Vasari, Lives of the Artist

Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 1550

Lecture Notes

G. Vasari, Prefaces to the Lives from E. Fernie (ed.), Art History and its Methods: a critical anthology (London, 1995), 29-42

  1. What are the main arguments of the text?

  • In 1250 “some subtle influence in the very air of Italy” started a change.
  • Vasari introduces an organic metaphor of progress?
  • Nature of art like a human being – to be “born, grow up, become old and die.
  • Phase 2 – “from the arms of the nurse to childhood”
  • Step by step” to the “summit of perfection”
  • Anti-German (Gothic), e.g. Milan Cathedral & façade Orvieto poor
  • He has the idea of classical proportion and the orders although it is not clear which classical texts he used

Phase 1 Starts with Cimabue and Giotto

Phase 2 Starts with Masaccio

Phase 3 The peak is Michelangelo, rule, order, proportion, design, spontaneity. Improves on nature.

  1. How does the text relate to other texts you have studied (in this course and others)?
  2. Vasari in many ways begins art history as it is understood by the layman today with cycles and periods, the importance of the Renaissance and Michelangelo, equating artistic development with the increasingly accurate reproduction of nature, and the artist as personality and genius.
  3. Alberti and Cennini were other important writers of the period but they both wrote books for artists rather than about artists.
  4. How could you relate the argument of the text to an artwork of your choice?
  5. It is interesting to look at the Gothic period and Northern European artists, such as Dürer, who because of Vasari were for a long time regarded as secondary to the Italian Renaissance. The distinction between Gothic and early Renaissance is blurred particularly for painting and for the North/South divide.

Can you see any problems with the approach?

  •  He is clearly using the books to promote the importance of Italy, Italy’s past (classical Rome), Tuscany, Florence and Michelangelo.
  • The books are also used to promote himself.
  • He is focused solely on the view that the classical period was the peak of artistic achievement.
  • He denigrates German (Gothic) and Greek (Byzantine) art and his approach went some way to labelling Baroque as degenerate.
  • His cyclical view imposes a linear scale on which one period is judged as better or worse than another depending whether it is on the way up or down.
  • He equates truth to nature with artistic excellence although he also recognises that an artist can “improve on nature”. The debate between mimetic reproduction and idealisation has raged since.
  1. The main arguments of the text

Part One

Vasari introduces the idea of development and progress and links the artist to God as creator on the first page. He establishes the credibility of the artist through references to Roman antiquity and traces their decline during the reign of the emperors (e.g. Constantine’s arch used spoils and the sculptures are a “botch”). After Constantine the arts went from bad to worse. He mentions the Goths destroyed the fine arts.

Vasari introduces the idea (p. 31) of a cycle and reinforces the analogy by pointing out that the nadir must be reached before improvement begins. He then blames over zealous Christians for the worst destruction of art. Buildings we now describe as Gothic he describes as built in the style “we now know as German”. This, combined with the comment about the Goths may have given rise to the term Gothic.

The turning point (p. 32) was “some subtle influence in the very air of Italy” in 1250 in Tuscany (his home region). Artists started to imitate antiquity.

Mosaics done by the Greeks are “staring as if possessed”, with “outstretched hands” and on the “tips of their toes” and sculpture is “clumsy”, “ugly” and “gross”.

On p. 33 he likens the nature of art to a human being to be “born, grow up, become old, and die”. Combined with the analogy of the cycle this implies the Hindu idea of rebirth. As arguably the world’s oldest religion Hinduism may have influenced Italian Renaissance thought through trade routes through Venice and Genoa but more evidence would be required. Nevertheless the idea of rebirth gave rise to the term Renaissance and the anthropomorphic interpretation of art was well known since Alberti if not the Romans. Vasari also recognises that art could decline again and hopes his book may prevent this disaster.

He states he will deal with artists according to schools and styles not chronologically and starts with Cimabue as he “originated the new way of drawing”.

Vasari stresses the care that has gone into the work and the excellent collection of artists’ portraits he has acquired (“at great expense”).

Part Two

Vasari points out his Lives is not just a list and inventory or a bald narration or a dry account but it includes “ways and means”, “methods and mistakes” in the “true spirit of history”. He justify the study of history by claiming it makes men prudent, shows us how to live and brings pleasure. He adds a section on Pliny as the omission had been pointed out to him.

He introduces the idea of three periods in what we call the Renaissance.

  • Period 1. So much was imperfect but it was a new beginning.
  • Period 2. Considerable improvement, more invention, design, better style and careful finish. Stiffness and disproportion were removed. But shadows were still not softly darkened and there was still not the finish in sculpture.
  • Period 3. Achieved everything possible in the imitation of nature.

Period 1

His uses another analogy of art taking a “step by step” approach to reach the “summit of perfection”. He describes the development of classical art from Calamides, through Myron and Polyclitus to Apelles.

When describing poor architecture he lists buildings, such as Milan cathedral that we now regard as Gothic.

He claims Arnolfo and Giotto improved architecture but they were “muddled” and “imperfect” and their proportions were wrong and they did not distinguish the orders.

He thought some good sculpture was done by Andrea Pisano and his son Nino and that it was more plastic and better posed than Agostino, Agnolo and the Germans who made the façade of Orvieto cathedral.

Period 1 he describes as “from the arms of the nurse to childhood”.

During Period 2 tremendous advances took place, more figures, richer ornamentation, more realistic and lifelike with a lighter style, more charming colours and grace.

Masaccio was the first artist of the second period. The period introduced foreshortening, the nude, emotion, gestures, faces that were true to life, the rules of perspective and realistic landscapes.

Part Three

The third period was “more glorious than the ancient world” and five qualities were seen:

  •  Rule in architecture
  • Order
  • Proportion
  • Design
  • Spontaneity, color blending, composition and grace.

The period did not just copy nature but improved on nature. The same idea is still at the heart of Reynolds Discourses in the late eighteenth century.

  1. Relate to other texts

Georgio Vasari (1511-1574) was asked by Cardinal Farnese in 1546 to prepare “a catalogue of artists and their works, listed in chronological order”. The result was “The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects”, dedicated to Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici.

Modelled on the hagiographic tradition of the lives of the saints, it was first published in Florence in 1550 in Italian and then enlarged in 1568. Note that hagiography is now defined as “a biography in which the writer represents the person as perfect or much better than they really are, or the tendency to write so many admiring things about a person that it is not realistic.”

Vasari introduced the idea of the artistic genius that in the nineteenth century was reinforced by Romantic notions of the misunderstood, wild, bohemian genius and the Nietschian superman. In the twentieth century it expanded to include Freudian ideas of the “narcissistic gratification” for the writer identifying with the “heroic projection” of the “supreme individual artistic genius”.

In some important ways Vasari begins what we understand by “the history of art”. In so doing he flavours much of what is to come and must have some influence on many assumptions that underlie art history such as:

  •  The idea of cycles in art and a rebirth.
  • Within this the idea of progress and gradual improvement.
  • The idea that advances in art are based on more accurate reproduction of nature. In some ways contradictorily the idea that art must improve on nature by idealising from the best examples of each attribute.
  • The idea of Tuscany and Florence as the birthplace of the Renaissance.
  • The story of the birth of the Renaissance based around Cimabue and Giotto.
  • The three periods of the Italian Renaissance with Michelangelo at the peak.
  • An art historical approach that places the artist as “genius” at the centre making the lifes of artists noteworthy and worth recording.
  • The promotion of the artist as someone engaged in a mental activity akin to philosophy or poetry rather than the physical labour of grinding paint and applying it to surfaces.

Later historians, until the twentieth century, build on the ideas of Vasari and take his analysis to a greater level of detail without questioning the fundamentals.

Other texts at the time include Leon Battista Alberti’s (1404-1472) On Painting (1435, Latin version), Cennino d’Andrea Cennini’s (c.1370-c.1440) The Craftsman’s Handbook (early 15th century) and Benvenuto Cellini’s (1500-1571) The Life of Benvenuto Cellini (begun in 1558). Alberti and Cennini are less an art historical work and more a guide to an aspiring artist. Cellini is an autobiography which gives a good insight into the life of an artist at the time but he does not create an art historical perspective.

