Can You Trust Vasari?

Giorgio Vasari: Art and History

by Patricia Lee Rubin
Yale University Press, 448 pp., $45.00

Few visitors to Florence pay much attention to Giorgio Vasari’s vast cycle of paintings in the Palazzo Vecchio or to his architecture of the Uffizi, but his Lives of the most excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, published in 1550 and again in a much expanded form eighteen years later, is the most influential book about the history of art ever written. Unprecedented in scale and scope, the Lives provided a model that was followed by virtually everyone who wrote on the subject for the next three centuries.

As the title indicates, it is a collection of biographies, most of them only a few pages long, arranged more or less in chronological sequence and ranging from Cimabue, the earliest painter known to Vasari, up to his own time. The book contains a mass of factual information, opinion, and anecdote that cannot be found anywhere else, making it by far the most substantial historical source for the art of Renaissance Italy. It is divided into three parts, one for the period up to about 1400, the second for the fifteenth century, and the third for the rest. These divisions have persisted in art history to the present day. Vasari’s second period, beginning with Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, and Masaccio, corresponds to the modern notion of the Early Renaissance, and his third period, initiated by Leonardo da Vinci, covers the High Renaissance and Mannerism.

Not surprisingly, Vasari gave pride of place to artists of his native Tuscany, many of whom, like himself, had also worked in Rome. Underlying his text is the idea of an unbroken tradition of artistic innovation starting in Florence around 1300 and culminating in the work of Michelangelo; and his treatment of art in other parts of Italy has nothing like the same kind of chronological range, coherence, or wealth of historical detail. More than anyone else, Vasari was responsible for the notion that Renaissance art was a Florentine invention. Although his Tuscan bias was criticized even in his own time; the reliability of his factual information was scarcely questioned until scholars began to explore the archives in the nineteenth century. They soon discovered that he was often wrong on dates of birth and death, on attribution, and on detailed matters of chronology. The obvious next step was to investigate how he had collected his material and what he had been trying to achieve. This task was undertaken by an Austrian scholar named Wolfgang Kallab. His unfinished book, published post-humously in 1908, is still the most important study of the Lives, although the absence of an index has ensured that it is not often consulted.

Kallab recognized that the two original editions were very different. The second, which is the version normally read today, was not only much longer, with more biographies and references to many more works of art, it was also more factual, with less emphasis on anecdotes and explicit moral lessons. Kallab examined the evidence about when these editions were written and printed, identifying the textual sources used by Vasari and, particularly for the second edition, discussing the contributions of friends and collaborators.

By drawing on information about Vasari’s own life contained in the Lives and in his surviving correspondence, Kallab was able to show that he could have seen most of the works that he mentioned, and that through his extensive range of acquaintances he could have collected a great deal of information about his contemporaries, as well as drawing on such oral tradition as might have existed. Even though the evidence was less than clear-cut, Kallab argued that Vasari had actually done all these things, and scholars, who tend to have a vested interest in the reliability of the Lives, have been happy to accept his view. Since his time, a succession of impressively learned editions of the book has reinforced the belief that nothing more remains to be said about the basic issues that concerned Kallab. In recent years attention has been concentrated instead on the literary and critical aspects of Vasari’s book, which has increasingly been seen as a work of art in its own right.

Patricia Lee Rubin adopts this attitude. In her introduction she declares that Vasari’s “accomplishment has continued to be diminished by measuring it against empirical notions of historical truth,” pointing out that “an evaluation of The Lives as a source depends upon an awareness of Vasari’s intentions as a historian.” Rubin recognizes that we can reconstruct those intentions in two ways, by seeing both how he collected his material and what he did with it. In her book she deals with both these issues, but concentrates mainly on the second. Thus her account of Vasari’s career, of the origins of the Lives, its composition and publication, covers much the same ground as Kallab’s, but in less detail. This is followed by a discussion of how Vasari wrote about works of art and an analysis of the way in which he presented and amplified the often meager historical information at his disposal. Rubin is a dependable guide to the formidable body of recent scholarship on Vasari and his times, so her book, which is notably well produced, will become an indispensable source for anyone seriously interested in the Lives or their author. But whether Vasari was quite so sophisticated a writer as she supposes is open to question.

