29
Jul
13

The Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari

The Lives of the Artists

When we think about artists, especially from the Renaissance, we generally think of old men with beards, painting religious pictures and sometimes portraits. Not exactly riveting stuff. That’s what makes books like Cellini’s autobiography so exciting: they blast away those images in a vision of Cellini going wild and pissing off the pope.

But Cellini’s just one guy and maybe a minor one at that. If you want to know about the heavy hitters, the people with names everyone recognizes, turn to Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. They’re a series of mini-biographies of Renaissance artists and both a fascinating look at a major period of art history and wild source of gossip and rumour.

Composed something like Plutarch’s lives (I wonder if he was an influence?), Vasari tells about the rise of painting, sculpture and architecture in Italy in a series of biographies that range from everyone from Giotto (1266-1337) to Michelangelo (1475-1564). It’s basically a who’s who of the classical art world. A lot of the artists have the same origin story: they lived on a farm or in poverty and were discovered when their native talent for doodling was discovered by a patron or someone with connections in that world. From there they apprenticed and eventually create a few major works.

Arranged chronologically, Vasari’s lives cover the rediscovery of Roman and Greek sculpture and literature, improvements in painting and technology, the creation of several seminal works of art (like the Sistine Chapel) and the progression of art to where it’s more or less recognizable now. It’s interesting in this sense. But it’s a blast in how it contains tons and tons of gossip.

Vasari’s utter indifference to sanitizing the past pushes his lives as more than just a secondary source and into valuable history. There’s the feuds between Raphael and Michelangelo, the time Filippo Brunelleschi was kidnapped by pirates and ransomed his way out by drawing portraits and plenty of jealousy, backstabbing and (as he alleges) even murder. It’s colourful history, even if he’s wrong more than few times. Make sure you get a well-annotated edition that points out his inconsistencies.

Another important, if less interesting, part of Vasari’s lives are his steps toward what we now call art criticism. In his day, this was a field that didn’t exist; Vasari sometimes struggles to describe works in terms other than beautiful or bad, sometimes more the reflection of his tastes. But it’s a big step from just history: he did more than just recount dates, paintings and major events, often explaining why he felt one work was more successful than another. It’s not criticism, really, but in it’s 16th century context, it’s fascinating.

Rating: 8/10. The Oxford World Classics edition is abridged down to one volume, having 34 of the dozens of lives Vasari wrote. It’s well annotated, with close to 90 pages of footnotes, and includes many of the major lives. And I thought the translation was decent: it didn’t stand out as particularly dry, wordy or obscure, which means it did it’s job. Recommended for history buffs, especially those with an interest in art. Make sure you read it with a laptop handy: you’re going to want to Google these paintings as you read.

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