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Giorgio Vasari’s Lives: the Thesaurus of the Italian Art History

The Brunelleschi's Dome in the Florentine church of Santa Maria del Fiore. Brunelleschi considers this work one of the "miraculous parts than we have not done better in our time and maybe even in the future times".

The Brunelleschi's Dome in the Florentine church of Santa Maria del Fiore. Brunelleschi considers this work one of the "miraculous parts than we have not done better in our time and maybe even in the future times".

The portrait of Giorgio Vasari. In the second edition of the Lives, Vasari had added a portrait such as this for every artist.

The portrait of Giorgio Vasari. In the second edition of the Lives, Vasari had added a portrait such as this for every artist.

The Lives of the Most Excellent Architects, Painters and Sculptors, better known as The Lives of the Artists or simply The Lives, was first published by the Florentine Editor Lorenzo Torrentino in 1550. The author, the Tuscan Giorgio Vasari (he was born in Arezzo in 1511), was in his turn a decent architect and a mannerist painter, pupil of Michelangelo and Raphael, divided between Rome and Florence, the Popes and the Medici, at the times of the great splendour of the Italian art and the florid small ducats and republics which occupied its territory.

Architect, painter and collector

Giorgio Vasari was born in Arezzo (Tuscany) in 1511. After studying with the French painter Guglielmo de Marcillat, he moved to Florence, where he met Andrea del Sarto and Michelangelo and was introduced to the court of the Medici. He travelled around Italy: Bologna, Venice, Naples, Rome. In Rome, in the years 1545-1552, he was accepted in the circle of Cardinal Farnese and was close to Michelangelo. He was then called to Florence at the court of Cosimo I de’ Medici. He began the construction of the Uffizi in Florence (1560), site of the administrative offices of the city, then the lodges of Piazza Grande in Arezzo (1570 – 1572). As a painter, Vasari worked at the fresco commemorating the passage of Leo X in Florence (Palazzo Vecchio, 1555) and made some paintings such as Perseus freeing Andromeda (Florence, Palazzo Vecchio) of Mannerist taste. Vasari had an important role in the intellectual life of his period, and contributed to the foundation of the Academy of the arts of design (1563), being also a keen collector of Italian artists’ drawings. His fame lies primarily in the ponderous book of The Lives, a fundamental work for the study of the Italian art. Vasari died in Florence in 1574.

A Great Resource for the Study of the Italian Art

Anybody with a bit of interest in the history of the Italian art has heard the name of Vasari, not really because of his artistic importance, but rather because he surely has come across some citations from the Lives, regarding a significant artist such as Leonardo, Raphael or Michelangelo, as well as one of the dozens less relevant characters who have populated the Italian art from XIV to XVI century.

The Lives is a sort of great resource of doings and sayings, where it is always possible to find something useful about an artist. It is a book arduous to read from the first to the last row: the uninterrupted descriptions of art works may be boring also to the most diligent reader. But the only mean that Vasari had to describe a work were his words. Words were the only way he had to transmit the experience of seeing and feeling. His descriptions are often exciting and on my part I find it exciting to look now at the image of a painting and to read how it was perceived at the time it was painted. His book is an impressive testimony of more than three centuries of history of art and so many works that unfortunately have not arrived to us.

Painting the “ignudi” (nudes)

Michelangelo, St. John the Baptist, The Last Judgement, Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo, St. John the Baptist, The Last Judgement, Sistine Chapel.

Raphael, Fire in the Borgo, Vatican Apartments, 1514

Raphael, Fire in the Borgo, Vatican Apartments, 1514

Masaccio, Baptism of the Neophites, Florence church of Carmine, 1425

Masaccio, Baptism of the Neophites, Florence church of Carmine, 1425

Vasari recommends the exercise of drawing naked bodies to improve its own technique. Needless to say, nobody had overcome Michelangelo in the painting of nudes.

Raphael had seen Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel and wished to challenge him, painting naked men escaping from the flames in the Fire of Borgo, in the Vatican apartments. The result, says Vasari, is good, though not excellent. Because if someone tries to overdo, to do more than the nature has conceded to him, the result is worse, rather then better.

