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Giorgio Vasari, The Collector of Lives

September 25, 2018

It is pretty impossible to remember all the details and facts about the people and their times that are described when reading a biography of someone like Girogio Vasari. Vasari wrote the Lives of the Artists originally in 1550 and an expanded edition in 1568 providing a great deal of what we know about many of the artists of his generation and those before him.

Vasari lived from 1511 – 1574 and knew all of the contemporary Italian artists he wrote about – such as Michelangelo, Leonardo, Titian and Bronzino and heard second hand from those who knew the likes of Raphael, Botticelli and Perugino. We also learn about his Tuscan “idols” from an earlier period – Giotto and Brunelleschi. He was friends with almost all of the major patrons of his time including many of the Popes and key members of the Medici family.

This book also contains a pretty thorough history of Italy and the Italian States and brings the infancy of these modern day wonders to life with Vasari’s many travels back and forth from Venice, Milan, Padua, Bologna, Florence, Pisa, Siena, Arezzo, Perugia, Orvieto, Rome and Naples. Actually Italy as we know it wasn’t organized as such until 1861. Prior to that and particularly in Vasari’s day it was comprised of independent city-states, the Kingdom of Naples, and Rome controlled by the Popes, with each having their own special language. The book is ripe with history and personality traits as background to Vasari’s many and varied daily activities.

The book gives an “insider’s” view of the times, intrigue, living conditions, difficulties in traveling and communications, surviving and choosing political sides or not, and techniques of his craft. Vasari was not only an entrepreneur but a keen student and observer of management techniques and teaching and a consummate networker. Like any successful businessperson he was not without the need to constantly juggle his cash flow and awareness of work/life balance with his domestic responsibilities. Further, he was quite an accomplished artist, designer and architect as well as an excellent writer; and through his personal interests of collecting the drawings of the artists he knew, he bequeathed prosperity with an added field of interest. Vasari also describes the artistic style, work practices and studios of many of those he wrote about; and the reasons why many of the great paintings and architecture of that age were commissioned and topics chosen. The book also has many cameo mentions including Machiavelli, Henry VIII, Cesare Borgia, Caravaggio, Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor), various kings of France and Spain, Dante, Albrecht Dürer, Piero della Francesca, Jan van Eyck and even Vitruvius.

Vasari wasn’t the inventor of biography, but because of his two books he literally was the inventor of art. Until Vasari, art was a decorative trade, after Vasari art represented the respected outcomes of talented creative artists.

The Collector of Lives: Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of Art by Ingrid Rowland and Noah Charney is highly recommended to everyone that has any interest in anything I wrote about here. It is an interesting and remarkably quick read considering all the facts woven into the story of Vasari in his milieu.

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