A painter and architect in his own right, Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) achieved immortality for this book on the lives of his fellow Renaissance artists, first published in Florence in 1550. Although he based his work on a long tradition of biographical writing, Vasari infused these literary portraits with a decidedly modern form of critical judgment. The result is a work that remains to this day the cornerstone of art historical scholarship.
Spanning the period from the thirteenth century to Vasari's own time, the Lives opens a window on the greatest personalities of the period, including Giotto, Brunelleschi, Mantegna, Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Titian. This Modern Library edition, abridged from the original text with notes drawn from earlier commentaries, as well as current research, reminds us why The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects is indispensable to any student interested in Renaissance art.
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February 13, 2006
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Excerpt from The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects by Giorgio Vasari
Preface to the Lives
I have no manner of doubt that it is with almost all writers a common and deeply-fixed opinion that sculpture and painting together were first discovered, by the light of nature, by the people of Egypt, and that there are certain others who attribute to the Chaldeans the first rough sketches in marble and the first reliefs in statuary, even as they also give to the Greeks the invention of the brush and of coloring. But I will surely say that of both one and the other of these arts the design, which is their foundation, nay rather, the very soul that conceives and nourishes within itself all the parts of man's intellect, was already most perfect before the creation of all other things, when the Almighty God, having made the great body of the world and having adorned the heavens with their exceeding bright lights, descended lower with His intellect into the clearness of the air and the solidity of the earth, and, shaping man, discovered, together with the lovely creation of all things, the first form of sculpture; from which man afterwards, step by step (and this may not be denied), as from a true pattern, there were taken statues, sculptures, and the science of pose and of outline; and for the first pictures (whatsoever they were), softness, harmony, and the concord in discord that comes from light and shade. Thus, then, the first model whence there issued the first image of man was a lump of clay, and not without reason, seeing that the Divine Architect of time and of nature, being Himself most perfect, wished to show in the imperfection of the material the way to add and to take away; in the same manner wherein the good sculptors and painters are wont to work, who, adding and taking away in their models, bring their imperfect sketches to that final perfection which they desire. He gave to man that most vivid color of flesh, whence afterwards there were drawn for painting, from the mines of the earth, the colors themselves for the counterfeiting of all those things that are required for pictures. It is true, indeed, that it cannot be affirmed for certain what was made by the men before the Flood in these arts in imitation of so beautiful a work, although it is reasonable to believe that they too carved and painted in every manner; seeing that Belus, son of the proud Nimrod, about 200 years after the Flood, caused to be made that statue wherefrom there was afterwards born idolatry, and his son's wife, the very famous Semiramis, Queen of Babylon, in the building of that city, placed among its adornments not only diverse varied kinds of animals, portrayed and colored from nature, but also the image of herself and of Ninus, her husband, and, moreover, statues in bronze of her husband's father, of her husband's mother, and of the mother of the lat- ter, as Diodorus relates, calling them by the Greek names (that did not yet exist) Jove, Juno, and Ops. From these statues, perchance, the Chaldeans learned to make the images of their gods, seeing that 150 years later Rachel, in flying from Mesopotamia together with Jacob her husband, stole the idols of Laban her father, as is clearly related in Genesis. Nor, indeed, were the Chaldeans alone in making sculptures and pictures, but the Egyptians made them also, exercising themselves in these arts with that so great zeal which is shown in the marvelous tomb of the most ancient King Osimandyas, copiously described by Diodorus, and proved by the stern commandment made by Moses in the Exodus from Egypt, namely, that under pain of death there should be made to God no image whatsoever. He, on descending from the mountain, having found the golden calf wrought and adored solemnly by his people, and being greatly perturbed to see Divine honors paid to the image of a beast, not only broke it and reduced it to powder, but for punishment of so great a sin caused many thousands of the wicked sons of Israel to be slain by the Levites.