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The lives of the most excellent painters, sculptors and architects

In 1550, Giorgio Vasari published one of the most praised literary works of the 16th century, “The lives of the most excellent painters, sculptors and architects”, a series of biographies of artists who lived between the 13th and 14th centuries and that he thought to be the most worthy of mention.

This book is considered to be the first modern and consistent essay on art history as well as an irreplaceable source of information on the authors who lived between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, their production known today and the lost part of it, their travels for the art commissions, their collaborations and in general our key to understand the world in which many works of art came to be. Thanks to Vasari’s work, many artists were saved from oblivion thus declaring their good or bad critique.

Vasari’s work was pioneering and very difficult, considering that he did it with the tools available at that time. It is not strange that, mostly during the 20th century and with new research tools, some errors of assignment and false information were noted, specifically about the artist that lived years before Vasari did. Even today, “The Lives” keeps its influence upon the vision of art history and remains an unavoidable bibliographic reference for every art historian and, in general, scholars.

The “Lives” was published for the first time in 1550 by Lorenzo Torrentino, whose real name was Laurenz Van den Bleeck, a flemish typographer who lived in Florence; for this reason the first edition is called “torrentiniana”. In 1568, Vasari finished the revised and expanded second edition, printed in Florence by Giunti, an important family of pressmen: This edition, called “giuntina”, has three books and has pictures of the artists. At the end of this edition, Vasari added a 42 pages long autobiography.

In addition to biographic information of artists and mentions of their works, Vasari also added a vivid narration of anecdotes, gossip and even scandals that often came from oral sources and fiction, thus giving to his work some trivia together with actual research.

Dedicated to Cosimo I de Medici and written by a person from Arezzo, the “Lives” is considered by critics to be heavily focused on the art that originated in Florence and Tuscany. Vasari emphasises the role played by tuscanian artists in the evolution of art history, almost ignoring, at least in the first edition, the importance of other italian schools. To these last ones, Vasari will focus a bit more in the second edition, in which he assigned to Florence the dominance upon the art of drawing and to Venetians the one on the use of colour.

According to Vasari, the renaissance of arts after the dark ages was done by Cimabue, the first one who abandoned the steadiness of byzantine art, and by Michelangelo, who was the top of the road that brought back the art to the splendour of the Classical period.

Giorgio Vasari, Sei poeti toscani. (1544; oil on canvas, 133×131 cm; Minneapolis, Minneapolis Institute of Art). From right to left: Cavalcanti, Dante, Boccaccio e Petrarca. Back: Cino da Pistoia and Guittone d’Arezzo

Giorgio Vasari, Particolare di Gige e l’origine della pittura (1542-1548; fresco; Florence, Sala Grande di Casa Vasari)

Giorgio Vasari, Allegoria della pittura, San Luca Evangelista dipinge la Madonna (post 1565; fresco; Florence, Convento della Ss. Annunziata)

Jacopo Zucchi, Portrait of Giorgio Vasari (1571; oil on board, 100×80 cm; Florence, Uffizi Gallery, Corridoio Vasariano)

Giorgio Vasari, Tomba monumentale di Michelangelo Buonarroti (1564-1576; white Carrara marble, polychrome marbles, mural painting, 500×600 cm; Florence, Basilica di Santa Croce)

Giorgio Vasari, Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori (1568; Frontispiece)

Giorgio Vasari, Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori (1568; Page dedicated to Michelangelo)

Giorgio Vasari, Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori (1568; Page dedicated to Cimabue)

Giorgio Vasari, Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori (1568; Page dedicated to Leonardo)

Giorgio Vasari, Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori (1568; Page dedicated to Mantegna)

Giorgio Vasari, Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori (1568; Page dedicated to Piero della Francesca)

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