27 June 2016

Giorgio Vasari - the first art historian

Artist and architect who chronicled lives of Old Masters

Portrait of Giorgio Vasari
Portrait of Giorgio Vasari
Giorgio Vasari, whose 16th century book on the lives of Renaissance artists led to him being described as the world's first art historian, died on this day in 1574 in Florence.

Born in Arezzo in 1511, Vasari was a brilliant artist and architect who worked for the Medici family in Florence and Rome and amassed a considerable fortune in his career.

But he is remembered as much for Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times, a collection of biographies of all the great artists of his lifetime.

The six-part work is remembered as the first important book on art history.  Had it not been written, much less would be known of the lives of Cimabue, Giotto, Donatello, Botticelli, Da Vinci, Giorgione, Raphael, Boccaccio and Michelangelo among many others from the generation known as the Old Masters.

Vasari, who is believed to have been the first to describe the period of his lifetime as the Renaissance, also went into much detail in discussing the techniques employed by the great artists.  It is partly for that reason that the book is regarded by contemporary art historians as "the most influential single text for the history of Renaissance art".

Photo of Vasari wall paintings
Vasari's wall paintings in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
In his own career, Vasari became friends with Michelangelo and studied the works of Raphael.  His frescoes in the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome and his wall and ceiling paintings in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence gained him much admiration.

As an architect, he designed the loggia of the Palazzo degli Uffizi in Florence and the Vasari Corridor, which connects the Uffizi with the Medici residence at the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the Arno river.

He also renovated the medieval Florentine churches of Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce. In Santa Croce, he was responsible for the painting of The Adoration of the Magi which was commissioned by Pope Pius V in 1566 and has been recently restored.

The wealth he acquired enabled him to build a fine house in Arezzo, which now houses a museum dedicated to his life and work.

Travel tip:

The town of Arezzo in eastern Tuscany, where Vasari was born, was famous because of another artist, Piero della Francesco. The 13th century church of San Francesco contains Piero della Francesco’s frescoes, The Legend of the True Cross, painted between 1452 and 1466 and now considered to be one of Italy’s greatest fresco cycles.

Photo of the Uffizi
The Galleria at the Uffizi, looking towards
Vasari's loggia, which opens on to the Arno
Travel tip:

The Uffizi complex on which Vasari worked from 1560 onwards was built to accommodate the offices of the Florentine magistrates, hence the name uffizi (offices). Cosimo I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who commissioned the building, planned to display prime art works of the Medici collections in the complex.  Over the years, more sections of the palace were recruited to exhibit paintings and sculpture collected or commissioned by the Medici.  In 1765 it was officially opened to the public as an art gallery.

(Photo of Uffizi by Samuli Lintula CC BY-SA 3.0)


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