Article abstract: Modern knowledge of the lives and works of the principal, as well as a number of lesser, artists of the Renaissance derives almost exclusively from Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Vasari was also a minor painter and architect.
Giorgio Vasari, from ancient Arezzo, a hill town dating from Etruscan times and rich in mementos of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, was born into a family numbering several local artists among its antecedents. His father, Antonio, a tradesman, compensated for his own lack of creativity and financial success by maintaining close contact with men of consequence within the Church and in artistic circles and was particularly proud of his kinship with Luca Signorelli, a major figure in mid-Renaissance art, who provided the young Vasari with his first lessons in drawing. His formal training, however, began under the guidance of a Frenchman resident in Arezzo, Guglielmo di Marsillac, now remembered as a major stained-glass artist. Yet it is likely that Vasari learned much more from his daily exposure to local art treasures; he claimed, in fact, to have spent his early youth copying “all the good pictures to be found in the churches of Arezzo.”
At age fifteen, as a result of his father’s splendid contacts, Vasari was taken to Florence by Cardinal Silvio Passerini of Cortona, who brought him to the studios of Andrea del Sarto and Michelangelo. This initial contact with Michelangelo marked the beginning of a close relationship destined to last for forty years, and no single artist in Vasari’s vast knowledge of Renaissance creativity was more admired by him than Michelangelo: “I courted Michelangelo assiduously and consulted him about all my affairs, and he was good enough to show me great friendship.”
Cardinal Passerini also introduced him to members of the Medici family, in whose favor Vasari would remain for the duration of his career. At this particular time, however, such contact was of little consequence, for the Medicis were soon driven from the city, and Vasari, fearful for his own safety in the ensuing anti-Medici atmosphere, fled back to Arezzo, only to find his hometown ridden with a plague that had already taken his father’s life. His uncle, as guardian of the family, advised him not to go home and expose himself to such peril and instead arranged for him to live in nearby villages, where he made a meager living doing decorative work in small churches. The following year, the plague having run its course, he joined his family in Arezzo, once more relishing the opportunity to observe and copy local artworks and also finishing his first commission, a painting for the Church of San Piero.
Yet, when Florence again appeared safe for a Medici protégé, he returned, this time in the hope of making a reasonable living for his family, whose welfare was now his responsibility. He entered into an apprenticeship with a goldsmith. Once more his plans were disrupted by political upheaval, now in the form of the 1529 siege of Florence. Vasari, never one to court danger, made his way to Pisa, where he abandoned his new craft and returned to painting, quickly making a name for himself as a reliable, competent, hardworking artist. His patrons were not Pisans but exiled Florentines, members of the distinguished Pitti and Guicciardini families.
Still not yet twenty years old and driven by the restlessness of youth, Vasari soon left Pisa, traveling a circuitous route via Modena and Bologna back to Arezzo, where he completed his first fresco, a representation of the four evangelists with God the Father and some life-size figures. From that time on, he was never lacking in distinguished patronage. Working on commissions for local rulers, princes of the Church, and the pope, he completed, always in record time, major fresco projects in Siena, Rome, Arezzo, and Florence. His works in this medium, most notably those in Rome’s Palazza della Cancelleria, the interior of Filippo Brunelleschi’s monumental dome in Florence’s cathedral, and the splendidly reconstructed rooms in the Palazzo Vecchio were viewed as masterpieces in their day, and Vasari was richly rewarded. Yet despite their great contemporary appeal, posterity has dealt harshly with Vasari’s decorative works, viewing his efforts as superficial and flamboyant, devoid of intellectual clarity and spiritual depth.
Although Vasari described himself as a painter and architect and clearly exerted a major portion of his time and energy on works in these fields, he made his principal contribution with Le vite de’ più eccellenti architetti, pittori, et scultori italiani, da cimabue insino a’ tempi nostri (1550; Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 1855-1885), a prodigious compendium of information on art and artists gradually accumulated throughout his mature years. Wherever he happened to be—and he traveled widely—and whatever the primary purpose of his journey, he always devoted a significant portion of his time to the observation of works by other artists, making sketches and taking notes and, whenever the opportunity was there, acquiring original sketches and drawings for his steadily mounting collection to which in his work he refers time and again and invariably with great pride.
It is quite possible that without the prodding of others, in particular his Rome patron Cardinal Farnese, the Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects would have remained the writer’s private, unpublished notes on the arts of the Renaissance. The subject of compiling all of his material into a published account, Vasari reports, was brought...
(The entire section is 2369 words.)