Giorgio Vasari’s book Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects from Cimabue to Our Times, first published in 1550, is widely considered to be the ideological foundation of the discipline of art history. In this episode, senior curator of paintings Davide Gasparotto discusses the structure and history of Vasari’s Lives and explores three biographies in particular—those of Giovanni Bellini, Raphael, and Michelangelo. These texts have recently been republished as individual books in Getty Publications’ new Lives of the Artists series.
More to Explore
The Lives of Giovanni Bellini publication
The Life of Raphael publication
The Life of Michelangelo publication
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
DAVIDE GASPAROTTO: I would not say that Vasari invented the Renaissance, but I would say that he probably invented art history.
CUNO: In this episode I speak with Getty Museum paintings curator Davide Gasparotto about the lives of three Renaissance artists: Giovanni Bellini, Raphael, and Michelangelo.
Giorgio Vasari, although a Florentine painter of great distinction, is perhaps best known today for his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects from Cimabue to Our Times, first published in 1550. Vasari’s Lives, as they are called, are rightly considered the foundation of art historical writing. Even today, one reads them for pleasure and edification, and no course in Renaissance art is complete without them.
I recently sat down with Davide Gasparotto, senior curator of paintings at the Getty Museum, to discuss three of Vasari’s Lives: those of the Italian Renaissance artists Giovanni Bellini, Raphael, and Michelangelo. These writings have recently been published by Getty Publications in a new series of biographies called Lives of the Artists, which extends far beyond the Renaissance.
Over the next few months, I will be talking with Getty Museum curators about different Lives in the series, including those of Rembrandt, Rodin, Manet, van Gogh, and more. But we begin where we should, with Vasari’s Lives of Bellini, Raphael, and Michelangelo
Davide, thank you so much for joining me on this podcast. The Lives were published first, in the first edition, in 1550. I’m interested in the circumstances of their publication. Were they published under the patronage of a particular person, the Medici, for example? And were they an instant success, or how long did it take before they became a success?
GASPAROTTO: I think they were a big success. As you said, they were published in 1550. They were published all at once. There was a publisher that was from Florence, Lorenzo Torrentino. That’s why we call this edition, the first edition, the Torrentinianain Italian, the Torrentine edition.
And they were two volumes, and with 128 lives. And they were all lives of dead artists, artists which were already dead.
CUNO: [over Gasparotto] Except Michelangelo.
GASPAROTTO: The only living artist which was included is Michelangelo.
GASPAROTTO: And Vasari started very early on to be interested in collecting materials about artists. But he really started more seriously during the 1540s, when he was working in Rome. And he was working for a very important patron at the time, Cardinale Alessandro Farnesi, who was the nephew of the pope of the moment, Paul III.
And in the circle of Cardinale Alessandro Farnesi, for which Vasari was working, Vasari met an historian, Paolo Giovio, who encouraged Vasari in this enterprise of collecting information about artists and this idea of publishing a series of biographies.
CUNO: Can I ask you how— [Gasparotto: Yes] what kind of information he collected? How did he collect it, from whom, [Gasparotto: He—] or in what format did he collect them?
GASPAROTTO: [over Cuno] He collected information from previous literary sources. He collected information from artists themselves. And he, in his many travels, he saw many works of art in churches. And so he had several types of sources. And so he was encouraged by these Farnesi circles, and at the end, he was able to publish the Lives in 1550. And he decided to dedicate the Lives to the Duke of Florence, Cosimo I de Medici, even if at the time, he was not employed by the Medici.
And so it was a sort of an act that he did because he wanted to gain the support and friendship of the duke. And in fact he succeeded, because in 1554, forty years after the publication of the Lives, he was basically hired by Cosimo de Medici as a court artist, and he became for the following twenty years, the main, I would say, court artist of Cosimo I de Medici.
CUNO: So when these were published, were there booksellers at the time? What was the size of the edition? Do we know that there were hundreds or—?
GASPAROTTO: Yeah, I think there were hundreds. And we know that it was a success because soon afterward, Vasari started to think to a second edition of the Lives. So he continued to collect information. He did other important trips. Vasari was widely traveled. You know, after his sort of training in Florence, he traveled a lot, until the 1550s, when he was more based in Florence.
