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The Theories of Giorgio Vasari

Giorgio Vasari was an Italian painter, writer, and architect who tackled the tremendous challenge of documenting the world of art history from ancient times until his own contemporary period.  One of his most important and memorable works was a book which chronicled the lives of notable artists, first published in 1550 and later expanded, a book called Vites, or Lives.  This paper will discuss Vasari’s phases of Renaissance art, the elements that he believed were crucial to excellence in art, and various other topics related to his work and philosophy.

Vasari believed that art involved in three distinct developmental phases that mirrored the stages of human development: birth, growth, and death.  However, his stages in the evolution of art were qualitative, transforming from adequate works to better works to the best and most masterful.  As people grow and mature and become more skilled at the things in which they are involved, so does art from its primitive beginnings to ultimately reaching a superior, even perfect, pinnacle.  There are certain drawbacks to this conceptualization.  The perspective that views earlier art as merely being the starting point for what would later become supreme works of genius is a relative devaluation of those earlier works.  The artists of a certain early period, according to this view, could not truly evolve to a great extent but were destined to produce mediocre work for the duration of their artistic lives.  Vasari’s perspective also held that brilliant artists such as Michelangelo were supreme from the start, rather than allowing the possibility that earlier in his life, perhaps Michelangelo’s works were lacking in some areas and that as he continued to write, draw, paint, and create, he evolved into the genius that he is recognized to be. In addition, the appreciation of art is a subjective one, so that Vasari may have considered the works during the third phase excellent while another artist might have seen them differently.

Vasari identified five qualities that are essential to achieve excellence in artistic expression: good rule, order, proportion, design, and style.  In art, the concept of rule refers to the technique used to measure antiques and create more modern projects based on the procedures used to build ancient buildings.  The concept of order represents the distinctions created between different types of architectural styles, so that each creation is consistent with the parts that are fitting for that style.  Proportion dictates that all of the aspects of any design must be fitted together properly, and design is the presentation of the loveliest aspects of nature that the artist strives to duplicate onto whichever platform is being used. Finally, style refers to the distinct ways that the artist uses to imitate beautiful images in nature in order to connect perfect parts of the body or images that will result in the most pleasing work of art.

During the first period of art history described by Vasari, the art forms were a long way from the perfection that Vasari envisioned as the ultimate goal for all works.  Although many of the figures painted or sculpted were crude, the artists did attempt to represent images of humans and nature as more lifelike spatially and with the use of lights and shadows.  During this phase, there was progress regarding inventiveness as well as technical abilities; the style as well as draftsmanship of the phase generally improved as well.  However, there did not appear to be accuracy about human anatomy in many of the works.  During the second phase, there was an overall advancement in the elements of rule, order, proportion, design, and style.  For example, where previously human figures had been presented with vacant eyes, sharp fingers, and a lack of shadows, these features were represented more naturally during the second phase.  There was a wider range of positions for figures and adornments, brighter colors, and the compositions seemed more concentrated around the theme of the work.

On the other hand, Vasari characterized some of the artists during the second phase as being stylistically “dry” because of an overemphasis on perspective rather than beauty and grace.  He felt that the work of the second phase lacked the spontaneity that allows artists to enhance their work by adding unlimited number of details and beauty.  Nevertheless, during the second phase there were many improvements in artistic technique, and according to Vasari, artists began to understand that one of the ways to create superior works of art lay in imitating nature as realistically as possible.  In addition, the realism of figures was accentuated using light and shadows, using colors to visually enhance people and objects, and differentiating figures according to scale, rather than portraying them larger or smaller based on their social status.  At the end of this phase, Vasari felt that the mastery of the naturalistic form had been largely realized.  Artistry had become more visually correct and exhibited some stylistic rigidity that gradually permitted the evolution to the third phase which consisted of more freedom to portray nature and beauty on a supreme scale.

In Vasari’s Vite, Michelangelo is highly regarded in part because he excelled in painting, architecture, and sculpture, surpassing other artists in all three arenas.  He praised Michelangelo for being a genius with the powers of design, artistry, judgment and grace, among others.  For Vasari, Michelangelo represented the supreme perfection in artistry that was characteristic of the best artists in the third phase.  His skill was demonstrated by his use of color, the variety of human forms and bodies that he painted and molded, all of which led to his worldwide notoriety.  Vasari praised his sculptural creations as well, comparing his statues to those created by those in the ancient world, since the feet, hands, bodies, and faces Michelangelo’s works revealed grace and perfection far beyond that of any other earlier artists.  He contrasted the works of Michelangelo with those of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and he felt that in comparison, Michelangelo’s paintings were far superior to those created by those ancient cultures.

Vasari’s strong ideas about the development of artistic perfection are not universally accepted by all art critics, but nevertheless, his contribution to art in the form of biographies of ancient and Renaissance artists and analyses of their works laid the groundwork for future art historians.  He certainly holds a central ideological role among the history of writing about this field.  His theories about the developmental phases of art history have been debated since the 1500s, and shown no signs of diminishing.