The Lives of Artists

Screw your textbook and go straight to the source.

Giorgio Vasari was the ultimate art nerd. Born 1511, he trapezed around Italy learning about art, architecture, and sculpture. While he painted many works for the Medici and even renovated parts of the Uffizi, his greatest masterpiece is undoubtedly Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori.  Which is a book.

The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects by Vasari is considered the first bonofide art history book. It chronicles the antics of artists from Cimabue to Raphael and every footnote in between. But, this is hardly a dry academic tome. Vasari is as interested in the style and techniques of his subjects as the juicy aspects of their personal lives. One second he’s going over the innovations in perspective, the next he’s recounting Brunelleschi’s power grab from Ghiberti during the construction of Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. It makes the Medici look tame.

Vasari’s analysis is pretty much the blueprint for studying Renaissance art. It not simply that his list of subjects are a who’s who of the era– though they are. The way we think of art is largely a continuation of the way he thought about art. A distraught Giorgio waxes on about the failure of art under the Gothic and Byzantine styles. They are just so primitive. Sigh. For him, the ultimate success of art is a return to the “superior” style of the Greeks. And the artists he parades before his readers  march steadily towards that goal. Western art has evolved past its Greek hard-on. The Byzantines are cool now too. But, Vasari’s view reflects an major aesthetic philosophy prevalent throughout history and even today.

Skip the textbooks and get this stuff straight from the source. It’s not often that primary source documents like this are so easy and enjoyable to read. And so easy to quote into a paper. No body wants to read the Supermatist Manifesto, but the scandals and success of everybody’s favorite artists reads like Game of Thrones. Or at least People Magazine.

*Pictured above: The Hunt in the Forest by Paolo Uccelo (who, according to Vasari, died a penniless recluse but was really good a painting with perspective)



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