But he traveled a lot. He lived in Rome, he worked in Naples, he worked in Northern Italy. And especially after the publication of the first edition, when he started to think to a second edition of the Lives, he traveled twice in Italy, in Central Italy and in Northern Italy, especially Lombardi and Venice, to collect information. And in the second edition of the Lives, he greatly enlarged the number of the biographies. He included also other living artists. So not only Michelangelo.
And he also included a very important feature, which was really influential even later on. So he included portraits of the artists themselves that were engraved in— were xylographies, so woodcuts. And also for the portraits, he had to collect a lot of information to get portraits, real portraits of the artists. Obviously, for the artists of the first period, the fourteenth century—because he starts with Cimabue, so he starts with the life of a painter who lived in the late thirteenth century—the portraits are mostly invented or made up. But the feature of the portraits, it’s very important, I think.
CUNO: Yeah. So you said that there were precedents before the 1550 edition, models for him to use. But there were also antique precedents, [Gasparotto: Yes] like Plutarch’s biographies of the notable lives of the Romans [Gasparotto: Yes] and Greeks. Did he know of Plutarch, and was Plutarch well known at the time?
GASPAROTTO: I think, you know, Vasari was very well educated. He was born in Arezzo in 1511. There was a humanist that was very influential, a humanist from Arezzo, Giovini Pollastra, who was very influential in his education. So he was pretty literate as an artist. He knew for sure the Classical models, the models of the Classical Antique biography.
I’m sure he knew about Plutarch, the lives of the, you know, noble Greeks and Romans; but probably he knew also the Lives of the Philosophers, by Diogenes Laertius. He obviously knew the widespread models for the biographies of the rulers, the Roman Emperors, Suetonius. So he knew the Classical precedent. And he knew, also, about sort of the revival of the biographical genre, which took place already in the fifteenth century. And especially for military men or rulers.
But also, there is an important precedent that we know that Vasari knew, that was the life of Filippo Brunelleschi, the great Florentine architect of the early fifteenth century, which was published by a humanist, a Florentine humanist, Antonio Manetti. And Vasari knew for sure this source.
CUNO: Davide, give us an idea of how the Lives are organized.
GASPAROTTO: The Lives of Vasari, there is this biographical model behind them; but the structure of the book is more complex. And it’s a very interesting structure because we don’t have only a series of biographies of artists from Cimabue, late thirteenth century, to Vasari’s own time—so to Michelangelo, who was still living—but also there is a very important preface, which is called proemio, to the Lives, where in some way, Vasari set[s] up the stage with a more theoretical introduction.
And then there are technical introductions to the three arts—architecture, sculpture, and painting. And then Vasari divided up the biographies in three main periods. So he sort of reconstructs the history of art from the early century to his own time, dividing up in three moments, which for him, represent three moments of progress in the arts.
And the first moment corresponds roughly to the fourteenth century. So from Giotto to the end of the fourteenth century. Giotto’s the great renewer of the arts. Then the second period starts at the beginning of the fifteenth century, with again, a great moment of changes in the arts, with artists such as Masaccio, Donatello, and Brunelleschi. And it’s the period that now we call the Early Renaissance.
And then the third great moment for Vasari is the moment represented by artists such as Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, which he defines as the maniera moderna, the modern manner, is the art of his own time. And in these three periods, he sees an evolution, a progress in the arts. He— Obviously, for Vasari, the progress in the arts is representing by more naturalism. The ability of the artist to capture the truth of nature.
And so behind this incredible architecture, complex architecture of the book, there is a Classical source, also, which is Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, where Pliny, in the first century after Christ, describes in three books of the Natural History, the books from thirty-four to thirty-six of the Natural History, he describes the evolution of the art in antiquity, starting from, you know, the Greeks and going to the Romans.
And he sees this evolution as a sort of a biological evolution, where there is a birth, there is a growth, a maturity, when the art attains a sort of a perfection, and then there is an old age. So there is a period of decadence. And this biological model is the model that is behind, also, the structure of Vasari’s Lives, in some way.
And so this evolution starts with Giotto. With a sort of a birth. Then there is a progress, which is represent by, you know, Masaccio, Donatello and Brunelleschi. And then there is an acme, there is a peak, which is represented by the art of his own time, and especially by Michelangelo.
