Giorgio Vasari was born in 1511 in Arezzo, Tuscany. A successful artist in his own day, he served at the court of the dukes of Florence (Alessandro and then Cosimo I de’ Medici) until his death in 1574. Nowadays, Vasari is mainly remembered for his literary achievements as the author of the Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1st ed. 1550), a collection of artists’ biographies spanning from the 14th to the 16th century. Even though the book secured Vasari the hyperbolic title of “father of art history”, its status as an art treatise is object of debate among contemporary scholars. While some, such as Patricia Rubin, are inclined to trust Vasari’s commitment to a serious historical narration, others understand the Lives to be an entertaining series of anecdotes only. While this theme would deserve a lengthy discussion on its own, this post will rather focus on the concept of artistic development which supports the entire structure of the book. Therefore, I will show Vasari’s view of artistic evolution and highlight how this notion influenced art critics and connoisseurs in the centuries after the Lives‘s publication.
In the first of the three prefaces to the Lives, Vasari asserts that development and decay are frequent features of human history. He mentions the Great Flood as well as the rise and fall of the Roman Empire as examples, before claiming that these processes affect the arts too. This idea is not entirely new and can be traced back to a variety of classical authors such as Pliny the Elder and Cicero, as Ernst Gombrich has shown in his writings. Moreover, Greek culture too nurtured the idea that human existence is divided into progressive ages of development and fall. Following this model, the Lives are arranged in three parts which roughly correspond to the three centuries encompassed by Vasari’s narration. Through this scheme, the book narrates the arts’ progress from humble beginnings to absolute perfection. This peak is reached by Michelangelo, the “divine” artist, whose genius could surpass even the mighty examples set by ancient art.
While Vasari’s system contemplates an apex, it includes a phase of decay too, as shown by the reference to catastrophic events such as the Great Flood. In the third section of the Lives, he expresses his concern that the perfection of late-Renaissance art (as we would now call the age of Raphael and Michelangelo) might degenerate when no further improvement would be possible. For this reason, Alina Payne characterises the Vasarian system as made of a “linear” and a “circular” scheme of development. The arts evolve in a linear way from humble beginnings to perfection and then they decay, returning once again to the starting point of a new cycle.
Vasari’s ideas influenced art writing for centuries. Although nowadays we are aware of the many imprecisions which characterise the Lives, this does not cancel its value as an influential source of art criticism. The biographical genre does not allow the author to be consistent and thorough, nonetheless Vasari manages to establish a variety of aesthetic criteria which kept returning among later connoisseurs. For example, Colen Campell and his harsh criticism of Italian Baroque architecture in Vitruvius Britannicus (ca. 1725) characterise the seventeenth-century style as the decadence of the Renaissance rules of proportion and balance. In a similar way, the writings of Sir Joshua Reynolds and his focus on naturalism resonate with Vasari’s own praise of Giotto in the first section of the Lives, where the aritst is glorified for his ability to create verisimilitude in painting.
Despite several issues of historical accountability, Vasari’s oeuvre survived the test of time and is still an important reference for the history of criticism. The underlying notion behind his scheme of linear and circular development is the possibility of devising a pattern in the evolution of style across time. In his work, he pinpoints trans-historical criteria of quality and taste, using them as guidelines to analyse history and assess qualitatively the value of artworks. Whether we might agree with Vasari’s assumptions or not, especially after almost five centuries of theoretical re-elaboration, his work remains an important milestone in the definition of art history’s own purposes and methodologies.