Guide To the Works of Giorgio Vasari, the Man Who Invented Art History
Updated: Aug 26
Here's my guide to the art works of Giorgio Vasari, a famed Florentine architect, artist, and art historian.
Vasari was the man who captured an epoch. He was a painter, architect, connoisseur, and author during the High Renaissance. Vasari is best known as the world's first modern art historian, based on his juicy treatise The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.
Vasari was esteemed during his lifetime as a painter and an architect, who worked for the mighty Medici clan. As a painter, Vasari was solidly average. He played second fiddle to the High Renaissance "holy trinity" of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. But he was still a supremely talented and multi-faceted Renaissance man.
Vasari had his most success as an architect and designer of massive decorative projects.
Plus, he possessed a talent for admiration. This habit of reverence may have made Vasari's artwork seem derivative. But it served him well as a biographer.
A Short Biography of Vasari
We know about Vasari's life because he wrote his own autobiography in The Lives. Vasari was born in 1511 in Arezzo, a quaint town in Tuscany just southeast of Florence. He was born to a family of potters.
Spurning the family vocation, Giorgio was inspired by his great uncle Luca Signorelli, a talented Florentine artist. Signorelli nurtured his interest in drawing. In The Lives, Vasari credits Signorelli with showing "the way to represent nude figures in painting so as to make them appear alive."
Vasari describes himself as a frail child with nose bleeds. He studied Latin in his youth and could recite passages of Virgil from memory. Vasari was extremely literate for his day and thus well qualified to write The Lives.
Vasari was sent to Florence in 1525. He entered the workshop of the talented Andrea del Sarto, joining his pupils Rosso Fiorentino and Jacopo Pontormo. But Vasari was most strongly influenced by Michelangelo.
Vasari became a Mannerist, or late Renaissance, painter. Mannerism departed from the classicism of the High Renaissance. It was a bridge between the idealized style of Renaissance art and the dramatic theatricality of the Baroque. It was less naturalistic, with elongated (sometimes rubbery looking) bodies in strained poses.
The Medici were expelled from Florence in 1527 by the mad monk Savonarola. Vasari traveled to Rome and Arezzo in the interim. Vasari returned to Florence when the Medici returned to power in 1532. They would become his foremost patron.
From 1532-49, Vasari spent time in Rome, where he was inspired to write The Lives. In 1546, he received an important commission for the Palazzo della Cancellaria in Rome.
Vasari finished writing The Lives in 1547. Who knows where he found the time to write he was so busy with commissions ... Vasari dedicated his book to to Cosimo I de' Medici, Florence's first Grand Duke, when it was published in 1550.
In 1554, Vasari took on his biggest project for Cosimo, the remodeling of the Palazzo Vecchio. Vasari would go on to renovate almost every building and church in Florence.
Vasari was highly thought of as an artist and architect in his lifetime. Because of his Medici patronage and the success of The Lives, he amassed a considerable fortune. With it, Vasari designed, built, and frescoed his own house in Arezzo. (It's now a museum.) Vasari was even elected "mayor" of Arezzo.
In 1563, along with the Cosimo I and Michelangelo, he helped to launch the Academy of Art in Florence, with 36 artist members. The academy became a school for artists, a place for education and training.
It was the forerunner of the official salon that dominated painting until Monet and the Impressionists protested. The school is still there, part of the Accademia Gallery that houses Michelangelo's David.
Vasari died in 1574 in Florence at age 63. He was buried in a chapel that he designed in Arezzo. Vasari left his stamp on the city of Florence, as few artists had before him.
15 Best Art and Works By Giorgio Vasari
Let's delve into Vasasri's greatest works of art, architecture, and literature. Though he's best known for The Lives, writing wasn't his day job. He was prolific in his own right as an artist.
1. The Lives
The Lives is Vasari's greatest legacy. It's the most influential book about art ever written.
