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A fresco by Giorgio Vasari in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio that may contain a clue to the location of a lost work by Leonardo da Vinci, 1563

Achievements in the arts, unlike those, say, in geology or astronomy or molecular biology, do not chart an upward arc of progress. The value of literature, music, and painting is undiminished by time, by distance from our current world-view, or by place in a sequence of evolving technical mastery. Of each great work we can say, as Shakespeare’s Enobarbus says of Cleopatra, “Age cannot wither her, Nor custom stale/Her infinite variety.” Take, for example, the paintings discovered in December 1994 on the walls of the Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche Valley of southern France. The images, over four hundred of them, date from 32,000 to 26,000 years ago, and are among the earliest artworks known to exist.

With astonishing rhythmical intensity horses, deer, bison, and mammoths dance across the walls, along with lions, bears, and other predators. There are no comparably vivid representations of humans, but there are five images that have been identified as pubic triangles, and a sixth, evidently conjuring up a myth to which we have no access, that seems to show a bison’s head with the legs and genitals of a woman.* The paintings were created by people about whom we know almost nothing, yet even though their purpose is utterly lost to us, along with the culture that produced them, they remain astonishingly vital, legible, and beautiful.

The fact that these archaic cave paintings hold their own against Rembrandt’s slaughtered ox or a horse by Delacroix is thrilling but disorienting. Though we may joyfully acknowledge their timelessness, they also compel us to recognize that the entire enterprise of art history was founded on a drama of progress that seems incompatible with this acknowledgment. Don’t we believe, after all, that successive artists slowly master innovative techniques, that the earliest efforts are gradually succeeded by superior talents able to exploit their predecessors’ cruder achievements, that long, barren ages of dormancy or error give way to periods of brilliant aesthetic flowering?

Underlying this triumphal conception of artistic progress is the work of one remarkable man: the Italian artist, architect, and writer Giorgio Vasari. To understand how we embraced a set of assumptions so difficult to reconcile with what we encounter in Chauvet, it helps to try to understand what Vasari bequeathed to us, and Ingrid Rowland and Noah Charney offer lively guidance in their engaging study The Collector of Lives: Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of Art. They propose that it was largely from him that we derive our very notion of an autonomous activity known as “art”—an activity so prestigious that someone recently parted with $450 million for a damaged work with a disputed attribution to one of its celebrated practitioners. That the practitioner in question, Leonardo da Vinci, was one of Vasari’s heroes is anything but a coincidence.

To his contemporaries, Vasari, born in Arezzo in central Italy in 1511, was best known as a hugely successful painter and architect. Indeed, his principal achievement in the latter field is visible to virtually everyone who visits Florence, for the building he designed for the city magistrates’ offices (uffizi, in Italian) now houses one of the world’s most famous art museums. Most tourists have no idea who drew up the plans for the Uffizi. And though in the course of a dutiful tour of Florence and other Italian cities, they are almost certain to see many examples of Vasari’s accomplishments in painting as well as architecture, these too are unlikely to leave an impression strong enough to register their creator’s name. His huge canvases and frescoes and painted cupolas produce instead a generic Renaissance effect: yet another Last Supper, or Pietà, or Allegory of Justice, or Apotheosis of someone or other to hurry past on the way to the masterpieces by Giotto and Masaccio, Fra Angelico and Raphael, and, above all, Leonardo and Michelangelo.

But even if they are not aware of it, in crowding around the relatively small canon of celebrated works, the tourists—and, for that matter, most teachers and scholars—are following Vasari’s directives. They are doing so, as Rowland and Charney observe, under the influence of his most enduring legacy, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, the epoch-making book he published first in 1550 and then in a vastly expanded version in 1568.

It is rare to produce something truly new—certainly Vasari did not do so in either painting or architecture—but nothing like his book had ever been written. There were saints’ Lives, to be sure, and in the third century CE a Greek writer named Diogenes Laertius had written the vast, eclectic Lives and Doctrines of the Philosophers, bringing together dates, doctrines, excerpts, and wildly unreliable anecdotes about ancient Greek thinkers from Thales to Epicurus. But saints and philosophers possessed a cultural stature that justified the effort of memorializing their accomplishments and recording revealing and often quirky personal details. In the sixteenth century it was far from obvious that artists—men (and some women) who had hands stained with pigment or wielded hammers and chisels—deserved such biographical attention.