Vasari praises the nudes of Masaccio in the church of Carmine in Florence, where he made a man waiting to be baptized who shivers from the cold.

History of the Lives

It seems that Vasari was moved to write his book by the cardinal Alessandro Farnese and the men of letters who frequented his home, who were missing the existence of a book having a technical vision of the artists’ works. The 1550 edition of the Lives consists of around one thousand pages and includes 133 lives, plus an introduction of 35 chapters about the technique of the three arts based on design: sculpture, painting and architecture. Considering that every life includes the description of all the known works of the artist, there are thousands descriptions of art works inside the book, embedded into the anecdotes and all sort of news about the artists’ lives. This gives and idea of the gigantic work done by Vasari. He could count upon some written sources of the XV century, such as the Commentaries by Ghiberti, the Book of Antonio Billi and the Filarete’s Treatise on Architecture. However, most of the information was collected orally, during the travels of the author through Italy.

The first edition of the Lives was a great success. So Vasari decided to undertake a second edition, which was published by the editor Giunti (still existing in Florence) in 1568, with a slightly changed title: The Lives of the Most Excellent, Painters, Sculptors and Architects (the Italian word used by Vasari is “Architettori”, which sounds something like “Architecters”). The new edition was enlarged in the number of the lives, that become more than 160 plus a dozen of other minors, and was enriched by the incisions of the portraits of the artists, commissioned by Vasari to the engravers everywhere in Italy. Also, Vasari took a trip in Italy to see how many works he could and to collect other news and testimonies. He expanded many lives and added the works of some still alive artists, including Titian, who had not been honoured with a place in the first, absolutely Tuscany-centred, edition. The last life of the new edition is a long autobiography of Vasari himself. At last, although he was considering a little less than barbarian everything coming from outside Italy, he added a short chapter about the Flemish painters who had made the effort to come in Italy to study our art.

The Vasari’s Vision and the "Rinascita"

A significant innovation of the Lives is the attempt to establish a systematic vision of the evolution of the art. It can be considered the first serious text of art history, although it has not the form of a history of art in the usual sense. The lives of the artists are separated one from each other and give origin to autonomous chapters, but they are divided into three parts, according to the vision of the author (which had also been married by Ghiberti in his Commentaries) explained in the introductive chapter to each part. Vasari sees a long route of progress of the Italian art, lasting three century, from the primitives, leaded by Cimabue and Giotto, up to the peak of perfection reached by Michelangelo. In the first part (XIV century) Cimabue, his pupil Giotto and their followers begin to redeem the art from the “brutalization” to which the influence of the Greek (i.e. byzantine) and the German (i.e. gothic) artists had led it, after the fall of the Ancient Romans. In the second part, artists such as Donatello, Brunelleschi and Masaccio perfect the drawing of their predecessors, they introduce the use of the perspective and make forms nearer to the nature, although still too rough. In the third part, the splendid XVI century, Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo re-lead the art to the same level of perfection attained by the Ancients in Rome, Michelangelo even overcome this level and overcome the nature itself.

Vasari calls “Rinascita” (Renaissance) the first phase of this three century route: in fact he is the first to use this term. The artists of the Rinascita (Cimabue, Giotto, Duccio) still make many mistakes and are far from the perfection, but they are laudable because they start from a “ground zero”, where the eminent examples of the Ancients had been swept away by the hordes of the invaders, who had destroyed the Roman art works and favoured the byzantine and gothic styles.

Scheme of the Lives

Each of the lives consists of a simple scheme, which can easily be synthesized in this way: birth, training, works, death and artistic legacy. Obviously, Vasari is not supported by the images. The works are described with care, sometimes with enthusiasm, according to his judgment, which is still mostly agreed by the modern criticism. Really, he gives more space to the positive aspects and the praises generally exceed the critical. To make the narrative less arid, Vasari inserts several anecdotes, handed down by tradition or that he had been told by the contemporaries. Many of them indeed have been revealed to be false, and in some cases it appears strange that Vasari might believe to them, but perhaps he chose to preserve them to increase the “entertainment” of his stories.

