Giorgio Vasari – The First Art-Historian (1511-1574)

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Giorgio Vasari


Giorgio Vasari, this name has become a must, when you are researching about the renaissance period’s most able artists. Whether it’s famous artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Donatello or the lesser known names like Masaccio or Paolo Uccello, you get to know about most of the recognized artists from renaissance in his considered as “the first art-history book” titled as “The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.”

He was born in Arezzo, Tuscany in 1511. At the age of 16, he was sent to Florence for his humanist education where Michelangelo came in his contact and left a measurable impact on Vasari’s mind and later on the impact was perceivable in Vasari’s painting and architectural works.

When he became pupil of Bartolommeo Bandinelli, they learned together many aspects of art. As it is stated, they learned more about drawing in just one month together than they learned separately in two years. Bandinelli was happy to have him as his pupil and in future Vasari grew up to outshine Bandinelli. From that moment Vasari’s artistic ability flourished as Bandinelli himself was a proficient artist and was a teacher of many other known artists.

An interesting fact is that Bandinelli was jealous of Michelangelo’s work. Contrarily, Vasari was a great admirer of Michelangelo and also got much impression of Michelangelo’s works and personality when he befriended with him.

“The Lives”

In 1547, Paolo Giovio, an Italian physician, historian and biographer encouraged him to compile the lives of the most known artist of the era as a book, saying “which will certainly make you immortal.” Vasari apparently liked the idea and in 1550 his book got published in Italian with the original title of “Le Vite De’ Più Eccellenti Pittori, Scultori, E Architettori Da Cimabue Insino A’ Tempi Nostril.” It’s also called as Lives or Vite in short.

The book certainly made him immortal all the way to today’s times, when every researcher, art lover, painter looks in his book when they need a detailed, trustworthy and most close-to-reality idea of those times. It has been transformed into something like a bible for paintings which depicts the prominent painter’s lives from renaissance.

The release of the book also gave him enormous popularity in the artistic and aristocratic circles of contemporary times. His consistent patron the Medici family praised his book. Vasari dedicated his book to the Grand duke of Florence Cosimo I de’ Medici, a person from Medici family.

The reason which attracts most people towards the book is that the biographies are first hand reference by an artist who was still alive in the era, when he wrote about some of the contemporary great artist. In Vasari’s times, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, both were alive and he was also fortunate enough to meet and befriend with Michelangelo, whom Vasari praised and wrote more than 70 pages on him in his The Lives, more pages than most of the other artists.

The range of the artists in Vite is from Giotto a 13th century artist to Michelangelo. So, The Lives is the most close and real source to know about the renaissance artist.

Le Vite

Le Vite

Though, as a human being, he also made mistakes collecting some facts for the book. For instance, he included in the book that the “Mona Lisa” was left unfinished by Leonardo after 4 years’ work and the unfinished work was in possessions of King Francis of France at Fontainebleau.  Whereas today we explicitly know that the painting is complete and beautiful and is hanging in Louvre, Paris with greatest protection than any painting had ever in history. Moreover, the king about whom he wrote already died in 1447. His book came out in 1550, so this whole fact he wrote about Mona Lisa was a huge mistake.

Well, there is no proof about what inspired him to write such thing about Mona Lisa in the first place. We can only imagine. But, a man doing this much important work couldn’t be allowed for any mistakes. And he can’t excuse himself telling that he was not aware that he writing would so much imperative in future. Because according to the inspirer’s words that compiling of the biographies of artists “which will certainly make you immortal”, he was aware that he was going to work something which will be considered important.

But, these little mistakes can’t overshadow his grand effort. The lives have provided us some of the exclusive information about which historian came to know about when they read Vasari, the facts which are not available anywhere else. One major fact tells that, initially Mona Lisa had eyebrows which is a fact proven scientifically today. Another fact which historians derived from The Lives is that there were some really important paintings existed about which historian didn’t have any clue before. From the Vasari’s writings and descriptions of those art-pieces, one can think that some of them were equivalent to major paintings which are appraised as masterpieces through-out times. Thus, Vasari has been a very imperative door which opens some of the renaissance’s facts which are not available through any other doors.

The Lives was rewritten in 1568, with some improvements among which notable is the inclusion of woodcut portraits of artists.

“Renaissance” and “Gothic”

He has been considered as “The first Art-historian”. His works of painting and sculptures were appraised. Unlike many artists he was wealthy by his work and was renowned in his own time than after his death. He was lucky enough to have a good life as being an artist.

Moreover, he gave us two important terms in art-world. First is “Renaissance” itself. While writing “Lives” he was well aware that the contemporary time was very much important for arts, as there was a “re-birth” was happening in every form of arts. That’s why he chose French word Renaissance meaning re-birth.

Another term is Gothic art. He was not a fan of Gothic art though and didn’t exactly worte the term. Instead, he wrote “the Goths” for the barbaric art. “Gothic” term was initially used by Raphael in his letters to Pop Leo X, and later on was popularized by Vasari and other contemporaries.

The Vasari Corridor

As it is noted before he was a good painter as well as a good architect. His most notable architectural work is The Vasari Corridor. It was built as a passage by the order of Grand Duke of Cosimo I de’ Medici. He was afraid to be among the normal public as it was not so safe for him. He replaced the republic of Florence. Though, it was normal among the most of the monarch of the time to not feel secure in public due to their one or other deeds generating irritations in general public.

Vasari corridor joins Duke’s residence with government building. The names of those two buildings are Palazzo Vecchio and Palazzo Pitti.

The corridor had small widows but was replaced with larger ones by Adolf Hitler to have a better view of the river.

Sala del Cinquecento, Deposition from the Cross, The Prophet Elisha, Entombment and The Nativity with the Adoration of the Shepherds are listed as some of his notable works.

Vasari is by far easily tops as the most important art-historian as he got the privilege of seeing the notable artists in his own lifetime and writing them down first hand with still regulating knowledge of those artists in general public. He lived the renaissance and wrote about it as a history. We can thank him and the inspirer who encouraged him to write such book, without which we could have not known about those artists ever as we know them today.

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