Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), painter and architect, born near Florence, and employed by the powerful, Florentine family, the Medici. In 1550 and then in 1568 he wrote a multi-volume book, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.
Vasari’s art historical narrative, seemingly a record of the lives of certain Renaissance artists, is the account of how art gradually achieved perfection, by building upon the achievements of the past in order to ultimately attain that perfection at the beginning of the 16th century. A process Vasari himself confirms in The Lives when he says, Having very carefully turned all this over in my mind, I have come to the conclusion that it is ...view middle of the document...
Vasari divided his biographies of Italian artists into three periods: corresponding to the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. His prefaces describe the characteristics of each period, what distinguishes one from another, and why, in his view, art “got better” over time.
His narrative describes how art developed from its youthful beginnings with the art of Giotto di Bondone (c.1270-1337) in the early 14th century and ends with art finally attaining mature ‘summit of perfection’ in the art of Michelangelo (1475-1564) some two hundred years later.
There are several reasons why Vasari can help us understand the phenomenon of the Renaissance. First he articulated the view that his own age constituted a distinct period, different from that preceding it. Now, Vasari did not invent this notion : 15th century scholars had already made this point. For example, one the most influential philosophers of the early Italian Renaissance and perhaps first translator of Platos works, Marsilio Ficino, borrowed a concept he had read in Plato, and applied the term “Golden Age” to the time in which he lived, because he saw around him “such a wealth of golden intellects.” Vasari, like Poggio Bracciolini’s fifteenth century The Letters of Poggio Bracciolini to Nicolaus de Niccolis also made clear his view his own age was better than that preceding it, now called the middle ages, because artists and scholars were looking back to what they regarded as superior culture of antiquity for inspiration.
Looking at some art from Vasari’s point of view, in his book, he set out the proposition that art progressed, from an ancient high. What Vasari considered to be the medieval low point in art, exemplified by works such as Byzantine Madonna, the Italian term for the Virgin Mary. If Vasari preferred the style of the ancient statue, can you see why he had little regard for Byzantine art, for he described it in unflattering terms as having “unbroken outlines, starring eyes, feet on tiptoe, sharp hands, absence of shadow, and other Byzantine absurdities.” Vasari also did not like what he deemed the artificiality of placing figures against a background of gold. After such a low, Vasari concludes that, with renewed interest in looking to antiquity for models to imitate, art managed to pull itself out of this slump and, in fact, reach perfection in his own day.
To insist this sense of progression, he used a biological metaphor, suggesting that art died and was reborn. Of course this fits in precisely with the idea of Renaissance, literally meaning “rebirth” in French.
Here is what Vasari said about the period in which Giotto and Gaddi worked: “In the first and oldest period ... art evidently fell a long way short of perfection and, although they may have shown some good qualities, were accompanied by so much that was imperfect that they certainly do not deserve a great deal of praise. All the same, they did mark a new beginning.” So to paraphrase Vasari, the first...