Giorgio Vasari: Art and History 
by Patricia Lee Rubin.
Yale, 449 pp., £35, April 1995, 0 300 04909 9
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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.

Rubin’s sympathy for her subject perhaps inhibits her from questioning the ideal to which he was attached. Yet, as she concedes, many great artists found service under Cosimo less congenial than did Vasari. Cellini considered that Cosimo lacked princely munificence and was mercantile and calculating, all too ready to reward mediocrity. Vasari’s friend, Salviati, one of the greatest artists of the day, could not tolerate Cosimo’s court. Vasari himself possessed the requisite humility and patience. He was also versatile, obliging and utterly loyal, with the reliability of a ‘creato’, someone who owed everything to the Medici but was free of the competing allegiances that so many native Florentines would have inherited. It may be helpful to think of him as a civil servant artist, an early example of a type which flourished in 17th-century France especially. Vasari writing his Lives looked for models and found one in Giulio Romano, whose work for the Duke of Mantua he surveyed with fervent approval. After the death of his master, Raphael, Giulio’s facility as a designer extended to include architecture, his managerial skills seem to have developed as well, and his confidence as a painter was as unlimited as Vasari’s own. We cannot expect Vasari to share our distaste for Giulio’s coarseness, or to weary of the relentless over-excitement of his compositions, but he must have noticed how often quantity was given priority over quality in the work Giulio created, or rather directed. And yet he does not worry about it.

Vasari also expanded on the splendour of the position occupied by Raphael at the court of the Medici Pope Leo X. Raphael had been given unprecedented opportunities by this great patron, but there were losses as well as gains in the numerous new directions he was obliged to take as architect, town-planner, archaeologist and interior decorator. His control of builders, or knowledge of building, was imperfect – as Vasari parenthetically suggests. To the connoisscur, and still more to the envious rival, the compromises and improvisations occasioned by haste and the division of labour must have been obvious. A friend of Michelangelo reported to him that the vault of Agostino Chigi’s villa, frescoed by Raphael and his workshop, was a disgrace. It is not of uniformly high quality in execution, the keen eye can detect some hasty stitching, and Vasari himself noted that some of the nudes lacked the ‘grazia e dolcezza’ which were characteristic of Raphael’s own work. He writes that Raphael acknowledged this problem and resolved to paint the Transfiguration without assistance. But the problem could not so easily be solved in other large decorative schemes.

Vasari did not ask himself why many artists suffered in the sort of position he occupied, or indeed why many strove to avoid it. What he chose to consider as caprice in Salviati, sloth in Sebastiano and weak-minded domesticity in Sarto was surely often a determination to defend artistic integrity against the importunities of patrons. And we notice, too, the care that Titian and Barocci took not to be drawn into the service of a great prince, preferring to supply work to them from a distance. These painters sensed that devotion to their art, cultivation of the highest artistic standards became more difficult with senior managerial responsibilities, with pressure to accelerate production, and with the need to increase delegation. And yet for the architect – both Vasari and Giulio Romano were superb architects – the opportunities provided by a senior position at court far surpassed its disadvantages.

Raphael was portrayed by Vasari as exemplary and for this reason he occupies a key place in the Lives. Nevertheless, the biography of Michelangelo is far longer (as his life also was), and it is Michelangelo who provides the pre-eminent example of sublime genius. But in his case genius was associated with terribilità and other qualities which would disqualify anyone from a post in the civil service. He was not reliable, as witness the work he never finished and the jobs he abandoned. He did not like to delegate. He was not always deferential to the great and was on occasion rude to such people. He had his own family pride, and his relations with the Medici family were marked at every stage of his career by ambivalence and unease. Repeatedly Vasari must have repressed the urge to censor this giant who was, as Rubin points out, compared to Dante by his contemporaries.

Florentines were painfully conscious that Dante died in exile and was buried far away in Ravenna. Michelangelo could never in his old age be lured back to Medici Florence, but Cosimo wasted no time in claiming his corpse for burial in Santa Croce, where in 1564 Vasari and the new Accademia organised a funeral of princely proportions. In his life of Michelangelo Vasari was careful to suppress material which was damaging to the Medici or to Michelangelo. All the same he is likely to have annoyed the latter. Vasari knew that Michelangelo had earlier been apprenticed to the Ghirlandaio workshop. Michelangelo himself (through his chosen biographer, Condivi) denied this, or rather denied that Ghirlandaio had been of any help to him, depicting himself as a prodigy, consorting not with senior artists but with Lorenzo il Magnifico and Poliziano, respectively the greatest patron and greatest poet of Florence in that period. Vasari did have a passion for putting the record – or at least part of it – straight and in his second edition (Michelangelo being safely dead) he was able to flourish documentary evidence of the apprenticeship. But he also added that he himself had studied under Michelangelo, which he did not. Rubin is particularly shrewd in tracing both the limits of Vasari’s devotion to truth and his style of bending it. She does so without any anachronistic indignation, indeed with an almost tender sympathy, exemplified by her consideration of this particular falsehood. What is even more of an achievement is her account of Vasari’s attitude to distant figures such as Giotto (to whose life she devotes a chapter) where he was really concerned to construct a legend out of a legend.