In recent decades scholars have become increasingly aware of how Renaissance texts about the visual arts could have been shaped by the literary conventions of the time, which were characterized by a preoccupation with style and the correct use of language. In the fifteenth century the focus was on Latin, and the study of ancient rhetorical texts, particularly by Cicero and Quintilian, became an essential element of humanist education. In the sixteenth century more attention was paid to the vernacular, particularly to poetry. But while it is reasonable to suppose that a highly educated writer such as Leon Battista Alberti expected his work to be judged by the most erudite literary standards, there is an obvious danger in applying this kind of analysis to writers such as Vasari, whose educational attainments were far more modest. As happened thirty or forty years ago with the study of iconography, all too often little or no distinction is made between the ideas that circulated among artists and those discussed by scholars and professional writers.

Rubin does not quite manage to avoid this problem, particularly in her contention that Vasari’s approach to the composition of the Lives was much influenced by classical rhetoric. The idea itself is not new. In 1960 Svetlana Alpers suggested that some of Vasari’s descriptions of works of art were based on the conventions of ekphrasis, a rhetorical exercise practiced mainly in Byzantium. This sounds very impressive, but even Rubin concedes that the claim is no longer tenable, because ekphrasis did not take root in Italy and Vasari cannot have known anything about it. Nonetheless she believes that he was conversant with the main rhetorical texts, most of which were even available in translation.

The proposal is hard to prove or disprove, since almost any piece of writing can be made to conform to some kind of rhetorical prescription. If Vasari writes without apparent artifice, he is adopting an unadorned style; if he describes something vividly, he is following some recommendation of Quintilian; if he uses a word favored by poets, such as grazia, when describing works of art, it is supposed to carry the same sort of wealth of association as it does in the writings of Petrarch or Pietro Bembo. There seems to be little allowance here for ignorance, confusion, or resort to cliché.

Rubin justifies her approach by pointing out that Vasari could have received assistance and advice from learned friends. He himself states that the idea for the book came from the historian Paolo Giovio when they were both in Rome in 1546; and various scholars in Florence helped to see the book through the press in 1550, notably Vincenzo Borghini, Cosimo Bartoli, Carlo Lenzoni, and Pierfrancesco Giambullari. All these men were engaged in antiquarian, literary, or historical studies, and the last three were leading members of the Florentine Academy. Their involvement reflects the fact that by this time Vasari’s book had become a semiofficial project encouraged by Duke Cosimo de’ Medici, designed to foster the glory of Tuscany. But, however great these scholars’ editorial contributions, there is no reason to suppose that they would have felt it appropriate or realistic that a book by an artist about artists should be composed according to the same criteria as one written by a professional historian about rulers and the fate of nations.

Moreover, Vasari does not seem to have received much help while he was writing the individual Lives. The clearest signs of such help are occasional references to Latin inscriptions and a quotation from an obscure poem by Alberti. Indeed, Vasari cannot have been given advice about how to compose the biographies. Each begins with a passage of general moral reflection, a feature without precedent in classical or Renaissance biography and one that would surely not have been suggested by an educated adviser. This looks like a naive attempt by Vasari himself to put into effect the idea that history is supposed to teach by example. Most of the homilies were eliminated in the second edition, along with a good deal of other padding, but some elements that must have been contributed by Vasari’s learned friends were retained.

Among these were the indexes compiled by Vincenzo Borghini. They are remarkably comprehensive for their date, and the topographical index in particular is astonishingly detailed, so that, under Rome, churches are recorded with the name of the architect and the works of art they contained; then the index lists palaces and other buildings by named architects, then paintings in private houses, then buildings of interest outside the city. Borghini, who was to be Vasari’s closest friend and adviser for more than twenty years, clearly hoped that the Lives would be used as an artistic guidebook.

Equally important, although unacknowledged, was the contribution of Vasari’s collaborators to the prefaces preceding the three sections of the Lives. The first contains an account of the origins of the arts, their rise in antiquity and subsequent decline. This is seldom read today, so scholars have failed to notice that it is far superior to anything else written on the topic up to that time. It is clearly the work of a historian of wide learning and notable powers of synthesis, and cannot realistically be attributed to Vasari himself. In various matters of detail it is closely related to a book by Giambullari published in 1546 on the origins of the Tuscan language. In view of his part in supervising the production of the Lives, Giambullari, who was sixteen years older than Vasari, can surely be credited with the main responsibility for composing the first preface, although someone else probably provided some detailed information about medieval architecture.

The first preface ends with a reference to the rebirth (rinascita) of the visual arts, an idea developed explicitly in the second preface and implicitly in the third. This is not quite the first appearance of the concept of a Renaissance. It had already been used by Paolo Giovio in a collection of short biographies published in 1546, notably in connection with the rebirth of classical Latin at the time of Boccaccio. Giovio employed the notion interchangeably with that of revival or resuscitation, which had been common in discussions of literature and the visual arts for almost two centuries. In the prefaces to the Lives, however, the biological implications of the metaphor are explored for the first time, with the introduction of the idea that the visual arts developed from infancy in the fourteenth century through childhood in the fifteenth, finally achieving adulthood in the sixteenth.

The author seems to have derived the basic notion of a development from crude beginnings to a state of technical perfection from a passage in Cicero’s Brutus, which he paraphrased in the second preface. Even more impressive than the use of a learned source that was not even available in translation is the intelligent way in which Cicero’s idea was elaborated by dividing the process of artistic development into separate stages, in a manner that seems to be unprecedented in the history of art. No less ingenious is the idea of making those stages not only parallel human development but also coincide with different types of imitation of nature. In the first stage the artists represent natural objects imperfectly; in the second they achieve a correct imitation of nature; in the third they surpass nature by creating idealized forms. This scheme is obviously reminiscent of the famous passage in Aristotle’s Poetics, in which he says that poets, like painters, show people better than they are, worse than they are, or much as they are.

Even if someone had brought the passage in Cicero to his attention, it is difficult to believe that Vasari could have been responsible for the second and third prefaces, which are probably the most famous texts in the entire history of art. Significantly, the notion of rebirth appears only in the prefaces and the dedication; in the biographies themselves Vasari confines himself to the traditional idea of revival. Moreover, the sequence of the biographies is not closely correlated with the tripartite scheme outlined in the prefaces, and nowhere in those biographies does Vasari mention that scheme. At various points he introduces the entirely conventional notion of a “modern style” as characteristic of the visual arts since Leonardo, but that is all. The implication is that originally the Lives were not divided into three parts, that the prefaces were written later and are primarily the work of someone else. In his autobiography Vasari indicates that the text of his book had been completed with the help of friends, and the prefaces could be what he had in mind. Since the first preface, which already includes the notion of rebirth, was probably written mainly by Giambullari, he is the obvious candidate for authorship of the other two. If so, he was responsible both for inventing the idea of the Renaissance and for dividing the history of art into a sequence of distinct periods.

Rubin claims that the biographies are as carefully conceived as the prefaces, but her arguments often seem contrived. Thus she suggests that Vasari opened his account of Giotto’s work with a description of an Annunciation emphasizing, in an entirely formulaic way, the Virgin’s expression of fear, so that his readers would appreciate the artist’s ability to portray vivid emotion. But perhaps he was just being lazy. Again, when Vasari stressed that Donatello and Brunelleschi were always friends, although earlier writers had indicated otherwise, Rubin argues that this is because he wanted their relationship to exemplify Renaissance ideals of friendship as outlined in Cicero’s De Amicitia. But in a book dedicated to Cosimo de’ Medici, Vasari may have thought it best to avoid any allusion to a quarrel traditionally said to have arisen because Brunelleschi thought that his design for the sacristy at San Lorenzo had been spoiled by Donatello’s bronze doors, which were a Medici commission.

I am uneasy about Rubin’s approach not just because I find her readings over-elaborate, but because it presupposes that Vasari’s book was the result of long preparation and careful thought. That is what most scholars believe, but it is wishful thinking. In his autobiography in the second edition, Vasari stated that Giovio had suggested he write the Lives in 1546, after seeing some “notes and writings” on art which he had collected since his youth “as a hobby and because of the affection that I had for the memory of our craftsmen.” This is usually taken to mean that Vasari had made notes of a kind that he could use in the Lives even before he had thought of writing such a book; but he could simply have meant that he had collected earlier writings about art and artists as a hobby. In his book he made extensive use of such texts, which seem to have circulated quite widely in Florence. They included a lengthy collection of notes on artists dating from the sixteenth century, a printed guidebook to Florence, a fifteenth-century biography of Brunelleschi, and various anecdotes in works of fiction such as The Decameron.

