Gleanings from Vasari’s LIVES and THE COLLECTOR OF LIVES, by Rowland and Charney

March 8, 2018 at 11:54 pm (Art, Italy)

 

This is the second and final post on Vasari’s Vite (Lives) and the biography Collector of Lives.

As Michelangelo was preparing to unveil his monumental sculpture of David, Piero Soderini, who occupied the  high post of Gonfoloniere of Justice in the government of Florence, arrived on the scene. As he gazed upon the great artist’s masterwork, he voiced the opinion that David’s nose was too thick. Whereupon Michelangelo proceeded – or appeared to proceed – to remedy this imperfection. Vasari describes what happened next:

Michelangelo, realizing that the Gonfaloniere was standing under the giant and that his viewpoint did not allow him to see it properly, climbed up the scaffolding to satisfy Soderini (who was behind him nearby), and having quickly grabbed his chisel in his left hand along with a little marble dust that he found on the planks in the scaffolding, Michelangelo began to tap lightly with the chisel, allowing the dust to fall little by little without retouching the nose from the way it was. Then, looking down at the Gonfaloniere who stood there watching, he ordered:

‘Look at it now.’

‘I like it better,’ replied the Gonfaloniere: ‘you’ve made it come alive.’

David by Michelangelo Florence Galleria dell’Accademia

Vasari knew many of the artists that he wrote about it; he also knew that  people loved hearing inside jokes and gossip about those same artists. His Lives is thus filled with such anecdotal material. Some of it may be apocryphal; but such stories enliven his text and are a major aspect of what makes it still so readable and entertaining.

“Vasari’s stories tend to endure, even when scholarship overturns them.” Rowland and Charney in The Collector of Lives

In 1506, during the excavation of a vineyard in Rome, workers broke through to the remains of the Golden House (Domus Aureus). This was an elaborate palace-cum-park created by Nero, built from 64 to 68 AD following the destruction wrought by the Great Fire of 64 AD. Workers soon found  themselves uncovering an extraordinary sculpture: the Laocoon Group.

Not only was this work astonishing in and of itself, but it exercised a profound influence on Michelangelo, who happened to be in Rome when it was first brought out of the earth and back into to the light of day. (When the work of excavation was complete, the Laocoon Group was brought to the Vatican, where it still is, and where I saw it several decades ago.)

Here are Rowland and Charney on the subject of the Laocoon:

The statue is astonishing for its realism, the hyper-accurate musculature of Laocoon and the adolescent bodies of his sons as they struggle against the tightening coils of the serpents, one of which is about to bite Laocoon’s flank. It is a frozen moment of highest tension. Muscles are taut, the serpent’s jaw is set to clamp down, an expression of adrenaline-pumped effort,, pain, and hopelessness can be read in the face of Laocoon.

The authors go on to point out that this is an extremely different effect than that which Renaissance sculptors normally strove to convey in their work.

During the High Renaissance, when so many great artists were at work in northern Italy and in Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, painters established workshops where apprentices ground pigments, prepared canvases, and performed other tasks. If an apprentice showed promise, he could learn technique from the master. In fact, many masters emerged from this system, Vasari himself among them.

Painter’s workshop, by Philip Galle, c.1595

There’s an interesting post on this subject at the Art Post Blog.

Rowland and Charney have a vivid description of what it must have been like to work in such a place:

In a Florentine painter’s studio…scents of linseed oil, sweat, and sawdust would have greeted the visitor outside the door. Ideally, the large windows would face south to catch the best possible light, and  the studio had to be tall enough, and wide enough, to accommodate altarpieces of all sized. Sawdust, scattered on the floor, absorbed splatters and facilitated cleaning as apprentices. like Vasari, aged eight to eighteen, mingled with older paid assistants, bustling around the space, sweating profusely into grimy leather smocks, laughing, cursing, mopping, grinding pigments, creating an atmosphere that was surprisingly lively and social.

They add that the image many of us carry in our minds of the lone artist struggling to achieve his  goal simply did not apply here. For example, Lucas Cranach (1472-1553) of Wittenberg ran “a veritable factory.”

(I can never hear of Wittenberg without thinking of Hamlet: “Go not to Wittenberg,” the Queen implores her son, thereby sealing her fate, his, and that of many others at the ill-fated Danish court.)

