Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574)

THE CONTEMPORARY of Michaelangelo, of Raphael, and of Andrea del Sarto, Giorgio Vasari was himself a painter and architect of reputation. His name would however probably be forgotten to-day, were it not for his literary achievement in the ‘Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.’ In the sketch of himself which Vasari gives in this work, he tells the story of the book’s origin and development, evidently regarding it as a mere incident in a busy and renowned life.

  • “One evening,” he writes,—“one evening among others the conversation fell on the Museum of Giovio, and on the portraits of illustrious men placed there in admirable order and with appropriate inscriptions; when, passing from one thing to another, as is done in conversation, Monsignore Giovio said that he always had felt, and still did feel, a great wish to add to his museum, and to his book of ‘Eulogies’ a treatise concerning men who had distinguished themselves in the art of design, from Cimabue down to our own times. He spoke at some length on the subject, giving proof of much knowledge and judgment in matters concerning our arts. It is nevertheless true, that as he was treating only of generalities, and did not enter into the matter very closely, he often made some confusion among the artists cited, changing their names, families, birthplaces, etc., or attributing the work of one to the hand of another; not describing things as they were precisely, but rather treating of them in the mass.
  • “When Giovio had finished his discourse, the cardinal turning to me said, ‘What think you, Giorgio,—would not this be a fine work, a noble labor?’ ‘Admirable, indeed, most illustrious my lord,’ replied I: ‘provided Giovio be assisted by some one belonging to our calling, who can put things into their right places, and relate them as they have really occurred; and this I say because, although the discourse he has just concluded is admirable, yet he has often made assertions that are not correct, and said one thing for another.’ ‘Could you not, then,’ replied the cardinal, being incited thereunto by Giovio, Caro, Tolomei, and the rest,—‘could you not supply him with a summary of these matters, and with notices of all these artists,—their works being arranged in the order of time,—whereby you would confer that benefit also on your arts?’ This, although I knew the undertaking beyond my strength, I was yet willing to attempt, with such power as I possessed, and promised to do it according to the best of my ability.”
  • He continues to tell us that he promptly gathered his material together for this work. He was, indeed, somewhat abundantly supplied with notes, as since his boyhood he had collected for his own recreation what items he could find concerning the great artists. When he presented the summary to Monsignore Giovio, that gentleman was so pleased with the style that he persuaded Vasari to prepare the book himself. Thus it is that Signor Giorgio Vasari won his title to many generations of fame.

    He was born in Arezzo. There as a child he copied the pictures in the churches, encouraged always by his good father, Messer Antonio. When Giorgio was nine years of age, his father took him to pay his respects to their kinsman, Cardinal Silvio Passerini, who was visiting Arezzo. This prelate was much impressed by the boy’s familiarity with Virgil and with the rudiments of learning, as well as by his proficiency in drawing. He persuaded Messer Antonio to conduct his son to Florence; and here the boy was placed with Alessandro and Ippolito dei Medici in the study of the classics, and was put to learn design under the great Michaelangelo.

    Early in life Giorgio Vasari began a career of success. He was an indomitable worker; and during a very brief interval between his days of student life and those of the remunerated artist, he painted assiduously frescoes for the peasantry outside of Arezzo, for the mere sake of the experience to be gained therefrom. On the death of his father, the care of younger brothers and sisters devolved on him; and in order to meet the responsibility, he was forced to practice for a time in Florence the art of the goldsmith. Commissions for painting soon overtook him, however; and despite the astonishing rapidity with which he worked, it was no longer possible for him to fulfill the demands made upon his time. He became the darling of the court; but the precariousness of such a popularity speedily impressed itself upon him. “The promises of this world,” he writes, “are for the most part but vain phantoms; to confide in one’s self and to become something of worth and value is the best and safest course.” His popularity, however, in no way diminished after he ceased to rely upon it as a means of advancement. His personality was such as to inspire affection.

    It was largely his quality of friendliness which led him to accomplish so admirably the literary work by which he lives to-day. He was in close personal relations with the artists of his country, and one of their own calling. He was always their comrade, never their rival. “Who,” exclaims the Padre della Valle, “would not become the friend of Vasari!” He had the power of drawing into sympathy those who were gathered round him: thus it is that in the ‘Lives’ we feel, not like students ferreting for facts in the careers of great men, but rather as honored guests introduced to a coterie of congenial spirits. The work has not escaped the just charge of inaccuracies, and has been corrected and annotated by Della Valle, Rumohr, Förster, and others. As a critic, however, Vasari has always the spirit of justice, and is usually able to lay aside personal sympathy and to assume dispassionate judgment. His style is pure and ingenuous, relieved by a refined and subdued humor; not infrequently he ascends to elequence,—that somewhat rare eloquence in which one thinks less of rhetoric than of the sentiment expressed, and in which, despite the enthusiasm of the writer, one yet feels that he is not controlled by his subject, but is still master of it.

    Vasari died in Florence in 1574, while occupied in painting the cupola of the Duomo. As the tourist reads in his Baedeker to-day that the prophets in the lantern were the last work of Giorgio Vasari, he looks at them curiously, knowing that it was not as a literary critic, but as an artist, that this man expected to go down to posterity. Yet after the passage of three hundred years, his book remains an authority; if not in every particular congenial to the disciples of Ruskin, it yet accords with the prevailing judgment of to-day. He himself says of his works that if the future finds no excellence in them, it must yet recognize “an ardent wish to do well,… with great and enduring industry, and a true love for these our arts.” What greater tribute than this modest assertion can be paid to a work accomplished by a master whom three centuries have pronounced a man of knowledge and intelligence?