Thursday, May 22, 2008

Setting the Stage

God needs the Devil, like Superman needs Lex Luthor or Sherlock Holmes needs Professor Moriarty. Without the tension of opposite forces pitted against each other, there is no story, just drab, monotonous perfection. When Giorgio Vasari mapped out his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, he knew his ultimate destination—the perfection of human artistry embodied by Michelangelo. “In our age the Divine Goodness has created for us Michelangelo Buonarroti,” Vasari writes in his preface to that landmark of art history. Knowing that unabashed praise of the master would lack drama, Vasari devised an entire journey through the history of Italian art from the late thirteenth century to his own sixteenth century painted with the chiaroscuro of bright good and dark evil artists. In Victims and Villains in Vasari’s Lives, the late Andrew Ladis demonstrates the importance of Vasari’s “bad guys” who helped define genius through their flaws and made the stars of the Renaissance shine all the brighter. Vasari, Ladis believes, casts the heroic Giotto (depicted above in a woodcut from Vasari’s 1568 edition of the Lives), Masaccio, and others versus a series of contemporary foils in “a great morality play in which sacred virtues, such as humility, charity, and faith, vie against the base motives that perpectually threaten Vasari’s sacred brotherhood.” Vasari, who, Landis writes, “appreciated the rhetorical power of anecdotes, whether true or not,” never lets the facts get in the way of the greater mission of paving the way for the “messiah” Michelangelo.

Ladis’ work presents an often forgotten side of Vasari’s Lives. Most modern abridged translations leave out the minor figures, preferring to give the major names full coverage. Ladis shows how those “minor” figures play a significant role in the Lives as a whole. The Lives lives more fully through the completeness of the opposition Vasari intended. Giotto’s exemplary life becomes humanized through the story of Buffalmacco, who becomes “an extended counterdemonstration of what it takes to be a true artist, a cautionary example of how not to lead one’s life.” Most of Buffalmacco’s works were already gone in Vasari’s day, damaged much like Buffalmacco’s The Triumph of Death (above, from 1355), a visual correlative to the self-destructive impulses of the artist himself. One of the few works of Buffalmacco that Vasari does see intact is a depiction of the suicide of Judas Iscariot, the template for self-destruction. Such “coincidence” always play right into the hands of Vasari as he weaves his narrative.

Ladis not only analyzes the bad painter—good painter dynamic of Vasari’s text, but also shows how Vasari took creative liberties to portray the “heroes” in the specific heroic manner that suits his higher purpose. In the case of Masaccio, Ladis writes, Vasari “ignored chronology and structured the life so that it comes to a climax with the Brancacci Chapel, still regarded as the painter’s greatest work. Making the Brancacci Chapel a kind of shrine and leading the viewer on a symbolic pilgrimage to it, Vasari compresses all of his story into the narrow confines of that sacred space, the holy of holies of the new art.” Images from the Brancacci Chapel, such as St. Peter Baptizing the Neophytes (above, from 1425), thus prefigure the ultimate sacred space of the Sistine Chapel , the site of Michelangelo’s greatest triumph.

While deconstructing the rhetorical life Vasari breathed into his history, Ladis himself shows a flair for vivacious prose. Vasari “turns Perugino into an avatar of avarice,” Ladis writes, “felled by the same thing that had lifted him up: Florence itself.” Ladis uses the case of Perugino to make the distinction between villains and victims. Perugino’s avarice makes him a villain, but the double whammy of being eclipsed by both Raphael, his student, and Michelangelo makes Perugino an unfortunate victim whose reputation has never fully recovered from those blows. Perugino once stood high enough in the art world that he placed frescoes such as The Delivery of the Keys (above, from 1482) in the Sistine Chapel. Later, however, some of his work was destroyed to make room for Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. Such erasure of an artist, however, is acceptable to Vasari as long as it serves to make way for the star of the Renaissance show.

Just before Michelangelo, the ultimate hero, steps into the spotlight, Vasari presents the ultimate villain, Baccio Bandinelli, whom Ladis calls “a larger-than-hell villain.” With the exception of Vasari’s life of Michelangelo, Bandinelli’s life takes up more pages than any other, including all the other good guys going back to Giotto. In life, critics measured Bandinelli’s accomplishments against those of Michelangelo, a contest that Bandinelli himself welcomed. Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus (above, from 1543) not only stood as a rival to Michelangelo’s David but physically stood near the David in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. Bandinelli’s villainy reaches it’s height when he, according to Vasari, destroyed Michelangelo’s cartoon for The Battle of Cascina, one of the great lost works of the master. Vasari presents Bandinelli as a great artist whose lack of character denies him the same magnitude of genius that the virtuous Michelangelo achieves. Even in death, Bandinelli’s sinister character as embodied in his art shows how greatly he differs from Michelangelo. The tomb Bandinelli sculpted for himself contains a self-portrait of himself as Nicodemus holding the dead Christ. That self-portrait as Nicodemus characteristically upstages the fallen savior—one final demonstration of Bandinelli’s hubris. Ladis remarks that Bandinelli stole the idea of a pieta from Michelangelo’s Pieta, but I’d argue that a closer source might be Michelangelo’s Florentine Pieta, in which Michelangelo cast himself in the role of Nicodemus, but in a much more servile role than Bandinelli’s Nicodemus. These dueling Nicodemi exemplify the larger story Vasari, and Ladis, tell.

You cannot come away from Victims and Villains in Vasari’s Lives and not want to go back to the source and read it again with Ladis’ ideas lurking in the back of your mind. Just as HerodotusHistories and Plutarch’s Parallel Lives can be seen equally as literature and history, Vasari’s Lives deserves to be seen as a masterpiece of Renaissance infotainment, but with a purpose. Michelangelo descends from heaven in Vasari’s eyes to redeem the world through art. Vasari, himself a painter, accepts the role of evangelist and spreads the word of Michelangelo’s majesty. Perhaps Ladis’ work will lead to a reappraisal of those minor figures so blithely excised from the abridged versions of Vasari’s work, whose flaws are more fascinating and human than those artistic god that once walked among us. Although Vasari always sided with the angels, he knew the value of the fallen angels to his story. Andrew Ladis’ Victims and Villains in Vasari’s Lives gives the devils their due, just as Vasari intended.

[Many thanks to the University of North Carolina Press for providing me with a review copy of Andrew Ladis’ Victims and Villains in Vasari’s Lives.]

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