Giorgio di Antonio Vasari
Italian Painter, Architect, and Art Historian
Summary of Giorgio di Antonio Vasari
Missing the so-called High Renaissance period of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael by almost a generation, Giorgio di Antonio Vasari emerged around the 1530s as an important link in the development of Italian Renaissance art. He is well respected as a painter and architect, especially in his frescos and his use of the lt;span class="marked_text chart-tooltip-target-top tooltip_id-mannerism">Mannerism style to intensify his biblical narratives. Yet most commentators would agree that his great contribution to the history of Western art history came not via an artwork at all, but rather via a tome: The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, first published in 1550. In The Lives (as it has become known), Vasari introduced for the first time the now familiar art historical convention of using biological models to bring meanings to specific artworks. According to scholar Andrew Ladis, Vasari turned Michelangelo (in particular) into "the triumphant savior of the arts, a figure of light" as he put it. Presenting a view on the Renaissance which persists to this day, The Lives decreed Vasari's era as the "rebirth" of art after the fall of Rome, with the works by proto-Renaissance artist Giotto representing the beginnings of art's aesthetic ascent.
- Vasari was first and foremost a frugal businessman. He realized the part "artistic influence" could play in elevating the value attached to an artwork. His position helped initiate a shift in thinking that saw painters - or, rather, some special painters - occupy a higher status than mere artisan. If one could present themselves as an artist, then the greater their chances of achieving fame and financial security. His position was summed up in this remarkable address to his erstwhile colleagues and masters: "Once I was poor like all of you but now I have three thousand scudi or more. You considered me awkward (as a painter), but the friars and priests consider me an able master. Once I served you, and now I have a servant of my own, who looks after my horse. I used to dress in those rags worn by poor painters, and now I am dressed in velvet. Once I went on foot, and now I go on horseback."
- Vasari gained early notices for his commissioned portraiture. He favoured pastel tones to bring out a humanist and sympathetic quality in his venerated sitters. To the ends of posterity, he would also pepper his picture frame with symbolism that would connote the gravitas and status of the individual in question.
- Having invested in the ideals of tonal harmony in his portraits, Vasari turned towards the techniques of Mannerism in his religious painting. These compositions relied more on artifice - unnatural colors, abnormalities in, and elongations of, scale, exaggerations in contrast and so on - with the intent of creating a sense of high elegance and heightened drama within the picture narrative.
- As author of The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (Volume one: 1550; Volume two: 1568) Vasari effectively gave birth to a populist art history. It was by coming to understand the life and times of the Florentine and Venetian masters, Vasari believed, that one could get to the essence of Renaissance art. The book followed in fact an already established tradition in biographical writing, but Vasari brought a new anecdotal edge to proceedings while at times supplying a moral judgment on the activities of the artists in question. Many scholars have criticized The Lives for its biases and its surfeit of factual inaccuracies and embellishments. But the principle that the history of art (and literature for that matter) could be understood through the exceptional deeds of divinely gifted individuals has stood firm. It is quite true that many radicals and revisionists have produced treaties that challenge this romanticized, "bourgeois", approach to art history, but it is the idea of the "biographical legend" that has done most to promote the pleasures of art appreciation across all classes of art lovers.
Biography of Giorgio di Antonio Vasari
Giorgio Vasari, the eldest of six children, was born in 1511 into a middle-class family living in the Arezzo region of Tuscany. Giorgio's artistic leanings were passed down to him through the generations of family members. His great-grandfather Lazzaro Vasari had been a versatile artiste: a potter, a creator of decorated saddles, a painter of miniatures, and later, under the influence of his mentor Piero della Francesco, a fresco painter. Vasari's grandfather, after whom Giorgio was named, was less of an all-rounder but, like Antonio, he too was an accomplished potter. Vasari had been especially close to his great uncle, Luca Signorelli, himself a sitter for della Francesco's teachings and his perspective drawing. Indeed, little Giorgio had been a sickly child, stricken with frequent nosebleeds (and possibly severe eczema). Vasari would tell the story of how Signorelli would try to staunch his nosebleeds by applying a folk remedy that involved holding "a piece of red jasper to my neck with infinite tenderness."
Important Art by Giorgio di Antonio Vasari
Painted by Vasari at the age of 22, this is a portrait of Lorenzo de' Medici - also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent - the Italian Statesman and famous ruler of Florence. De' Medici was held by many, including da Vinci, Michelangelo and Botticelli, to be the most important patron of the Renaissance art. He is shown here seated wearing a blue tunic with ermine sleeves surrounded by objects glorifying his reign with Latin inscriptions. The inscription on the vase reads "virtutum omnium vas" (the vessel of all the virtues) which sits on top of the mask of Vice. To his left is the mask of Music with a flute protruding from an eye. The inscription on the column reads "As my ancestors did for me, I honor them by my virtue". Hanging on his belt is a red purse as a symbol of his role as a financier and banker to the Papacy.
