"Giorgio VASARI," says T. S. Boase, in what must surely be the most dispiriting opening sentence of any lecture series, "was not a profound or original thinker." He was not a profound or original artist either, for the matter of that. But he was something not less important, an entrepreneur whose work sums up the aspirations of a period and to whose accomplishment as a historian much of our knowledge of Renaissance art is due.
Having myself delivered a series of Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art, I know from personal experience what problems the choice of subject offers. One must select a topic of broad appeal and of wide implications, in the recognition that people will be disappointed if it is not too big to be covered adequately in the allotted lecture span. Vasari meets these requirements. He is a cultural figure of great consequence; his work presents qualitative, indeed moral, questions of real interest; and though he is the focus of a vast literature, many of the things that are worth saying about him have not in fact been said. But disagreeable as it is to admit it of a mentor and close friend, Boase, who did not live to see these lectures through the press, presents a picture of Vasari that is intolerably conventional.
Vasari's reputation rests on two attributes, his superhuman stamina and a genuine liking (sometimes an enthusiasm) for works of art. As an artist there was nothing he would not agree to undertake. In Rome his frescoes in the vast hall of the Palazzo della Cancelleria were finished in a hundred days. He himself, to judge from his account of his own life, was a little disconcerted at the result, but the lesson he drew was not that he should put more intellectual effort into decorative painting, but that the division of labor between himself and his assistants had to be revised.
One of the weaknesses of Boase's book is that it reflects Vasari's bias in favor of the later M edici. His first significant Florentine commission was for a portrait of the tyrannical Alessandro de' Medici (a painting in which most of the ideas were, as has been shown by Johannes Wilde, cribbed from Michelangelo), and when in 1537 Alessandro was murdered by his kinsman Lorenzino The "new Brutus" for the anti-Medicean party in Rome, but "a worthless, debauched and unbalanced young man" for the writer of this book), Vasari's "worldly hopes vanished in a breath." After an interval in Rome, where his career followed its usual graph of spiritual failure and worldly success, he returned to Florence and clambered on the band wagon of Alessandro's obstinate successor, Cosimo I. Thereafter he was an instrument of Medici artistic policy.
Vasiri had in the nature of things to adopt a servile attitude to his employer, but it is not incumbent upon people who write on him to do so too. No one concerned with fine art administration in Florence at the time could afford the luxury of an artistic conscience, least of all Vasari, who was aware that the greatest artist active in his lifetime, Michelangelo, was Florentine, that he had been first unable and then unwilling to work in the claustrophobic climate of his native city, and that most works of art produced there in his absence were, by comparison, meretricious and provincial. Florence was a place where artists like Cellini, who had the encumbrance of convictions and expressed them more freely than was expedient, stood no chance at all, and openness of competition was not in the last resort conducive to the development of moderate talents like Vasari's own.
Vasari's great book, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects , originated in Rome, and was the brain child of Paolo Giovio. Giovio was famous for his collection of portraits of great men, and what he had in mind was a succession of brief eulogies of prominent artists from the time of Cimabue down to his own day. It would, he said, be based on Pliny. In the course of the discussion Vasari was pressed by that clever and perceptive man, Annibale Caro, to undertake a different kind of book, "setting everything down." It was a colossal task, but one for which Vasari was temperamentally well adapted, and one of the challenges it offered was that of size. By 1550 a book, much shorter than the one we know, was ready for the press, and elicited a peom from Michelangelo, who approved everything about it except the account of his own life. Vasari continued working on the text, which was revised and expanded, and it was issued in a second edition in 1568. In the interval he had learned a good deal about historical method (Boase says next to nothing of the differences between the two editions) and has amassed an immense quantity of fact. A translation of the 1568 edition has now been issued in three volumes, by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. The reprint is well set out but is not annotated; it has a helpful introduction by Lord Clark and contains a number of small black-and-white and color illustrations. For those who can afford the book and have never read Vasari, it will form an agreeable introdution to the Lives .
