Giorgio Vasari—The Father of Art History

Giorgio Vasari (a.k.a. the Father of Art History) lived from 1511 to 1574 and wrote The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, which was first published in Florence in 1550 and then revised and expanded in 1568. Some criticized Vasari for focusing on and praising Tuscan and Roman artists. Yet his book influenced others who generated similar artist biographies.

Giorgio Vasari

Giorgio Vasari

Vasari’s Lives includes biographies about artists and his version of the history of Italian Renaissance art. This book is divided into three parts, each with its own preface. The first part focuses on the fourteenth century and its artists, such as Cimabue and Giotto. The second part focuses on the fifteenth century and its artists, including Masaccio, Ghiberti, Donatello, and Botticelli. Finally, the third part focuses on sixteenth century, which Vasari considered the highest point of the Renaissance, and the works by Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo. Therefore, Vasari presents the progress of art, which has its own internal cycle of birth (e.g., development in antiquity), perfection (e.g., peaks in Greek and Roman empires), death (e.g., fall of empires), and rebirth (e.g., the Renaissance), for his audience—primarily artists and patrons.

Vasari had two major goals in his book. First, he desired to distinguish the best artists and to help readers understand the causes and origins of artistic styles. Second, he wrote about the lives of artists in order to ensure their fame and to save them from a “second death”—oblivion. For Vasari, the purpose of history was to teach humans how to live. His prefaces, therefore, contain moralizing introductions and end with poetic epitaphs.

Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvian Man, c. 1490.

Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvian Man, c. 1490.

We must acknowledge Vasari’s Christian background. In the 1550 edition of the preface for the first section, Vasari begins with God creating the world and ends with Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. Consequently, Vasari presents a history of art by using a Christian paradigm.

Vasari’s disegno—both a concept and a practice—applies not only to design but also to drawing. Artists achieve this skill (1) by imitating the most beautiful things in nature and (2) by combining the most beautiful parts of different human bodies to create one, ideal figure. After the idealized figure has been created, it becomes the model for all the figures the artist creates henceforth.

Disegno is important because it is seen as the foundation, which then leads to painting, sculpture, and architecture. Its origin rests in the intellect; therefore, disegno enables the artist not only to perceive numerical relationships between things but also to create mental images of abstract forms. Additionally, disegno is a source of artistic judgment. Conversely, in Aretino, Dolce provided a different interpretation of disegno, suggesting that invention and color were equally important in the act of painting.

Vasari was a prolific artist and contributed to founding one of the earliest art academies in Florence in the 1560s. However, his fame is connected to his extensive writings concerning art. Remarkably, Vasari’s writings remain the primary source for students and scholars alike when studying Renaissance art.

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