When he wrote the Lives, then, Vasari had a small art-historical library. We can establish whether he also possessed notes that he himself had made previously by looking at what he wrote about various cities in which he had worked as a painter before 1546, namely Bologna, Venice, and Naples, or which he had visited briefly, notably Parma, Mantua, and Ferrara. These cities do not figure in the earlier texts, so here Vasari had to rely on what he remembered or what he had written down. Except for Bologna, the pattern is always the same: there are surprising omissions, Vasari is consistently vague about subject matter, and often mistaken about the location of works of art, and he tends to get the names of artists wrong. These are just the errors one would expect of someone writing from memory. Parts of his account of Bologna, by contrast, do seem to be based on notes written on the spot; but Vasari could have compiled these during a visit he is known to have made in 1548 or early 1549, later adding the information to the completed manuscript. There is therefore nothing in the book to disprove Vasari’s own statement that the project originated in 1546, in Rome.

Even then he seems to have set about his task in a surprisingly casual way. Before leaving for Florence in October he did not bother to visit the Sistine Chapel, or to record the names of Michelangelo’s Prophets and Sibyls on the ceiling; nor did he supplement his very limited knowledge of Venetian art by talking to Sebastiano del Piombo, who had been a pupil of Giorgione. Back in Florence he wrote the greater part of the book, a thousand pages long in the original edition, in about a year, while continuing to work as a painter. In his writing, as in his painting, he seems to have equated quantity with quality. When we consider the speed with which he wrote, it is not surprising to discover that he often did not trouble to go and look at works of art he was writing about, let alone try to add to his knowledge of other cities, such as Siena, about which he knew almost nothing.

Vasari, it seems, wrote the Lives without doing any research, in the sense of trying to discover more than he already knew. This would be surprising in a historian, but Vasari was not one. The writing of history requires attitudes and skills he had never acquired. He knew only that history books were big and that they taught by example. He probably had a variety of motives for writing his book: pride in his profession, a desire for fame, or a wish to attract patrons. Because he knew no better, in the Lives he simply recorded everything about art that he had read, seen, or heard, relying extensively on memory. Particularly on matters such as dates of birth and death, he made up what he did not know, adding a great deal of padding for good measure. Fortunately, he was one of those people, common in academic life but doubtless also to be found in other professions, who make it their business to know exactly what all their colleagues are working on, what they have published, and whom they are sleeping with. This makes his account of his contemporaries informative and often entertaining, but it does not necessarily make it reliable, and everything new that he says about his predecessors needs to be treated with extreme caution. Likewise, we should be suspicious of any suggestion that he thought carefully about what he was doing.

It is generally supposed that the shortcomings of the first edition were largely remedied in the second, because this was prepared under the supervision of Vincenzo Borghini, who brought new standards of accuracy to the project. Borghini’s meticulousness was already evident in the compilation of the indices of the first edition. Now he repeatedly urged Vasari to provide as much factual information as possible and to remove anything he knew to be false. But one cannot assume that Borghini’s advice was always followed. As with the first edition, we need to establish just how the book was compiled and by whom it was written. Here, too, things are not quite as straightforward as is normally believed.

The second edition is much larger than the first partly because Vasari now included biographies of living artists other than Michelangelo, as well as adding those of artists who had died since 1550. But there were also substantial additions to the earlier lives, particularly in the first section, which more than compensated for the elimination of the moralizing introductions and of a number of fictitious epitaphs. Borghini’s demand for more references to works of art was amply fulfilled. Indeed, Borghini himself, assisted by Cosimo Bartoli, provided much of the new information about the early period, which he had begun to collect by 1557. It was mainly derived from inscriptions, a type of evidence used very little in the first edition. Borghini, a keen medievalist, also supplied material from manuscripts and printed books. He and Bartoli were not Vasari’s only collaborators; a monk named Marco de’ Medici, assisted by the sculptor Danese Cattaneo, compiled information about the artists of Verona, while a painter named Giovanni Battista Grassi sent material about the painters of Friuli. The reason for Grassi’s involvement is unknown, but Marco was asked to help by a secretary of Duke Cosimo.