There was one ancient precedent: before his death in 79 CE (from approaching too close to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius), the Roman Pliny the Elder had written an encyclopedic natural history that included, in between sections on metals and soils and those who worked with them, a section on paints and painters. Though Pliny notes that painting has lost much of its prestige—the fashion, he writes, is now for decorating walls with costly marble—he does not regard it as inappropriate to record information about the most celebrated and innovative artists of Greece and Rome. Thus, he informs us, Polygnotus of Thasos in the fifth century BCE was the first to confer expression on the face, “in place of the ancient rigidity of the features,” while Apollorus of Athens, in the same period, “was the first to paint objects as they really appeared.”

The works of the individual artists whom Pliny honored had virtually entirely vanished by the time Vasari and his contemporaries focused their attention on the classical past. It was with fear of a comparable vanishing that Vasari set out to follow the example of his ancient predecessor. After all, he had had ample opportunity to observe the wholesale destruction of art. Earthquake, fire, and flood were recurrent threats, but they were hardly the greatest dangers. The Italian city-states of Vasari’s time, along with the Vatican and the Kingdom of Naples, were almost constantly at war, either with one another or with one of the foreign armies that repeatedly plundered the peninsula. Palaces were shelled or torched; civic offices and libraries stripped bare; churches robbed. New regimes systematically erased or defaced the monuments of the old. Rich, resourceful, and above all creative, Italians managed after every disaster to recover, replacing what had been stolen or destroyed with new things of beauty. Vasari saw firsthand how much was disappearing, and he understood perfectly well that much of the time he himself was energetically participating in the process of destruction.

The Collector of Lives begins in 1563 when Vasari was commissioned to fresco the walls of the enormous Sala dei Cinquecento in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. The walls were not blank. One of them contained at least part of Leonardo da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari, a monumental project he began in 1505 but never completed. The Medici, Vasari’s powerful patrons, had no attachment to Leonardo’s painting, which had been initiated after they had been expelled from Florence. They wanted a hall in which to display their power and to dazzle visiting dignitaries with frescoes depicting, as Rowland and Charney put it, “piles of bodybuilders in Day-Glo spandex engaged in an overzealous round of Twister.”

Competent and supremely efficient, Vasari was the right man for the job, but he was burdened by a profound admiration for Leonardo, whose work, even unfinished, he knew was superior to anything that he himself could possibly paint in its place. Perhaps he did not destroy what was on the wall; perhaps he somehow hid it under a false wall, marking what he had done with the tantalizing words he painted in one of his scenes, Cerca trova, Seek and you shall find. Rowland and Charney offer their suggestion, based on the room’s proportions before Vasari altered them, for the specific place where art detectives (who have long been on the trail) might focus their search, but to date the lost Leonardo has not been recovered.

In his Life of Leonardo, Vasari vividly describes the preparatory drawing for the Battle of Anghiari, celebrating “the incredible skill he demonstrated in the shapes and features of the horses, which Leonardo, better than any other master, created with their boldness, muscles, and graceful beauty.” As for the fresco itself, he writes that Leonardo attempted to invent a new coating for the walls, a coating so thick that it began to run, forcing him to abandon the enterprise.

Whatever the truth of this story, Vasari knew that even the greatest achievements in painting, sculpture, and architecture were fragile and that the written word could outlast them. Catastrophes no doubt lay ahead, but at least his book would record what had been accomplished by the most significant artists in the world. These happened, he fervently believed, to be virtually all his own countrymen, principally from central Italy, working in the past two hundred years. And the greatest of them all, Michelangelo, was still alive and Vasari’s personal friend.


Immensely ambitious, well-connected, and endowed with seemingly limitless energy, Vasari rushed from commission to commission, covering the walls of churches and palaces with his brush. Era sempre in moto—“I was in constant motion”—he wrote once about his efforts to keep up with the shifting whims of a particular pope, and the words, Rowland and Charney remark, could well have served as his epitaph. About the subjects he was paid to paint or the larger cultural purposes for which they were produced, Vasari had relatively little of interest to say. His signature style involved filling the scenes, whether mythological, religious, or historical, with large numbers of figures and objects. When, toward the end of his illustrious career, he was paid to decorate the Sala Regia in the Vatican, he was instructed by Pope Gregory XIII to celebrate the recent massacre of French Protestants on St. Bartholomew’s Day. Vasari complied with a swirling, torchlit crowd scene depicting the assassination of Admiral de Coligny and the slaughter of the heretics. If the painter ever reflected on what he was assigned to do—either with satisfaction or uneasiness—he did not tell us.

Fogg Art Museum, Harvard/Bridgeman Images

Piero di Cosimo: The Misfortunes of Silenus, circa 1500

The commission was simply one of many in a long career. “If God had extended Vasari’s life,” Benvenuto Cellini remarked sourly, “he would have painted the whole world.” Along the way, he had an affair with Maddalena de’ Bacci, fathering two children with her, and then at the age of thirty-eight, after her death, he married her fourteen-year-old sister, Niccolosa. The handsome dowry Niccolosa brought to the marriage increased the already considerable wealth, amassed through his art, that had enabled Vasari to purchase a fine house in Arezzo. One of his most appealing accomplishments as a painter was the elaborate decoration of this house, which remains substantially intact to this day.

