Il primato dei Toscani nelle ‘Vite’ del Vasari. Basilica inferiore di San Francesco (Arezzo). Until 9 January 2012.

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Giorgio Vasari

Giorgio Vasari

Il primato dei Toscani nelle ‘Vite’ del Vasari. Basilica inferiore di San Francesco (Arezzo). Until 9 January 2012. Catalogue by Paola Refice.

Vasari’s partiality toward Tuscan artists may have been for good reason. Classicism had become the standard, and nobody did classicism better than the Tuscans. By the time Vasari wrote the Lives, the Tuscans, unlike the Venetians and Flemish, were already showing signs of a “school” rather than merely a distinct “style.” Of all the major art centers in Europe, Florence was the most international, combining the best techniques available from north to south. Having perfected the art of representation, they only needed someone to put its rules into order.

Giorgio Vasari was just the man for the job. Thoroughly trained in the studia humanitatis by great teachers like Pollastra and Pierio Valeriano, he was convinced that an artist’s only hope of salvation was a writer. This clearly emerges from his encomium to poetry and history at the beginning of the Lives. Without writers the names of artists, like their works, were destined for oblivion. Vasari wanted to immortalize both with his pen. But in doing so, he also wanted to show the affinity between the plastic and literary arts. He constantly returned to a single, driving principle that each art inherently resembles the others, notwithstanding the different instruments they use to achieve their proper ends. Vasari hoped that by writing about artists he might also enhance their collaboration with scientists, by whose expertise they were greatly enriched.

This exhibition in the lower Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo includes sixty-five works by fifty-two of the greatest Tuscan painters and sculptors appearing in Vasari’s Lives. It retraces the evolution of art from Cimabue to Michelangelo as seen through the eyes of Vasari by employing the criteria he used to divide art history into different periods. The exhibition culminates in the “third” or “modern” maniera during which Leonardo da Vinci finally imparted movement and breath to his figures. It was he, Vasari wrote, who not only surpassed his immediate predecessors but even the ancients, whose mastery over nature had seemed invincible.

Both the first edition of the Vite de’ più eccellenti Pittori, Scultori e Architettori, referred to as the Torrentiniana (1550), and the second, referred to as the Giuntina (1568), document the activities of artists and the works they produced not merely by commenting on their style, but by inserting them into a historical, commercial, and political context. Yet the Lives is not a work of criticism in the way we understand the term today. Artworks reflect the character of their makers, but they do so because their makers are enmeshed in enormously complex web of circumstances that transcend them as individuals. This phenomenon emerges in each section of the exhibition.

Masolino da Panicale (Tommaso di Cristoforo Fini, detto il, 1383-1440), Crocifissione, pannello di polittico, Pinacoteca Vaticana

Masolino da Panicale (Tommaso di Cristoforo Fini, detto il, 1383-1440), Crocifissione, pannello di polittico, Pinacoteca Vaticana

Masolino, for example, painted female faces with a sweeter air and sharper perspective partly due to a greater appreciation for female ingenuity during his time. He achieved this effect by adding oil to his pigments allowing for fresh, vivid skin tones. He is featured in the first section of this exhibition along with Margaritone d’Arezzo (Madonna con Bambino in trono e quattro storie della Vergine, c. 1259), Spinello di Luca (Triptych with crucifixion, prophets, and saints), and Starnina (Madonna col Bambino tra angeli e santi), and others whose works Vasari described as “not merely beautiful, but miraculous.” He extolled Cimabue as the premier example of this miraculous change.

Cimabue (Cenni di Pepi, detto il, 1240 ca.-1302) (in coll. con Giotto),Madonna col Bambino, dipinto su tavola, 68 x 47 cm, Castelfiorentino (FI), Pinacoteca

Cimabue (Cenni di Pepi, detto il, 1240 ca.-1302) (in coll. con Giotto),Madonna col Bambino, dipinto su tavola, 68 x 47 cm, Castelfiorentino (FI), Pinacoteca

Thus Cimabue’s Madonna and Child from the Pinacoteca at Castelfiorentino, a painting long thought to be the work of Duccio, looms large in this show. It seems to date from the 1080s, a time when the Sienese style was making inroads in Florence. The highly respected art historian Luciano Bellosi (recently deceased) was convinced that Giotto was at least partially responsible for the figure of the child Jesus. The medium consists of two wood panels carefully joined along a horizontal axis, perhaps constituting the central section of a triptych or altar front. This painting has suffered from extensive manipulation through the years, the gold leaf reapplied poorly and devotional objects once nailed to the surface. A painstaking restoration has brought out much of the original tenderness and grace of Mother and Child.