Much of the new information inevitably came from Vasari himself. He knew most of the subjects of the later biographies, while for the period before 1550 the new material is closely correlated with the places he visited in connection with his work. He added a great deal about Pisa, where he had spent some time, but much less about Siena, which he seems to have visited only for about a day on the way to Rome in 1560. Vasari also made two trips specifically to gather material for his book. In May 1563 he went to Perugia, Assisi, Loreto, Ancona, and probably Pesaro. He had also planned to visit Venice, for the spectacular pageantry on Ascension Day, but did not have time to do so. Three years later he traveled from Rome up to Ancona, then across Lombardy to Milan and finally to Venice.

It is always supposed that, apart from information supplied by Marco de’ Medici and Giovanni Battista Grassi, the new material about northern Italy was all collected by Vasari during his trip in 1566; but this cannot be correct. Vasari mentions his journey for the first time at the beginning of the biography of Garofalo, which comes over halfway through the final section of the Lives and which includes information on several other north Italian artists whose works he had seen on his journey. Rather surprisingly, some of those artists, among them Pordenone, Sofonisba Anguissola, and Paolo Veronese, had already been discussed at length earlier in the book. Veronese, in fact, had been allocated a couple of pages at the end of the biography of Sanmichele, only about twenty pages before that of Garofalo. If Vasari had acquired all his new information about northern Italy in 1566, why did he distribute it in this strange way? Why, for example, did he not put all his material about Veronese in one place? There is only one obvious explanation: Vasari had to put the information he had acquired on his trip into the Life of Garofalo because the entire text up to that point had already been printed by the time he returned to Florence. The first volume, indeed, containing much new material about Venice, is known to have been printed by early 1565.

This means that all the new information about northern Italy that appears before the biography of Garofalo, rather than just the sections on Verona and Friuli, must have been supplied by other people before Vasari set out in 1566. Without going into the details here, I think it is clear that the sections about Venice were the work of Bartoli, who became Florentine ambassador there in 1562, while the rest, including passages on Bologna, Modena, Parma, and Mantua, was by Marco de’ Medici. But the role of these two did not stop there. Bartoli was evidently responsible for much of the material about Venice toward the end of the book, including most of the biography of Titian, which was largely compiled in 1564, while Marco de’ Medici almost certainly contributed to the Life of Primaticcio. The author of the biography of Primaticcio indicates that he had spent some time in Bologna in 1563, and Marco was there at that period doing research for the Lives, whereas Vasari was not.

Both Bartoli and Marco de’ Medici went carefully through the relevant sections of the first edition and corrected any mistakes they found. Since these changes have previously been attributed to Vasari himself, it has been assumed that he took to heart Borghini’s advice, and that the entire second edition is informed by the scrupulous approach so evident in the passages on northern Italy. This is over-optimistic. Vasari evidently did learn something from Borghini, because he made a couple of lengthy trips to gather material, but he did not learn very much. In particular, he did not appreciate the importance of checking the factual statements in the first edition, virtually all of which were repeated unchanged in the second, except in connection with northern Italy. He did not even bother to correct his inaccurate account of Raphael’s Vatican Stanze. Rubin suggests that because Vasari’s earlier descriptions “remained inviolate to the critical scrutiny of both Vasari and Borghini” this “is an indication of their stature as historical prose.” The truth is more banal: Borghini could only hope that Vasari had checked them, and Vasari could not be bothered to do so.

Even though Vasari’s own contribution to the Lives is smaller than has hitherto been supposed and the status of the factual information altogether more doubtful, his book remains an indispensable historical source. But if it is to be used effectively, we need to be less reverential and more critical about it than we have been up till now. Only then will we be able to provide satisfactory answers to the questions raised by Wolfgang Kallab almost ninety years ago. Once we do so, we will almost certainly have to concede that we know much less about Renaissance art than we had supposed and that we will never know as much as we would like. That may be why the job has not yet been done.