Some Examples of the Vasari’s Way

It is time now to look at some of the thousands descriptions of art works which populate this book. This will give a vague idea, at least, of what I like to call the “Vasari’s way”.

Giotto. Giotto is a fundamental life in the book, in the real meaning of the term, because he greatly contributes to lay the foundations of the Rinascita. Unfortunately, many of the works that Vasari describes did not arrive to us. It is not so for the Dormitio Virginis, a panel in distemper which Vasari had seen in the All Saint’s Church in Florence and that it is now conserved at the State Museum in Berlin.This light panel, characterized by the round golden areolas of the saints, shows the death of Our Lady, surrounded by the apostles and a Christ receiving her soul. Vasari says that the panel had been painted by Giotto with an infinite diligence, and that it was very praised by the painters and especially by Michelangelo Buonarroti (whose opinion is always carefully listened by Vasari), who affirmed it could not be more similar to the true than it was. It was really a miracle at the times, says Vasari again, that Giotto had a so great vagueness in painting, considering that he learnt the art, in some way, without a master.

Giotto, Dormitio Virginis (1312-1314), Berlin State Museum,

Giotto, Dormitio Virginis (1312-1314), Berlin State Museum,

Donatello, David (1428), Florence Museum of Bargello

Donatello, David (1428), Florence Museum of Bargello

Lives of the second part. The second part consists of 53 artists. They have continued the way of their predecessors, bringing the three arts to a higher level, more and more near to the nature, but not perfect yet, because their works, if compared with the works of the artists of the third part, still lack something. They are not yet so natural, so plastic as the forms of the next generation. This is true in general, but there are some exceptions. There are works that equal the Ancients and that could as well be included among the works of the modern (i.e. XVI century). The dome of Brunelleschi, for its impressive size, the David by Donato (Donatello), the figure painted by Masaccio in the church of Carmine, the “comfortable and large building which Francesco di Giorgio (Martini) made in the Urbino palace”. Donatello made “a David in bronze, as naked as the alive one, who has truncated the head to Golia, and lifting a foot, he put it upon that head and he has a sword in his right hand. This figures is so natural in its vivacity and softness, that it seems impossible that it has not been shaped upon life.” This sculpture, which is today in Florence at the museum of Bargello, was at that times in the courtyard of the Medici palace, Vasari informs.

True or False

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Vasari wanted to publish a second edition of the Lives, despite the first had been not succesful
    • True, the first edition had been a "flop"
    • False, the first edition was a great success
  2. Vasari considered the Byzantine and the Greeck styles to be positive to the Italian art
    • True, they were the only valid models in a period of crisis
    • False, they had contributed to destroy the taste and ability of designing
  3. The Ancients are the model that the Moderns have to look at
    • True, the art has reached a level of perfection in Rome, which has been dissipated by the "barbarians"
    • False, also during the Middle Age there are models of inspiration
  4. Michelangelo has reached the greatest level in the art, overcoming also the Ancients
    • True, Michelangelo has reached the peak of the art and has done better than the Ancients
    • False, the Ancients are unsurpassed

Answer Key

  1. False, the first edition was a great success
  2. False, they had contributed to destroy the taste and ability of designing
  3. True, the art has reached a level of perfection in Rome, which has been dissipated by the "barbarians"
  4. True, Michelangelo has reached the peak of the art and has done better than the Ancients

Do you guess this work? Now, let me try a little easy game. Are you able to guess which quite celebrated painting is hidden under this detailed description? “Leonardo began to make to Francesco del Giocondo the portrait of his wife, and after a trouble of four years, he left it imperfect. This work is today at the King of France, Francis, in Fontainebleau. In this head, it is easy to see how much the art could imitate the nature, because all the minutiae that you can paint with subtlety were forged here. The eyes had that lustre and that wet which continuously are seen live and around them there were all those bruise reddish and the hair, which only with a very great subtlety can be made…. The mouth, with its slit with its ends joint by the red of the mouth to the incarnation of the face, looked to be not colour, but flesh…. He (Leonardo) used again this skill…. he had, while portraying her, people who played and sang and continuously buffoons, who make her to be cheerful, to take away that melancholy that the painting is used to give often to the portraits. In this one by Leonardo, there was a smile so pleasant, that it was a more divine than human thing to be seen…” No need to say that it is Mona Lisa.

