- Giorgio Vasari: Art and History by Patricia Lee Rubin
Yale, 449 pp, £35.00, April 1995, ISBN 0 300 04909 9
We would know very much less about Italian Renaissance Art, and indeed very much less would have been made of the very concept of the Italian Renaissance, had Vasari not published his Lives of the Artists in 1550 (and again, revised and enlarged, in 1567), providing us with biographies of more than two hundred Italian artists. A good place to reflect on the nature of Vasari’s achievement is the Uffizi in Florence. Many of the Renaissance pictures in the gallery there were first described by him. The niches outside are occupied by statues of great Tuscan artists, placed there in the 19th century – Vasari would have approved of such a commemorative initiative, and indeed he may have inspired it. Vasari was also the architect of the building itself. The lucid elevations, the combination of solemn grandeur and ceremony with rational order which they suggest, masked the stealthy despotism and expressed the new bureaucratic regularity imposed on the city by Cosimo de’ Medici, Duke of Florence and then first Grand-Duke of Tuscany, whom Vasari served, and to whom the Lives was dedicated.
The building, which was begun in 1560, provided efficient access to a variety of public offices (hence Uffizi) each with its separate sheltered entrance. There is no main door: the focus is instead the arch which connects the two long wings. Over the arch there is only an upper floor, which was devoted to the Prince’s gallery. Used for the display of the Medici art collection and for taking exercise, this gallery became essential to state security, for it formed part of a corridor between Palazzo Vecchio and Palazzo Pitti across the river, which was made under Vasari’s supervision. Vasari also redesigned much of Palazzo Vecchio, creating a magnificent staircase and decorating the new ceilings, including that of the gigantic hall, which he painted with carefully researched episodes in Florentine history. In the process of his renovation, much of historic interest and all vestiges of earlier republican Florence (probably including a mural by Leonardo) were destroyed. Vasari’s paintings can also be found in the churches of Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce – these churches were drastically re-ordered under Cosimo and his successor in accordance with Counter-Reformation decorum and discipline. By the time he published his second edition Vasari was as busy as an agent of destruction as he was assiduous in recording what had been or might soon be lost. Another paradox, to which we shall return, was that this creator of the new Florence, and chronicler of the old, was not Florentine by birth, nor truly Florentine by education.
Vasari had pursued his painting career in many parts of the Italian peninsula before settling in Florence, and his paintings in oil and fresco can be found in Bologna, Ravenna, Venice and Naples, as well as in his native Arezzo, and in Rome, where he worked a good deal both before and after he entered Cosimo’s service. Patricia Lee Rubin’s study of Vasari’s writings incorporates much biography; it is delicate in its perception of the author’s debts to his own circumstances and aspirations as an artist, and meticulous in its assessment of the conventions which shaped both his paintings and his prose. It is abundantly illustrated with the pictures Vasari wrote about, the drawings he collected, the woodcut portraits he commissioned, and of course his own paintings.
A handy illustrated catalogue of Vasari’s paintings by Laura Conti, Vasari: Catalogo Completo (in the Gigli dell’arte scries of paperbacks published by Cantini of Florence), confirms the impression that he was one of the most accomplished as well as one of the most prolific painters in mid-16th-century Italy. His work can be appealing, notably in the less explicitly didactic decorations of his own house in Arezzo (some fine details of which are illustrated in Rubin’s book), but his allegories tend to be laborious, his mythologies charmless, his more elaborate histories congested. His compositions all too often seem like a compilation of exercises in expression, anatomy, drapery and antique elegance. A hard light picks out by turn a frowning hermit saint, the metallic folds of a brilliantly coloured cloak, a redundant youth with elastic wrists pointing to himself or to the action, a pearl-sown coiffure crowning a glass-eyed mask ... This is academic painting, not because it adheres to approved formulae but because it alternates between the vices of the precocious scholar and those of the tenured professor, either straining too earnestly to attract attention, or glib and prolix, with little real effort. But this is not an estimate which Rubin would endorse.
Vasari was one of the founders, in 1563, of the Accademia del Disegno, but although that institution was the parent of all European art academies, and had serious pedagogic intentions, priority was given to providing decent burials (with learned orations) rather than prizes for life drawing. Rewards for diligence in young artists and productivity in senior ones were, however, dispensed by Vasari in his Lives. The Lives are deeply concerned with inculcating proper values in artists; Vasari deplored eccentricities, censored incipient bohemianism and was saddened by lack of ambition. The ideal was service under a great prince like Cosimo.