Giorgio Vasari

Giorgio Vasari (1511-1570) was an Italian painter, architect, and author of "The Lives of the Most Celebrated Painters, Sculptors, and Architects." His book is the foundation of modern art historiography and the prototype for all biographies of artists.

Giorgio Vasari was born on July 30, 1511, in Arezzo. According to his own account, he was apprenticed as a boy to Andrea del Sarto in Florence. He apparently suffered at the hands of Andrea's wife, to judge from the waspish references to her in his life of Andrea. Vasari's career is well documented, the fullest source of information being the autobiography added to the 1568 edition of his Lives.

Vasari had an extremely active career, but much of his time was spent as an impresario devising decorations for courtly festivals and similar ephemera. He fulsomely praised the Medici family for forwarding his career from childhood, and much of his work was done for Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany. Vasari was a prolific painter in the mannerist style and was also active as an architect, his talents in the latter profession being superior to those he displayed as a painter. He supervised the building of Pope Julius III's Villa Giulia near Rome, but his masterpiece is the reconstruction of the Uffizi picture gallery in Florence (from 1560), originally the offices of the grandducal administration.

The Lives

Vasari's Lives was published in Florence in 1550; it was revised and enlarged in 1568. He venerated Michelangelo to the point of idolatry. In the latter years of Michelangelo's life Vasari came to know him quite well, and for this reason the two versions of his biography of Michelangelo are of the greatest importance as a contemporary assessment.

The tradition of such biographies goes back to antiquity; technical treatises on the arts were also written in classical times, Pliny the Elder and Vitruvius having produced two celebrated examples. As early as the time of Lorenzo Ghiberti there had been an attempt to imitate classical prototypes by writing on earlier and contemporary artists, and Ghiberti, in his Commentaries (ca. 1447-1455), also wrote the earliest autobiography by a modern artist.

During the late 15th and early 16th centuries similar treatises were projected and written, and Vasari knew and used some of these earlier works. What distinguishes the first edition of his Lives is the fact that it is far fuller (and better written) than any of its predecessors or potential rivals. As Vasari says himself, he wrote as an artist for other artists, with knowledge of technical matters.

The book opens with long introductions on the history and technique of painting, sculpture, and architecture, as practiced in Italy since the Dark Ages, and then proceeds to a chronological series of lives of the great revivers of painting (Giotto), sculpture (the Pisani), and architecture (Arnolfo di Cambio), reaching a climax in the life of Michelangelo, the master of all three arts, who was then 75 years old. Briefly, the plan of the book was to show how Italian—and specifically Tuscan—artists had revived the glories of classical art late in the 13th century, reaching a crescendo in Michelangelo. Vasari is extremely partisan in that Venetians such as Giorgione and Titian are not given the prominence they deserve; and he also shows an uneasy awareness that if Michelangelo had reached perfection only decline could follow.

Vasari took great care to gather material on his numerous journeys, and, more than any of his predecessors, he looked at works of art. On the other hand, his reverence for factual truth was less than would be required of a modern historian, and he was unable to resist an amusing anecdote. This gives his book a liveliness and directness which has ensured its continued popularity independent of its historical importance.

In 1568 Vasari produced a second edition, much larger than the original and containing a great many alterations, particularly in the earlier lives. It also has many new biographies of living (or recently dead) artists, so it is an essential source for Vasari's contemporaries. He gives more space to non-Florentine artists and even mentions one or two non-Italians.

The most important changes are in the life of Michelangelo, who had died in 1564. Part of the revision of Vasari's earlier life was occasioned by the publication, in 1553, of the Life of Michelangelo, written by Ascanio Condivi, a pupil of Michelangelo, and probably partly dictated by the master. The versions by Vasari and Condivi give us, therefore, a unique contemporary picture of the life and works of the greatest Italian artist of the age.

It is almost impossible to imagine the history of Italian art without Vasari, so fundamental is his Lives. It is the first real and autonomous history of art both because of its monumental scope and because of the integration of the individual biographies into a whole.

Further Reading on Giorgio Vasari

There are several English translations of Vasari's Lives, in whole or in part, the best selection being that translated by George Bull as The Lives of the Artists (1965). For biographical information on Vasari see Einar Rud, Vasari's Life and Lives (1963).

Additional Biography Sources

Boase, T. S. R. (Thomas Sherrer Ross), 1898-1974., Giorgio Vasari: the man and the book, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979.