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…

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