Vasari, Giorgio (1511–1574)

views updated May 08 2018

VASARI, GIORGIO (15111574)

VASARI, GIORGIO (15111574), Italian biographer, painter, and architect. Born in the Tuscan town of Arezzo, Giorgio Vasari was brought in his early years to Florence, where he eventually became a prolific painter and highly accomplished architect. As an artist he is best known for his extensive historical and allegorical fresco decorations in the Palazzo Vecchio, made to celebrate the ruler of Florence, Duke Cosimo de' Medici. As an architect his most celebrated building is the Uffizi, the government "offices" built for his Medici patron.

Vasari's art and architecture are eclipsed, however, by his work as a writer. His monumental Lives (commonly known as Lives of the Artists ), was first published in Florence in 1550 and was reprinted in a much revised and amplified version in 1568. Composed as a series of biographies, Vasari's book is a history of the progress of art, after its "rebirth," from Cimabue to the perfection of Michelangelo. Considered to be the first "history of art" as such, the Lives powerfully shaped the emergence of art history as a scholarly discipline in the modern era. Vasari's book is also a rich source of information about Renaissance artists and the world in which they worked. It is a valuable font concerning the theory, practice, criticism, and techniques of art.

Given the vast amount of attention Vasari's writing has received, what is still underestimated at this late date is the status of Vasari's book as an enduring masterpiece of imaginative literature and of historical art. Literary scholars have been insufficiently attentive to Vasari's relations to Homer, Ovid, and Virgil, to Dante, Petrarch, and Giovanni Boccaccio, to Politian, Marsilio Ficino, and Ludovico Ariosto, to Baldassare Castiglione, Pietro Bembo, and Pietro Aretino, and art historians are totally indifferent, if not hostile, to the literary virtues of the Lives.

Writing before the modern distinction between scientific history and historical fiction, Vasari produced a book that combined bothfables and novelle on the one hand and "factual documents," as we might call them, on the other. Although scholars have become increasingly attentive to the fictive character of the Lives, they have remained remarkably insensitive to the virtues of such fiction. Sometimes they still ignore or refuse to acknowledge the presence of fiction in Vasari's book, as when, for example, they treat his fable of Leonardo's fabulous buckler or his tale of Michelangelo's smiling faun made in the Medici garden as true stories, as documentation of what really happened. What is lost here is an adequate critical appreciation of Vasari's art, the poetic art and inventiveness of these and other stories.

The blind reading of Vasari, which talks around the fiction of his book or refers to it only as "poetic embellishment" when it is far more than that, is based on the misguided belief that history is an accumulation of facts when it is, in fact, shaped or formed, hence "fictive" in the root sense of the word. Fiction in Vasari is inevitably written in the service of the historical truth. Vasari reports, for example, that Piero di Cosimo was a "wild man," a fiction that is true to the character of the artist's primitive subjects, which are the inventions of a highly cultivated artist. The power of Vasari's fiction is so great that even modern scientific art historians have imagined him as a kind of caveman. Although Piero becomes a fictional character in the pages of Vasari, he is obviously not an invented character. Rather, he is a real person whose life is poetically imagined.

The poetry of Vasari endures in the modern fable of art, in Honoré de Balzac's The Unknown Masterpiece, the tale of a painter whose inability to complete a masterpiece echoes Vasari's portrayal of Leonardo's unfinished work. Vasari is alive in Robert Browning's poems on Fra Filippo Lippi and Andrea del Sarto, and in George Eliot's portrayal of Piero di Cosimo in Romola. The extent of Vasari's influence on the modern imagination is far greater than the provincial historiography of art history allows. Vasari's book is a classic of world literature in which the mythologized Piero di Cosimo, Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo are characters of historical fiction who take their place as the subjects of history and the modern novel alike. Vasari often appropriated materials from other writers, far more than is generally realized; but, in the end, he was the superintending intelligence responsible for the making of a great literary and historical masterpiece, which will forever remain "Vasari's Lives. "

See also Art: Art Theory, Criticism, and Historiography ; Biography and Autobiography ; Florence, Art in .


Primary Source

Vasari, Giorgio. Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori et architettori scritte da Giorgio Vasari. Edited by Gaetano Milanesi. 9 vols. Florence, 1906.

Secondary Sources

Barolsky, Paul. Why Mona Lisa Smiles and Other Tales by Vasari. University Park, Pa., 1991.

Rubin, Patricia. Giorgio Vasari: Art and History. New Haven and London, 1995.

