Anyone who has studied Renaissance art history can’t escape one name: Giorgio Vasari. Often described as a “father” of art history, Vasari is best known for his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. This text, a foundation text of art history, is also the keystone of much of our knowledge (and misinformation!) about famous Renaissance artists like Leonardo, Michelangelo, and many more.
Vasari was born in 1511 in Arezzo, Tuscany, about 50 miles south of Florence. From an early age, he was educated in painting and studied under Guglielmo da Marsiglia, a painter of stained glass. In 1527, he was sent to Florence by Cardinal Silvo Passerini. Arriving in Florence, he joined the circle of Andrea del Sarto and his pupils, Rosso Fiorentino and Jacopo Pontormo. Vasari was quick to ingratiate himself into these important artist circles, befriending the Michelangelo, whose painting style he greatly admired and emulated.
While Vasari was a celebrated artist himself, completing commissions for members of the Medici family and many more, his most famous and important contribution is his The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. He invited the genre of the encyclopedia of artistic biographies, including biographies of artists from the 13th century to the 16th century. He is considered the first to use the term “Renaissance” (rinascita in Italian) and the modern use of the term “Gothic” in reference to art.
As a Florentine himself, as well as a close friend to many of the artists included in the book, Vasari’s accounts are notoriously biased. He attributed all the major developments of Renaissance art to them and in the first edition, entirely ignored the Venetian school of art. For Vasari, the art of the Florentine Renaissance was the pinnacle and everything before it was only leading up to it. His writings on earlier artists like Cimabue described how they escaped the sess-pool that was medieval art and were beginning to work towards greatness, but were still centuries away from it. He discussed changing in each cycle of artists as they worked towards an aesthetic ideal with no consideration for historical or social conditions. This idea, that art exists outside history, is the basis for one of the first major methods of art history: connoisseurship. By removing all historical or social context, discussing and identifying art becomes entirely about the “artist’s style” and aesthetic relative to others around them. This comparison also means that connoisseurship, and Vasari, had a clear hierarchy of style. If art is understood in comparison to other art, there will always be one style that is considered superior. The greatest artist to ever live, in Vasari’s eyes, was Michelangelo. Everything before Michelangelo was just preparation for Michelangelo and everything after Michelangelo will never live up to the genius of Michelangelo. (We’ll come back to this idea of genius.)
Vasari was also not immune to gossip and his Lives include many grandiose exaggerations or lies about the artists’ lives. There was no archive for him to conduct research in, so the biographies he wrote were dependent upon his own knowledge and what artists relayed to him. Many of the biographies emphasized one important thing: that artist talent, or genius, was inherent and not developed. Stories of artists who from a young age showed amazing skill and talent, that they were destined to surpass their teachers, appear in biography after biography. In Giotto’s biography, Vasari recounts that the young artist painted a fly on a painting by his master, Cimabue, and that the older teacher repeatedly tried to brush the fly away because it appeared so realistic. In his biography of Michelangelo, Vasari does not even bother waiting until the artist’s training to proclaim him as divine, but states that he was born “under a lucky star,” and “of being of a divine nature…his works of art would be stupendous.”
But this idea of the divine artist, the genius…how do we measure “inherent talent”? How do we quantify “greatness”?
Vasari, placing the artists he wrote about into a hierarchy leading up to Michelangelo, is only one of the first to circulate this idea of the “great artist,” but this hierarchy (based entirely on his own opinion, influenced by his own motives and relationships to the artists) and his definitions of the “great artists” have stuck around even 500 years after his death. When asked to name some of the greatest artists in history, Michelangelo and Leonardo are usually near the top of the list.
When considering the ‘great artists,’ ask yourself what makes them great. Are they ‘great’ because they show technical skill and precision? Are they ‘great’ because they can evoke an emotional response? Or are they ‘great’ because that’s just what we’ve been taught. Consider who has the authority to proclaim someone is a “great artist.” What are their motives for this proclamation?
Greatness and Genius are not quantifiable. They are subjective. And authorities often use these terms to unintentionally exclude women and minorities from the canon.
Linda Nochlin asks “why are there no great women artists?“
In his first edition of Lives, Vasari included one chapter dedicated to a woman, Prosperzia de’ Rossi. And the chapter is short, much shorter than most of the other chapters. Rossi gets a few paragraphs and then Vasari tacks on a few short sentences about three other women artists: Sister Plautilla Nelli, Madonna Lucrezia, and Sofonisba Anguissola. And while the many male artists in the preceding chapters have inherent talent, Vasari stresses that these female artists “learned” and “acquired” artistic skill. Vasari created a strict divide between the male artists and female artists; one is born with talent and genius, while the other can only attempt to near that level through hard work and learning.
Perhaps the question is less about where are the great artists and rather, who gets to decide what is “great”? And why do the labels of “greatness” given by a man over 500 years ago still remain?