Masaccio, who died in his prime at twenty-seven, also stars in this first section. Vasari admired his works for their “good grace,” “greatness of manner,” and “softness and uniformity of coloring,” even though they were not “perfect in all their components.” His Saint Paul painted on an ornate gold leaf background, wielding a missionary sword and wearing the robes of an ancient philosopher, is most striking.

The second section corresponds to the next part of the Lives, in which artists rediscover ancient proportions and make the transition from craftsmanship to artistry. A Death Mask of Brunelleschi and an Illuminated Codex by Beato Angelico remind us of their respective roles in this transition. Also of note are an exquisite Crucifixion by Piero della Francesca constituting the top section of a polyptich from La Cappella della Misericordia at Sansepolcro, a Madonna and Child by Filippo Lippi from the Museo di Arte Sacra in Montespertoli, and Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s engraving of a Battle of Ten Naked Men, a piece acclaimed by Vasari for its unprecedented accuracy in representing nude figures.

Only during the third age had art “done everything possible for her as an imitator of nature.” Included in this section is a miniature ink study by Michelangelo for the Battle of Anghiari. Vasari was full of praise for Michelangelo’s concept for the mural, since “there is no better place to view the rage, the hate, and the vindictiveness of men than in horses.”

Michelangelo and Followers, Cristo risorto, San Vicenzo Martire, Bassano Romano.

Michelangelo and Followers, Cristo risorto, San Vicenzo Martire, Bassano Romano.

At the center of Michelangelo’s vision, however, was man himself, as the impressive Resurrected Christ makes clear. This marble sculpture, at a height of over two meters, was the first version of the famous Minerva Christ. An unseemly black vein emerged on Christ’s face while Michelangelo was working on this block, forcing him to abandon it in favor of another. The second version, at a stage just short of completion, was brought to Rome by Michelangelo’s assistant Pietro Urbano in March of 1520. It too proved unsatisfactory after Michelangelo’s assistants completed it, so the master offered to do a third version. The commissioner, a certain Metello Vari, thought it better to take this second version rather than risk not having a third, so he accepted it on the condition that Michelangelo also send him the first one tainted with the “black vein.” It was this version that Ulisse Aldovrandi saw in a garden and wrote about in 1556, after which time no clear reference was made to it. The discovery of a blemish on the Resurrected Christ kept in the Monastery of Saint Vincent Martyr in Bassano Romano allowed experts to identify this piece as Michelangelo’s first attempt at the Minerva Christ. Until that time, few would have thought this to be Michelangelo’s work given the many alterations it had undergone. Today it bears witness to a Renaissance theology emphasizing the absoluteness of Christ’s resurrection as the ultimate triumph over death. The cross is substantial but drastically reduced in scale. Christ’s body shows no signs of suffering or torment. All attention is focused on his imposing but relaxed stance, and the energy is distributed evenly across the figure. After a checkered past, the Resurrected Christ deserves a privileged place in the master’s oeuvre.

This exhibition reminds us that Vasari, though he may have embellished his tale with invented detail, did not invent the history of art. It was there to be discovered. Neither did he invent the praise of artists in literature. Bellini was celebrated by Bembo, Titian by dal Casa, and Simone Martini would have been long forgotten if not for Petrarch’s sonnet. Neither did Vasari pursue the Lives as a purely political agenda. The idea germinated among the Farnese in Rome, not the Medici in Florence, and the Farnese were staunchly opposed to the reestablishment of a Medici dynasty. In fact, at one point Vasari was hopelessly undecided as to whether he should dedicate the Lives to the Grand Duke Cosimo I or Pope Julius III.

This is not to say that the Lives is devoid of political overtones or a repackaging of classical encomia. As a literary work it is original, but it also reveals an extraordinarily incisive visual understanding of art. Someone needed to chronicle and analyze the movement from Byzantine figuration to a sophisticated system of “rules” and “orders” for design. Indeed, it is hard to imagine where we would be today if Vasari had not done this.

