Giorgio Vasari And His Influence On Art History

The author of the first comprehensive history of Western art

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St Luke Painting the Virgin (c. 1565) by Giorgio Vasari (St Luke a self-portrait). Fresco. Santa Annunziata, Florence, Italy. Image source Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

For those readers who have studied art history before, the name Giorgio Vasari will likely be very familiar. For those who haven’t, I expect you’ve probably never heard of him.

Giorgio Vasari was an artist and architect who lived and worked in 16th century Florence. He was remarkably productive during his lifetime (1511–1574), commissioned to decorate palace halls and plan some of the most notable buildings and piazzas in Tuscany. The Uffizi Palace in Florence, for instance, was in large-part designed by Vasari.

Successful as he was as an artist and architect, Vasari is principally remembered today as one of the very earliest historians of art.

In the study of art, he stands not only an as important resource on Italian painters and sculptors — he was personally acquainted with the likes of Raphael and Michelangelo — he was also a pioneer of the field, someone who had an immense influence on how later generations viewed the course of Western art. Much of that influence is celebrated. Some of it is questioned.

The central body of work related to Vasari is a series of biographies of Italian painters and sculptors titled Lives of the Artists. Vasari worked on the text for several decades, building up a sourcebook of artists’ careers from three centuries of recent history.

First published in 1550, and later reworked and expanded into a second and more definitive version of 1568, the Lives of the Artists gives an account of the careers of over thirty Italian artists, telling the story of the growth of art from Giotto in the 14th century to Michelangelo in the 16th century.

The long-standing importance of the book is two-fold: firstly, it was the first time anybody had attempted to write a systematic history of art, complete with a theoretical framework for how art was thought to have developed. There were no reference books for Vasari to work from, and only a handful of texts that recalled the work of artists from previous centuries. Vasari worked largely from his own research and his intimate knowledge (and memory) of art from his own country.

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Giorgio Vasari’s ‘Self-portrait’ painted between 1550 and 1567. Source Wikimedia Commons

Much of the book is taken up with written evocations of actual paintings, descriptions that are often gilded with praise. As such, the book is as much an inventory of Italian art, and for many centuries after Vasari, historians turned to the Lives as a guide to the artworks of lesser and well-known artists.

The second reason that Vasari’s Lives is considered so important is that he bequeathed a model of artistic development that has persisted and still underpins much of how we think about the story of art.

Vasari’s concept was that art of his own time was the culmination of three centuries of progress of skill and technique, a progress that had as its overall aim the goal of representing the world with evermore naturalism. This meant not only the ability to paint realistically but also to do so with a sense of disegno (‘design’, ‘drawing’ or ‘draughtsmanship’) and personal maniera (‘style’ or ‘manner’). The ancient artists of Greece and Rome had been in possession of such talents. Over the previous three centuries, Vasari’s own countrymen had re-learned them.

Vasari used a three-part structure in the book, a framework roughly corresponding to the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, to describe how artists during these three periods progressively rediscovered the standards of the Greek and Roman ancients.

Vasari used the term rinascita or “rebirth” to describe the first stage of art’s revival after the demise of classical civilisation. The term rinascita was anglicised to “Renaissance” in the 1830s.

“With Rome’s fall,” he wrote, “the most excellent craftsmen, sculptors, painters, and architects were likewise destroyed, leaving their crafts and their very persons buried and submerged under the miserable ruins and the disasters that befell that more illustrious city.” The innovations of Cimabue and Giotto in the 14th centuries set the revival of art in motion.

The next stage on the path towards art’s rebirth came with the figures of Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, Donatello and Masaccio. This roughly corresponded to the 15th century. Finally, perfection was reached by the artist’s of Vasari’s own time, dominated by the talents of Leonardo, Raphael and most especially, Michelangelo. Michelangelo is treated as the ultimate expression of the renewal, an artist who “triumphed over ancient artists, modern artists, and even Nature herself.”

Key to his understanding of artistic greatness was the idea that the artists of Italy had regained the greatness of the classical past. The trouble with the Lives is that he was writing from an extremely partisan position, since he was principally interested in advocating Florence and Rome as the very centres of artistic excellence, with hardly any reference to the art that was being made outside of Italy. As a result, Vasari makes little mention of the artistic activity outside of Italy, such as in Northern Europe. As for art made outside the continent of Europe, Vasari makes no reference.

We are so accustomed to seeing the Renaissance as a defining chapter in the story of art — what the art historian W. J. Bouwsma describes as “the inaugural chapter in the history that leads down to our own time” — that it is easy to overlook the way that this outlook has been shaped. Italian artists have become famous and renowned the world over, and for that reason we tend to return to them again and again. It is difficult to overstate the importance of Vasari’s Lives in cementing this exclusive reputation.

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Christopher P Jones is a writer and artist. He blogs about culture, art and life at his website.

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Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings”

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