Giorgio Vasari and Michelangelo Buonarroti

February 18, 2018 at 1:45 pm (Art, Italy, Music)

  I feel as though The Collector of Lives were written just for me. Admittedly, it is a rather specialized narrative, concentrating as it does on the work of the great Giorgio Vasari and the Italian painters of the Renaissance whom he celebrates in his magnum opus, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. (‘Excellent’ is sometimes rendered as ‘Eminent.’)

Amazingly, there were those who practiced more than one of these arts – in some cases, with a varying degree of proficiency, all three. Vasari himself was proficient both as a painter and an architect; it was he who designed the Uffizi, now Florence’s preeminent art museum. Add to which, of course, he was an extremely skilled writer. By means of this one book,  he legitimized art history as a field of study. He was helped in this endeavor by  he fact that he knew personally a good number of the artists whose lives and works he describes in such a lively and engaging manner.

(Vasari’s book is sometimes referred to simply as The Lives. You will see it occasionally called in Italian  Vite – pronounced ‘veetay.’)

The cover of The Collector of Lives features a detail from St. Luke Painting the Virgin by Vasari; it dates from about 1565. My copy of Vasari’s book has the same work on its cover:   Here is the actual painting:

I often see comments to the effect that while Vasari achieved greatness through his writing, he was not quite great as a painter. I find this airy dismissal rather unwarranted. True, in his era he was up against some incredibly gifted artists; nevertheless, I find his own work singularly compelling.

Vasari’s own hero in the arts was unquestionably Michelangelo. Many of us are familiar with Michelangelo’s most famous creations, but I think, especially in this age of anguish in which we now seem to dwell, it might do us good to look at them again:

The Sistine Chapel

 

1508-1512

 

1537-1541

 

1508-1512

 

1498-1499

It would be impossible for any craftsman or sculptor no matter how brilliant ever to surpass the grace or design of this work or try to cut and polish the marble with the skill that Michelangelo displayed. For the Pietà was a revelation of all the potentialities and force of the art of sculpture. Among the many beautiful features (including the inspired draperies) this is notably demonstrated by the body of Christ itself. It would be impossible to find a body showing greater mastery of art and possessing more beautiful members, or a nude with more detail in the muscles, veins, and nerves stretched over their framework of bones, or a more deathly corpse. The lovely expression of the head, the harmony in the joints and attachments of the arms, legs, and trunk, and the fine tracery of pulses and veins are all so wonderful that it staggers belief that the hand of an artist could have executed this inspired and admirable work so perfectly and in so short a time. It is certainly a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have been reduced to a perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh.

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists

 

1501-1504

The legs are skilfully outlined, the slender flanks are beautifully shaped and the limbs are joined faultlessly to the trunk. The grace of this figure and the serenity of its pose have never been surpassed, nor have the feet, the hands, and the head, whose harmonious proportions and loveliness are in keeping with the rest. To be sure, anyone who has seen Michelangelo’s David has no need to see anything else by any other sculptor, living or dead.

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists

I only found out recently that Michelangelo was also a poet:

“When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel” (1509)

I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!

My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself.
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.

Because I’m stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.

My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.

Just in case you thought painting that ceiling was in any way an easy undertaking….

Michelangelo also wrote poems of a more lyrical nature, such as this one in praise of the author of The Divine Comedy:

DANTE

What should be said of him cannot be said;
By too great splendor is his name attended;
To blame is easier than those who him offended,
Than reach the faintest glory round him shed.
This man descended to the doomed and dead
For our instruction; then to God ascended;
Heaven opened wide to him its portals splendid,
Who from his country’s, closed against him, fled.
Ungrateful land! To its own prejudice
Nurse of his fortunes; and this showeth well
That the most perfect most of grief shall see.
Among a thousand proofs let one suffice,
That as his exile hath no parallel,
Ne’er walked the earth a greater man than he.
Translated into English by H.W. Longfellow (1807-1882).

More poetry by Michelangelo can be found at the Michelangelo Gallery.

In The Collector of Lives, Ingrid Rowland and Noah Charney offer this assessment:

There are many bones one can pick with Vasari, but he makes a persuasive argument for his candidate as the “greatest” artist in history. To this day, Michelangelo Buonarroti seems a reasonable choice as Giorgio’s ultimate hero.

There are many other genius artists of the Italian Renaissance whom Vasari admired and wrote about. I’ll return to these in a later post.

A hundred years after Michelangelo, Gregorio Allegri composed the Miserere Mei, Deus expressly to be sung in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week. Here, it is performed by the King’s College Choir in their magnificent Chapel.

British art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon has made a two part film about Giorgio Vasari:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: