June 30: l’autore delle ‘vite’

2012/06/30 § Leave a comment

Sometime in “mid-year” 1550 Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori da Cimabue insino a’ tempi nostri was published.

The author, architect and painter Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), would be memorable for his built work (especially his chunk of the Uffizi–it it’s good enough to be featured in Merchant & Ivory’s best movie, it’s good enough for you), but his book that really stands out as his claim to fame.  The Lives comprises lengthy essays about individual (you guessed it) painters, sculptors and architects from Cimabue’s to Vasari’s time.  With it, Vasari sort of invented a basic approach to art history, and introduced some stories that we can’t quite shake, even if they don’t quite measure up to the historical record.  But no matter; the Florentine Vasari’s point of view is as transparent as the Arno is not, so his slant just makes his history more compelling and textured.  Sure, the book celebrates Florence at the expense of virtually every where else and it repeats some fantastic stories as if they were Gospel.  But that’s not all bad.  History is not fact; it is not repeating the past.  It’s an interpretation, and we get that loud and clear with Vasari.

And it’s not like he was unawares.  Here’s a transcript from the day Vasari got feedback from his editor, Lorenzo Torrentino:

GV: Lorenzo!  How’d you like my book?!

LT: Your treatment of the Italian guys–especially the Florentines, of course, God bless them–is terrific, but, um, don’t you think it’s kind of one-sided?

GV: I don’t get your meaning.

LT: Well, for starters, maybe you could do a little with, oh, I dunno: Rome?  Venice?

GV: [yawns]

LT: You’ve heard of Titian, right?

GV: *meh*

LT: Let’s broaden the perspective. Don’t you think there have been excellent painters, sculptors and architects in the last 250 years anyplace but Italy?

GV: [sniggers]

LT: France?

GV: [shrugs]

LT: the Netherlands?

GV: [holds nose]

LT: Spain?

GV: Oh you Giovanni!  Now you’re just trying to make me laugh.

Well, that’s what the Muse can remember, but, granted, that was after a big lunch of spaghetti alla carbonara.  You know what she remembers even more clearly?  That story about Brunelleschi and the egg.  And if you don’t, you need to go read your Vasari.


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