Vasari's magisterial Lives of the Artists is almost invariably used by art historians as a source book, even by those who profess to know and understand it well. Yet as a source book it is invariably found wanting, for Vasari's use of and attitude to his sources and to the question of historical accuracy were inevitably different from those of the present day.
To say that Vasari's notion of biography was different from our own is hardly a new insight. Even those who grudgingly admit Vasari's value concede that his criteria of selection were based on a notion of biography radically at variance with ours. What is new about Patricia Lee Rubin's elegant book, Giorgio Vasari: Art and History, is the meticulous care with which she picks apart this notion of biography, seen here as a form of exemplary history, to throw new light on the genesis and the intention of the Lives as a whole. What the book offers is a contextual reading of the Lives, one that also takes account of the extent to which Vasari's own biography entered into his writings.
The book is therefore as much about Vasari as it is about the Lives themselves, as the title indeed suggests, although in Rubin's dense re-reading it is, perhaps rightly, hard to separate the two. Rubin offers a detailed and illuminating account of the way in which Vasari's own life, his attempt to invent his own identity and his aspirations as a courtier, painter and writer, dictated his choice and ordering of material in the Lives. If Rubin's enthusiasm for Vasari makes her account of the man and his aspirations at times repetitive, the close interweaving of Vasari's life and his writing gives the book much of its interest. It also gives it much of its novelty, for while some of this material is familiar, in previous accounts of the Lives Vasari has remained a surprisingly remote and shadowy figure.
Rubin also dwells at length on the fact that biography, Vasari's chosen form of writing, was, as he saw it, a form of history, classically sanctioned and governed by precedent, although its adaptation to the writing about artists was relatively new. The biographies were meant to serve primarily as series of moral exempla, pointing lessons of good and bad behaviour or, in the case of the artist, good and bad style. The overall aim was not accuracy in the contemporary sense, but the adaptation of each artist's case to "rules about cause and effect, demonstrated in turn through the examples of history". Thus, for example, "in ordering each life Vasari was more concerned with presenting examples of accomplishment and with the development of careers than with the order of works as executed. He often grouped works in a life according to the stylistic rather than chronological criteria."
This is not entirely new, but Rubin performs a great service by her detailed analysis of Vasari's classical and near-contemporary sources, and the way in which he used them. Her careful and scholarly discussion of the lessons that Vasari learnt from his predecessors provides an invaluable corrective to the still-prevailing view of Vasari as an inadequate or partial chronicler of the facts. She demonstrates with great skill the logic and purpose behind Vasari's seemingly arbitrary constructions, enriching their meaning in the process. She is also quick to stress, and rightly so, the positive role and function of convention in the Lives, and in Vasari's own life: "The Lives are (in this way) conventional but the conventions were the basis of Vasari's existence. They determined his own actions and expectations. His sensitivity to the realities of commonplace categories was fundamental to his success in his profession."
Those who look to the book for an analysis of Vasari's criticism or critical language may be disappointed, for this is not Rubin's primary task, and the book that fully addresses this aspect of the Lives has yet to be written. None the less, there are startling insights into Vasari's writing on individual works of art along the way, and on specific periods, namely the Trecento.
Much of what Rubin has to say is familiar in the broadest outlines. The book's virtue lies in its consummate bringing together and interweaving of so many half-known truths. This also means that the book should appeal to the general reader and the specialist alike. That said, it is most likely to be of interest to those who know their Vasari well, who know that Vasari had an agenda, but who need a more precise and contextual reading of that agenda than has so far been available. On the other hand, the final three chapters, among the best in the book, take apart three exemplary Lives in a way that could serve as a worthy introduction to the student of Vasari's work.
Sharon Fermor is head of paintings, collection of prints, drawings and paintings, Victoria and Albert Museum.
Giorgio Vasari: Art and History
Author - Patricia Lee Rubin
ISBN - 0 300 04909 9
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 448