Giorgio Vasari

Biblioteca Città di Arezzo

“Per gloria dell’arte et honor degli Artefici”

Giorgio Vasari, artist and writer

curated by Elisa Boffa

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The Origins and the Family

“Write, my brother, write,
for from praise comes profit,
and from profit does not come praise.”

Letter from Paolo Giovio to Vasari, May 7, 1547

Records of the family begins with Lazzero di Niccolò de’ Taldi from Cortona, known as ‘Casentino’, who moved to Arezzo before 1460. His son, Lazzaro, is described in the Lives as a “ of Piero della Francesca, alongside whom he practiced painting, but was especially known for the art of harnessing horses. From Lazzaro was born Giorgio in 1481, who would be the first to be remembered by the surname Vasari, in reference to his pottery work, abandoning the de’ Taldi surname. By the last of his seven children, Tonio or Antonio, a fabric merchant, the better-known Giorgio – eldest son – was born on July 30, 1511.

His father had favored his inclination for drawing by allowing him to apprentice in the workshop of Guillaume de Marcillat, a celebrated creator of polychrome stained glass. Furthermore, Giorgio had learned his “first letters” thanks to two teachers, Antonio di Saccone and especially Giovanni Lappoli known as Pollastra, a scholar and poet closely associated with the Medici papal circle and tutor of Pietro Aretino, whom Giorgio indeed met as a “young boy”. Pollastra was a key figure for his activity, as it was through him that Vasari went to Camaldoli in 1537, where he completed a cycle of paintings by 1540.

Another prominent personality from whom Vasari greatly benefited was the Lombard Paolo Giovio. When, from February to June 1538, the Aretine arrived in Rome, he had the opportunity to meet the cardinal, papal physician and historian, finding in him a true friend from whom he received new inspirations and was introduced into a circle of artists and men of letters which gained him, among other things, the favour of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. As Vasari himself declares, the original idea for the Lives dates back to a dinner at the Farnese house: on that occasion, Paolo Giovio, illustrating his works, is said to have expressed the desire to add to it a life of the “illustrious men in the arts and design, from Cimabue to our times”, and turning to Vasari, would have said: “What do you say, Giorgio, wouldn’t this be a beautiful work and effort?”, thus initiating the great editorial project that dates back to the late 1530s.

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Vasari as Architect and Painter

In a letter from 1537, Pietro Aretino described Vasari in this order, “historian, poet, philosopher, and painter,” placing the title of painter last. In the Ricordanze, however, Giorgio himself writes that the volume “will commemorate all the works of painting, fresco, tempera, oil, on wood, on wall, or on canvas that were done by me over time, in every place and country, both here in Arezzo and throughout Italy and beyond,” thus emphasizing the primary importance that painting held for him.

Among these, the panel with the Wedding of Esther and Ahasuerus painted for the refectory of the Abbey of Saints Flora and Lucilla, completed in February 1549, is particularly noteworthy, and among the latest works, the project for the Loggias of Piazza Grande (1570-72) completed after his death in 1581. The three manuscripts on display provide essential information for reconstructing the history of these two significant undertakings.

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The Lives: a Bestseller
of the Modern Era

“… I have been able to write purely the truth about so many divine talents, and without any shadow or veil… not because I expect or promise myself the name of historian or writer, for I never thought of this, as my profession is painting and not writing.”

Giorgio Vasari, Conclusion of the Work to the Artists and Readers, 1550

Published in two editions during his lifetime (1550 and 1568), the work took on the task of commemorating past artists, valuing the living ones, and also giving new impulse to the arts of drawing, so much that Vasari was identified as the first Italian art historian. The first edition of the Lives was conceived within the court of the Farnese princes and dedicated to Cosimo I de’ Medici and the newly elected Pope Julius III, focusing primarily on artists, both ancient and modern, who had been active in Tuscany. The second edition, expanded in 1568, made more marked use of the valuable assistance of friends and intellectuals such as Vincenzo Borghini, Cosimo Bartoli, and Pierfrancesco Giambullari.

Especially this second edition stands out as the first systematic treatment of art history, enriched by the inclusion of non-Tuscan artists and woodcut portraits of most of them.

For the first edition, the Dutchman Lorenzo Torrentino (Laurens Leenaertsz van der Beke), active in Florence as the ducal printer, was chosen on the advice of Paolo Giovio, who also provided Vasari with the title and the layout for the dedication to Cosimo. Through Borghini, Pierfrancesco Giambullari was also involved, who prepared the manuscript copy to be delivered to the printer around mid-1548.
The 1550 edition concluded with the author’s promise to continue the book, extending the inquiry to contemporary artists who had been omitted, and by 1560 the first traces of the revision work emerged.

