Giorgio Vasari, perhaps the father of art history with his Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, was born on July 30, 1511. The cover of Vasari’s Lives appears above. Written in 1550 and revised and expanded in 1568, Vasari’s Lives may mark the first use of the term “Renaissance” in art to refer to that golden age of European painting. Although his own works of art may pale in comparison to the giants of his time, Vasari’s contributions to art history have kept their names, and his own, alive to today.
In works such as his Battle of Scannagallo (above), Vasari comes across as just another good, not great Renaissance painter. Friend of Michelangelo and student of Andrea del Sarto, Vasari never rose to their levels of brilliance. However, Vasari understood their greatness enough to want to capture that historical moment in all its fine detail. Reading Vasari’s Lives today often seems like flipping through a Renaissance version of today’s People Magazine. Between the nuggets of historical value lay moments of sheer gossip (such as his long harangue on the shrewishness of poor Andrea’s wife) and tall tales of long-dead painters’ magical feats (such as Giotto painting a fly on one work that fooled his master, Cimabue, into trying to brush it away). Overall, however, Vasari’s writings bring the painters back to life in all their genius and, often humorously, their humanity.
Vasari didn’t limit his conservationism to just words. Although he himself was a working painter and sometimes even an excellent painter of religious subjects, such as his Entombment (above), Vasari recognized that the common practice of painting new frescos over old ones was an unjust erasure of past masters. Recently, scientists believe that they have found Leonardo da Vinci’s legendary, lost 1505 fresco The Battle of Angiers behind a fresco done by Vasari in 1593. They believe that Vasari built a wall in front of Leonardo’s work to save it and then painted his own fresco on the new wall. Such an act shows not only Vasari’s humility before greatness but also a visionary gift the benefits of which we still reap today.