Today, Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) is usually remembered only as the author of “The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects,” one of the foundational works of art history and a book nearly as entertaining as its models, Plutarch’s “Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans” and Suetonius’s “Lives of the Caesars.” In its fullest edition, Vasari presents gossipy biographical portraits of seemingly all of Renaissance Italy’s major (and minor) artists, including Cimabue, Leonardo, Botticelli, Raphael, Titian and Michelangelo.
As Ingrid Rowland and Noah Charney remind us in “The Collector of Lives,” scholars still turn to Vasari as a primary source, albeit with caution: He is hardly what one would call impartial or disinterested. Vasari badmouths his enemies (such as Cellini), while his novella-length account of Michelangelo approaches hagiography. Moreover, rather than verify his facts, he tends to “print the legend.” Did the young Giotto really draw a perfect O when asked to supply an example of his work? Did Piero di Cosimo really live almost entirely on hard-boiled eggs? Maybe, maybe not. Some stories are too good to check.
Rowland lives in Rome and is the author of a fine biography of the philosopher Giordano Bruno and of a guide to Pompeii ; Charney, who resides in Slovenia, founded the Association for Research Into Crimes Against Art. How these two scholars came to work together isn’t made clear, but their book’s subtitle, “Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of Art,” seems a somewhat audacious claim. Perhaps “the invention of art history” would be more accurate?
Though mainly a life of Vasari — and one contending that he is a major — their book also touches on many of the civic, intellectual and aesthetic currents of 16th-century Italy. Consequently, the reader will learn about the painting “factories” of established masters, the intricacies of the patronage system, how to work in egg tempera, the cultural influence of the Platonist Marsilio Ficino and the rivalry between Florentine art based on disegno — a word meaning “design” or “drawing” and implying careful preparation — and the more freewheeling colorism of Titian and the Venetian school. Other pages track contemporary papal politics, the wars of the Italian city-states with France and the Holy Roman Empire, and the tragic histories of various members of the Medici family (half of whom seem to be named Lorenzo).
Not least, Rowland and Charney relate much piquant trivia. For instance, “In the Middle Ages, lapis lazuli cost more by weight than saffron or gold and, for this reason, was usually reserved for the garment of the Virgin Mary.” When the bubonic plague struck, the few shops that remained open “passed goods to customers through an iron grate, forbidding them to come inside. Customers placed their coins in a bowl rather than in the shopkeeper’s hand, and the bowl’s contents were then tipped into a jar of water to wash away potential contaminants.” In Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment,” Christ is “so muscle-bound that he has an eight-pack instead of a six-pack.” The artist who punched Michelangelo and gave him that famous broken nose — his name was Torrigiano — eventually emigrated to England “where he created some of the finest sculpture in Westminster Abbey.”
Interspersed with these factoids are numerous stories taken from Vasari’s “Lives” itself. For example, when Italy’s best architects were competing for the commission to design the complicated dome for Florence’s new cathedral, one of them — Filippo Brunelleschi — proposed a contest: “Whoever could balance an egg upright on a marble slab should make the cupola. . . An egg was provided, and all these masters tried to make it stand up straight, but none could find the way. When they finally told Filippo to make it stand still, he graciously took the egg, smashed its bottom onto the surface of the marble — and up it stood. When they all protested loudly that they could have done the same thing, he replied, laughing, that then they should also have known how to vault the cupola.” Even now, Brunelleschi’s elegant Duomo is the centerpiece of innumerable postcards mailed from Florence.
Such historical tidbits are unquestionably entertaining, but they also render “The Collector of Lives” a bit of a hodgepodge — unless, of course, the authors are deliberately emulating what the period’s rhetoricians called “copia,” a flowery abundance. After a sensationalistic opening — Could there be a lost Leonardo behind a Vasari fresco? — the book does settle down, but many points are tediously repeated: Once we’re told that “Uccello” means “bird” or that pornographer Pietro Aretino died laughing at a dirty joke, we don’t need to be told again, let alone three times, as we are the anecdote about the young Leonardo depicting an angel so beautifully that his teacher Verrocchio gave up painting and decided to stick with sculpture. I’m sorry to add, too, that lax proofreading has resulted in words dropped from sentences, some grammatical errors (“no one could never”) and a particularly embarrassing misspelling in the acknowledgments (Robert Silbers for Robert Silvers).
Because of these blemishes, “The Collector of Lives” lacks anything approaching Raphael-like perfection. You should read it anyway.
Still, what about Rowland and Charney’s thesis? Is Vasari a major artist? From the few illustrations they offer, I’m not persuaded, despite an impressive portrait of a moody, unshaven Lorenzo de Medici. Vasari was certainly influential and admired in his own time, but I think for ours he will remain largely a pioneering and highly entertaining biographer and art historian.
Michael Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.
By Ingrid Rowland and Noah Charney
Norton. 420 pp. $29.95