Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 10, 2008
Andrew Ladis Victims and Villians in Vasari's Lives Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008. 188 pp.; 11 color ills.; 76 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (9780807831328)

The four essays in this book began as lectures delivered in 2002, and it is fortunate indeed that they have been published here in so elegant and timely a form. Each develops a theme from Vasari’s Vite that has been in plain view, but overlooked, and presents it gracefully. This volume stands as a fitting tribute to its author (1949–2007), whose consistent interest in verbal description of artists and their art leads to strategies offering illuminating interpretations.

The starting point for chapter 1, “The Sorcerer’s ‘O’ (and the Painter Who Wasn’t There),” is the anecdote of Giotto’s “O,” which indicates the gulf between brilliance and stupidity. The papal courier requested from Giotto “some little drawing” as a demonstration of his skill. Giotto drew a perfect circle with a simple yet expert gesture, at which the courier mocked. When the pope saw the drawing, however, he was amazed by the artist’s skill. Vasari termed the courier “di grossa pasta,” or noodle-brain, and noted that the episode gave rise to the phrase, “Tu sei più tondo che l’O di Giotto,” indicating a dense, fat, or stupid person. Whether his anecdotes were true, half-true, or completely fabricated, Vasari calculated them to convey truths about values and qualities in art, artists, or viewers. In the context of the Lives, these anecdotes offer a continual play between heroes and antiheroes, set against one another for greater effect. Not only does Ladis find these complementary characters in Vasari’s own cast, but he finds them also in images. The Arena Chapel’s Wedding at Cana (after 1305) shows a rotund man who physically, morally, and symbolically embodies stupidity. Just as the courier regarded Giotto’s “O” with incomprehension, the man who drinks at Cana cannot understand Christ’s miracle of turning water to wine. Giotto serves as the thread that unifies these essays, for he established standards in Vasari’s three ages of Italian artistic glory.

Chapter 2, “Hagiography and Obloquy for a Silver Age,” pits the exalted Brunelleschi, Donatello, Masaccio, Domenico Veneziano, and Fra Angelico against the irrepressibly amorous Filippo Lippi and the murderous Andrea Castagno. Each of these emerges as a distinct personality, with a role in the grand scheme of Vasari’s second stage, the Quattrocento, in the development of art toward the culminating figure of Michelangelo. Artistically, Masaccio is the hero, as it is in the Brancacci Chapel where the next few generations of artists will study.

Chapter 3, “Perugino and the Wages of Fortune,” commences by considering the critical fate of Perugino in the nineteenth century, and then reassesses Vasari’s life of Perugino for its principal theme, fortune, which here indicates both money and fate. The narrative is framed by two anecdotes, which serve to demonstrate that Perugino turned from a young man desirous to teach a miser a lesson into a miser himself. Early in his career, Perugino worked for a prior who had a large quantity of ultramarine to use in a fresco, and who supervised the artist as he applied it to the wall; “having a vase for the blue and a basin of water, Perugino dipped his brush in the basin at every other stroke, so that the blue quickly disappeared into the basin without much progress in the picture” (75). When the painting was finished, Perugino recovered a quantity of ultramarine from the bottom of the basin to show the prior that he should trust honest people. Inverting this moral, the last anecdote in Perugino’s life concerns the artist, “who trusted nobody,” and carried all his money with him; traveling between Castello and Perugia, he was robbed by some men who knew his habits. Perugino was extremely successful throughout his career, although he lived long enough to see Raphael and Michelangelo supplant his position.

Chapter 4, “Identity and Imperfection in the Shadow of Michelangelo,” considers those artists who coexisted, intersected, or competed with Michelangelo. “Vasari’s recurring biographical strategy is to suggest a symmetry between identity and art” (96). In this way, Michelangelo’s name suggests volition and judgment, as the archangel Michael judges good and evil on the Day of Wrath, and as aesthetic judgment frames the Lives. Raphael Santi is as saintly as his name, and, of course, Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, known as Il Sodoma, had an unnatural and intense fascination with beardless youths and animals. Vasari explained the relief by Properzia de’ Rossi of Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (1520s; S. Petronio, Bologna) in autobiographical terms: Properzia was in love with a man who spurned her, just as Joseph rejected Potiphar’s wife, and carved the relief to get rid of her passionate feelings. With no corroboration of such a congruence of her love life and the relief, Vasari suggests how easily the circumstances of an artist’s life elide with her art. Against Michelangelo’s heroic power, Bandinelli did not have much of a chance in any case. Vasari castigates Bandinelli’s character for embodying the seven vices, and his art for arrogance.

This nuanced reading of Vasari should encourage us all to turn to the original text, to discover other patterns and rhetorical devices. Vasari’s purposefulness in narrating artists’ lives and describing their art is by now well established, yet there is much still to be analyzed. The reception of Vasari’s Vite has been only partly examined. Vasari’s readership, for example, is generally assumed to be nearly universal among connoisseurs and collectors in Italy, from the first publications of 1550 and 1568, but what about other regions? Carel van Mander translated the Italian lives into Dutch (1604), thus making the Renaissance in Italy accessible to Netherlanders who did not read Italian. Van Mander’s revisions of Vasari have generally been ignored, yet they reveal a discerning approach that streamlines the Vasarian text in some biographies, and adds observations concerning prints. In the Netherlands, a few art collectors in the seventeenth century learned Italian by reading Vasari’s original text; some illustrated it as well, as Jan de Bisschop did in his drawings. The Dutch readers with access to a print collection could relate images to Van Mander’s biographies. Among these was Rembrandt, who made reference to Giotto’s “O” in his own late self portrait (1660s; Kenwood, Iveagh Bequest). And explicitly or implicitly, the biographers Joachim von Sandrart and Arnold Houbraken applied Vasari’s interdependence of biography and art to their lives of artists, and most egregiously, of Rembrandt.

Amy Golahny
Richmond Professor Emerita, Lycoming College

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