CUNO: Okay, so there’s clearly a structure to the book that he published in 1550 in two volumes, and it was based on Classical sources. There was also an intellectual debate at the time, over the values between Florentine painting and Venetian painting. He championed the Florentine, the intellectual and analytical, over the natural that was identified as the Venetian style. He championed the disegno over the colore; colore being the color that was championed by Venice. There was also some alternative writer who was championing Venice over Florence, and that was Pietro Aretino. Tell us more about that debate, and tell us what Vasari knew about Arentino’s writing and championing of Venetian painting?
GASPAROTTO: Yes. First of all, we have to say that really, the cornerstone of Vasari[’s] conception of art was the concept and the role of disegno, or drawing. But yes, but disegno in Italian is, especially in this moment in the sixteenth century, is not only drawing, the physical act of draw[ing], but we have to understand it, also, with the modern concept in some way of design.
So with stressing the importance of the invenzione, as in Italian, or the invention. So the ability to draw was also the ability to invent, to conceive complex compositions. And disegno is the theoretical foundation of Vasari’s vision of art. And this is also why Michelangelo is so important for him, because Michelangelo in some way encompasses, in his own personality, in his own artistic activity, the three concepts together, because he was able to draw, and so he was at the same time, an architect, a painter, and a sculptor.
In comparison to Florence, the situation in Venice is different. Because disegno, drawing, in Venice was not as important as in Florence in training. We don’t want to say that in Venice, the artists were not able to draw, because we have drawings by major Venetian artists of the sixteenth century, like Titian and Pordenone and Lorenzo Lotto. But sometimes artists, they just sketched, and they directly draw into the canvas. And then the color was more important.
And so Pietro Aretino was from Arezzo, like Vasari, so they knew each other. They were friends, actually, because when Vasari went to Venice in 1541, he went to Venice because Aretino summoned him to Venice to paint the scenes, the scenography for one of his plays, La talanta.
And what the Florentines were stressing is that their ability to draw was also the ability, for example, to create the very convincing foreshortening of the figures—so all the tricks that are associated with good draftsmanship—while the emphasis in Venice was more colore, was more color. But this was a debate that lasted for the entire century.
And we know that Vasari’s position is probably the same position of Michelangelo for whom, also, drawing was sort of the foundation of art, because when Titian, the great Venetian painter, went to Rome in 1545, invited from the pope, Paul III, he painted this famous painting, the Danae. And Michelangelo saw this painting by Titian and Vasari reports that Michelangelo said that if Titian would have been such a good draftsman as he was a good painter, he would have been the greatest of the possible artists.
But for Michelangelo, Titian lacked, in some way, in drawing ability. And so there was really this competition. And obviously, writers from Venice always praised the Venetian capacity to evoke atmosphere, to evoke nature, and to evoke the sensuality, in some way, of the human figure and nature through color; and the Florentine[s] were stressing more the importance of a correct, in some way, draftsmanship.
CUNO: Okay. We’ll get to Venetian paintings soon, but let’s start with Florentine painting. We have three lives to look at. Two of the lives are Florentine painters, Raphael and Michelangelo; and the third life is Giovani Bellini, a Venetian painter.
So let’s start with Raphael. Tell us about Raphael’s career, and tell us how Vasari characterized Raphael’s career. How did he place Raphael in the pantheon of painters?
GASPAROTTO: Mm-hm. We already said that Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo were, for Vasari, the greatest painter[s] of his own time. They were the opener[s] of the modern manner, of the maniera moderna. And in particular, Raphael represented for Vasari a very, very important model for his own, in some way, career.
So his image of Raphael is extremely positive. He obviously praised Raphael as a painter, as an architect, as—especially in the phase of Raphael’s career when Raphael was in Rome—as a great expert of antiquities. And he praised, also, Raphael’s good manners and his sort of being a perfect courtier, we can say. And this, in some way, in comparison to the more rough and less sociable character of Michelangelo.
But for Vasari, Raphael represented the very important model, especially in the late phase of Raphael’s career, when Raphael was working in Rome—at the beginning, for Pope Julius II, and then then for Pope Leo X—Raphael managed a large workshop and he was able to undertake very complex projects, all at the same time.
So he managed to paint in the famous Stanze in the Vatican. He managed to provide the drawings for the series for the famous tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, with the acts of the apostles. He was able to paint altarpieces. He was able to paint in the villa of Agostino Chigi, the famous Farnesina, where Raphael painted some frescoes. And he was able to plan the famous study of the Ruins of Rome, under the patronage of Pope Leo X.
