Born in the Florentine subject city of Arezzo, Giorgio was the child of a potter, and precocious enough for Cardinal Silvio Passerini, guardian of the young Ippolito and Alessandro de' Medici, to sponsor his education alongside them in Florence – presumably to act as a provincial spur to their overprivileged laggardliness. Thus began a connection with the Medici that lasted until the death of the steadiest patron of his work as a painter, architect and decorator-of-all-work, the Grand Duke Cosimo I. Thanks to a steady succession of Medicean and papal commissions (interspersed with others from individuals and religious bodies), Vasari produced an immense volume of artistic work, helped by a natural fluency and by teams of capable assistants: both were factors in his contemporary fame as an artist and his subsequent neglect – until quite recently. As a painter his quality can be gauged by the posthumous portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent, the altarpiece of the Immaculate Conception in SS. Apostoli, the decorative schemes in the Salone dei Cinquecento and elsewhere in the Palazzo Vecchio – all in Florence; and by the Sala dei Cento Giorni (Room of the Hundred Days – the time he took to paint it) and the Sala Regia in Rome: in the Palazzo della Cancelleria and the Vatican respectively. As an architect he can be judged from the Florentine Uffizi and the Pisan Palazzo dei Cavalieri.
In spite of almost incessant artistic activity he found time to establish a more lasting and far more respected reputation as a writer. In his Lives of the most excellent painters, sculptors and architects, planned from 1543, published in 1550 and heavily revised in 1568, he wrote the first and still the most influential of all narrative and critical histories of art. The Vite drew on the same philosophical, shaping drive as distinguished the work of the great political historians of his youth, Machiavelli and Guicciardini. They embody the humanist notion that history should instruct and encourage through the record of notable careers and notable achievements: and he humanizes their humanism by infusing the biographies with the spirit of Boccaccio's novellas. Though substituting the pen for the brush, he never pretends not to be a professional artist; the Lives are introduced by a long technical preface on materials and procedures, and they reflect his determination to give his profession a pedigree that would enhance public respect for its practitioners. No other work of the period contains so many independent judgments. Of the facts (gleaned from tours of Italy, correspondence, reading and the questioning of artists or their surviving friends), enough are accurate to ensure the status of the Lives as the quarry from which all histories of Italian Renaissance art must be hewn. The judgments were based on the first developed vocabulary of critical appraisal, with such concepts as proportion, design and manner being used as a check on the success with which an artist brought his first idea to completion.
Equally revolutionary was his notion of progress in the arts. He did not attempt to press sculpture and architecture into the same pattern, but allowed for their shifting position within a route which painting had followed. When ancient Rome fell, art declined. All the Italians knew of art was the flat, lifeless style derived from Byzantium. Then, around 1250, art was reborn. It grew to maturity in 3 stages. In the first (whose hero was Giotto), artists began to grope towards imitating the colours and forms of nature, the solid physical presence and the expressiveness of the living human body. In the second (whose inspiration was Masaccio), from c. 1400 to c. 1500, they indulged in a riot of experiment, especially in perspective and anatomy, that brought art's ability to record the real world almost to fruition, though it retained a certain harsh or rule-fettered flavour. It was in the third period, which included the careers of Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo, that artists not only mastered nature but triumphed over her. And when the grace and omnicompetence of a painter's hand could go, as Vasari put it, ‘beyond the hand of nature’, then the art of antiquity had been surpassed and the rebirth of art had led to a career for it of unparalleled achievement.
Vasari's concept of Renaissance invoked a period from the early 14c. to the 1560s when, with Michelangelo dead (in 1564), Vasari himself was left – as he fairly directly implies – to keep the momentum going on his own. It is far from a coincidence that most subsequent views of ‘Renaissance’ envisage the same timescale. He saw his 3 phases anthropomorphically, as representing the childhood, youth and maturity of art; the imprint of this implied critical canon has faded, but it determined the value placed upon works of art for centuries. See Critical theory of art; Renaissance. J. R. Hale
T. S. R. Boase Giorgio Vasari, the man and the book (1979) R. W. Carden The life of Giorgio Vasari (1910)
Il Vasari storiografo e artista Atti del congresso internazionale 1967 (1974)
Lives ed. G. Milanesi (1875–85), being slowly replaced by ed. P. Barocchi and R. Bettarini (1966– )
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