Vasari had little time to savor the pleasures of domestic life; he was too much on the move from city to city, striving to please this or that prince or cardinal. But all along he continued to study paintings, learning who made them, taking notes, collecting anecdotes, and writing. A staggering number of his letters—well over a thousand—survive, and they must represent only a fraction of the elaborate network through which he obtained the information he tirelessly sought. Perhaps he understood that it was his book and not his art and architecture that would be his most significant legacy.

He brought to the task of creating it the advantage of a deep professionalism. In describing what he saw, he constantly drew upon his rich experience as a practitioner, which gave him extraordinary access to the whole enterprise of art-making at that time and place. He understood the technical and aesthetic challenges involved in each of the different media, the complex system of patronage, the variety of contractual arrangements, the use of assistants, the internal struggles, and the collective measure of success or failure. He knew how the work was done from beginning to end, who was merely copying whom, and what it took to achieve something truly original.

This direct personal involvement also had its disadvantages. A skilled operator in a highly competitive world, Vasari had a particular aesthetic agenda, and he was perfectly capable of doctoring his account to reward his friends and punish his enemies. “Oh that shit face Vasari,” scribbled the enraged Bolognese painter Annibale Carracci in the margins of his copy of the Lives. Cellini shared the same low opinion: Vasari, he wrote, was “a pitiless snappy cur” whose incessant boasting about his own achievements could not disguise his utter mediocrity as an artist and writer. So too El Greco complained about Vasari’s stupidity and his arrogant refusal to acknowledge the talent of any artist who did not come from Tuscany or Rome.

It is certainly true: Vasari favored a single aesthetic tradition and, finally, a fairly narrow strand within it. Art from beyond the boundaries of Europe was almost completely outside his range of knowledge or interest. There is no moment in his writing comparable to Albrecht Dürer’s expression of admiration for works of art from the New World. It was difficult enough for Vasari to appreciate Flemish, German, or Dutch painting. He had almost no curiosity about France and Spain. Even in Italian art, he only fully embraced the achievements of his fellow Tuscans. He was grudging about the achievements of Bolognese artists and, still more strikingly, he never fully appreciated the brilliant colors and the imaginative energy of the art from Venice.

Linked to this latter failing was Vasari’s passionate, unbending commitment to what he called disegno—design—a multipurpose term that centered on skill in drawing. Hence while he acknowledged the spectacular gifts of Titian, he felt that that great master’s achievements reflected a lack of “the truest and best method of working,” namely, the organizing of each composition through careful preliminary drawings. To foster this practice Vasari helped found in Florence an Academy of Design—it still exists today—and he ardently collected drawings that he assembled in a book to which he frequently refers. It is one of the great misfortunes in the history of Renaissance art that this collection has been lost.

Vasari’s impulse to collect extended beyond the accumulation of these precious tangible traces of skill in design. He also devoted himself to amassing stories about the lives of artists, not only his contemporaries but also those who lived centuries earlier. The anecdotes he relates are often amusing—he had some of Boccaccio’s comic gift—and on occasion quite cruel. But they are meant to be illuminating as well. Vasari clearly believed that one could learn much about the nature of an artist’s work from telling biographical glimpses. Hence Piero di Cosimo’s eccentricity—he survived largely on eggs that he boiled fifty at a time in the glue he used to prepare his artworks; he refused to allow his trees to be pruned or his vines cut, “for it pleased him to see everything wild, like his own nature”; by staring at the stains of spittle on walls, he conjured up “the most fantastic cities and widest landscapes that were ever seen”; he died “more like a beast than a man”—is bound up with the haunting strangeness of his art. To his credit, the smooth, socially adept Vasari sees that what is brilliant in Piero’s painting is of a piece with his weirdness, though he also registers its high worldly cost:

If Piero had not been so solitary, and had taken more care of himself in his way of living than he did, he would have made known the greatness of his intellect in such a way that he would have been revered, whereas, by reason of his uncouth ways, he was rather held to be a madman.

At the other personality extreme, in Vasari’s account, was Raphael, whose “innately gentle humanity” was joined “to a beautifully graceful affability that always showed itself sweet and pleasing with every kind of person and in every kind of circumstance.” Here too the qualities of a person seem bound up with the aesthetic achievement. It would be annoying if Vasari simply wanted the wild Piero to be more like the suave Raphael, but he is canny enough to savor each of them for his peculiar conjunction of artistry with the personality traits disclosed in the anecdotes.