So he was really able to manage a workshop where he was sort of providing his assistants and his pupils with his ideas, with his drawings; but then he was executing few of these works, and he was sort of assigning the different tasks of really executing the works of art, in a sense, to his pupils. So Vasari admired hugely and deeply this sort of entrepreneurial quality of Raphael because in some way, he was seeing these as something that he was aspiring to be.
And it was actually what, later on, Vasari became. Vasari became the great entrepreneur, the great impresario, the great director of all the artistic endeavors for Cosimo I, the Duke of Florence.
CUNO: And this is something that Michelangelo didn’t do. He didn’t pursue a big workshop like that. So how did they hold in tension, the qualities of Raphael and the qualities of Michelangelo at the time? How was it that someone could be valued as a great entrepreneur and a great manager of a workshop, or on the other hand, a great individual genius like Michelangelo?
GASPAROTTO: Yeah. I think, you know, it’s— With these, we don’t have to say that Raphael was not a great individual genius. He was a great individual genius. His autograph works of art are of an unparalleled quality; they are unbelievably accomplished. I think that for Vasari, in some way, Raphael represented a type of courtier artist that he was aspiring to be. He was also representing a type of artist, I would say, profoundly different from Michelangelo, in the sense that Raphael was a great assimilator.
Raphael was a painter who was able to absorb from other artists an important lesson, and to make a new step in his own career. So in this way, in this respect, Raphael is a little bit like Giovani Bellini. He was absorbing the lesson at the beginning of Perugino, of what was happening in Florence with Leonardo and Michelangelo himself. And then later on, also, he was looking at Michelangelo and, you know, absorbed the lesson of these artists and making his own in a new way.
CUNO: When we look at the paintings by Raphael that Vasari singles out as examples of the greatness of the painter, are there any surprises? That is, do we today value the very same paintings that Vasari valued of Raphael’s? Or did— are there some that we value more than Vasari did? I’m trying to get a sense of how strong and lasting the canon is, and what role Vasari played in establishing the canon of Raphael’s paintings.
GASPAROTTO: Yeah. I think that Vasari sort of praises the same paintings we praise today. Some of the great Madonnas by Raphael painted in the Florentine period; obviously, the Vatican Stanze; and the Madonna Sistine, for example, one of the greatest altarpieces by Raphael; and all the Transfiguration, the last important project by Raphael.
Probably what modern research did is to look more deeply into the collaborative aspects in Raphael’s workshop. So what in certain projects—which is the extent, I would say, in certain projects, of the role of the collaborators, of the workshop’s assistant of Raphael. But for example, the tapestries, the great endeavor of the tapestries was highly praised by Vasari, and is still something we admire a lot. So I think Vasari covers a great deal of the production of Raphael, and for us, the works that were important for him are still important for us.
The same we can say for Michelangelo. Probably Vasari was not sort of an admirer of Michelangelo’s character, and his sort of solitary attitude was sort of remote from Vasari’s mentality and attitude. But he was obviously admiring enormously Michelangelo, because of his achievement as an artist. And we have to say that yeah, Michelangelo is a completely different artist than Raphael. Raphael was a genius that was able to absorb from the others and make the lesson of the others his own.
Michelangelo is a sort of a Minerva that comes out from the head of Jupiter already fully formed. And his obsessions, his figurative obsessions, they start since he’s young and they go along throughout his whole life. And his great obsession, as we know, was the representation of the human body. And so Michelangelo’s career is all in sort of a meditation going back and forth, and it turns all around the representation of the human body, you know. So it’s a more monolithical than Raphael.
And I think Vasari was sort of aware of this.
CUNO: I want to give our listeners a taste of the sort of style of Vasari as a writer. And it’s easy to look at the life of Raphael for this. So he said of Raphael, he said, “Heaven endowed him with a power of showing a disposition quite contrary to that of most painters. For the artists who worked with Raphael, not only the poor ones, but those who aspired to be great—and there are many such in our profession—lived united in harmony, all their evil humors disappearing when they saw him, and every vile and base thought deserting their mind. He was so full of kindness that even animals liked him.” Is that a particular rhetorical device that he’s using there, the kind of talking about how nice a man he was and how people loved him, even animals loved him? Is he relying on prior rhetorical examples for that?