This paragraph on Leonardo da Vinci pretty well sums up the man’s astonishing achievements:

Leonardo’s legacy in art was far greater than his modest output would suggest. The development of techniques like sfumato (the intentional blurring of color to create a smoky, atmospheric effect),  chiaroscuro (the dramatic focus on emerging from darkness),  and replicating nature with as much accuracy as possible (such as employing “atmospheric perspective,” in which objects far in the distance appear hazier, as we view them through layers of atmosphere, and pinpoint accurate anatomy as studied from dissections) all made a lasting impression and influenced future generations of artists. His books (on art, and on mathematics) helped to disseminate his ideas. His inventions, more of them designed than actually built, showed tremendous forethought: he was the first to conceive of helicopters, machine guns, tanks, parachutes, foldable bridges, and more.

(And still with me is the moment last December when my sister-in-law Donna and I stood before Leonardo’s other worldly masterpiece The Virgin of the Rocks, in London’s National Gallery.)

Vasari did not want to elevate any artist to the level of his revered and beloved Michelangelo; nevertheless, he readily acknowledged the supreme gifts of Raphael:

His colours were finer than those found in nature, and his invention was original and unforced, as anyone can realize by looking at his scenes, which have the narrative flow of a written story. They bring before our eyes sites and buildings, the ways and customs of our own or of foreign peoples, just as Raphael wished to show them. In addition to the graceful qualities of the heads shown in his paintings, whether old or young, men or women, his figures expressed perfectly the character of those they represented, the modest or the bold being shown just as they are. The children in his pictures were depicted now with mischief in their eyes, now in playful attitudes. And his draperies are neither too simple nor too involved but appear wholly realistic.

The School of Athens, Raphael’s famous fresco in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican (1509-1511)

 

Raphael’s Alba Madonna has long been one of my favorite works of art in Washington’s National Gallery. Painted circa 1510

Vasari brought home to me the importance of Masaccio in the evolution of Italian painting. I hadn’t realized how key his contribution was:

The superb Masaccio completely freed himself of Giotto’s style and adopted a new manner for his heads, his draperies, buildings, and nudes, his colours and foreshortenings. He thus brought into existence the modern style which, beginning during his period, has been employed by all our artists until the present day, enriched and embellished from time to time by new inventions, adornments, and grace.

Masaccio’s achievement and influence are all the more astonishing when the brevity of his life is taken into account: he died at the age of 26. Vasari appends a rather provocative speculation to his remarks on this artist:

Although Masaccio’s works have always had a high reputation, there are those who believe, or rather there are many who insist, that he would have produced even more impressive results if his life had not ended prematurely when he was twenty-six. However, because of the envy of fortune, or because good things rarely last for long, he was cut off in the flower of his youth, his death being so sudden that there were some who even suspected that he had been poisoned.

Vasari does not elaborate on this startling conjecture; rather, he goes on to note that upon hearing the news, the great painter  and architect Filippo Brunelleschi was grief stricken and exclaimed: “‘We have suffered a terrible loss in the death of Masaccio.’”

Masaccio, San Giovenale Triptych, 1422

 

Masaccio Expulsion, 1424-25

Rowland and Charney assert that had Vasari not made note of several women artists, we might not know about them. They refer specifically to Sofonisba Anguissola and her sisters – she had six of them! – and Properzia de’ Rossi of Bologna. Vasari had actually had occasion to meet Sofonisba and three of her sisters when he was visiting Cremona, where their family belonged to the local aristocracy. He  was deeply impressed by a particular work of Sofonisba’s:

The Chess Game, 1555

 

This year in Cremona I saw in her father’s  house a painting by her hand made with great diligence showing her  three sisters playing chess, and with them an old housemaid, with such diligence and attention that they truly seem to be alive and missing nothing but the power of speech.

As for Properzia de’ Rossi, she was famous primarily for her carvings on nuts and on fruit pits.  I read somewhere that this meticulous endeavor was deemd especially well suited for a woman to undertake, as it required both patience and diligence.

 

Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Mone (Simone) Cassai, called Masaccio 1401-1428

Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael), 1483-1520

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leonardo da Vinci 1452-1519

Properzia de’ Rossi (?), 1490-1530

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giorgio Vasari, self-portrait, (1511-1574)

Michelangelo Buonarroti 1475-1564

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sofonisba Anguissola self-portrait 1532-1625

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