Giorgio Vasari, painting and influence, at Cummer Museum

One of the most successful Renaissance painters and architects had an even more impactful and lasting career as an author and historian. Giorgio Vasari was born in 1511 at Arezzo in Tuscany. While still a boy he was introduced to Cardinal Silvio Passerini who put him to study in Florence with Michelangelo. Michelangelo later became a close friend and Vasari one of the master’s greatest admirers.

As an artist, Vasari had talent. Good not great.

His paintings hang in museums around the world including The Holy Family with the Infant St. John the Baptist (1540, oil on panel) at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens. As an artist, his most enduring achievement was serving as architect of the loggia at the famed Ufizzi Gallery in Florence, one of the world’s greatest repositories of Renaissance art.

Vasari, however, is best known as “the first art historian” through his authorship of “Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.” “Eminent” is sometimes replaced with “Excellent” depending up on the translation from Italian.

First published in 1550 as a two-volume series of biographies of Italian artists from the 13th century to Vasari’s “modern day,” a second, three volume edition was later published in 1568.

The second edition sprawls out over 2000 pages, featuring biographies of more than 180 artists – 176 of whom were men – beginning with Cimabue and ending with Michelangelo.  

Millions of copies have been sold. The work became the default history of Renaissance art for hundreds of years. It remains in print today. It has been considered “the most influential book about the history of art ever written.”

It has always been wildly narrow in its scope, patriarchal, loose with facts and over relied upon by scholars either too lazy or too oblivious to seek a fuller picture of Renaissance art.

Making a long story short, Vasari’s history centers Florentine and Roman artists to the exclusion of all others.

“Vasari was responsible for the notion that Renaissance art was a Florentine invention,” Charles Hope wrote in the October 5, 1995 issue of “The New York Review” of books.

Vasari is actually responsible for popularizing the notion of a “renaissance.” His book was the first to use the term “Rinascita” (rebirth in Italian) in print. The French word “renaissance” would later be popularly affixed to the period of cultural awakening.

Vasari was an Italian artist writing about Italian artists in Italian. How “art history” for centuries ceded this book as the definitive text on a pan-European cultural movement is an embarrassment. Scholarly reliance upon Vasari’s book has created a myth in the minds of many that the Renaissance was an exclusively – or primarily – Italian phenomenon.

Total bunk.

Albrecht Dürer, Pieter Bruegel, Heironymus Bosch – no one from the Northern Renaissance, no one working outside of Italy – appears in Vasari’s book. Their work is the equal in my opinion of Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo, but to even write that can draw outrage because the preeminence of the Italian Renaissance artists are so indelibly fixed in popular consciousness as a result of Vasari and subsequent historians who administered his narrow view as gospel.

To me, the work of the Northern Renaissance proves far more interesting than that of the south and Italy.

That’s a matter of preference. You decide for yourself. What can’t be argued with Vasari are the veracity of his stories. Stories.

Much of his information is wrong, sometimes by his own deliberate choice,” a contemporary response to the book states, as has been known for centuries.

While not completely a work of fiction, Vasari’s tales hardly stand as “history” the way that term has long been defined.

Perhaps his inclusion of even four women should be lauded, not derided. Then, as now, the contributions of female artists were vastly overlooked; omitted may be a better term. Did Vasari’s book begin this prejudice?

When standing in front of The Holy Family with the Infant St. John the Baptist at the Cummer, consider our notions of art, art history, creativity. When wondering why they’re so Western, so white, so male, so Christian, so limited, the painter of that picture holds many of those answers.

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