GASPAROTTO: I think, you know, I think that obviously there is a rhetorical device here. And we know today that Vasari also himself was sort of relying on more experienced writer[s] and literati for his own, you know, language, for his own drafts of the Lives. So there is obviously a rhetorical device here. But we have to say that there are many sources prior to Vasari that emphasize the good character of Raphael—his kindness, his openness.
And so I think there is a truth behind the sort of vision of Raphael as a very nice man. Or very nice, very sociable person. He was very sociable. He was very good in dealing with his patrons and with his clients. On the other side, we have to say that sort of Vasari, both in Raphael’s life and in Michelangelo’s lifes[sic], in some way, doesn’t tell of all the truth about, for example, the relationship between the two artists.
Because we know that for sure, Raphael admired Michelangelo, and he even portrayed him as an homage in the famous fresco in the Stanze Vaticana, the School of Athens, where he portrays Michelangelo as an ancient philosopher. But we know also that there was a fierce, strong competition between them when they were in Rome. So when Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Ceiling and Raphael was painting the Stanze, Raphael was protected, strongly protected by Bramante, the famous architect, the architect of the new Basilica of St. Peter.
But the two, there was no sympathy, there was no friendship between them. And actually, there was a strong competition. In some way, at some point, Michelangelo used, in some way, against Raphael, another painter, Sebastiano del Piombo, the Venetian painter, who came to work in Rome. And he provided Sebastiano with drawings for paintings that were executed as a sort of— in competition with Raphael. There is a famous case, which is also retold by Vasari in Raphael’s Life, that when Cardinal Giulio de Medici, the nephew of Pope Leo X, commissioned to Raphael and Sebastiano del Piombo two paintings, the Transfiguration and the Resurrection of Lazarus—and obviously, Sebastiano was helped by Michelangelo, who provided him with some drawings, because Michelangelo really wanted Sebastiano to sort of triumph against Raphael. So the relationship between the two artists were really very competitive.
CUNO: You’ve already said that Michelangelo was the only artist in the Lives who was living at the time the first edition came out.
CUNO: And so what did it mean, or how influential was it upon Vasari, that Michelangelo, the man he was writing about, was actually alive and would be reading what he wrote?
GASPAROTTO: Yes. We have to remember that an enormous aura surrounding Michelangelo when he was still living. In 1532, for the first time, he’s labeled as divine by the famous poet Ludovico Ariosto, in his Orlando Furioso. So you know, and writing 1532, Michelangelo was divine, as he was later on in Vasari’s life.
Obviously, it was not easy to write about Michelangelo living. And we actually know that Michelangelo was not happy with Vasari’s Life, because he was still— You know, he read obviously immediately, the Lives and his own Life. He was not happy because for example, Vasari writes in Michelangelo’s Life that Michelangelo was apprenticed to Domenico Ghirlandaio, the famous Florentine painter, when he was young.
And basically, Michelangelo commissioned in some way to one of his pupils and friend, Ascanio Condivi, a biography of himself. A biography which came out three years after Vasari’s Life, in 1553.
CUNO: To correct the mistakes.
GASPAROTTO: [over Cuno] To correct what Michelangelo thought to be mistakes in Vasari’s Life. And for example, in Condivi there is a sort of denial of the fact that Michelangelo was a pupil of Ghirlandaio. Instead, he’s saying that Michelangelo, as a very young boy, was discovered by Lorenzo Magnifico. And then Lorenzo the Magnificent hosted him in his famous garden of San Marco, where he was looking at Antique sculpture, where he was working with the house sculptor of Lorenzo Magnifico, Bertoldo.
And so Condivi hides the training of Michelangelo. But obviously, this is something made up, because we know that Vasari was right. And in fact, it’s very interesting. In the 1568 edition of the Life of Michelangelo, Vasari’s produces a document that attests that fact that Michelangelo was, in fact, in the workshop of Ghirlandaio, was working in the workshop of Ghirlandaio. And he found this document in these famous researches. And it’s really an archival document. So it’s one of the first cases in art history, I think, of the use of an archival document to prove something.
So, it’s interesting that Michelangelo was not really totally happy with Vasari’s life of himself.
