The Delight of Art: Giorgio Vasari and the Traditions of Humanist Discourse

December 10, 2009

This is a book about the delight of art and the art of delight. It traffics in "imaginancies", to use the term David Cast borrows from Inigo Jones after Baldassare Castiglione (appropriation being an integral part of the process), meaning inward imaginings and fancies. But it is equally concerned with the exercise of judgment. Properly understood, delight entails discrimination. It is different from pure pig-in-clover pleasure. It is focused, measured, perhaps even in some sense proportionate. Delight, in other words, is a particular form of attention. Cast's work is also about how we pay attention to art and artists and the kind of attention we pay, as exemplified by that great merchant of delight, Giorgio Vasari, and his foundational text, The Lives of the Artists, first published in 1550.

The Delight of Art is therefore an exercise in exegesis, "an essentially practical reading of Vasari", as the author claims, in a cultural and historical perspective. This involves an extended treatment of "Vasari-hood" (an appropriation from Horace Walpole), that is, the idea and purpose of disserting about art; and a perkier investigation of what may be called Vasari-chat.

Vasari is famously chatty. Part of the fascination of The Lives is the conversations he had - he knew some of the artists personally - and the insight into the way they talked: their discourse. His own discourse also repays study, as Cast demonstrates. When it comes to the delicate matter of knowing about art, Vasari uses at least three different words to convey his meaning. For general knowledge he uses sapere. For particular forms of knowledge (Piero della Francesca being well versed in Euclid, for example), he uses cognoscere. Speaking of connoisseurs, he switches to intendere. The suggestion seems to be that the cultivation of such knowledge, born of the senses as well as the mind, offers the possibility of knowing delight. And yet connoisseurs may still lack judgment. Vasari notes that there were those who professed to be connoisseurs but who did not truly appreciate the work of Michelangelo. In his conversations with the artist, he mentions a certain gentleman who is said to be a person of understanding and intelligence. Yes, replies Michelangelo, but for all that, bad judgment.

Cast himself has both knowledge and judgment. The Delight of Art is a deeply learned disquisition. It is clearly also a labour of love. One is left with the impression of a scholar with a passion for the work, the project of a lifetime, carefully nurtured, the manuscript taken finally from the author's protective hands.

Structurally, however, it is not entirely satisfactory. Allowing for the illustrations, there are fewer than 150 pages of text, together with some 70 pages of notes and other apparatus. That is precious little text, and some of it is given over to semantic throat-clearing. The notes are made bulky by the decision to give the original Italian (and the original Latin) - laudable but misguided.

In the end, it may be that the book attempts too much. Vasari is marvellous, but "delight" is a tall order, and pithiness is not the author's strong suit. "And this, for a host of reasons, was a problem ever for Vasari." It was recently reported that Vasari's papers have been sold to unidentified Russian buyers for a rumoured £138 million. It is enough to make a Renaissance scholar weep. The Vasari-saga is not over yet.

The Delight of Art: Giorgio Vasari and the Traditions of Humanist Discourse

By David Cast. Pennsylvania State University Press. 2pp, £68.00 ISBN 97801034423. Published 16 July 2009

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