As Vasari wrote: "My intention [was] to include in this portrait every ornament significant of the great qualities that made him illustrious in life and show that all his honors were solely of this own attainment." The portrait was commissioned by Cosimo I de' Medici, the Second duke of Florence (1537-74) in waiting, as an act of homage (Lorenzo had died in 1492, aged just 43) for one of his most powerful and revered ancestors. Vasari was pleased to oblige his most important patron and acknowledged his debt to the Medici family for their patronage throughout his life.
Although an accurate rendering of its subject, Vasari is known to have disliked painting portraits, preferring compositions in which he could avoid a focus on the detail necessary to achieve a likeness of the sitter. We see in this work that Vasari managed to reveal a pensive and powerful patron of the arts. This image, painted in subdued colors, shows Vasari's ability to encourage the viewer's empathy in understanding his subject's power and humility. Lorenzo de' Medici was in fact painted by many important artists of the Renaissance including Verrocchio, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, as well as Leonardo da Vinci in his Portrait of Lorenzo of 1500, and Bronzino.
The subject of the painting is salvation which is explained by the scrolls carried by angels on either side of Mary: "Those who Eve's fault condemned, Mary's grace set free." Mary is bathed in splendor, with the moon at her feet. In the bottom half of the painting we see Adam and Eve tied to the Tree of Original Sin, surrounded by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joshua and David and other prophets from the Old Testament. Samuel and St John the Baptist are shown bound only by one hand "because they were blessed in the womb."
Allegory of the Immaculate Conception was commissioned by Bindo Altoviti, a Florentine banker, for the family chapel at the Church of Santi Apostoli in Florence. As Vasari himself acknowledged, "I had not executed any work up to that time with more study or with more lovingness and labour." He is said, however, not to have been satisfied with what he achieved despite the time and effort he had put in. Indeed, one of the important paintings of religious subjects by Vasari, it is also one of the most difficult to read due to the excessive number of allegorical symbols contained within the frame. It also calls on the influence of Raphael in the upper part of the painting in which Mary is carried to the heavens by a group of angels; and Michelangelo, in the fluidity and dynamism in the allegorical figures in the bottom half of the painting.
As its title suggests, this painting shows six famous poets and philosophers from 13th and 14th century Tuscany engaged in conversation. They converse - as they wrote - in the Tuscan language. It shows Dante Alighieri (most famous for his poem about the afterlife, The Divine Comedy) seated, facing Guido Cavalcanti, a poet famed for his love sonnets. To his right is the humanist scholar, Francesco Petrarch holding a copy of his Scattered Rhymes. Between them is Giovanni Boccaccio, author of the Decameron, and to the far left are the humanist, Marsilio Ficino and the philosopher, Cristoforo Landino. The four great poets of the Italian language wear laurel wreaths as a symbol of honor. In front of Dante is a table with objects of learning; the solar quadrant and celestial globe representing astronomy, a compass representing geometry, a terrestrial globe for geography, and books for rhetoric.
Vasari received the commission from Luca Martini in 1543 to paint this picture as to announce the cultural supremacy of Tuscany, and to help raise Italian over Latin as the language of Italian culture. Dante holds a copy of Virgil, one of the great Latin poets, to remind the audience that all six poets in the painting were in fact masters of the Latin language. This was an important detail because some critics have suggested that the men had written in Italian because they were not well versed in Latin. This painting is then an important historical reference to the debate current to the times over the literary standing of the poets and the merits of Italian literature. As Vasari wrote in his The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, "Tuscan genius has ever been raised high above all others."
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Giorgio di Antonio Vasari
- The Collector of Lives: Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of ArtOur PickBy Noah Charney & Ingrid Rowland
- Giorgio Vasari: The Man and the BookOur PickBy Thomas Sherrer Ross Boase
- Giorgio Vasari: Architect and CourtierBy Leon Satkowski & Ralph Lieberman
- The Lives of the ArtistsOur PickBy Giorgio Vasari
- The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and ArchitectsBy Giorgio Vasari
- Vasari on TechniqueBy Giorgio Vasari
- Great MastersBy Giorgio Vasari
- The Frescoes of Casa Vasari in Florence: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Understanding, Conserving, Exploiting and PromotingOur PickBy Umberto Baldini & Pietro Alessandro Vigato
- 58 Color Paintings of Giorgio Vasari - Italian Renaissance PainterBy Jacek Michalak
- Florence: The Paintings & Frescoes, 1250-1743By Ross King & Anja Grebe
- How Giorgio Vasari Invented Art History as We Know ItBy Deborah Solomon / The New York Times / December 1, 2017
- 'The Collector of Lives' Taught Us the Art of Art HistoryBy Cammy Brothers / The Wall Street Journal / Oct. 13, 2017
- Turning artists into heroesBy Martin Gayford / The Telegraph / December 21, 1996
- Last judgement on Vasari frescoBy Andrew Gumbel / The Independent / June 25, 1995
- Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists (In Our Time)Our PickBy Melvyn Bragg
- The Battle of Marciano (1565), in the Hall of the 500 in the Palazzo Vecchio plays an important role in Dan Brown's novel Inferno, specifically the inscription "Cerca trova" (seek and find) and its anagram "catrovacer."