Skip to main content

Preface to the Lives, by Giorgio Vasari

Giorgio Vasari
I know it is an opinion commonly accepted among almost all writers that sculpture, as well as painting, was first discovered in nature by the peoples of Egypt; and that some others attribute to the Chaldeans the first rough carvings in marble and the first figures in relief; just as still others assign to the Greeks the invention of the brush and the use of colour. But I would say that design, the basis of both arts, or rather the very soul which conceives and nourishes within itself all the aspects of the intellect, existed in absolute perfection at the origin of all other things when God on High, having created the great body of the world and having decorated the heavens with its brightest lights, descended with His intellect further down into the clarity of the atmosphere and the solidity of the earth, and, shaping man, discovered in the pleasing invention of things the first form of sculpture and painting.* Who will deny that from man, as from a true model, statues and sculptures were then gradually carved out along with the difficulties of various poses and their surroundings, and that from the first paintings, whatever they might have been, derived the ideas of grace, unity, and the discordant harmonies produced by light and shadows? Thus, the first model from which issued the first image of man was a mass of earth, and not without reason, for the Divine Architect of Time and Nature, being all perfect, wished to demonstrate in the imperfection of His materials the means to subtract from them or add to them, in the same way that good sculptors and painters are accustomed to doing when by adding or subtracting from their models, they bring their imperfect drafts to that state of refinement and perfection they seek... * 

I am convinced that anyone who will discreetly ponder this matter will agree with me, as I said above, that the origin of these arts was Nature herself, that the inspiration or model was the beautiful fabric of the world, and that the Master who taught us was that divine light infused in us by a special act of grace which has not only made us superior to other animals but even similar, if it is permitted to say so, to God Himself. And if in our own times (as I hope to show a little further on through numerous examples), simple children, crudely brought up in the woods and prompted by their liveliness of mind, have begun to draw by themselves, using as their models only those beautiful pictures and sculptures in Nature, is it not much more probable and believable that the first men—being much less further away from the moment of their divine creation, more perfect, and of greater intellect, taking Nature as their guide, with the purest of intellects as their master, and the world as their beautiful model—originated these most noble arts, and, improving them little by little, finally brought them from their humble beginnings to perfection? ... *
But because after carrying men to the top of her wheel, either for amusement or out of regret Fortune usually returns them to the bottom, it came to pass that almost all of the barbarian nations in various parts of the world rose up against the Romans, and, as a result, not only did they bring down so great an empire in a brief time but they ruined everything, especially in Rome itself. With Rome's fall the most excellent craftsmen, sculptors, painters, and architects were likewise destroyed, leaving their crafts and their very persons buried and submerged under the miserable ruins and the disasters which befell that most illustrious city. Painting and sculpture were the first to go to ruin, since they are arts that serve more to delight us than anything else; and the other one, that is architecture, since it was necessary and useful to the welfare of the body, continued, but no longer in its former perfection and goodness. Had it not been for the fact that painting and sculpture represented to the eyes of those being born the men who one after another had been immortalized by their work, the very memory of one or the other of these arts would soon have been erased. Some men were commemorated by images and by inscriptions placed upon private or public buildings, such as amphitheatres, theatres, baths, aqueducts, temples, obelisks, coliseums, pyramids, arches, reservoirs, and treasuries, and finally upon their tombs; a large number of these was destroyed by brutish barbarians, who possessed nothing human except the physical appearance and name *
But among all the things mentioned, what was the most infinitely harmful and damaging to those professions, even more so than the things noted earlier, was the fervent zeal of the new Christian religion, which, after a long and bloody struggle, had finally overthrown and annihilated the ancient religion of the pagans by the number of its miracles and the sincerity of its actions. Then, with the greatest fervour and diligence, it applied itself to removing and eradicating on every side the slightest thing from which sin might arise; and not only did it ruin or cast to the ground all the marvellous statues, sculptures, paintings, mosaics, and ornaments of the false pagan gods, but it also did away with the memorials and testimonials to an infinite number of illustrious people, in whose honour statues and other memorials had been constructed in public places by the genius of antiquity. Moreover, in order to build churches for Christian worship, not only did this religion destroy the most honoured temples of the pagan idols, but, in order to ennoble and adorn St Peter's with more ornaments than it originally possessed, it plundered the columns of stone on the Tomb of Hadrian, now called the Castel Sant'Angelo, as well as many other monuments which today we see in ruins. And although the Christian religion did not do such things out of any hatred for genius but, rather, only to condemn and eradicate the gods of the pagans, the complete destruction of these honourable professions, which lost their techniques entirely, was nevertheless the result of its ardent zeal…*

