From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
Giorgio Vasari was broadcast on 4th September 2021. You can listen to the audio here.
Giorgio Vasari was truly a Renaissance man. He was not only a painter, sculptor and architect but a writer, too. When he wrote ‘The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects’ in 1550, now known simply as Vasari’s Lives, he mentioned the rebirth of culture in the late 1300s, reverting to values of the Classical age. This was picked up three hundred years later by various historians who coined the term Renaissance. And it stuck. Vasari’s Lives may not have invented the Renaissance but it opened our eyes to the creative life and showed how there is always a story behind every great work.
Born in Arezzo, the city of Piero dell Francesca, Vasari was sent as a teenager to nearby Florence. There he soaked up the art and architecture of a city bursting with some of the most magnificent work ever created. He was tutored in painting and became relatively successful, while also making friends with other artists, including the great Michelangelo himself.
His career took him to Rome and then, thanks to the patronage of the ruling Medici family, back to Florence. It was here that he produced some notable buildings, including the famous Corridor that links the Uffizi to the Pitti Palace. He even painted some of the interior of the dome in the Duomo itself.
His greatest achievement is the book, though. It starts with a profile of the artist Cimabue, who died in 1302, and ends with the death of Michelangleo, whose tomb in Santa Croce Vasari would help design. He writes how the idea was inspired by a dinner table conversation in Rome in 1550 where one guest jumbled up all the details of the artists he was talking about. Vasari was challenged to write an encyclopaedia to stop this from happening again. But given that he wasn’t actually in Rome at this time, we immediately see that the truth in Vasari’s world is an elastic concept. He writes, for instance, that Cimabue was the teacher of Giotto, which, if true, is a lovely example of talent being passed down, but most historians contest it. There are plenty of other stories which, although implausible at times, reveal the creative energy of these important times. Such as Giotto inscribing a perfect ‘O’ to impress a hesitant client, and painting a fly on a fresco that was so realistic his teacher tried to swat it away. He tells how Piero di Cosimo lived only on hard boiled eggs, and that Brunelleschi won the commission for the dome of Florence cathedral by smashing the bottom of an egg to make it stand up. There’s gossip galore, with stories of artists damaging a rival’s work and even, in Castagno’s case, murdering them.
What matters most, though, is how Vasari showed the competitive world of the artist, struggling to find commissions. The book is often credited as the beginning of art history with the creative process investigated and brought into the light. Whether fact or fiction, our understanding of the Renaissance would certainly be poorer without him.