Patricia Rubin's Giorgio Vasari: Art and History, which is both scholarly and readable and mostly about the Lives, was published in 1995. Now we have Gaston de Vere's translation, the best in English, with a useful introduction by David Ekserdjian. It is a pity that this publication does not include the preliminary account of the techniques used in architecture, sculpture and painting, which Vasari evidently regarded as introductory. Nevertheless these volumes now make Vasari much more accessible to the English reader then he has ever been. This is important because the Lives is certainly one of the major works in the history of European culture. It summed up the history of Italian Renaissance painting in a massive form with biographies of all the artists and a clear periodisation in three stretches of time, which expressed Vasari's conception of the valuable qualities in art. The first period goes down to the beginning of the 15th century. The second, "in which it is clearly seen that matters were much improved", started with Jacopo della Quercia and covered the Quattrocento. The third, in which artists' command of grace and skill in naturalistic drawing reached its height, started with Leonardo and culminated with Michelangelo.
This view of history and art did not begin with Vasari. Florentines had always respected artists, even Giotto during his own lifetime. The elevation of visual art to comparability with the liberal arts began in Alberti's Della Pittura in the 1430s. It reached its summit in the veneration accorded to the three major artists of the Florentine school at the beginning of the 16th century: Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo. Michelangelo reached the point where great nobles wrote to him pleading for anything from his hand. This Picasso-like position was not repeated. In the Counter-Reformation period art took a less elevated role. Vasari himself was an obedient servant of Duke Cosimo and this was the position which artists had to put up with until the 19th century. The Lives was therefore written at the end of a long period of aggrandisement of art and covered the whole movement.
Vasari's chief qualification for writing the Lives was the fact that he was himself an expert and prolific artist. He is best known for his paintings in the Palazzo Vecchio and for the design of the Uffizi, a beautiful and original building, but there are also many things by him in Florentine churches and in his native town of Arezzo. The Lives, however, was an elaborate literary work and the background to it may have been complicated. It is well known that the first edition, published in 1550, displeased Michelangelo, Vasari's supreme artist who inspired an alternative life of himself by Ascanio Condivi, and that Vasari felt bound to adopt much of this new material in his second edition, published in 1568. The whole process of collecting material and composing the prefaces, which link up Renaissance art with the Middle Ages and the ancient world and make use of Pliny's comments on classical art, must have been a large undertaking, difficult to combine with the work of a professional artist. Vasari was probably amalgamating the contributions of friends as well as travelling to see works he wanted to comment on.
Vasari tends to be most remembered for his incidental biographical stories - that Donatello called on his lifelike statue "speak, speak", that Piero di Cosimo lived on boiled eggs, that Giorgione was a charming flute-player and so on - but his importance is of course the result of his general view of Renaissance art. This is often different from the one which we would arrive at starting afresh now, chiefly because of his concentration on the Florentine sequence to which he himself belonged. He gives limited attention, for instance, to Piero della Francesca, apart from the frescoes in San Francesco at Arezzo, his home town. The Venetian tradition fares badly in comparison with the Florentine. But the periodisation he adopted, putting the two main breaks in the age of Masaccio and the age of Leonardo, when art seems to leap to a new level, remains compelling. The Lives is the only work, in either art or literature, which tells the story of a whole great movement, contemporaneously, in detail, and with sophistication.
George Holmes is emeritus professor of medieval history, University of Oxford.
Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects
Author - Georgio Vasari
ISBN - 185715 780 X and 781 8
Publisher - Everyman's
Price - £30.00
Pages - 2 volumes: 1,114
Translator - Gaston du C. de Vere