Vasari by implication creates a methodology that can be applied to other periods. The methodology is to look at the lifes of many artists of a period and group them into schools according to their geography and artistic techniques used.

Vasari’s Lives was written under the patronage of and dedicated to Cosimo de’ Medici. Cosimo was rebuilding a Medici power base following the exile that resulted from the incompetence of Piero de’ Medici. Cosimo used art to improve his status without incurring the wrath of his enemies. His use of art as a public relations tool was very effective and Vasari was part of the promotion of Tuscany and Florence through its artists. Vasari weaves a very effective story of the rebirth of classical excellence through the genius of the artists of Tuscany, with Michelangelo (who was still alive when the book was published) at the pinnacle.

  1. Relation to an artwork

Without denying the excellence of the Tuscan artists of the period a broader perspective shows that art was developing in similar ways all over Europe.

The process of selecting individual artists for comparison is self-defeating as it reinforces the mental model from which we are trying to escape when we talk about a broader perspective. Comparing individual artists plays the Vasari game and creates in our minds the ideas of individual genius, and this game demands we decide and argue who was better. To deconstruct Vasari we must first escape from individuals and avoid comparative statements.

Where does this leave us? It leaves us with the work of art as this is part of our world and ourselves as bearers of meaning. Does this mean the context of production of the work is unimportant, certainly not, the more we know of this context the more informed our judgement. To avoid the “Vasari-pit” (the danger of judging something because it or the artist have iconic status) we must avoid interpretations that depend on the status of the artist or the work. We must return to the facts and build meaning through observation and knowledge of context.

With this in mind we can look at two works by Dürer and Michelangelo. The first point to make is that these works were, of course, not chosen at random and the choice itself was governed by status.


Albrecht Dürer (21 May 1471 – 6 April 1528), Portrait of Dürer’s Father at 70, 1497, oil on panel. National Gallery, London, UK.


Michelangelo (1475-1564), The Libyan Sibyl, 1508-1512, fresco, Sistine Chapel, Vatican.

The conventional (“Vasari”) approach to discussing these works would be based on a discussion of the artists, their other works, their trials and tribulations and their personal circumstances at the time the paintings were produced. The alternative is to consider the paintings themselves as works of art.

The Dürer is an intensely realistic, linear painting believed to be of the artists father. The personality of the figure shines out, stern but kind, intellectual but humane, proud but humble. Like all great paintings opposites are held in balance and contradictory interpretations are possible and allowed. The orange background adds a force and liveliness to the painting that adds to the strength of the figure and his personality.


Giovanni Bellini,  Frari Triptych, general view. Madonna and Child with Two Musical Angels Between SS. Nicholas, Peter, Mark, and Benedict. The triptych is in the original frame carved by Jacopo da Faenza. 1488. Tempera on panel. S. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Sacristy, Venice, Italy.

The Vasari-based approach would look at Dürer’s visits to Italy in 1494-5 and his admiration for Giovanni Bellini and try to see the influence of Italian art and Bellini in the portrait. The Doge Leonardo Loredan postdates the portrait by about four years but he could have seen the Frari Triptych in the Sacristy of S. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. Arguably the figure of St. Benedict on the right of the panel was an influence on Dürer with its outward stare and half-turned body.

The Michelangelo can be seen in isolation or as part of a monumental work covering the whole ceiling. In isolation it is a strongly delineated figure with clear colour blocks, almost cartoon-like in character. The figure does not look realistic but timeless, like a vision of a goddess rather than a human personality. She looks to the future and reads the past, she looks concerned, almost fearful of her prophecy as if her interpretation and prediction will itself change the future predicted.

The Artist as Individual

In the period 1250-1400 the artist was a craftsman and most artists names were not recorded except in accounts, design reviews (for example of Milan Cathedral) and occasionally on the work itself (Giovanni Pisano on the Pisa pulpit). The rise in importance of the artist as individual takes place over the period 1200 to 1500. At the start of this period most artist are anonymous and have the status that today we would give to someone who paints the outside of your house. By the end of the period one type of artist has acquired a high status in society. This raises the question why?