Another way of expressing the problem would be to remove all the descriptions and cross-references to the Lives from this exhibit. Most of us would still be able to recognize differences among the items on display, but how would we begin to organize them? We might come up with principles and criteria that would work, but how would those principles and criteria connect to those of the artists themselves?

In lamenting over the times when Vasari may actually lead us astray, we easily forget how difficult it would be to navigate the sea of Renaissance art – Tuscan or otherwise – without him.

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Madonna col Bambino, Collezione privata, Firenze (Coll. Luigi Grassi, Firenze)

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Madonna col Bambino, Collezione privata, Firenze (Coll. Luigi Grassi, Firenze)

List of works in the exhibition (in Italian)

Cimabue (Cenni di Pepi, detto il, 1240 ca.-1302) (in coll. con Giotto),Madonna col Bambino, dipinto su tavola, cm.68×47, Castelfiorentino (FI), Pinacoteca

Arnolfo di Cambio (1240/50-1302/10), Donna con anfora (“Assetata”) marmo, cm. 35,5×54,5, Perugia, Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria

Giovanni Pisano (1245 ca. -post 1314) Sculture da l Museo di S. Matteo a Pisa

Taddeo Gaddi (1290-1366), Deposizione dalla Croce, affresco, cm. 420X132,5, Firenze, Santa Croce

Margarito d’Arezzo (doc. 1260-1280) e Ristoro, Madonna col Bambino con Scene della Vita della Vergine

dipinto su tavola, cm. 90×123, Monte San Savino (AR), Santuario delle Vetrtighe

Giotto di Bondone (1266/7-1337), San Francesco, San Giovanni Battista, 2 dipinti su tavola, ognuno cm. 11×11 ca.

Firenze, Ente Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze

Giotto di Bondone (1266/7-1337), Santo diacono, Vetrata dalla cappella Bardi in Santa Croce, cm. 104×86, Firenze, Museo dell’opera di Santa Croce

Giotto di Bondone (1266/7-1337), Madonna dolente, Affresco staccato, cm. 64×45, Firenze, Museo dell’opera di Santa Croce

Stefano Fiorentino (Maestro di Chiaravalle) (sec. XIV), Testa femminile, affresco staccato, cm. 27X15x5, Budapest, Stépmüveszeti Múzeum

Ugolino Sanese (Ugolino di Nerio, 1280-1349), Crocifissione con S. Francesco, dipinto su tavola, cm. 50X24, Siena, Pinacoteca Nazionale (Cat. Torriti, n.34)

Pietro Lorenzetti (doc. 1305-1345) (e Barna da Siena, attr.), Salita al Calvario, affresco staccato,cm. 166X145, Cortona (AR), Museo Diocesano (da S. Margherita)

Ambrogio Lorenzetti (doc. 1319-1348), Allegoria della Redenzione, dipinto su tavola , cm.57,5×118,5

Siena, Pinacoteca Nazionale

Buffalmacco (Buonamico di Cristofano , m.1340) (attr.), San Michele Arcangelo, dipinto su tavola, Arezzo, Museo Statale d’arte medievale e moderna

Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255-1319), Madonna col Bambino (Madonna della Grotta), dipinto su tavola, cm.88×57

Siena, Pinacoteca Nazionale

Nino Pisano, San Tommaso, Scultura da Santa Maria della Spina, Pisa, Museo Nazionale di S. Matteo

Jacopo del Casentino (ca.1297-ca.1358), S. Giovanni Battista, dipinto su tavola (scomparto di polittico), cm.117,5×43, Firenze, Gallerie dell’Accademia

Giovanni di Marco, detto Giovanni dal Ponte (1385-1437), Madonna col Bambino in trono tra due santi, dipinto su tavola, cm., Anghiari, Palazzo Taglieschi, depositi

Giovanni di Marco, detto Giovanni dal Ponte (1385-1437), Madonna col Bambino in trono tra i santi Lorenzo e Anastasia, dipinto su tavola, cm. 90,5×51, Firenze, Collezione Privata (Galleria Moretti)

Spinello Aretino (1346/1348-1411), Crocifissione, Profeti e Santi, dipinto su tavola, in tot. cm. 125X209 ca., Lucca. Museo Nazionale di Villa Guinigi