Vasari was a schematic artist, and he was a schematic writer too. A few of the lives start with the artist's birth, but most of them are prefaced by introductory paragraphs. By and large these are bromide, and general readers should skip them and pass straight on to the account of the artist's life and works.
When Vasari describes individual paintings, he often isolates points of singularity. Describing Piero di Cosimo's Visitation in Santo Spirito , for example (it is now in the National Gallery of Art), he tells us simply that it contains a figure of St. Anthony, "who is reading with a pair of spectacles on his nose," and a parchment-bound book "which seems to be real," and some balls, the attribute of St. Nicholas, "shining and casting gleams of light and reflections from one to another." As a biographer he proceeds in rather the same way; one artist, he tells us, owned a monkey and boiled eggs in glue, another dug up a corpse of a recently hanged man and made himself a waistcoat from the skin, and so on. The 15th and 6th centuries were a curious period in which anybody and particularly any artist might do anything. It would certainly be wrong to dismiss these stories out of hand. (I remember five or six years ago at the Art Council in London dealing with a case in which a group of painters wished to electrocute a tank of catfish and feed the to their fellow artists. At the time it seemed to me that this was a perfect Vasari incident.) Sometimes he went to great lengths to secure an exact description of some strange event, cross-examining Andrea del Sarto about the Car of Death "black all over and painted with skeletons and white crosses" designed for a carnival by Piero di Cosimo.
The quality of the Lives for obvious reasons is unequal. Some of them, those of Raphael and Michelangelo for instance, are set pieces which show an extraordinary understanding of the nature and evolution of the artist's work. With Pontormo he was likewise concerned with the painter's personality as a living organism. But about Donatello, the quattrocento sculptor most highly esteemed at the time he wrote, he understood nothing at all, and he describes Donatello's works in a higgledy-piggledy sequence which caused countless difficulties for literal-minded students in the last century. His mind was Florence-orientated (this is the reason why the minds of so many modern art historians are Florence-orientated still), and he was prone to produce long lives of minor artists on the home front, like Sogliani, on whom material was readily to hand, and to skimp on major artists in central and north Italy, whose work he knew less well, or, like Luini's, did not know at all. A good many paintings he could not see; what he knew of Correggio's Leda he learned from Giulio Romano. He had an imperfect, far from photographic memory, even for Raphael's Stanze, and he was happiest when he could describe a program, not the work of art, as he does with Danese Cattaneo's Fregoso Monument and Beccafumi's fresco cycles in Siena.
But he can also teach us how works of art were intended to be looked at at the time that they were made. How odd we should think the Isaac in Sarto's Sacrifice of Abraham at Dresden, with its inconsequential chiaroscuro, if we did not know from Vasari that the frightened boy "had only the neck browned by the heat of the sun, and white as snow those parts which his drapery had covered during the three days' journey." Sometimes, Vasair does a great deal more than this, as in his marvellous accounts of Fra Bartolomeo's San Marco altarpiece and its debt to Leonardo, or of Correggio's Notte , or of Giulio Romano's Mantuan frescoes.
The trouble is that no one can appreciate Vasari's qualities at his sophisticated best unless he can visualize the painting to which the text refers. Reporductions are mandatory if Vasari's status as a critic is to be understood. The photographs in the Abrams volumes are very small, but sometimes they are highly relevant. Thus we read Vasari's praise of Sebastiano del Piombo's portrait of Anton Francesco degli Albizzi (now at Houston) and turning the page we find a tiny illustration which explains why it was Vasari so much admired "the beautiful execution of the velvets, the linings, the satibs and all the other parts of the picture." But truth to tell the illustrations have not been chosen very well. To take one instace only, in the life of Rosso Fiorentino, Vasari devotes one line to a painting that is now much admired, the Volterra Deposition, and follows it with a long and brilliant paragraph about the blending of the colors in the Dei altarpiece, is the Deposition not the Dei altarpiece that has been reproduced.
Vasari may not have been much of a thinker, but he was at his best an inspired critic, and at the top of my own list of desiderata for the study of Renaissance art is a book which would illustrate all the pictures he describes at length so that his text and terminology could for the first time be properly understood.