Branding the Renaissance — Giorgio Vasari

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Battle of Marciano, painted by Giorgio Vasari in 1571 (Palazzo Vecchio, Florence)

On 2 August 1554, the Duchy of Florence and Republic of Siena faced off in Marciano della Chiana, near Arezzo, Tuscany. The Florentine forces won a decisive victory and the Republic of Siena fell. The victory of the Florentines over the Sienese became the subject of an important painting in Florence’s old city hall (Palazzo Vecchio, which had been taken over by the Medici after Florence became a duchy). The artist was Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), the man most responsible for ‘branding’ the Florentine Renaissance and promoting the Medici family as patrons of the arts. Vasari was a prolific painter (though certainly not the greatest in terms of talent). He was also the author of the first book of art history: Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Vasari coined the term ‘rinascita,’ or ‘rebirth,’ to describe what had been a series of developments in the history of Italian art from the thirteenth century onward. Vasari glorified the time period through paint and print, thus promoting a specific image of the Renaissance, based in his native Tuscany. In short, Giorgo Vasari branded the Renaissance, giving it the image we associate with it today. Though he was an average painter, he was a marketing genius.

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Title page of Vasari’s ‘Lives’ (1568 edition)

The Florentine Renaissance was in full swing by the time Vasari rose to prominence. Indeed, the 1500s is quite late for the Italian Renaissance. The earliest antecedents go back to Francesco Petrarch and Giotto in the fourteenth century. Petrarch provided the notion of a ‘dark age’ after the fall of Rome. Giotto looked to the ancients in order to create paintings which would grip the (mostly poor) people who flocked to the modest Franciscan brick churches in which his frescoes were plastered.

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Lamentation (c.1304–1306) by Giotto di Bondone, located in the Cappella degli Scrovegni

The move toward realism in art was not, at first, done with the goal of reviving the ancient Roman past nor a simple and bold break with the Byzantine style of earlier art. Rather, interest in ancient art was on the rise because the realism and emotion was useful in conveying images of suffering to poor migrant laborers who flocked to proto-industrial centers. Florence, for example, was dominated by the wool industry and wage laborers were in high demand.

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View of Florence from a Vasari painting (1563–1565, Palazzo Vecchio)

Vasari’s talent was recognized at an early age by the painter Luca Signorelli who recommended him to a successful stained glass and fresco painter Guglielmo da Marsiglia. Vasari was also influenced by the works of Raphael (whose works he studied in Rome) and Michaelangelo (whom he befriended). Giorgio Vasari rose to prominence in Florence under the Duke Cosimo I (r.1537–1574) of the Medici family. The Medici had been a prominent banking family and patrons of the arts in the fifteenth century. By the sixteenth century, they had become nobility. The Florentine Republic was dead. Florence became a duchy in 1532 and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1569.

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Cosimo I de Medici, painted by Giorgio Vasari (1563–1565, Palazzo Vecchio)

Cosimo I was a great patron of the arts and commissioned works on a regular basis. He used art to help legitimize his rule (he was from a minor branch of the Medici and came to power due to the previous duke’s assassination). Michelangelo, the greatest artist of the age, remained elusive (choosing to work in Rome rather than for the Medici in Florence). Though Vasari was not the most talented artist of the age, he was a workaholic. He and his army of assistants could complete projects on a grand scale. This put Vasari in the best position to craft an image of Florence and the history of Italian art. Consider just some of what Giorgio Vasari and his workshop completed from the 1530s to the 1570s:

  • covering the walls of the Palazzo Vecchio with frescoes celebrating the history of Florence and the role of the Medici as patrons of the arts
  • beginning the vast painting on the ceiling of the great dome in Florence Cathedral
  • designing the Vasari corridor — an enclosed passageway from the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti for the Medici so they would not have to walk on the streets
  • designing the Uffizi for the bureaucracy of Cosimo I’s government
  • renovating the Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce churches
  • writing The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, the world’s first work of art history
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Giorgio Vasari’s self-portrait (c.1560)

Cosimo I envisaged a new golden age for Florence and sought to use art as a means of promoting it. For his part, Giorgio Vasari did all he could to brand (as we might say today) the Renaissance as a Italian-based rebirth, a new golden age. Early in his career, Vasari took part in restoring the broken statue of David. Michelangelo’s David had been damaged in 1527 during the third expulsion of the Medici from Florence. The left arm was damaged, causing pieces to fall to the ground. Vasari and another painter Francesco Salviati gathered the pieces for restoration (which occurred later under Cosimo I).

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Cimabue (c.1240–1302) was the first artist covered in Vasari’s ‘Lives’

“ In our time it has been seen, as I hope to show quite shortly, that simple children, roughly brought up in the wilderness, have begun to draw by themselves, impelled by their own natural genius, instructed solely by the example of these beautiful paintings and sculptures of Nature. Much more then it is probable that the first men, being less removed from their divine origin, were more perfect, possessing a brighter intelligence, and that with Nature as a guide, a pure intellect for master, and the lovely world as a model, they originated these noble arts, and by gradually improving them brought them at length, from small beginnings, to perfection. I do not deny that there must have been an originator, since I know quite well that there must have been a beginning at some time, due to some individual.” -Vasari’s Lives

Giorgio Vasari did not begin his Lives with a detailed description of realistic art emerging out of the necessities of Tuscan society in the fourteenth century. Rather, he began with Cimabue and made Cimabue’s pupil Giotto the first real hero of the Lives. Vasari’s work is one which focuses on particular artists (over 200 of them, from the late-1200s to his own lifetime in the mid-1500s). The work is arranged more or less chronologically, but more importantly into bronze, silver, and golden ages. Giotto is the hero of the first ‘bronze’ section of the work due to his emphasis on popularizing increased realism and moving away from earlier icon-like Byzantine art. For Giorgio Vasari, Italian Renaissance art culminated with Michelangelo in his own time. His golden age section of his work is dominated by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael Sanzio, and Michelangelo.

Last Judgment (136–1541) by Michelangelo

It was in the Lives that Giorgio Vasari coined the term ‘rinascita’ (rebirth) to describe the movement now known as the Renaissance. Vasari invented a conceptualization of the Renaissance and was heavily involved in how this perspective was depicted in the city of Florence during his lifetime. He had the backing of Duke Cosimo I and was able to leave the city many examples of his architecture as well as painting. Giorgio Vasari was heavily involved in both crafting and marketing the Renaissance. His paintings are not as gripping as that of creative explorers (such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci) but are notable as advertisements for the Medici, the city of Florence, and the Italian Renaissance. He also provided a compelling (though admittedly problematic) narrative to serve as the foundation for what would become art history. His Lives is certainly not the most accurate book in the world but it is a book which succeeded in promoting an image of the Renaissance. His Lives is a success because it glorifies with reverence a long series of creatives who graced Italy, and later the world, with their masterpieces. If one looks at the Lives as a work of history (from a snooty academic sense), it is largely a failure which has been superceded. However, if one looks at the Lives as a human being, it is a well-written, narrative account of the history of art written by someone clearly passionate about the subject. Moreover, he knew what he was talking about, even if many of the anecdotes are false. Indeed, false anecdotes often provide deeper truisms about the individual than strictly empirically-based biographies ever could. Vasari also deserves to be remembered and celebrated because he was not a mere academic library rat. He had experience as a painter, sculptor, and architect. He was no ivory tower theorist. He was a man who made meaningful contributions to the society in which he lived. In short, Vasari branded the Renaissance.

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Apotheosis of Cosimo I (1563–1565) by Giogrio Vasari, located in the Palazzo Vecchio

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