Still more revealing, in Vasari’s Lives, are stories that capture with unforgettable acuteness moments in which character and talent are not merely related to each other but seem fully to merge. Thus, Vasari relates, the pope sent a courtier to Tuscany to evaluate the skill of Giotto, along with that of other artists in the region. All the others, eager for commissions, gave the papal emissary elaborate drawings to bring back to the Vatican, but Giotto merely “took a sheet of paper and a brush dipped in red, pressed his arm to his side to make a compass of it, and with a turn of his hand made a circle so even in its shape and outline that it was a marvel to behold.” The courtier, annoyed, asked, “Am I to have no other drawing than this one?” “It’s more than sufficient,” the supremely self-confident painter answered, and of course he turned out to be right, for the pope immediately grasped from the perfect circle how far Giotto surpassed all the other artists of his time. The story, Rowland and Charney write, “is about the artist as magician, using his talented hand to do what most people could do only with instruments,” and, in a reversal that must have deeply delighted Vasari, it casts the artist, and not his powerful patron, as the hero.

But Vasari’s great book is more than a vast number of anecdotes about a very large number of artists. It is a heroic attempt to answer a riddle posed by the flood of discoveries that were being made all through the years during which he incessantly traveled and painted and wrote. Those discoveries, admirably chronicled in Leonard Barkan’s study Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture (1999), confirmed what thoughtful observers must have already divined: over the course of many centuries, there had been no real improvement in either painting or architecture. Though artists had attempted to bring to life the truths of the Christian faith and though architects had created ambitious structures in which the faithful could worship together, they had not succeeded in going beyond the accomplishments of the pagan past.

On the contrary, the astoundingly beautiful ancient statues constantly dug up from the earth, the exquisite paintings on the terra-cotta vases that had somehow survived intact in underground burial vaults, the frescoes on the walls of those vaults, the mosaic floors, and great buildings like the Pantheon and the Colosseum were, for Vasari and his contemporaries, evidence of the loss of a skill that had once gloriously flourished. It provoked a more extreme version of our own response to the Chauvet cave paintings: astonishment mingled in their case with a tragic sense of a decline and fall.

Vasari’s book confronted directly the challenge of how to account for the splendor of ancient art, not, as we might have expected, by invoking the wealth and power of the Roman Empire or the cultural sophistication of the Greek city-states, but rather by reaching all the way back to the first humans.

Art-making, in his view, must have characterized our species from the very beginning. The origin of the arts, he wrote, “was nature herself, and…that divine light infused by special grace into us, which has not only made us superior to the other animals, but, if it be not sin to say it, like to God.” Though he understood that he was treading on theologically thin ice—“if it be not sin to say it”—Vasari took the similarity between human and divine creation seriously. God, in his view, was the first architect, sculptor, and painter, and, as such, gave human artists a model to imitate:

The first image of man was a lump of clay, and not without reason, seeing that the Divine Architect of time and of nature, being Himself most perfect, wished to show in the imperfection of the material the way to add and to take away; in the same manner wherein the good sculptors and painters are wont to work, who, adding and taking away in their models, bring their imperfect sketches to that final perfection which they desire.

For Vasari, this meant that primitive humans, by virtue of being closest to the divine act of creation, must have immediately invented the arts and brought them to that perfection to which the ancient works unearthed from the rubble bore eloquent witness. But the fact that these works had been buried also bore witness to a great catastrophe: “There rose up in various parts of the world all the barbarous peoples against Rome; whence there ensued after no long time not only the humiliation of so great an Empire but the ruin of the whole, and above all of Rome herself, and with her were likewise utterly ruined the most excellent craftsmen, sculptors, painters, and architects.”

The underlying theme in Vasari’s vast book then is the emergence of the human spirit following this disaster, through the slow recovery by a succession of remarkable individuals of artistic skills that had been lost. His word for this emergence was rinascita, “rebirth.” If, as Rowland and Charney assert, Vasari invented the concept of art, so too he invented the concept of the Renaissance. Yes, his cast of characters is overwhelmingly Italian, mostly from Tuscany; yes, he grossly misjudges the genius of medieval art and insists that his aesthetic principles are the only true ones; yes, he allows his alliances and petty enmities to color his account. But he believed that the artists whose lives he chronicled had made it possible for all humans once again to look backward in time without a burning sense of shame. We are astonished that we discover in the immensely distant past works that thrill us, that are truly alive, and that seem to call into question any notion of progress in the arts. Vasari was astonished that he found in the present—the present of Michelangelo and Leonardo—thrilling, vital works that stood up to the challenge posed by the genius of the immensely distant past.