Paul Barolsky

Giorgio Vasari

views updated May 29 2018

Giorgio Vasari


Painter, architect, and art historian


A Life of Art. Giorgio Vasari was born in 1511 in Arezzo, Italy, into a family of tradesmen. He studied in Florence briefly with Michelangelo in 1524 and subsequently trained with Andrea del Sarto. He returned to Florence to work for Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1555 and assisted in the foundation of the new art academy, the Academia del Disegno, in 1563. The duke commissioned the architectural design for the Uffizi in 1560 as a building to house all the civic offices, guilds, and Medici court artists. Vasari and his pupils also furnished paintings for the studiolo of Francesco I de’ Medici. Located in the Palazzo Vecchio, it was dedicated to the scientific interests of Cosimo's son and successor. Vasari is best known for his Vite de più eccelentl architetti, pittori ed scultori italiani (Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Artists) published in 1550, and in an enlarged and revised edition in 1568. The book, also identified as The Lives, supposedly originated at a dinner party of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, where Vasari agreed to assist the art collector and biographer Paolo Giovio in writing a treatise on the lives of illustrious artists. Giovio eventually gave Vasari sole responsibility for the text. Vasari used anecdotes or literary conventions (topoi) throughout his biographies to illustrate his points. His biographies affirmed the place of virtue in the rise and decline of an individual's fortune. Using anec-dotes and epigrams, Vasari created the life of an artist as a moral exemplar. The dedication of The Lives to Cosimo acknowledged Vasari's obligation to his patron.

Artistic Models. The goal of his book was to raise the status of the artist and establish Tuscany as an artistic center of excellence. The first edition traced the history of art through the individual biographies of artists from antiquity to Michelangelo. Based upon a model of historical progress, his biological cycle of the arts creates three stages of development: childhood, youth, and a golden age. This model precluded emphasis on social and political circumstances related to artistic production. The assessment of quality, style, patronage, sources, and documentation was the criteria for evaluation of art. Vasari's personal collection of drawings, the Libro di disegni, provided some of the evidence he used to judge the excellence of individual artists or their place within the stages of development.

Artistic Paradigms. In the first stage of Vasari's model, the conquest of representation, or truth to nature, defined artistic quality. Subsequent improvements meant greater accuracy and ease in depicting the figure in space. Under-standing and application of antique forms was a second standard; it denoted excellence particularly in the second and third stages. In his text Vasari mapped the progress of art by recording the innovations of outstanding artists in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. Artists such as Giotto, Donatello, and da Vinci served as paradigms for their eras. Progress was a rebirth (renascita)through which forms were increasingly perfected and art itself moved closer to the divine. Giotto revived the art of design and thus reflected the creation of God. One of Vasari's anecdotes recorded how Giotto's skills in re-creating nature surpassed those of his own teacher, Cimabue. According to Vasari, Giotto painted a fly on the nose of one of Cimabue's figures. His teacher noticed the fly and attempted to brush it away. This incident demonstrated that Giotto's abilities rivaled nature itself, a topos frequently found in ancient accounts of artists’ lives.

Second Era. According to his developmental outline the artists of the fifteenth century, or second era, were much better. Their compositions were more lifelike with richer ornamentation. Brunelleschi aided in the Renaissance rediscovery of classical rules and measures applied to architecture. For Vasari, Donatello's sculptures most closely resembled antiquity because they were so full of grace and design. Donatello's figures of prophets for the bell tower of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence married lifelike representation and classical models of virtue. Il Zuccone, the bald-headed prophet, was believed to represent Giovanni di Barduccio Cherichini, a contemporary Florentine citizen. Vasari stated that Donatello would speak urgently to the sculpture while constructing it—demanding that it speak to him. The topos of a figure coming to life derived from classical literary models. The prophet's duty to employ his rhetorical skills recollected the Florentine citizen's obligations to speak persuasively and be involved in the active life.

Third Era. In the third era, or Golden Age, Vasari claimed that artists achieved the highest perfection in the creation of art. They copied the most beautiful things of nature and combined them with the best of antiquity. He credited da Vinci with originating this “modern period.” His work showed robust draughtsmanship, subtle reproduction of nature, and an inspired sense of grace. His figures were said to have moved and breathed for these reasons. The beauty, grace, and talent of artists such as da Vinci exemplified the harmony between the creator and created. The inspired ability to create, rather than an artisan's manual skills, determined the artist's new place in society. Vasari even used the term “divine” in association with Michelangelo's artistic reputation. He was the only major living artist whose biography appeared in Vasari's first edition of The Lives. In his second edition of The Lives (1565), Vasari added material based upon a trip to north Italy. He also included twenty more biographies. He died in 1574. His work forms an integral part of the repertoire of sources on the history of art and theory.


T. S. R. Boase, Georgia Vasari: The Man and the Book (Princeton Princeton University Press, 1979).

E. C. Fernie, Art History and Its Methods: A Critical Anthology (London: Phaidon, 1995).

Patricia Lee Rubin, Giorgio Vasari: Art and History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists: A Selection, volume 1, translated by George Bull (Baltimore: Penguin, 1965).