Having exhausted the copies of the Torrentino edition, Vasari worked diligently and published the second edition in 1568 with the Florentine publisher Giunti (with the addition, in the title, of the lives of the living and the dead, from the year 1550 to 1567), consisting of three volumes, in which he elaborated the concept of the unfolding and “rebirth” of art through three ages that marked the abandonment of the Middle Ages, the entry into the Modern Age through the recovery of the ancient, and the full maturity expressed in the works of Michelangelo.

This edition immediately overshadowed the one from 1550, as Vasari prepared for this new publication with a study trip made in 1566, visiting Umbria, Marche, Emilia Romagna, Lombardy, and Veneto, involving valuable collaborators, friends, and scholars. The edition was enriched by 144 woodcut portraits of the artists, as well as Vasari’s own autobiography. He also revised the life of Michelangelo, who had passed away in 1564 and whom Vasari considered the only “complete” artist skilled in painting, sculpture, and architecture.
From the seventeenth century onwards, this second edition had 18 Italian editions and 8 foreign translations, compared to just one edition of the work published by Torrentino in 1550.

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Other Writings by the Artist

“… although they [my works] are not of the perfection I would wish, it must nevertheless be recognized by those who will consider them with a sound eye, that they have been laboured by me with study, diligence, and loving effort… an ardent desire to do well and a great and tireless labour, and the immense love that I bear for our arts.”

Giorgio Vasari. Autobiography

We can identify Vasari’s ‘minor’ writings as the “Ragionamenti” (Discourses) and the “Poesie” (Poems), which nevertheless reveal further interesting facets of the artist.

For the publication of the “Ragionamenti”, Vasari, along with his circle of advisors and friends, probably had in mind to realize a far more extensive and comprehensive editorial project than the final result. His aim was indeed to construct a discourse focused on art, starting from those pre-existing literary sources. Beyond the political message, important as a constitutive function of the text, the “Ragionamenti” are considered an attempt to lay new foundations for a literary genre centered on art itself. The poems, still unpublished today and present only in manuscripts preserved at the Riccardiana Library and in that of Arezzo, reveal Vasari’s intention to also engage with poetic art, failing due to lack of time and perhaps intentionally, to organize into a collection the poems he had written from 1545 to the last years of his life.

Poems dedicated to Giorgio can also be read in the volume, such as that by Jacopo Marsoppini: “Immortal Giorgio who from the Indian sea to the Nile / searching for everything, found no equal / who already made men, and Gods marvel. / Now enjoy, Arezzo, noble city / that has given birth to such divine treasure / of which I see trophies here below every hour.”

Regarding his activity as a stage designer, here we refer to the Venetian performance of “La Talanta” by Pietro Aretino from 1542; while an editorial testimony of the successful biography of Jacopo Sansovino is displayed.

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Homo vapor est: Vasari and His Legacy

“Poor Vasari! Lately he has been mercilessly battered by criticism […] but Vasari remains the unsurpassed critic of Italian art; and from a literary standpoint, one of the great prose writers of the peninsula and the last important product of the Tuscan genius’s novelistic tendency.”

Bernard Berenson, 1952

In Ms. 27 of the Arezzo Library, on folio 140 verso, we read “On the 27th of June 1574, Messer Giorgio Vasari died, greatly esteemed by Pope Pius V and Gregory XIII, and by the Grand Duke Cosimo and Francesco, and was accompanied from Florence to Arezzo with 40 torches in 1578.” Vasari and his wife Niccolosa had no children but took great interest in their nephews, the sons of his brother Pietro. Upon Vasari’s death, it was his nephews, particularly his namesake, Giorgio the Younger, who took care of his literary legacy. In his will, drafted six years before his death, Vasari named Pietro’s children as heirs, adding: “should the line of Ser Piero’s children fail, in this case, I institute as my heirs the pious house of the Fraternity of Santa Maria della Misericordia.” Despite the presence of other brothers, Marcantonio and Francesco, it was Giorgio the Younger who was the sole heir. He fulfilled this role diligently and wisely administered the legacy until his death in 1624. The direct male line ended with the death of his nephew Francesco Maria in 1684. According to Vasari’s will, on this date, the real estate passed to the Fraternita dei Laici of Arezzo, while the remainder of the estate was administered by Senator Bonsignore Spinelli and by Don Lorenzo Figliocci. The files and codes of the inheritance soon disappeared from the Spinelli archive and reappeared in the Rasponi-Spinelli family archive in Florence at the beginning of the 20th century.


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