The Lives is an encyclopedic collection of all of Renaissance Italy's major and minor artists. The book contains a mass of factual information, anecdote, and opinion.
No one before Vasari had ever written an artist biography. In its day, The Lives served as a guidebook to Italian art. Today, art historians still use The Lives as a primary source.
Vasari was the ultimate insider artist. He knew the artists of the time personally. He was in a prime position to watch the Renaissance unfold in the 16th century.
Without his treatise and enormous visual memory, the world would have little insight into Renaissance artists and good Renaissance gossip. Vasari became the defining chronicler of his era.
The Lives offers a group portrait of 300 years of the Italian Renaissance. Vasari starts with Cimabue in the 13th century. After Cimabue, Vasari considers the period of the early Renaissance -- shaped by Donatello, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, and Masaccio, all of whom he admired.
Michelangelo has, by far, the longest biography in The Lives. 500 years later, those artists are still recognized as titans of Western art.
In his master work, Vasari coined the term "Renaissance," which means rebirth. By that term, he distinguished Renaissance art from prior (and inferior) "Gothic" works, a term he also invented. Vasari gave us insight into the lives of the era's artists and gossip about their petty rivalries and scandals.
Vasari's vignettes were notoriously untrustworthy. If the facts weren't juicy enough, he'd embellish the tale. Sometimes he intentionally provided inaccurate information or repeated unproven legends.
Vasari was also famously careless with dates. But a high percentage of his views and opinions have stood the test of time.
Among other tidbits in The Lives, Vasari: (1) claimed that Raphael died from too much sex; (2) identified the subject of Leonardo's Mona Lisa; (3) told us about Michelangelo's broken nose from a rival; (4) described the intense competition and squabbles for Florence Cathedral's dome commission; (5) explained how Michelangelo slept in his cloths and didn't bother to shower; and (6) how young Leonardo depicted an angel so beautiful that his master Verrocchio gave up painting.
The first edition of the book focused almost exclusively on Florence, the "Cradle of the Renaissance." It ignored the rise of the Renaissance in Venice and northern Europe.
But Vasari published a second edition published in 1568, after traveling throughout Italy and doing more research. In it, he corrected this omission and features artists like Titian and Durer.
The 1568 edition was also more comprehensive and more factual, with less anecdotes. In 1598, woodcut portraits of the artists were added and the book was republished.
2. Frescos in the Hall of Five Hundred: Palazzo Vecchio, Florence
The Palazzo Vecchio's main reception room is the Hall of the Five Hundred, the Salone dei Cinquecento. The name derived from the 500 man assembly that met there in pre-Medici Florence. The hall is the largest room in Italy built for a palace.
In the mid 16th century, Vasari lavishly remodeled the then spartan hall. He painted massive frescos depicting the The Battle of Marciano, in which Florence triumphed over rivals Pisa and Siena. In 1565, Vasari also painted the 39 gilded ceiling panels, telling the life story of Cosimo I.
But before Vasari, Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned to fresco the great hall. His painting was allegedly a melting masterpiece, with Leonardo trying a new and failing fresco technique. Leonardo never finished the commission and moved to Milan.
Legend holds that, instead of painting over Leonardo's unfinished work, Vasari built a false wall over the fresco to preserve it. Then, he painted The Battle of Marciano on the false wall. Only 15 known Leonardo's exist, making this possibility tantalizing.
Preliminary investigations suggest Leonardo's work may indeed lie hidden beyond the false wall. But, to date, further investigation is halted. Historians are hesitant to damage Vasari's frescos in favor of possible Leonardo frescos.
3. Frescos in the Apartment of the Elements: Palazzo Vecchio, Florence
On the second floor of the Palazzo Vecchio are the sumptuously decorated private rooms of the Medici. They consist of two loggias and five rooms -- the Hall of the Elements, the Hall of Opi, the Hall of Ceres, the Hall of Jupiter, the Terrace of Juno, the Hall of Hercules, the Scrittoio di Minerva, and the Terrace of Saturn.