Spinello Aretino (1346/1348-1411) e Parri di Spinello, Combattimento degli angeli e dei diavoli, affresco staccato cm. 200×138, dalla chiesa di S. Michele ad Arezzo, Arezzo, Museo Statale d’Arte Medievale e Moderna

Lippo Memmi (ca.1290-1356), San Giacomo Minore, dipinto su tavola (scomparto di polittico), Pisa, Museo Nazionale di S. Matteo

Simone Martini (1284-1344), Madonna col Bambino e santi, (Polittico di SanDomenico), dipinto su tavola, in totale cm. 113×257, Orvieto, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo


Simone Martini (1284-1344), Madonna col Bambino, dipinto su tavola, cm. 95,5×52,5, Siena, Pinacoteca Nazionale (da Lucignano d’Arbia)

Lorenzo Monaco (ca.1370-1425), Madonna in trono col Bambino e Angeli, dipinto su tavola centinata, Siena, Pinacoeca Nazionale

Taddeo Bartoli (1362 ca-1422), Martirio dei Santi Cosma e Damiano, dipinto su tavola, cm.36,5×40, Siena, Pinacoteca Nazionale

Gherardo Starnina (1354-1403), Madonna col Bambino tra angeli e santi, dipinto su tavola, cm. 96×50, Firenze, Gallerie dell’Accademia

Jacopo della Quercia (1371 ca.-1438) Madonna col Bambino, scultura lignea policroma, cm. 150X67x55, Anghiari (AR), Museo Statale di Palazzo Taglieschi

Giovanni della Robbia, Quattro Evangelisti, terracotta invetriata, Arezzo, Museo Diocesano (dalla Pieve di Galatrona)

Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), Madonna col Bambino, dipinto su tavola, cm. 115×71, Montespertoli (FI), Museo di Arte Sacra

Filippino Lippi (Prato,1457-1504), Madonna col Bambino e angeli, cimasa della Pala Lomellini, dipinto su tavola (lumetta) cm. 95X185, Genova, Palazzo Bianco

Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), Reliquiario del Braccio di San Biagio, cm. 82,3×37,5×33, Collezione Privata, Prato

Beato Angelico, Codice membranaceo miniato (Salterio), mm. 388×268, inv. S. Marco e Cenacoli n.1915-1/924 n. 530, Firenze, Museo di San Marco

Andrea del Castagno (1421 ca.-1457), Crocifissione, sinopia, Firenze, Oratorio di Sant’Apollonia

Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1439-1510), Natività, Miniatura (iniziale N), Antifonario di Monteoliveto, 1460, Chiusi (SI), Museo del Duomo

Francesco di Giorgio Martini, Flagellazione di Cristo, rilievo bronzeo, 56, Perugia, Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria

Fra Bartolomeo (1472-1517), Ecce Homo, affresco su embrice, cm. 51,5×37, Firenze, Museo di San Marco

Pietro di Lorenzo, detto il Vecchietta (1410 ca.-1480), Modello per Tabernacolo bronzeo, da Santa Maria della Scala, tempera su tela, cm. 350×38, Siena, Pinacoteca Nazionale

Desiderio da Settignano (1430 ca.-1464) (o Benedetto da Maiano), San Giovannino, Marmo, cm. 40x21x18, Faenza, Pinacoteca Comunale

Pietro di Antonio Dei, detto Bartolomeo della Gatta (1448-1502), San Francesco riceve le Stimmate, dipinto su tavola, Castiglion Fiorentino (AR), Pinacoteca Comunale

Pietro di Antonio Dei, detto Bartolomeo della Gatta (1448-1502), Testa virile, disegno a matita nera e bistro acquerellato su carta tinta bruno, mm. 213×184, Roma, Gabinetto delle stampe e Calcografia nazionale, inv. F.C. 130522

Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494), Santo Stefano, dipinto su tavola, cm. 191×56, Budapest, Stépmüveszeti Múzeum

Paolo Uccello, Beato Jacopone da Todi, affresco staccato, cm. 181X59, Prato, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo

Masolino da Panicale (Tommaso di Cristoforo Fini, detto il, 1383-1440), Crocifissione, pannello di polittico, Pinacoteca Vaticana

Piero della Francesca (1412-1492), Crocifissione, dipinto su tavola, cm. 93,5×55, dal Polittico della Misericordia, Sansepolcro, Museo Civico