Up to now, I believe I have discussed the beginnings of sculpture and painting, perhaps at greater length than was necessary here; I have done so not so much because I was carried away by my love for the arts but more because I was moved by the welfare and common advantage of our own artists. Once they have seen how art reached the summit of perfection after such humble beginnings, and how it had fallen into complete ruin from such a noble height (and consequently how the nature of this art resembles that of the others, which, like human bodies, are born, grow up, become old, and die), they will now be able to recognize more easily the progress of art's rebirth and the state of perfection to which it has again ascended in our own times... .*

The Lives of the Artists

____
The Lives of the Artists. Giorgio Vasari Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Julia Conway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. Oxford University Press, UK, June 1991, (series Oxford World's Classics).

Packed with facts, attributions, and entertaining anecdotes about his contemporaries, Vasari's collection of biographical accounts also presents a highly influential theory of the development of Renaissance art. Beginning with Cimabue and Giotto, who represent the infancy of art, Vasari considers the period of youthful vigour, shaped by Donatello, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, and Masaccio, before discussing the mature period of perfection, dominated by the titanic figures of Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo. This specially commissioned translation contains thirty-six of the most important lives as well as an introduction and explanatory notes. - ;Packed with facts, attributions, and entertaining anecdotes about his contemporaries, Vasari's collection of biographical accounts also presents a highly influential theory of the development of Renaissance art. Beginning with Cimabue and Giotto, who represent the infancy of art, Vasari considers the period of youthful vigour, shaped by Donatello, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, and Masaccio, before discussing the mature period of perfection, dominated by the titanic figures of Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo. This specially commissioned translation contains thirty-six of the most important lives as well as an introduction and explanatory notes. - ;Includes: Cimabue; Giotto; Duccio; Luca della Robbia; Paolo Uccello; Ghiberti; Masaccio; Filippo Brunelleschi; Donatello; Piero della Francesca; Fra Angelico; Fra Filippo Lippi; Domenico Ghirlandaio; Sandro Botticelli; Andrea del Verrocchio; Mantegna; Leonardo da Vinci; Giorgione; Raphael; Titian; Michelangelo. 

Popular posts from this blog

A History of art, by H.B. Cotterill

PREFACE THE scheme of this volume differs from that of its predecessor in so far as each Part deals with a single nation, whereas in the former volume the subject was divided not so much according to nations as to eras, such as the pre-Hellenic, Hellenic, Hellenistic, Roman, Early Christian, Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic.

The reason will be apparent if one remembers that in the first volume the time covered was more than four thousand years, and that during those forty centuries one people succeeded another as a great world-power, whereas the period here treated is only about four centuries, and by the beginning of this period the chief nations of Europe, although all more or less directly inheritors of the same Hellenic art, had begun to develop distinct characteristics, artistic as well as political.

It is true that during these four centuries several waves of influence, of which that of the Italian Renaissance was perhaps the most important, spread over the greater part of Eu…

History of art, by Wilhelm Lübke

PREFACE. THE INCREASED INTEREST shown in works of sculpture and painting during the last twenty years may be perceived by various favourable symptoms. This interest is not merely shown by delight in beauty of form, but it is combined with that deeper attraction towards historical knowledge which pervades our time. After Kugler, in his 'Handbook to Art History,' had for the first time traversed the whole grand field of art, and represented it in distinct outline, and Schnaase, in his 'History of the Plastic Arts,' had profoundly investigated and cleverly displayed the connection of artistic creations with the innermost life of nations and epochs, the desire for acquaintance with this historical progress of the arts was· awakened in cultivated circles, 'and at the same time the conviction gained ground that the enjoyment of a work of art was materially increased by the understanding of its historical existence.

In the meanwhile, inquiry extended over all branches a…

Principles of Art History, by Heinrich Wölfflin

We have said that the development of perception is psychologically apparent- that is, systematic. But then how was art, as an independent entity such as this, able to merge with the course of the broader history of spirit? Now art, in the full sense of the word, is not actually something we have addressed in our deliberations. The decisive element, the material world, has not been touched upon, and this includes not only the question of the (morphological) forms in which an age builds but also how man perceives himself and how he confronts worldly things intellectually and emotionally. Thus the problem is reduced to whether our history of seeing can really be called a history in its own right. Clearly that is only the case to a limited extent. Their sensual and spiritual nature means that these internal processes have always been part of the more comprehensive general development of every period. They are not separate, nor do they proceed at will. Bound up as they are with material, …