Vasari delivers great art history – and gossip

Giorgio Vasari, Florentine Mannerist painter and architect, is now chiefly credited as the first art historian. His groundbreaking tome, Lives of the Artists, published in 1550, narrativised artistic innovations of the Renaissance in a series of biographies of the Italian artists Vasari considered most important. While Vasari describes the art itself and the technical skills it requires, he is also a great storyteller. His book is full of illuminating anecdotes that create vivid portraits of its subjects.

Through several prefaces and a lengthy series of artists’ biographies, Vasari outlines his own critical history of Western art. These discussions centre on three essential periods of artistic development: according to Vasari, the excellence of the art of classical antiquity was followed by a sharp decline in quality during the Dark Ages, which was in turn reversed by a rebirth – or renaissance – of the arts in Tuscany in the 14th century, initiated by Cimabue and Giotto and culminating in the works of Michelangelo.

Vasari’s basic division of the evolution of Western painting into these three chronological eras centered around the Rennaisance – a term he uses himself – continues to shape the way we think about the subject to this day. His trajectory of art history has not only formed the conceptual basis for modern Renaissance scholarship but the canon of Italian Renaissance artists he established in the book endures as the standard to this day. Vasari’s work thus represents the first example of art history.

Vasari’s assertions show a notorious and consistent bias in favour of Renaissance artists in general and Florentines in particular. His view that the Renaissance revived classical ideals derides the Gothic and Romanesque styles for their lack of perspectival techniques. He also attributes all innovations in Renaissance art to Florentines – from engraving to sfumato. The advances of Venetian art in particular are systematically downplayed or, as in his chapter on Titian, acknowledged without a neutral point of view.

Despite these shortcomings, Vasari’s book documents the evolution of Italian Renaissance art with painstaking detail. His style is anecdotal and readable. He relishes in the details of artists’ rivalries, betrayals and creative tension. His characterisations offer intriguing psychological portraits even though many of the artists were long dead by the time he began his book. When facts were scarce, Vasari didn’t hesitate to fill in the gaps with gossip which only adds flavour to his towering achievement.