Giorgio Vasari

views updated May 18 2018

Giorgio Vasari

Giorgio Vasari (1511-1570) was an Italian painter, architect, and author of "The Lives of the Most Celebrated Painters, Sculptors, and Architects." His book is the foundation of modern art historiography and the prototype for all biographies of artists.

Giorgio Vasari was born on July 30, 1511, in Arezzo. According to his own account, he was apprenticed as a boy to Andrea del Sarto in Florence. He apparently suffered at the hands of Andrea's wife, to judge from the waspish references to her in his life of Andrea. Vasari's career is well documented, the fullest source of information being the autobiography added to the 1568 edition of his Lives.

Vasari had an extremely active career, but much of his time was spent as an impresario devising decorations for courtly festivals and similar ephemera. He fulsomely praised the Medici family for forwarding his career from childhood, and much of his work was done for Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany. Vasari was a prolific painter in the mannerist style and was also active as an architect, his talents in the latter profession being superior to those he displayed as a painter. He supervised the building of Pope Julius III's Villa Giulia near Rome, but his masterpiece is the reconstruction of the Uffizi picture gallery in Florence (from 1560), originally the offices of the grandducal administration.

The Lives

Vasari's Lives was published in Florence in 1550; it was revised and enlarged in 1568. He venerated Michelangelo to the point of idolatry. In the latter years of Michelangelo's life Vasari came to know him quite well, and for this reason the two versions of his biography of Michelangelo are of the greatest importance as a contemporary assessment.

The tradition of such biographies goes back to antiquity; technical treatises on the arts were also written in classical times, Pliny the Elder and Vitruvius having produced two celebrated examples. As early as the time of Lorenzo Ghiberti there had been an attempt to imitate classical prototypes by writing on earlier and contemporary artists, and Ghiberti, in his Commentaries (ca. 1447-1455), also wrote the earliest autobiography by a modern artist.

During the late 15th and early 16th centuries similar treatises were projected and written, and Vasari knew and used some of these earlier works. What distinguishes the first edition of his Lives is the fact that it is far fuller (and better written) than any of its predecessors or potential rivals. As Vasari says himself, he wrote as an artist for other artists, with knowledge of technical matters.

The book opens with long introductions on the history and technique of painting, sculpture, and architecture, as practiced in Italy since the Dark Ages, and then proceeds to a chronological series of lives of the great revivers of painting (Giotto), sculpture (the Pisani), and architecture (Arnolfo di Cambio), reaching a climax in the life of Michelangelo, the master of all three arts, who was then 75 years old. Briefly, the plan of the book was to show how Italian—and specifically Tuscan—artists had revived the glories of classical art late in the 13th century, reaching a crescendo in Michelangelo. Vasari is extremely partisan in that Venetians such as Giorgione and Titian are not given the prominence they deserve; and he also shows an uneasy awareness that if Michelangelo had reached perfection only decline could follow.

Vasari took great care to gather material on his numerous journeys, and, more than any of his predecessors, he looked at works of art. On the other hand, his reverence for factual truth was less than would be required of a modern historian, and he was unable to resist an amusing anecdote. This gives his book a liveliness and directness which has ensured its continued popularity independent of its historical importance.

In 1568 Vasari produced a second edition, much larger than the original and containing a great many alterations, particularly in the earlier lives. It also has many new biographies of living (or recently dead) artists, so it is an essential source for Vasari's contemporaries. He gives more space to non-Florentine artists and even mentions one or two non-Italians.

The most important changes are in the life of Michelangelo, who had died in 1564. Part of the revision of Vasari's earlier life was occasioned by the publication, in 1553, of the Life of Michelangelo, written by Ascanio Condivi, a pupil of Michelangelo, and probably partly dictated by the master. The versions by Vasari and Condivi give us, therefore, a unique contemporary picture of the life and works of the greatest Italian artist of the age.

It is almost impossible to imagine the history of Italian art without Vasari, so fundamental is his Lives. It is the first real and autonomous history of art both because of its monumental scope and because of the integration of the individual biographies into a whole.

Further Reading

There are several English translations of Vasari's Lives, in whole or in part, the best selection being that translated by George Bull as The Lives of the Artists (1965). For biographical information on Vasari see Einar Rud, Vasari's Life and Lives (1963).

