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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Giorgio Vasari played a critical role in the Renaissance era, helping to bring about the earliest forms of what we now know as art history writing. He was also an accomplished painter and architect.

Vasari produced a number of biographies on the lives of other famous artists from around this period and these have been crucial in building up our knowledge base on the real intracies of their lives. Whilst it is understood that he used some artistic license with some of the details and stories included within his literature, there is still a wealth of information to help us put together a clearer idea of the various components that made up the Renaissance. As a skilled artist himself, he was also able to delve into technical details that some art historians in the modern day would not be able to do. He was also naturally part of many artistic communities who would better embrace his questions and interest because he was seen as a genuine artist in his own right.

He was born in the city of Arezzo, which at the time was a significant part of the Republic of Florence. This kingdom was integral in the rise of the Renaissance movement and so he was well located in order to play a part in this exciting time. He was fortunate enough to be the cousin of Luca Signorelli, an experienced Renaissance painter who helped to set him up with early forms of artistic training. Having studied locally at first, his promise enabled him to enter the studio of Andrea del Sarto in Florence at the age of sixteen. He quickly became friends with Michelangelo, thirty five years his elder, and would draw large amounts of inspiration from this great Renaissance master.

Vasari's role as a painter involved plenty of travel around Tuscany and Rome. He even went south to Naples on occasion, always intent on continuing to develop his list of patrons which was key to a successful career. He built up a client base that featured some powerful figures, including the Medici family in Florence who were both wealthy and also extremely passionate about art and architecture. They could both provide commissions of their own, but also help their favoured artists to be awarded others. Most of his paintings were installation pieces, some of which inevitably have seen been damaged, destroyed or replaced with newer pieces. Whilst some artists produced smaller paintings that were intended for private devotion, most would be in large religious institutions such as the ones in which Vasari regularly worked. It was from around his mid thirties that we see a consistent output of paintings, soon after he had finished studying a number of Renaissance masters, such as Raphael in in Rome.

The painter also turned his hand, successfully, to architecture in the latter period of his career. Most of the major commissions in architecture that he completed were when he was in his fifties and perhaps by this stage he was looking to stretch his creativity into new avenues. His best known piece of architecture would be probably be the Vasari Corridor, as we now know it, which provides a walkway between the world famous Uffizi and the Palazzo Pitti, providing a constant reminder to millions of visitors to Florence of the contribution of this artist. Vasari would also take on some technically-challenging commissions too, such as the octagonal dome in Pistoia, which captures the style found in High Renaissance architecture. He also renovated a number of churches too, as part of a wide variety of projects within this complex and very technical discipline.

Somehow, Vasari managed to complete all of these architectural projects whilst creating the first recorded encyclopaedia of artistic biographies which he titled Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. It was first published in 1550, when he would have been in his late thirties. It was to be considered the benchmark for art historical studies for centuries and continues to provide us with a wealth of information on some of the key members of the Renaissance. He was also the first to even use the term of Renaissance within print, though it had been mentioned previously by others who would describe this re-birth of art, literature and architecture. The original Italian title given to the publication was Le Vite de' Più Eccellenti Pittori, Scultori, ed Architettori, and his term for Renaissance in Italian was "rinascita". He is also believed to have been the source of the term Goth, in describing German art of around the same period.

Whilst leaving behind a huge impact with his resourceful studies in art history, we must also recognise his clear bias in the way in which he describes different artists. German art was dismissed categorically as brutish, whilst those from the region of Florence were sometimes promoted to levels that their ability could not justify. There was a fair amount of creativity and his own personality within some passages and stories within this famous catalogue of art, much of which has since been dispproved, or significantly questioned from other historian's findings. Perhaps his commitments to artistic work forced him to rush elements of his literature, but its impact can never be overestimated. His series of biographies have been translated into multiple languages and can still be purchased today. It was one of the reasons begind his rise to huge wealth during his own lifetime, though he also profited substantially from his own artistic work and also the direction that he gave to others on various commissioned projects.

Whilst this journey into literature would prove fruitful for Vasari, it was clearly apparent to him that amendments and additions would be needed. He would revise his publication several times, expanding the number of artists included and also starting to correct some of the evaluations that he had initially made. Whilst rejecting German art almost as if it was one single entity, he also rejected art from other regions of the Papal States of Italy, albeit in a more subtle manner. Even the stunning work of the Venetians was given a relatively rough ride in the early versions of his written word. There were elements to his literature that almost felt column-like, with opinions battling with fact in the way that a gossiper might examine the realms of Renaissance art history. This is an accepted criticism of his contributions but most art historians are still fundamentally impressed of the work that he did in documenting artists of this period, when no other was doing the same, and indeed, never had.

Vasrai would go on to produce a second version of his book, expanding it with artists previously missed out. He travelled around Italy in order to more accurately describe some of these new additions but there still remained an inherent bias towards those from his own local region. Incredibly, even the like of Titian were initially left out, which seems fairly extraordinary today. He also started to include foreign art as well, though this would have been difficult to accurately cover at that time because of the relative difficulties in travel as compared today. There was also no existing literature from others that might have given him something of a headstart, on which he could add his own knowledge as well as some of the embellished stories that characterised his writing style. Whilst taking all of this into account, there is still much to learn from his world famous contribution to the documenting of art history.