Have you heard of Giorgio Vasari? He was an Italian painter, architect, writer, and historian. But, most importantly he is famous for one particular written work called “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.” He is considered the “father” of art history.
Vasari was born in Arezzo in 1511, in Tuscany. During my recent stay in Arezzo, I walked the very streets that Vasari walked, had breakfast in the loggia that he designed in the Piazza Grande and I visited the house where he lived. Even after several centuries the artist’s house has been preserved and remains unchanged. The rooms, magnificently frescoed by Giorgio Vasari himself, show Biblical and Mythological scenes, sacred and profane allegories as well as scenes of antiquity.
Although he dedicated his life to painting and architecture, the Aretino’s true claim to fame is the little book he wrote about his friends and contemporaries, Michelangelo and Leonardo, as well as their masters, Donatello, Verrochio, Giotto, and Cimabue. The book dedicated to Cosimo I de’ Medici is compiled of biographies of the most important painters of his day and age. His stories are notable for their insight and wealth of personal information. He understood artistic trends and changing public attitudes towards artists and the way they painted.
Indeed it was Vasari who first coined the term “Renaissance” in print, and used the term “Goth” to describe the period of art preceding the flowering of arts in Florence during his day and age. As astute and true to many facts as Vasari was, his stories are also sprinkled with funny anecdotes and invented gossip, so the book should be read with eye to this as well.
Vasari enjoyed a long and prestigious career. He spent time in his hometown of Arezzo as well as in Florence and Rome. He built the loggia in Arezzo as well as the loggia that graces the Uffizi Gallery. He also was commissioned by Cosimo I de’ Medici to build the corridor that connects Uffizi with the Pitti Palace. He also painted the murals in the Palazzo Vecchio’s Salone del Cinquecento, covering up the failed attempts of Leonardo and the initial beginning renderings of Michelangelo.
Originally Vasari’s family came from Cortona and he was educated as a humanist education in the circle of Andrea del Sarto, a High Renaissance painter. Early in his art career, Vasari was befriended by Michelangelo whose style greatly influenced his own. During his lifetime his work, especially his mannerist paintings, was greatly admired and the Medici’s of Florence were his greatest patrons. Unfortunately, Vasari’s artistic opera, while accomplished, featuring bold rich colors, has not stood the test of time and has fallen out of favor with critics.
Fortunately for us, still today Vasari’s real legacy is the invaluable insight he gave us into some of the greatest artists of his time—namely his friends and fellow artists, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo.