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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.

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