Giorgio Vasari was a very prolific and eclectic artist. He was born in Arezzo in 1511 and died in Florence in 1574, and has an important role in Dan Brown’s Inferno.
He was a brilliant polymath, and his expertise covered a number of different subjects, including writing, painting, and planning.
Recommended at an early age by his cousin Luca Signorelli, Vasari became a pupil of Guglielmo da Marsiglia, a skillful painter of stained glass. Sent to Florence at the age of sixteen by Cardinal Silvio Passerini, he joined the circle of Andrea del Sarto and his pupils Rosso Fiorentino and Jacopo Pontormo, where his humanist education was encouraged. He was befriended by Michelangelo, whose painting style would influence his own.
Because of his fame and talent, Vasari was one of the most important Medici court artists. Vasari met Michelangelo, Rosso Fiorentino, and Vittore Ghiberti. He traveled frequently, visiting Rome, Venice, Bologna, Pisa, Naples, and in every city, including his hometown of Arezzo, he left an example of his art and learned something about the artistic trends of the time.
During the first part of his artistic career, he devoted himself to painting.
In 1529, Vasari visited Rome, where he studied the works of Raphael and other artists of the Roman High Renaissance. His painting in Rome is best represented by the so-called 100-days fresco (1547), which depicts scenes from the life of Pope Paul III, in the Palazzo della Cancelleria.
Vasari’s own Mannerist paintings were more admired in his lifetime than afterwards. Vasari’s paintings, often produced with the help of a team of assistants, are in the style of the Tuscan Mannerists and have often been criticized as being facile, superficial, and lacking a sense of colour. Contemporary scholars regard Vasari more highly as an architect than as a painter.
Some of his most famous works are Portrait of Duke Alessandro de’ Medici (Ritratto di Alessandro de’ Medici), a Nativity for the Monastrery of Camaldoli (Natività Camaldoli), and the Allegory of the Immaculate Conception (Allegoria dell’Immacolata Concezione) in the church of Saint Apostoli in Florence.
He subsequently dedicated himself to producing altarpieces and frescoes.
Cosimo I de’ Medici wanted to surround himself with the most important artists of the time, so he invited Vasari to move to Florence. This meeting led to a partnership that enriched the city of Florence with important works.
In fact, Cosimo I commissioned Vasari works in almost all construction sites in Florence, a city rich in artistic ferment. Vasari created the decorations in Palazzo Vecchio (Apartments of the Elements, Quarters of Leo X, Hall of the Five Hundred, Studiolo of Francesco I).
The decoration of the Hall of the Five Hundred (Salone dei Cinquecento) involved considerable work, which Vasari completed in two phases, interrupted by a period in Rome, where he frescoed some chapels in the Vatican. In the Hall of the Five Hundred, Vasari built the magnificent paneled ceiling, and a number of famous paintings still enrich it.
On the walls, Vasari painted six battle scenes representing the military successes of Cosimo I over Pisa and Siena, including the Battle of Marciano (also called the Battle of Scannagallo). He also decorated the Studiolo of Francesco I in the Mannerist style of the time.
Further, Vasari worked on the decorations of the dome of Florence Cathedral, but they remained unfinished at his death and were completed later by Federico Zuccari. In the dome, however, we can still admire a number of his frescoes.
Aside from his career as a painter, Vasari had great successful as an architect.
In Rome, Vasari worked with Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola and Bartolomeo Ammanati at Pope Julius III’s Villa Giulia.
It is in Florence that we can admire the majority of Vasari’s contribution to architecture.
In that city in 1565, Vasari built the long passage, now called the Vasari Corridor, that connects the Uffizi to the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the river. The enclosed corridor passes alongside the River Arno on an arcade, crosses the Ponte Vecchio and winds around the exterior of several buildings.
His Loggia of the Uffizi by the Arno opens up the vista at the far end of its long, narrow courtyard, a unique piece of urban planning that functions as a public piazza, and which, if considered a short street, is unique as a Renaissance street with a unified architectural treatment. The view of the Loggia from the Arno reveals that, with the Vasari Corridor, it is one of very few structures that line the river, that are open to the river itself and that appear to embrace the riverside environment.
Vasari also renovated the medieval churches of Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce. In both cases he removed the original rood screen and loft, and remodelled the retro-choirs in the Mannerist taste of his time. The Santa Maria Novella church features the painting Resurrection and four saints.
In Santa Croce, he was responsible for painting the Adoration of the Magi, which was commissioned by Pope Pius V in 1566 and completed in February 1567.
The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects
In 1550 Vasari wrote The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects(Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori da Cimabue insino a’ tempi nostri), his most famous literary work. The second edition in 1568 became a classic of art historiography: it is a fundamental text that changed the way of thinking about art history and was also a valuable source of news.
In his Lives, Vasari chronicled the evolution of Italian art, from Giotto’s innovation to the celebrated perfection of Michelangelo, through a series of artist biographies with information about their art works, styles, and techniques. Several anecdotes and stories are also included.
The book opens with long introductions on the history and technique of painting, sculpture, and architecture, as practiced in Italy since the Dark Ages, 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 book sought 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 also shows an uneasy awareness that if Michelangelo had reached perfection only decline could follow.
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 allots more space to non-Florentine artists and even mentions one or two non-Italians.
The most important changes occur 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 therefore provide us with a unique contemporary picture of the life and works of the greatest Italian artist of the age.
Vasari’s biographies are naturally most reliable for the painters of his own generation and the preceding one. It is widely agreed that The Lives of the Artists must be supplemented by modern critical research. Nonetheless, its influence has been unparalleled: this book has formed and defined the way we think about Renaissance art and has been adopted as a sort of classical reference guide for names of artists.
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 on account of its monumental scope and of the integration of the individual biographies into a whole.
Vasari enjoyed high repute during his lifetime and amassed a considerable fortune. In 1547, he built himself a fine house in Arezzo (now a museum honouring him) and decorated its walls and vaults with paintings. He was elected to the municipal council or priori of his native town, and finally rose to the supreme office of gonfaloniere.
Also, the palace where Vasari used to live in Florence is now a museum, situated in borgo Santa Croce 8. Casa Vasari was the residence of this great Florentine painter, architect, and art historian, and preserves a remarkable cycle of frescoes in the hall, which he designed and built.
In 1563, he helped found the Florence Academy and Company of the Arts of Drawing (Accademia e Compagnia delle Arti del Disegno), with the Grand Duke Cosimo I and Michelangelo as capi of the institution and 36 artists chosen as members.
It was made up of two parts: the Company, a kind of guild for all working artists, and the Academy, for more eminent artistic personalities of Cosimo’s court and charged with supervising artistic production in Tuscany. It was later called the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno.
This post was originally published in June 17, 2013, and has been updated and enriched on February 15, 2017.
Pictures by Wikimedia and Palazzo Vecchio: soffitto del salone dei Cinquecento by Francesco Gasparetti CC BY 2.0