In 1511, Giorgio Vasari was born in Arezzo. Growing up, he became a protégé of the Medici family, working as a painter and architect. Throughout his life, Vasari followed the vicissitudes of the powerful clan, leaving Florence during their exile and returning upon their victory over the republican faction. Indeed, he was a courtier as much as an artist, and a fine intellectual too. In 1550, he wrote the Lives of the Artists, a complex collection of biographies of painters, sculptors, and architects from the fourteenth century to his own days. Expanded in the 1568 edition, the Lives are still used as an anecdotical guide to the works of many Italian and especially Tuscan artists. However, they are far more than a “list”, a definition that the author himself rejects in the second preface, and they contain Vasari’s original thoughts about the arts, their development, and purpose.
Danae – Correggio – 1531 – oil on canvas
Vasari has a cyclical conception of history, which closely resembles the position taken by Latin historiographers he may have read. The perfect proportions, the ideal sense of composition, and the balance of classical Antiquity got lost during the Middle Ages. The author describes the past centuries in a negative light, following a trope that was gradually getting rooted in the Renaissance mentality. When writing about the oeuvre of Cimabue though, Vasari says that he was the first one to re-kindle the flame of art, leading to a successful path of development whose peak was eventually reached by Michelangelo. In the Lives, he is described as a “divine” figure, who brought art to perfection. However, he also warns against the risk of decay, thus suggesting that style follows a cyclical path of consumption and rebirth.
Madonna and Child – Parmigianino – 1535-1540 – oil on paper on panel
Vasari’s narration is not linear. The biographical genre forces the author to delve into particular stories and add several details which do not necessarily play into a wider narrative. The prefaces offer a slightly more consistent theoretical discourse and the individual lives contain a variety of general comments by Vasari himself. Nonetheless, it is still difficult to understand the perspective of the Lives, and what is the relation between the artistic and intellectual experiences of the writer himself. In fact, it is complex to define Vasari’s concept of style too. While he emphasises the importance of imitation, he does not expand this concept enough to reveal a clearer stance. Furthermore, his harsh criticism of Venetian masters such as Titian and Tintoretto reveal that Vasari was indeed identifying artistic perfection with the Tuscan style. To some extent, the Lives are an example of the Italian Renaissance campanilismo, that is to say, the deep attachment of people to their native region or city.
Saint Jerome – Pontormo – 1528 – oil on poplar
Vasari’s work remains a reference book for any art historian interested in the developments of Italian aesthetic from the late Middle Ages to the sixteenth-century Mannerism. Nonetheless, it is important to be aware of its complexity. It is hard, if not impossible, to define clearly the author’s aim when compiling this impressive collection of biographies. The genre itself does not allow the development of a linear discourse. Rather, we are left with hints and suggestions pointing toward a complex artistic system. The book itself is all but systematic and it is up to the reader to balance its various components into an unideological vision.