The life and times of a true Renaissance man who knew everyone—and immortalized them forever.
Art history, by general consensus, began the day an Italian painter named Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) set out to write a subjective yet deeply informed series of sketches of all the major and minor players in Italian art up to his time. The result was The Lives of Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, a foundational text that would establish a pantheon of greatness for centuries to come. In this absorbing and well-researched biography, two experienced art historians—Rowland (Art, Architecture, and Classics/Univ. of Notre Dame Rome Global Gateway; From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town, 2014, etc.) and Charney (The Art of Forgery: The Minds, Motives and Methods of the Master Forgers, 2015, etc.)—map out the endlessly industrious life of one of the original gatekeepers of Western civilization. Although a superb painter who never lacked for work, Vasari regarded himself as minor league. He knew what greatness was and devoted his literary life to explaining it, using Michelangelo, his hero and friend, da Vinci, Titian, Giotto, Cellini, and dozens of others as examples, both pro and con. Vasari set standards by which some artists would live forever and others (not always fairly) would be cast into outer darkness. He was also an early celebrity journalist, although his subjects weren’t famous. In Vasari’s day, the authors write, artists were “mostly manual workers with a spotty education and intensive technical training; by conventional standards, the meanness of their hardscrabble, hardworking lives could hold no interest for aristocratic writers and readers.” Vasari not only made them interesting; he made them gods. Although his facts were sometimes wrong and judgments flawed, he helped create the idea of Art with a capital A.
Rowland and Charney do more than deliver a richly detailed life of this singular Renaissance figure. They raise intriguing questions about how tastes and standards develop.