Additional Sources

Boase, T. S. R. (Thomas Sherrer Ross), 1898-1974., Giorgio Vasari: the man and the book, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979. □

Vasari, Giorgio (1511–1570)

views updated May 21 2018

Vasari, Giorgio (15111570)

Painter, architect, and author, whose book Lives of the Most Celebrated Painters, Sculptors, and Architects remains an important source of information on the life and works of many Renaissance artists. Born in Arezzo, Tuscany, Vasari studied with Guglielmo de Marsiglia in his hometown before leaving for Florence at the age of sixteen. He apprenticed as a painter in the workshop of Andrea del Sartro in Florence; he also traveled to Rome to study the works of Raphael, and Michelangelo Buonarroti. While a young man he worked as a festival manager, in which he designed decorations and processions for festivals at the courts of Florence, where he won the patronage of Cosimo de' Medici, the Duke of Florence. A skilled painter, he completed portraits of the Medici as well as paintings for the Hall of Cosimo I at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence and the Sala Regia in the Vatican in Rome. He has a stronger reputation as an architect; Vasari helped to design the famous Villa Giulia in Rome for Pope Julius III and palaces in the towns of Arezzo and Pisa. His major architectural work, however, was the design of the Uffizi gallery in Florence, formerly the government offices (Uffizi) of Tuscany. In this work he took inspiration from the design of the Vatican by Donato Bramante and by Michelangelo's Laurentian Library in Florence. Vasari designed a loggia, or covered passageway, in the Piazza Grande of Arezzo, where he also worked on the Church of Santi Fiora e Lucilla. He renovated the Churches of Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella in Florence, replacing medieval features of the churches with a unified design inspired by classical Roman architecture. His many commissions allowed him to prosper and become a leading citizen of Arezzo, where he designed and decorated a mansion and where he attained the post of gonfaloniere, or mayor. In Florence he founded the Academy of Design with Cosimo de' Medici and Michelangelo; this institution survives to the present day as the Academy of Fine Arts of Florence.

A tireless traveler, Vasari developed on his wide-ranging journeys a keen instinct for judging works of art and especially paintings. From his wanderings he gathered notes and anecdotes that he worked into his Lives, which was first published in 1550 and was expanded for a new edition in 1568 and illustrated with woodcut portraits. The book begins with an introduction on the history of painting, sculpture, and architecture in Italy and then covers the lives of men who revived these arts in the Middle Ages: the painters Cimabue and Giotto, the sculptors of the city of Pisa, and the architect Arnolofo di Cambio. Vasari was close to Michelangelo and reserves his highest praise for this artist, whose works he sees as the culmination of the revival of the art of the classical age. For the second edition Vasari included a wider range of painters who lived outside of his favored city of Florence, including some Venetians and non-Italians. Vasari's book, which coined the term Rinascita, or Renaissance, provides many valuable insights for modern historians of the Renaissance, although he worked in an antiquated style that combined historical speculation and fiction with facts as he knew them. His book provided inspiration for many authors and poets, including Honore de Balzac, George Eliot, and Robert Browning, who treated the themes of struggling artists and their works, but more importantly established a foundation for the modern field of art history.

See Also: Florence; Medici, Cosimo de'; Michelangelo Buonarroti

Vasari, Giorgio

views updated Jun 11 2018

Vasari, Giorgio (1511–74). Italian architect, author, and painter. His Le Vite de' più eccellenti architetti, pittori, e scultori italiani (Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Architects, Painters, and Sculptors) was published in 1550 and is a prime source of information on Renaissance architecture as well as having been a key document in creating perceptions about the period. An expanded edition came out in 1568. As an architect he made an important contribution to the designs for the Villa Giulia, Rome (1551–5), vetted by Michelangelo and realized by Vignola and Ammannati. In 1555 he settled in Florence to work for Duke Cosimo I de' Medici (1519–74). There, he created his masterpiece, the Uffizi, the Government Offices of the Tuscan State (1560–80s), with façades influenced by Bramante's Belvedere in the Vatican, Michelangelo's Biblioteca Laurenziana, Florence, and Peruzzi's Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne, Rome. The Uffizi buildings enclose a long piazzetta terminated at the river end by a loggia incorporating a serliana, and was completed by Buontalenti, who designed several Mannerist details, including the Porta delle Suppliche.

At Arezzo Vasari designed the Church of Santi Fiora e Lucilla (1564–86) on a plan resembling that of San Marco, Venice, and the handsome loggia in the Piazza Grande (1570–96). He also carried out several major alterations of church interiors following the Council of Trent (1545–63) which required unimpeded views of the high-altar. His drastic work at Santa Croce (1565–84) and Santa Maria Novella (1565–72), Florence, gave the interiors architectural unity, but also removed many medieval features.


Boase (1979);
M. Hall (1979);
Heydenreich (1996);
Satkowski (1979, 1993);
Jane Turner (1996);
Vasari (1912–15)

Vasari, Giorgio

views updated May 23 2018

Vasari, Giorgio (1511–74) Italian painter, architect, and biographer. Vasari's fame now rests on his history of Italian art, The Lives of the most excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550). This lively account is the single most important document of Italian Renaissance art. In architecture, he is noted for his design for the Uffizi.

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