Vasari’s intermittent interest in documentary evidence owed much to the counsel of Vincenzo Borghini, the great historian of Florence and one of the leading literary figures at Cosimo’s court. They worked together on the programme for the ceilings of Palazzo Vecchio, on the allegories which adorned Michelangelo’s catafalque and on the rules and regulations of the Accademia as well as the revision of the Lives. Rubin’s detailed discussion of Vasari’s debt to Borghini is particularly enlightening. But she also emphasises the tradition of Florentine family workshops keeping their own archives – both accurate business records and proud memoirs of achievements. It was precisely because the Ghirlandaio family (which had been active for more than a century in the city’s artistic life) had kept such records that Vasari was able to cite this document about Michelangelo. Long before, in 1529, Vasari had spent a couple of months in the house of Vittorio Ghiberti and while there he bought some drawings attributed to Vittorio’s great-grandfather, Lorenzo Ghiberti (who had created the marvellous bronze doors of the city’s baptistery), and to other even earlier artists, including Giotto. Rubin, noting the significance of this incident, adds that there were other records in the family’s possession, including Vittorio’s father’s commonplace book and Lorenzo Ghiberti’s manuscript Commentaries, which, as she observes, was the closest modern precedent for Vasari’s endeavours.

There are many occasions when, in reading Vasari’s Lives, especially the sententious introductions or asides (more characteristic of the first than the second edition), we are struck by the commonplace nature of his mind – although the very tradition of the commonplace book should caution us from supposing that because he believed in drawing simple morals he lacked subtlety or humour. When we consider the Lives as a whole, or merely consider its unprecedented biographical scope, we can only marvel at the author’s originality. Where did he get the idea of writing it? Where did he find the courage to do so? Vasari’s own explanation is that, one evening in 1546, when he was dining in Rome with the witty and learned company which frequented the table of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the conversation turned to Paolo Giovio’s ‘museum’, which consisted of portraits of famous men with inscriptions attached. These inscriptions were related to Giovio’s elogii, the first part of which was published in that very year. At the dinner Giovio mentioned his desire to write an account of the illustrious artists from the time of Cimabue to the present day. His discourse on this subject was knowledgeable and judicious but not always accurate and, when consulted by the Cardinal about Giovio’s plans, Vasari offered his help. But later, on seeing Vasari’s notes, Giovio urged Vasari ‘Giorgio mio’ – to write something by himself.

In the superb catalogue of the exhibitions devoted to Vasari in Arezzo in 1981, Charles Davis subjected this passage to careful scrutiny. He discovered that many of Alessandro Farnese’s dinner guests listed by Vasari were dead or absent from Rome at the time, and pointed out that this account of the book’s origins followed a rhetorical convention. As Rubin observes, the episode is an ‘invention meant to give a distinct and distinguished literary pedigree to Vasari’s book’. It is also, surely, an ingenious pretence at modesty, designed to disarm critics. One can sense here the methods whereby Vasari, ever deferential, eager to help, but in fact highly ambitious, secured favour at Cosimo’s court – and excited the detestation of more arrogant artists. And there may be some truth in the story. As Rubin remarks, the Cardinal did engage in discussions on such matters, Vasari was on familiar terms with Giovio, and it is very likely that he had begun to prepare his notes and fill them out with further research at about this date. In any case the real mystery remains. What prompted him to accumulate all the notes in the first place? In the letter to Cosimo presenting him with a copy of the first edition of the Lives, Vasari described it as embodying ten years’ labour, but as Rubin notes, this is a suspiciously round figure. All we can be sure of is that Vasari displayed a mysteriously precocious antiquarian zeal. The earliest recorded instance of this is the acquisition of Vittorio Ghiberti’s drawings.

Vasari is unlikely to have wanted these drawings for use in his own work as a painter. Rubin conjectures shrewdly that ‘Vasari, who could trace his ancestors in art back only to saddle painters and ceramic-makers, may well have been impressed by these workshops descended from the great and grand masters of their arts whose records made a glorious past both immediate and available to him.’ There is room for further speculation along these lines. Vasari, whose origins were rather humble, was attached to a great family, indeed incorporated into the famiglia of the Medici, to whom he remained utterly loyal. Introduced, after initial training in his native Arezzo, to the incomparably rich metropolis of Florence, he was fascinated by its great artistic traditions. In 1529, when he bought those drawings, he was only 18. This is not an age normally associated with pious retrospection. His father had died less than two years previously and it is not over-fanciful to suppose that he had begun to think of the great artists of Florence as his family and to look up to them as well as to the Medici as his protectors.