An abridged version with 36 lives

Michelangelo The life of Michelangelo is the most extended in the book, taking about 140 pages in the 1568 edition. But Michelangelo is the tutelary deity of Vasari and often he calls him divine. Michelangelo made a big panel in 1505-1506 for a fresco about the battle of Cascina (between Pisa and Florence) he had to paint in the hall of the council in Palazzo Vecchio, in front of the wall which had been frescoed by Leonardo. The panel represents a group of naked soldiers who were bathing in the waters of the River Arno to relieve the heat, when they are surprised by the enemy and “while the soldiers came out of the waters to dress, one could see from the divine hands of Michelangelo some who hasten to arm to give help companions, others fasten the armour and many get the other weapons on and countless fighting on horseback start the fight. There was, among the other figures, an old man, who had on his head a garland of ivy to get a shadow, he sat down to put on his socks and they could not enter his legs wet for water and ….. he twisted his mouth in a way that showed well how much he was suffering and that he was committing himself to the tip of the feet….”. The panel was so admired that became soon the object of the study of many painters and one of them, Baccio Bandinelli, perhaps out of envy, reduced it to pieces. Here is the copy by Aristotle da Sangallo, which is conserved in the private collection of the count of Leicester.

Aristotle da Sangallo,The Battle of Cascina, from Michelangelo (1542)

Aristotle da Sangallo,The Battle of Cascina, from Michelangelo (1542)

Titian. In the first edition Vasari had ignored him and the Venetian school. In the second edition gives him a place (20 pages) among the few living authors. For these, he uses the expression “Description of the works of …..” instead than “Life of…..” . The cardinal Alessandro Farnese had called Titian to Rome, maybe to find some distractions to the Tuscan and semi-Tuscans painters who was reigning in the city. The Farnese had recommended him to Vasari, and Vasari had made his own duty carrying Titian around to see the beauties of Rome. One day, Vasari and Michelangelo find him at the Palace of Farnese working at the painting of a Danae. “they saw in a painting … a naked woman figured for a Danae, who had in her lap Jupiter transformed in golden rain and they praised him very much, as it is used at the presence of the author. After leaving, Michelangelo … commended the painting a lot, saying that he liked very much his colours and his manner, but it was a pity that in Venice they did not learn to draw well at beginning…..” The colour to Venetians, the design to the Tuscans. But remember that in the Vasari’s vision all the three arts (painting, sculpture and architecture) are based upon the design.

Titian, Danae (1545), Naples Capodimonte Museum

Titian, Danae (1545), Naples Capodimonte Museum

The unabridged version

English Translations

Due to the size of the book, many editions are in fact abridgments. The first full translation in English, but still somewhat incomplete (A. De Angelis), dates to 1912-1915 by Gaston C. DeVere. The most recent partial translation (36 lives) is by Peter and Julia Canaway Bondanella (1991).

Structure of the Lives (1568 edition)

Dedications to Cosimo I de' Medici



Introduction to the whole work



Introduction to the three arts of design




Architecture (chapters I to VII)



Sculpture (chapters VIII to XIV)



Painting (chapters XV to XXXV)


Introduction to the Lives



Part I

30 lives (Cimabue, Giotto, Lippi and others)


Introduction to Part II



Part II

53 lives (Paolo Uccello, Masaccio, Brunelleschi, Donatello, Piero della Francesca, Antonello da Messina, Botticelli and others)

Introduction to Part III



Part III

About 80 lives (Leonardo, Giorgione, Raphael, Michelangelo, Vasari, Titian and others (including some Flemish)


Conclusion: to the authors of the design



The original version in Italian

© 2013 Massimo Viola

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