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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Georgio Vasari

Self-Portrait, Giorgio Vasari
As a painter and devotee of art history, I've always had a strong kinship with the Mannerist painter Georgio Vasari. Vasari had the great good fortune to be born in 1511 at the height of the Italian Renaissance near its cradle, Florence, Italy. As a young man he was both an artist (primarily frescoes) and a scholar. For ten years he traveled the length and breadth of the Italian peninsula studying the art and artists of his time, talking with them, copying their work, and growing into a remarkably intuitive expert on art and architecture for the time. At the age of 31, he found himself in Rome and fell into the artistic circle of the wealthy Cardinal Farnese who obtained for him his first commission, a series of paintings for the Vatican Chancellery.

                                                                                         (Photo by Markus Bernet)
The Vasari Corridor as it crosses the Arno
River, the upper-most level of the Ponte
In his spare time, Vasari began organizing the notes from his travels into a manuscript which he had published in Florence in 1550. Bearing the auspicious title, Vite de piu eccelenti architetti, scultori e pittori, popularly known as The Lives of the Artists, his book was the first book even written solely devoted to art history. In it he drew heavily from his close encounters with the great Michelangelo Buonarroti whom he'd met as a young man and whose work (especially his painting) he'd studied intensely. Apparently Vasari had also studied Michelangelo the architect as well for it was about this time when he undertook a five-month construction project for the Grand Duke of Florence in which he designed and built a raised walkway called the Vasari Corridor, which connected the Pitti Palace with the Uffizi (offices). The remarkable link was almost a full kilometer long, zigzagging over and across the streets of Florence, through a church, across the Ponte Vecchio (a bridge already lined with numerous shops), then along the banks of the Arno River in what amounted to the first ever cross-town pedestrian walkway. Today, lined with some 700 paintings from the Medici collection, it is without doubt the longest art museum in the world.

Among his other firsts, in 1561, Vasari founded one of the earliest art schools, the Florence Academy of Drawing. But despite his remarkable contributions as a painter, educator, and architect, Vasari is primarily treasured today for his "Vite" now simply known as Vasari's Lives.  It is basic required reading for any would-be art historian. There is some disagreement among scholars as to who first coined the term "Renaissance" to describe the peak period of Italian art which Vasari illuminated in his book, a second edition of which he published in 1568. But there is little doubt it was Vasari who first recognized that this burst of creative artistic energy was a unique phenomenon, and that he was the world's first, true art historian.

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