer finally got an outstanding biography of his own. It’s great reading, and I highly recommend it. Details below.

Rowland, Ingrid and Noah Charney. The Collector of Lives: Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of Art. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.

 

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