The Canon: Lives of the Artists By Giorgio Vasari

April 30, 2009

Vasari's Lives - to give them their full dignity, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects - is currently available in at least four paperback editions: Dover Books, Modern Library, Penguin Classics and Oxford World's Classics, to say nothing of an audio CD on the Naxos label.

Given the shrivelled state of serious non-fiction, this is testimony to a remarkable fecundity. For a work first published in 1550, furnishing biographical accounts of some 160 Italian artists from Cimabue (c 1240-1302) via Giotto, Donatello, Leonardo, Ghirlandaio, Raffaello and Michelangelo to Clovio (1498-1578), and running to 800,000 words, it is nothing short of miraculous.

In art history, Vasari's work has a quasi-biblical authority. It is the founding text, the originative narrative. Its factual accuracy has been questioned; in certain particulars it is widely held to be unreliable, not to say apocryphal. The author sinned, no doubt, by omission and commission. Dates are not his strong suit; his judgments are partial and parochial; he could seldom resist a good story, regardless of veracity; and some of his lives have stock plots, of the master-outshone-by-the pupil variety, as Charles Nicholl has pointed out apropos Leonardo da Vinci. It has even been suggested that he did not write it all himself. The work sails on, magnificently irreducible.

That is first of all a tribute to the not-often-outshone author. The last life in Lives of the Artists, the last word, as one might say, is that of Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), who offers a kind of apologia pro vita sua.

Vasari was an artist by vocation, and a biographer by temptation. He knew some of his subjects personally - Michelangelo, for example. He believed in the idea (or ideal) of the great artist, and indeed of the great life. The "Most Excellent" were also the most important: their lives were truly exemplary. He gave these lives shape and structure, a little like the entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. He also gave them colour. The role of the biographer as he saw it was to be useful and at the same time to give pleasure. The dead must be brought to flavoursome life.

Vasari's 21st-century successors may write the wives rather than the lives (and in due course the husbands), but the source of inspiration is plain to see. After him, artists could be emperors too. As a life-writer, his foibles and his scruples have inspired countless imitators. Proust's portraits are Vasari-like.

So, too, is the fundamental Proustian conception of the original artist, whose work "acts upon us like a course of treatment which is not always agreeable. When it is over, the practitioner says to us: 'Now look.' And at this point the world (which was not created once and for all, but as often as an original artist is born) appears utterly different from the one we knew, but perfectly clear."

As for me, I am wrestling with the angel. I mean the exemplary artist-creator of modern times - Cezanne.

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