Masaccio (Tommaso di ser Giovanni di Mone Cassai, detto il, 1401-1428), San Paolo, dipinto su tavol, (scomparto di polittico), cm. 51X30, Pisa, Museo Nazionale di San Matteo

Donatello, Testa di profeta, Bronzo,, Firenze, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Inv. 101 Bronzi

Andrea Del Verrocchio, Putto con delfino, bronzo, h. cm. 67, Firenze, Palazzo Vecchio

Andrea del Verrocchio e bottega, Battaglia di Pydna, Trionfo di Paolo Emilio il Macedone, pannelli di cassone, dipinto su tavola, ognuno cm. 51×159, Parigi, Musée Jacquemart-André

Filippo Brunelleschi, rilievi altare di San Jacopo, Pistoia, Duomo

Antonio Benci, detto il Pollaiolo (Firenze, 1433-Roma, 1498), Battaglia di dieci nudi, 1465 circa, stampa da bulino su rame, mm.402×592, Chiari (BS), Fondazione Morcelli Repossi, Inv. I.00001/439

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) (e Fra Diamante?), Fuga in Egitto, dipinto su tavola trasportato su tela, cm. 150X86

Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Madonna col Bambino, Collezione privata, Firenze (Coll. Luigi Grassi, Firenze)

Luca Signorelli (1445-1523), Crocifissione; I Santi Antonio Abate ed Eligio, Stendardo (dipinto sulle due facce), cm. 212X157, Sansepolcro (AR), chiesa di S. Antonio Abate

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Mischia di combattenti a cavallo e figure umane (recto); scritte di meccanica (verso), Disegno a inchiostro su carta bianca, mm. 160×152, Venezia, Accademia, Dis.n.215 (esporre recto e verso)

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Due mischie tra cavalieri e pedoni (recto); scritta con schizzi dimostrativi di meccanica (verso), Disegno a inchiostro su carta bianca, mm. 145×152, Venezia, Accademia, Dis.n.215A (esporre recto e verso), (pag. 564)

Pittore leonardesco (Lorenzo di Credi, attr.), Leda e il cigno, dipinto su tavola, cm. 130X77, 5, Uffizi, Inv. 1890 n. 9953

Piero di Cosimo (1461-1521), Madonna col Bambino e Santi, dipinto su tavola, diam. cm. 82, Firenze, Galleria Moretti

Piero di Cosimo (1461-1521), Pietà, dipinto su tavola centinata, cm.190×112, Perugia, Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria

Pontormo (Jacopo Carucci detto il, 1494-1556), San Quintino, dipinto su tavola, cm. 150X100, Sansepolcro (AR), Museo Civico

Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530), Visitazione, dipinto su tavola, cm. 67×89, Roma, Galleria Spada

Rosso Fiorentino (Giovan Battista di Jacopo, detto il, 1486-1530), Deposizione, dipinto su tavola, cm. 270X201, Sansepolcro (AR), Chiesa di S. Lorenzo

Rosso Fiorentino, Madonna col Bambino in trono tra i Santi Giovanni Battista e Bartolomeo, dipinto su tavola, cm. 169X133, Volterra (PI), Museo Diocesano

Domenico Beccafumi, Madonna col Bambino, dipinto su tavola, tondo con cornice intagliata, ca. 1524, con cornice diam. cm. 98 (sup. dipinta diam. cm.68), Siena, Pinacoteca Nazionale

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1465-1564), Nudo, modello in cera per la Sagrestia Nuova, Firenze, Casa Buonarroti

Cristo Portacroce, Marmo, h. cm. 250, Bassano Romano (VT), chiesa del Monastero di San Vincenzo

Pontormo (Jacopo Carucci detto il, 1494-1556), San Quintino, dipinto su tavola, 150 x 100 cm, Sansepolcro (AR), Museo Civico

Pontormo (Jacopo Carucci detto il, 1494-1556), San Quintino, dipinto su tavola, 150 x 100 cm, Sansepolcro (AR), Museo Civico

About the author

Daniel B. Gallagher

Daniel Gallagher has taught philosophy and theology and is the author of numerous articles in metaphysics and aesthetics. He is particularly interested in the overlapping issues of classical, medieval, and modern theories of beauty and art. A catholic priest, Monsignor Gallagher is currently stationed at the Vatican.

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