Giorgio Vasari And His Influence On Art History

The author of the first comprehensive history of Western art

Christopher P Jones
5 min readAug 21, 2020

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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 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.

Lives of the Artists

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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