Sunday, February 21, 2016

Fortnightly Book, February 21

When people talk about the Tuscan painter and architect Giorgio Vasari, one of the first things they say is that he was very popular in his day, although no longer so, so that, despite the fact that his work had the respect of sixteenth century Florence, if it were not for his writing he would be hardly considered at all. Be that as it may, it is certainly true that Vasari's accidental turn to writing made his reputation more than his primary artistic work. As he himself occasionally speaks of the transience of painting (easily lost, easily destroyed, easily faded) in comparison to the duration of literature, he perhaps would not be surprised by that.

When he was thirty-five, he was doing some work for Cardinal Farnese, and happened to eat dinner with the cardinal when an art collector, Paolo Giovio, was also dining with him. Giovio remarked that he was writing a treatise on all the famous artists of modern times, from the thirteenth century up to the sixteenth. He was asked what he thought of an idea like that, and he replied that he thought it a good one, but thought that it should be composed in a rather different way than it seemed that Giovio was intending to compose it. The cardinal suggested that he should perhaps do it right. And, at least as far as Vasari himself tells us, he reluctantly agreed.

But if he was as reluctant to do the work as he claims, he was nonetheless extraordinarily well prepared for it: he had been keeping notes and memoranda on artists, especially Florentine artists, for years and years already, so that he was able to compose his massive work, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, in a few years, notwithstanding his other artistic work. The book itself is an extraordinary monument; the first printed work to describe the surging of new artistic methods as a rinascita, Renaissance, it shaped views of Renaissance art for the next several hundred years. It still does, in many ways, although the limits of the work are now better known -- it is famously biased in favor of the artists of Florence and Rome, about which Vasari knew the most, although the second edition ameliorated this slightly by beefing up the Venetian representation slightly. To some extent the legendary reputation of Renaissance Florence is an artifact of the fact that Vasari had already championed Florence's place -- although, of course, he did have good material to work with.

The full Lives is a massive work, but in the 1960s the Heritage Press (New York) put together a two-volume abridgement and selection focused on the painters in particular: The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters. It pulls out forty-seven painter-biographies from the whole and organizes them chronologically. This two-volume edition, which is from my grandfather's shelves, will be the fortnightly book. It is illustrated with woodcuts, most copies of Vasari's original ones, and full-color photographic plates of works from thirty-two of the painters.

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