  • The end of the feudal system and the beginnings of paid labour and the autonomy of the worker as an individual free to choose work and present themselves as an individual ready and able to take on work.
  • The increasing social value of what we call a work of art. That is a unique work produced by an individual craftsman of high skill that somehow embodies a “message”. The idea of the meaning of a work of art became significant during this period.
  • The growth in the wealth of a wider range of people and the possibility of wealth acquisition within an individual’s lifetime rather than solely inherited wealth and the concept of money, that is wealth independent of the ownership of land. This meant that the wealthy individual looked for ways to demonstrate their free spending power and the arts were a way to demonstrate wealth. An “arms race” in spending on arts developed between countries and monarchs, between cities, between bishoprics and between individuals.
  • The transfer of art out of the church. At the beginning of the period art was used by the church to decorate, teach, inspire or convey a message. During the period, first through buying individual status within the church (chapels, tombs and so on) and then through portable and personal religious objects (books of prayer, portable altar pieces and son) and then entirely secular objects the individual and the city acquired the status and power previously exclusively owned and controlled by the church.
  1. Can you see any problems with the approach?
  •  A simply cyclical analysis raises the question “Where next?” Vasari realises this is a major problem but does not have a good answer other than things will continue in the same way.
  • Clearly he was writing a propaganda document for the Florentines and Tuscans, for himself and for artists in general.
  • Everything is described in terms of its relationship with the classical world as Vasari understood it.
  • He was promoting the idea of the artist as a scholar and his work as of high status.
  • He promotes the idea of an artwork being produced by an individual artist in the heat of artistic creation rather than a commission produced for a fee by a workshop involving a team of people.

The fundamental notion of periods and schools of art and the artist genius still permeates art history. We look at art history as a sequence of similar styles that change relatively abruptly and are each named. The naming itself introduces an abrupt change although the naming is done long after the event and at the time it was regarded more as related schools where artists would paint in the style of another. For example, Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi painted in the style of Caravaggio. We now think of this as the beginning of the Baroque period, a term that was coined much later to encompass a wide range of schools and techniques.

Vasari adopted an approach based on artists (grouped into schools and into his three periods) leading in a continuous progression from the rebirth of the classical world to a period “more glorious than the ancients”. This leaves open the question, that Vasari acknowledges, of “where do we go from here?” He had no satisfactory answer other than an assumption that it could only be downwards because of the cyclical analogy he had invoked.

Vasari’s approach goes to the heart of the debate on the role of the artist. We still look at art history as a sequence of genius artists discussed and presented as if they were pop idols.

The artist is seen an unique, individual genius who reflects the techniques and requirements of the time but who is essentially timeless, creating works of art that transcend the period in which the artist lives and which exist forever as statements of his or her transcendent vision. The other view is that all artists are the product of their culture and channel influences into art that mirrors the techniques and language of the time.

One way of analysing this distinction is to consider art as a type of communication and like all forms of communication it then needs a language that can be interpreted by both sender and receiver. Like any language it is necessarily produced and interpreted within a complex culture that can never be fully understood outside of that culture either by another culture at the time or by our culture today. A culture is like a jacket that is worn by the member’s of the cultural group but only observed by outsiders.

I use the term ‘culture’ as an all-encompassing set of beliefs. It could be regarded as an ideology but this sounds too superficial, a better synonym might be common sense. That is, a socially constructed reality which is accepted as ‘natural’.

An example that illustrates the point is English humour. It is not appreciated by everyone within the culture, its meaning can be debated by those who do appreciate it within the culture and outside the culture it may be appreciated but one wonders whether it is understood in the same way. This is one aspect of our culture today that is open to investigation yet it is still difficult to answer even the simplest questions. This indicates the difficulty or even impossibility of understanding the subtle nuances of a past culture. How exactly would Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) have been seen at the time?

This train of thought leads naturally to semiotics, Barthes, Mythologies and the next section.

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