Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Vasari Invented the Renaissance by Alicia Harris

Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q. 1919

Who is it that establishes what we study as students of the history of art? I have been reading Vasari lately, attempting to come to terms with my deep-rooted distaste for the Renaissance (that is fodder for an entirely different discussion). I am left wondering what it is that makes Vasari such an unmatched authority on all things “Renaissance”. How is it that this man became the single authority on the subject? Were not many of the artists about whom he wrote his close associates and friends? Perhaps if I kept a log on the lives of my artist friends, with all of my invested biases and personal preferences coupled with my admittedly limited scope, I could become the “Vasari” of the early 21st century. Would I be able to insist that my friends were entirely removed from the actual system from which they came?As Vasari did when he venerate Michalangelo to the point of idolatry? Could I suggest that they are entirely removed from the system, which produced them? Could I deny their context?
My contention is this: without Vasari's writings, we would have no time period to reference as the Renaissance. The specific names of artists, like the unknown artisans of the Dark Ages, would have continued as unfamiliar iterations of random artistry or craft. Can we, as scholars in the 21st century, trust the ideas of one person as a source upon which we base a study of an entire era of history? Don’t we require more than one source in our own contemporary practice? How can we persist in heralding the Renaissance as the pinnacle of the history of art when it is (quite possible) an a-contextual fabrication from the mind of Vasari?


  1. I think it is dangerous to continue heralding the Italian Renaissance as the apex of art history. But, I think a lot of Vasari's judgments were correct. Although he obviously made a lot of mistakes - the artists he wrote about created amazing and significant works of art. And, although our glorification of this moment of time might come from a biased and prejudiced source - history has cemented the Italian Renaissance as a critical time in art history, because of how much it has influenced those who followed. Art history would be entirely different if Vasari was writing in the middle ages and celebrated Byzantine Mosaic artists. Perhaps instead of Duchamp drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa, he would have drawn one on Empress Theodora. Right or wrong, justified or not, the Italian Ren is still incredibly important and we don't have to "persist in heralding" it as "the pinnacle of the history of art" but we do need to realize its significance - even if it is an "a-contextual fabrication from the mind of Vasari."

    Great post Alicia!

  2. Vasari, like almost everything in this world, should be appreciated for what he is, but taken with a grain of salt (ie. he tells a good tale, but it is probably not TRUE). Beyond that, I agree with Emily that it is dangerous to call the Renaissance the '"apex" (or really to call any one moment the apex). If there is one thing I become more convinced of as I study is that history is that instead of one high point/low point, there are a series of phases of greater and lesser degrees of abstraction. History is not pyramidal, it is more of a roller coaster, a little like Yeat's gyres. However, I do think that it is important to view Renaissance serves as a sort of standard, because whether we like it or not, almost all art since then has been a reaction to it. And the colors are pretty.

  3. I read vasari when i was 17 in preparation for my first trip to Italy, and he was somewhat my guide through Giotto's frescoes in Santa Croce etc. But even then I was like, ok dude - why all the obvious belittling of the non-Florentines? He treats the Siennese, like Duccio, or especially the Venetians with total disrespect as on par with the prejudices of his time. So that was disappointing, but what was even more disappointing was my first semester at BYU taking Italian Renaissance art and it was basically derived directly from Vasari's "Lives of the Artists." No further inquiry or questioning or anything - I was so so disappointed. While I think Vasari is fun reading and is actually helpful in some instances, we totally need to move past his dominance. In other words I completely agree with you, and took way too long to say that.

  4. Julianne-
    I think you really got at the heart of my major concern when you said that there was, "no further inquiry or questioning or anything." I am challenging academia itself to a more rigorous standard and a more theoretical (rather than biographical or iconographic) approach to this time period. If it's worth studying (which I think it probably is (might be??)), then it's worth studying theoretically. Especially at BYU, whose theoretical approach to the history of art is one of its most alluring qualities.

  5. I must admit, I am only recently starting to lift my brain out of the fog of mystification that surrounds the Renaissance. I think Vasari had a great part to play in this, but there is also an equal amount of blame to be levelled at the 18th and 19th Century writers who blew the Renaissance trumpet way too loud. Rather than showing it as a step on the ladder in the evolution of human image making, it has been overly romanticised as a rebirth from the primordial darkness preceding it....which is quite frankly a load of hogwash.

    Mixed in with this is the bum wrap the middle ages and Eastern art forms were given, not only by writers like Vasari, but Voltaire, Gibbon and Burckhardt.

    I'm glad the web is becoming a stronger bed of resources for students and casual observers alike to start getting the full picture about the glory of artistic expression in a truly global, historical context.

    Keep up the great work!

    Kind Regards
    H Niyazi