We might also conjecture that behind Vasari’s endeavour to collect information about, and relics of, these adopted ancestors, there lay some anxiety that this family might be in trouble. He may have felt it to be a shame that ancestral records were being dispersed. Equally important perhaps was the fact that Florentine art was being presented with new challenges at that time. In his life of Perino del Vaga, Vasari described how in 1522 this brilliant young pupil of Raphael provoked intense debate when he asserted to an assembly of Florentine artists and craftsmen, ‘not scornfully but frankly’ (‘non per disprezio, ma per il vero’), that in Rome where he had been working, there were many artists who had painted things with no less life but with more beauty, who had taken their art further and added a novel grace. Vasari was not present on this occasion: he was still in Arezzo studying with the French glass painter Guillaume de Marcillai. He came to Florence two years later as a companion for the Medici heirs, the orphaned bastards Ippolito and Alessandro, and besides studying with them he was attached to the workshop of Andrea del Sarto. It would have been then that he heard about Perino’s visit, and (as Rubin notes) he seems to have copied the famous cartoon Perino had made of the Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand, partly to demonstrate the Roman manner to Florentines. Vasari’s own training would have enabled him to take Perino’s side in the debate, for de Marcillat’s painting was heavily indebted to the Roman work of Michelangelo and Raphael. Moreover, he was alert to Sarto’s reluctance to emulate the achievements of new Roman art, and noted how Rosso Fiorentino had for a while been unbalanced by it.

Throughout the previous century at least, Florence had been the artistic capital of Italy. But Rome now enjoyed that status and would remain for four centuries the place for artists from all parts of Italy and, before long, Europe to study, or at least finish their studies. Florentines could be proud of the fact that the artists chiefly responsible were of Florentine family (Michelangelo) or training (Raphael) and indeed that Pope Leo X was a Medici. But of the Roman followers of Raphael and Michelangelo only one, Perino, was Florentine, and the younger artists who were most happily inspired by what they saw in Rome were Correggio and Parmigianino, neither of whom was Tuscan. One of Vasari’s great themes is the pre-eminence of Tuscan traditions in Italian art. It is surely not a coincidence that he began to commemorate such traditions, or at least probably began to prepare to do so, just as the dominance of Florence was diminishing. He himself had studied Roman art, at first indirectly, in Arezzo, but then, with his friend Francesco Salviati, passionately and diligently, in Rome itself and he knew and admired much of what had been, and was being, achieved elsewhere in Italy. Vasari’s prejudices – notably against Venetian painting – are notorious, yet the range of work he commended is more remarkable.

Whatever the implications of Raphael and Michelangelo’s work in Rome for Florentine art in the 1520s, the achievements of these two artists, and to a lesser extent those of Leonardo da Vinci, deprived all Italian artists of the strong sense of progress which they had hitherto enjoyed. Artists could do nothing that was better. In a sense they belonged to a family which had risen to an unprecedented eminence. It was time to record that rise: ostensibly to ensure that its achievements were properly respected – and its decay postponed by piety. It is not the great commander or powerful minister, but his nephew the bishop, or his grandson the second earl, who finds the time to put the burial vaults in order, to label the portraits, to fuss about the heraldry and to employ the chronicler who commemorates the commander or minister and discovers for them a distinguished ancestry.

Vasari was not only the family chronicler, he also had a theory concerning the recovery of art, beginning with the ‘first lights’ which broke in the gloom of the ‘Greek’ (that is, Byzantine) and Gothic eras, evolving in stages to the perfection of Raphael and Michelangelo. Art had of course also flourished in the ancient world, and increased knowledge of that art was a precondition for modern perfection. This theory, developed in the prefaces to the different parts of the Lives in very polished prose (with which Vasari doubtless received assistance), involved a biological metaphor and invoked an earlier cycle in antiquity, yet the implication that decay is inevitable only briefly casts a shadow over these prefaces and does not disturb the Lives as a whole – nor did it inhibit Vasari’s own confidence as an artist.

Many art historians convince themselves that they are only interested in the facts collected by Vasari, or the traditions he recorded, and can discern – and ignore – the distortions which prejudice, piety or theory prompted. However, Rubin demonstrates that little in Vasari’s Lives was unaffected by the values he wished to defend. She is able to do so because of her profound understanding of her subject and his period. Not all of us are likely to feel as fond of Vasari, even after reading her book, but we will certainly know him better, and admire him more.

Not only is Rubin’s book one which all historians of Italian Renaissance art – that is, all users of Vasari – should study; it is also a major contribution to the study of historiography and a remarkable investigation of the uses to which the past may be put in the service of the present, or to shape the future. Having read it you may experience a certain vertigo when standing in the courtyard of the Uffizi.

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