Earlier this year, The Guardian devoted one of its "In praise of..." editorials to Giorgio Vasari, on the 500th anniversary of his birth. It celebrated one of the most remarkable and influential books ever published, Vasari's The Lives of the Artists - or, to give them their full dignity, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, first published in 1550, revised and enlarged in 1568. "Vasari did for artists what Plutarch did for politicians", as the Guardian leader writer put it, neatly, "and the two have the same eye for detail. Leonardo da Vinci could bend a horseshoe with one hand and bought birds just to free them from their cages. When the shepherd boy Giotto was brought to a great workshop, he painted a fly on the nose of a portrait so lifelike that the master kept waving it away...Vasari's greatest compliment to his artists was that by brush or chisel their work came to life. Our greatest compliment to him is that he sends us back to art with a new wonder."
Marco Ruffini sets out to interrogate and complicate our understanding of Vasari's project. His interpretation of the Lives is in some respects surprising, not to say paradoxical, which is part of his point. Bearing down on the differences between the first and second editions (known in the trade as the Torrentiniana and the Giuntina), he argues that they are not simply a matter of revising and enlarging - and defending and contesting - but rather testify to a fundamental change in conception, attributed chiefly to Vasari's principal collaborator, Vincenzio Borghini. The key piece of evidence is a letter from Borghini to Vasari, twice quoted in Ruffini's text:
"The purpose of your hard work is not to write about the lives of the painters, nor whose sons they were, nor of their ordinary deeds, but only their works as painters, sculptors, and architects, because otherwise it matters little to us to know the life story of Baccio d'Agnolo or Pontormo. The writing of lives is suitable only in the case of princes and men who have practised princely things and not of low people, but here you have as your end art and the works by their hand."
Ruffini interprets this as moving away from the idea of art as personal expression towards the idea of art as a collective production - technical, transmissible, replicable - art without an author. In pursuit of his argument he goes as far as to speak of "the subordination of the biographical principle to the description of the art", and even the "antibiographism" of the Lives: truly a paradoxical formulation.
This is a revisionist thesis. It is pressed hard, perhaps too hard, and too much condensed. Between the pressing and the compressing, the reader is apt to feel a little squashed. The style does not help. Here is an author who would try the patience of the divine Michelangelo. For one enmeshed in art as language, he is peculiarly averse to plain English. The text is full of the "mimetic" and the "diegetic"; it is littered with "exequies". Some of the constructions are rather tortuous. ("Overall the occlusion of the antibiographism of the Lives and of Borghini's emphasis on this in the Giuntina signals the incomprehension of a general model of culture, linguistic and historical, antagonistic to a model rooted in individual authorial values.") Some do not say what he seems to mean. ("Michelangelo expressed a genuine disinterest in politics.")
Art without an Author is the very opposite of art with a new wonder. Vasari is endlessly interpretable and magnificently irreducible. New readers start here.
Art without an Author: Vasari's Lives and Michelangelo's Death
By Marco Ruffini. Fordham University Press 257pp, £69.50 and £22.95. ISBN 9780823234554 and 34561. Published July 2011.