CUNO: Now, let’s get to Bellini, so we can get to a Venetian painter. You edited this book on Bellini, and so you know intimately about the life of Bellini and how it’s cast by Vasari. How many Venetian painters are included in the Lives that Vasari wrote? And why did he choose Giovani Bellini?
GASPAROTTO: So yes, there are— We have to say that there are several Venetian artists in Vasari’s Lives. There are more Venetian artists in the second edition of the Lives, the one published in 1568. But obviously, Bellini— Actually, we have to say, the Bellini, because the life of Bellini is not just the life of Giovani Bellini, it’s a sort of a collective Life of members of the Bellini family. Because the Bellini’s were a family of artists. The father of Giovani, Jacopo, was the most important Venetian artist of the early fifteenth century.
And then he had two sons. One was Giovani, the other one was Gentile. And so the Life is a sort of a collective life. And obviously, Vasari choosed[sic] the Bellini because they were the most important family of artists working in Venice in the fifteenth century. And in particular, Giovani was widely considered the greatest Venetian painter of the second half of the fifteenth century. And so it was natural to include a life of the Bellini in his own book.
But obviously, when it comes to information, the Lives of, I will say, Northern Italian painters by Vasari are very important for us today. But they are obviously less precise than the Lives of Florentine or, I would way, of Central Italian painters. Vasari was collecting information, but I think he was more successful with lives especially of Florentine painters. So sometimes there are, you know, things that then are wrong or sometimes there is chronologies messed up. So they are important Lives, a great source for the reconstruction of the career of these artists; but they are, in some way, less precise, even if Vasari traveled several times to Venice, and he knew their works, the paintings, he collect[ed] information.
CUNO: In this case, in this book that you’ve edited, for the life of Bellini, you include two other lives; not by Vasari, but by Carlo Ridolfi and Marco Boschini, seventeenth century authors.
GASPAROTTO: Carlo Ridolfi was a painter, and Marco Boschini also was a painter, but also an engraver and a dealer, also, in paintings.
CUNO: So how differently did they Bellini, a hundred years after or fifty years after Vasari saw him?
GASPAROTTO: We should say first of all that Vasari represented a very important model for later biographers. So the Lives, they really became a model. So many lives of artists published in the seventeenth century, like the lives published by Giovanni Pietro Bellori or the lives of the Bolognese painters by Carlo Cesare Malvasia, the lives of Florentine artists by Baldinucci, all lives published in the seventeenth century were very much influenced by Vasari.
Even books by artists, biographies published in Northern Europe, were strongly influenced by Vasari, you know. As early as 1572, a Northern humanist, Dominicus Lampson[ius], published sort of a series of biographies of Flemish artists. And then later on, in 1604, Karel van Mander published a series of biographies of Northern artists.
CUNO: Was this in part because it was good business now…
GASPAROTTO: [over Cuno] I think so, because—
CUNO: …with Vasari sort of established a trade in this?
GASPAROTTO: [over Cuno] I think because there was an interest. There was an interest. There was an interest, also, in publishing books on artists from other places than Florence. And obviously, there were collectors. There were amateur[s] which were interested in these kind of books.
And actually, Ridolfi, for example, these lives that he published of Venetian painters were a sort of a Venetian response to Vasari, sort of one century later, to praise many Venetian artists that in the opinion of Ridolfi, were sort of not too much praised or too much admired by Vasari. And the biography of Ridolfi is important because there are a lot of information, especially about paintings by Bellini, which at the time were in private hands, because Ridolfi knew a lot about the collections in Venice. So he mentions a lot of paintings which at the time, were in private hands.
CUNO: [over Gasparotto] And which Vasari wouldn’t have seen?
GASPAROTTO: Which Vasari wouldn’t know. So it’s a good source of information. While Boschini, I think, Marco Boschini is a very different case, because Ridolfi is more factual. He gives us some dates, in some way, informations. But Boschini is different.
The book of Boschini is not a collection of biographies; it’s a poem. It’s written in Venetian dialect. It’s a poem on painting. It’s called Carta del Navegar Pitoresco, which we can translate as Map of Pictorial Navigation. And it’s a sort of a history of Venetian painting in verse. And it’s a fascinating book. It’s beautifully written.
And what characterizes Boschini is that Boschini is not so interested in the precision of description or saying where the paintings are or in, you know, analytical information. But he’s interested in capturing the aura. It’s capturing the style and capturing the characters of the different artists.
So his characterization of Bellini is profoundly sympathetic. It’s very beautiful, the way in which he captures, for example, Bellini’s attention to nature and his religious subjects. And so I think it’s sort of a different category of critical appraisal of the artist.
CUNO: You also included in your edition of the Life of Bellini, a correspondence with the great patron of arts from Mantua, Isabella d’Este. These are letters written by and about Bellini and the paintings that she commissioned from him. How important is that correspondence, and what does it add to the Life of Bellini that Vasari wrote?
GASPAROTTO: I think the correspondence with Isabelle d’Este, it’s a fascinating document, because first of all, it adds, in some way, the personal voice of the artist. The artist was still living. This correspondence involves him directly. And it’s rare to have such a precise correspondence between a patron and an artist, and some intermediaries—because in this case, there are also some intermediaries, some agents of Isabella who were in Venice, and they are sort of writing back and forth with the marchioness, to inform here about the progress of the commission.
And sometimes we really sort of hear the voice of Bellini himself. And there is a particular passage I really sort of love, and I think it’s very important in this correspondence. And it is when the great poet Pietro Bembo, who was a friend of Isabella, but also a friend of Bellini, he writes to Isabella about the painting that she wanted to commission from Bellini. And she wanted one of these elaborate allegories that she was fond of. And Bembo writes to Isabella, “I have been with Bellini recently, and he’s very well disposed to serve Your Excellency, as soon as the measurements of the canvas are sent to him.
“But the invention which you tell me I am to find for this drawing must be adapted to the fantasy of the painter. He does not like to be given many written details, which cramp his style. His way of working, as he says, is always to wander at will in his pictures, so that they can give satisfaction to himself, as well as to the beholder.” So it’s very interesting because I think this is probably one of the first really statement[s] about artistic freedom, in some way, in the history of art, because the painter is saying that he doesn’t want too many stipulation[s] to limit fantasy, his style.
He wants to paint, he wants, as he says, “to wander at will” in paintings. So it’s like that here, we are hearing the direct voice of Bellini, hearing one of his conversations with Pietro Bembo, the great poet. So I think the value of this correspondence is really great, because we are witnessing a real conversation between the painter and the patron.
CUNO: So we’ve gathered this afternoon to talk about the Lives as written by Vasari, the Lives of the Artists. The art historian Pat Rubin begins her important book on Vasari with a bold statement that Giorgio Vasari invented Renaissance art. What do you think of that?
GASPAROTTO: I don’t think really that Vasari invented Renaissance art. I think since, I would say, we find the concept of Renaissance, or at least the idea that at some point, art was rebirthed, that there was a new flowering of art, we found this concept in earlier sources than Vasari. I think that we already found this concept in early fifteenth century sources, like the autobiography of the great sculptor, Florentine sculptor, Lorenzo Ghiberti.
And we find this concept in the book on painting published in 1535 by Leon Battista Alberti, the great architect. So the idea that there was a new beginning is already present in earlier sources than Vasari. But I think that really what Vasari did, he invented art history. Because his biographies are the first history of art. You know, we’re so based, also, on Antique, on Classical precedents.
But they are really the first history of art where one person, sort of one writer, examines the development of the art in a certain period. He examines the individual styles of the artists, he examines their careers, their achievement, their works, he describes their work. So I think that I would not say that Vasari invented the Renaissance, but I would say that he probably invented art history.
CUNO: So Davide, thank you for your time this afternoon on the podcast, and thank you for your contribution to this book project that we have here at the Getty, of looking at the Lives of Artists—these three, as written by Vasari, but then other artists’ lives written by other art historians later. They’re beautifully produced, not only in the quality of reproductions that are included in them, but in the size and scale of the books, so that you can stick them in your pocket and take a train to Florence, as you seek to look at the work of Raphael or Michelangelo, or go to Venice and see the work of Giovani Bellini. But so thank you so much for what you’ve done for this project, and thank you for time on the podcast.
GASPAROTTO: Thank you very much, Jim. It was a pleasure to talk with you.
Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts. Thanks for listening.
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
DAVIDE GASPAROTTO: I would not say that Vasari invented the Renaissance, but I would say that he pro...
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