Giorgio Vasari’s ‘The Lives of the Artists’

Anyone interested in Italian art and culture must certainly read this excellent Renaissance text, The Lives of the Artists, by Giorgio Vasari (In Italian: Le vite de’ più eccellenti architetetti, pittori, et scultori italiani, da Cimabue insino a’ tempi nostri). Required reading for most art history programs, this excellent work is an excellent resource for learning about the famous artists and sculptors whose works of art grace many of the Italian cities and towns we all love to visit.

Vasari, a painter and architect like many of the subjects of his book, is generally considered the “father” or art history, having set the stage for art historical research.  Vasari lived from 1511 to 1574, outlived Michelangelo (but not Titian!) and profiled dozens of artists during his time.

Vasari studied with Guglielmo da Marsiglia (on the recommendation of his cousin, Luca Signorelli, who is also profiled in his book) and was then sent to Florence and Rome, where he studied the works of the artists of Rome’s Renaissance.  It should be noted that, during his lifetime, Vasari was much admired and quite a successful artist. However, today, when viewed in a historical context, most of his works are now forgotten or overshadowed by his contemporaries, who, as history has shown us, achieved greater fame and notoreity.

It is with Vasari’s Lives that his legacy lives on.  It was Vasari who cointed the term “Renaissance” (la rinascità), and his work documenting the art and culture of his time and those before him has benefitted art historians to this day.  While the work is by no means perfect (especially since there’s a bias towards Florentine art and artists), when coupled with modern day research, the work can be seen as a looking glass through time to an age where art was “reborn”.  Vasari’s work is extremely revealing, insightful, and is probably most useful for its “third part”, the biographies of later Renaissance to which Vasari was an eyewitness.

There’s a certain joy to be had by reading Vasari’s work.  For me that joy is in reading a primary source from a flourishing period of Italian history and culture.  There’s something to be said for reading about events from the personal view of someone who actually took part in them rather than a scholar’s interpretation of those events. Reading the book before your next trip to Florence or Tuscany, for example, will certainly provide insight into many of the works you are bound to see and visit.

The book is made up of three parts and starts off with the end of the Middle Ages with four painters who, in Vasari’s opinion (and that of many others even today), who set the stages for the Renaissance and beyond:  Cimabue, Giotto, Simone Martini and Duccio.  Vasari then segways into the early Renaissance — some artists that you’ve probably heard of include Ghiberti, Massaccio, Brunelleschi, Donatello, Mantegna.  The book culminates with the High Renaissance (Vasari’s “contemporaries”) with artists such as da Vinci (1452-1519), Raphael (1483-1520), Romano (1499-1546), Titian (1488-1576) and Michelangelo (1475-1564).

The Italian version is inexpensive, but a translated English version is also available from Oxford World’s Classics.