All the rooms are decorated with allegorical frescoes, begun by Battista del Taso and finished by Vasari. This was Vasari's first (of many) commission from the Medici.
The highlight is the Room of the Elements, Sala deli Elementi, the first of five rooms that make up the quarters of Cosimo I. It's decorated with gorgeous mythological paintings created by Vasari and his workshop in 1556-66.
The paintings symbolize the ancient elements of air, water, fire, and earth. The main figure in each picture is an antique god. For a fine view of Florence, you can step out onto the Loggiato di Saturno in Cosimo's quarters.
4. The Last Judgment: Dome of Florence Cathedral, Florence
Vasari and his workshop painted the dome fresco of The Last Judgment from 1572-79. It was Vasari's last commission for the Medici. The frescos were cleaned and restored in 1996.
Covering some 3,6000 square meters, the fresco is the largest one in the world. Originally, the architect Brunelleschi wanted his dome covered in gold mosaics like the Florence Baptistery. But that plan was never realized.
120 years after Brunelleschi's death, Cosimo I commissioned Vasari to fresco the dome. The Last Judgment is divided in to five zones. Enthroned in the center is Christ, the judge. The various levels, separated by bands, show the other players in the drama -- the elders of the apocalypse, saints, member of the Medici family, and the damned in hell.
In their monumentality, the figures floating against the background of heaven are reminiscent of those of Michelangelo, who Vasari revered. Michelanglo's The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel was Vasari's inspiration. Vasari died 2 years into the project. It was finished by Frederico Zuccari.
If you're climbing the dome, about 2/3 of the way up is a viewing ledge at the base of the drum where you can see the frescos.
5. Vasari Corridor, Florence
Built in 1564 by Vasari, the Vasari Corridor is a one kilometer elevated passageway above the Ponte Vecchio. It's an ingenious regal footpath, commissioned by Cosimo I for the marriage of his son, Francesco I, to Joan of Austria.
The Vasari Corridor connected the Palazzo Vecchio (government headquarters) to the Pitti Palace (the Medici's official residence). It served as a private walkway for the Medici and high ranking individuals. This way, they were safe and didn't have to deal with the riff raff of Florence. The Vasari Corridor was unique for its time.
Inside the corridor, you'll find the portrait collection of the Uffizi Gallery. There's over 1000 paintings, including works by Filippo Lippi, Rembrandt, Velazquez, and Delacroix.
The Vasari Corridor is currently closed, with a 10 million euro renovation ongoing. It's scheduled to open to the public via a special ticket in 2022. In the interim, you can walk in the Grand Duke's footsteps on YouTube here.
6. Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Most of Vasari's architectural work was undertaken in Florence (although he did work on projects in Pisa, Arezzo and Rome). Vasari would work alone or collaborate with other architects.
Commissioned by Cosimo, Vasari's most important collaboration was with Bartolomeo Ammannati. Together, they worked on the facade of the Uffizi Gallery.
Vasari’s design for the building -- calm and classic grandeur -- drew inspiration from ancient Roman architecture and Michelangelos Laurentian Library and New Sacristy in the Basilica of San Lorenzo. Vasari created a highly distinctive building, which would become as emblematic of Florence as the Palazzo Vecchio and Florence Cathedral.
At the time, the Uffizi served as the offices for the Florentine bureaucracy. The loggia of the Palazzo degli Uffizi with its unified architectural treatment is the perfect example of urban planning. It functions like a public piazza.
Twenty years later, Vasari was instrumental in urging Cosimo to make the Uffizi a major museum specializing in Italian art. Here's my complete guide to the magnificent Uffizi Gallery, with an overview of the must see masterpieces and tips for visiting.
7. Portrait of Lorenzo de' Medici: Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Painted by Vasari at just age of 22, this is a portrait of Lorenzo de' Medici. It was commissioned by Cosimo I de' Medici in homage to Lorenzo, dubbed Il Magnifico.
Lorenzo was the most famous ruler in the Medici dynasty. He was the most important patron of Renaissance art, sponsoring works by Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Donatello.
In Vasari’s portrait, Lorenzo is wearing a blue tunic with ermine cuffs. He's surrounded by objects glorifying his reign. Hanging on his belt is a red purse, which was a symbol of his role as a banker to the pope.
Vasari was not a portraitist and disliked the specialty. But he strove for a likeness of Lorenzo. Lorenzo is shown pensive, humble in rather subdued colors. He looks moody and unshaven, purposes purposefully drawn this way to show him as a man of the people.
8. Six Tuscan Poets: Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Commissioned in 1543, this group portrait was intended to laud the supremacy of Italian culture. It shows six famous poets and philosophers from 13th and 14th century Tuscany engaged in conversation. The colors are gorgeous.
Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy, is seated facing Guido Cavalcanti, a poet famed for his love sonnets. Dante holds a copy of Virgil, one of the great Latin poets, to remind the audience that everyone in the painting was a master of the Latin language.
To Dante's right is the humanist scholar, Francesco Petrarch. He holds a copy of his Scattered Rhymes. Between them is Giovanni Boccaccio, author of the Decameron. To the far left are the humanist, Marsilio Ficino and the philosopher, Cristoforo Landino.
The four great poets of the Italian language wear laurel wreaths as a symbol of honor. The table is strewn with objects that are symbols of learning: a solar quadrant, celestial globe, compass, terrestrial globe, and books.
9. Giorgio Vasari, St Luke Painting the Virgin: Basilica della Santissima Annunziata, Florence
This painting is based on an Italian legend. Vasari depicts St. Luke painting the Virgin and Child. By legend, a painting of the virgin is attributed to Saint Luke, who was believed to be the first Christian painter. The actual painting is located in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.
The medieval painting is nicknamed the Savior of the People of Rome. Legend holds that it was carried by Pope Gregory throughout Rome to drive out the plague in 593.
Vasari's rendition of the theme is a classic of Mannerist painting. I don't usually like Mannerism (with the exception of some beautiful Bronzinos and El Grecos). But I really like this painting, which depicts a most improbable and incongruous scene.
First off, of course, Saint Luke wasn't alive at the same time of the virgin. And we don't know what Luke looked like.
So Vasari painted a self portrait of himself as Saint Luke. Luke is supposedly show in Jesus' childhood home, which seems to resemble Vasari's house in Arezzo.
Luke wears a costume reminiscent of a Roman patrician and sits on a classically adorned stone stool. Luke is identified by the giant ox with peacock wings (signifying imortality) next to him. Luke wear eyeglasses as he prepares to paint the background scene.
10. Allegory of the Immaculate Conception: Santissimi Apostoli, Florence
This painting is the main altarpiece of the Altoviti Chapel in the Church of the Santissimi Apostoli in Florence. In his Memoirs, Vasari describes the altarpiece in detail, revealing its complex iconography. Vasari claimed that he never so "lovingly" labored over a painting.
The work depicts Mary as the New Eve, who remedies the evil unleashed by the first Eve. Mary appears quite Raphael-like and is enthroned on celestial clouds.
By her grace, the Gates of Heaven are re-opened and the Old Testament saints were released from Limbo. Held up by angels, Mary almost descends into limbo herself. She defeats the female serpent wrapped around a tree by herself.
The image of an independent Mary wasn't popular in the Counter Reformation. Henceforth, they required Jesus to be included in any image where something significant was happening.
Vasari's work was such a success that many copies and replicas were made, including by himself. The Uffizi has a small Vasari replica of the Allegory.
11. House of Giorgio Vasari, Arezzo
Art lovers should visit the House of Giorgio Vasari on a Tuscany road trip. Vasari bought the house in 1541.
He painted frescos in six rooms between 1542-48. The frescos depict biblical scenes, mythological scenes, and sacred and profane allegories.
The most important room is the Room of Virtue, which Vasari frescoed as he wrote The Lives. It depicts episodes from the lives of the most famous painters of antiquity. The "Room of the Celebrities" show Vasari's portraits of his contemporaries, including portraits of Michelangelo and Andrea del Sarto.
12. Palazzo dei Cavalieri, Pisa
The Renaissance Palazzo dei Cavalieri in Pisa, formerly known as the Palazzo della Carovana, was given an architectural update by Giorgio Vasari in 1562. The palace served as the palace of the Knights of St. Stephen. It's now part of Pisa's University, founded by Napoleon.
The stunning Vasari-designed facade is exquisitely frescoed with a pattern called "sgraffiti." The upper facade has niches with half busts of the Medici dukes. Outside sits a statue of Cosimo I de Medici, just to remind you that Florence conquered Pisa.
13. Frescos in the Palazzo della Cancellari, Rome
Built between 1485 and 1511, the Palazzo della Cancelleria was one of the most influential architectural projects of the 15th century. It combines elements of Renaissance architecture from Florence, Urbino, and Rome. Despite its historical significance, its architect is unknown.
In 1546, Vasari was commissioned to fresco the grand salon. The frescoes were commissioned by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese to celebrate the life of his grandfather Pope Paul III.
The frescos feature scenes from the life of the pope. The frescos are notable for their fictive architecture and complex iconography.
Vasari finished the frescos in 100 days. The salon was thereafter dubbed the "Hall of the Hundred Days." Legend holds that Vasari bragged about the quick execution to his hero Michelangelo. Michelangleo tartly said "si vede" ("it shows").
14. Michelangelo's Tomb, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence
Michelangelo was buried in the Basilica of Santa Croce, a Florentine church full of celebrity tombs. His fanboy, Giorgio Vasari designed the tomb.
Legend holds that Michelangelo chose the site for the tomb, so that on Judgment Day the first thing he would see was Brunelleschi's dome on Florence Cathedral.
Vasari's tomb for Michelangelo, while well meaning, is static and not quite fitting for one of the greatest artists of all time. It's an allegory of sculpture, architecture, and painting — three things at which Michelangelo excelled.
Frescos are at the top. There's a bust of Michelangelo, and below that 3 crying women representing his artistic disciplines.
Michelangelo lived his life between Florence and Rome due to his commissions, most famously completing the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. He spent his last 30 years in Rome. When he died, his heir spirited his body out of Rome and transported it to Florence so Michelangelo could be put to rest in the city he loved most.
15. The Last Supper: Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence
Vasari painted his own The Last Supper in 1546. The beloved Vasari painting of Christ and his disciples was shockingly contemporary for its time, a tableaux of realism. The painting was commissioned by the Benedictine nuns of the Florentine Murate Convent.
The work is massive at 8 by 21 feet. It's composed of five panels and a total of 20 thick poplar planks.
Christ is in pale rose robes. He drapes his left arm over Saint John. A bearded Saint Peter sits on his right. Judas turns away as darkness gathers in the room.
The painting was eventually relocated to the Castellani Chapel in the Basilica of Santa Croce in 1865. In the 1950s, it was moved to the Santa Croce museum.
The painting was severely damaged in 1966 when the Arno River flooded -- a tragedy in Italian history. Vasari's Last Supper was underwater for 12 hours. It was covered in conservation paper. For years, restorers were loath to touch the painting, considering it unsalvageable.
In 2010, funded by the Getty Center, a new team of conservators got in the act. After 9 years of restoration using cutting edge technology, the painting was triumphantly unveiled to the public. The damage was less than experts feared. If Santa Croce floods again, two winches will automatically lift the painting above the flood line.
I hope you've enjoyed my guide to the works of Giorgio Vasari. You may enjoy these other Florence travel guides and resources:
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