Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 13, 2011
David Cast The Delight of Art: Giorgio Vasari and the Traditions of Humanist Discourse University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009. 272 pp.; 16 color ills.; 28 b/w ills. Cloth $95.00 (9780271034423)
Thumbnail

If only Giorgio Vasari were as clear and straightforward as Nicolas Poussin. When the French theorist Paul Fréart de Chambray petitioned the artist for his definition of painting, Poussin replied: “It is an imitation made with lines and colors on some surface of everything that is seen under the sun, its end is delight (délectation)” (Lettres et propos sur l’art, Anthony Blunt, ed., Paris: Hermann, 1989, 174). Poussin’s response was deceptively simple, perhaps even coy in answering his somewhat pedantic interlocutor. Both doubtless understood delight to encompass, beyond sensual delectation, the goals of instruction and edification that had dominated humanist discourse on the arts, as assimilated from the theorizing of poetry and rhetoric since antiquity. In the extremely learned and expansive The Delight of Art: Giorgio Vasari and the Traditions of Humanist Discourse, David Cast confronts the opposite scenario. Throughout the Lives of the Artists, and especially in the three prefaces, Vasari maps out the teleology of the arts over the three periods (roughly centuries) his text encompasses, and then defines the technical and theoretical principles for measuring this development. Delight, sheer pleasure in looking and comprehending, is not one of these privileged criteria, and, indeed, so named, it hardly appears in Vasari’s myriad accounts of the impact and power of specific works. At some level—it goes without saying, and perhaps this is why it is unsaid by Vasari—an inherent sense of pleasure motivates the appreciation and wonder that works of art elicit, and this ultimately renders them worthy of the extensive commemoration of their making and their makers in the Lives. Cast aims to read beneath the surface and excavate this implicit aesthetics of delight from the text’s humanistic veneer, most evident in the three prefaces, that posits the arts of design as fundamentally intellectual exercises and, as such, instruments of virtue.

To achieve this, Cast undertakes a novel analytical approach to the text of the Lives, in essence “to read Vasari against himself,” as he put it in an earlier essay that previewed the book (“The Delight of Art: Reading Vasari Against Himself,” in Reading Vasari, Anne B. Barriault et al., eds., Athens: Georgia Museum of Art, 2005, 277–86). Given the claims the Lives would make for the professional status of the practitioners, and the dignity that literary commemoration itself accords human achievement, Vasari couched his narrative and artistic judgments in terms familiar to his collegial literary advisors, such as Paolo Giovio and, later, Vincenzo Borgherini, and the princes they served. Vasari propounded those rational qualities of artistic production that could be verified and measured through the consensus of public discourse, grounded in humanistic learning. Among these are the qualities of disegno, misura, maniera, etc., that Vasari defines at the critical crux of the Lives, the Preface to Part III, dividing the imitative proficiency of Quattrocento diligence from the stylistic refinements among the masters of the third age. Probing beyond the self-consciously theoretical and didactic passages, Cast compiles evidence from throughout the Lives that makes an ad hoc, and implicit, case for delight as a critical desideratum, fundamental to the appreciation and valuation of art, even if not explicitly formulated as such by Vasari.

Cast begins by evaluating two texts that offer contrasting characterizations of delight. In Petrarch’s De remediis, the personification of Reason castigates Joy for her stated delight in the visual arts, as a vain pursuit that impedes spiritual contemplation. Alberti, despite all of the humanistic criteria through which he legitimates the visual arts as faculties of virtù in De Pictura, locates the origin, and fascination, of painting in the intense delight of Narcissus for his image. These alternatives establish the parameters of delight in art, from private absorption to its public subservience to intellectual and spiritual prerogatives. Cast devotes his first chapter to defining the terms that mediate the emergence of delight, of a disinterested aesthetic response, in the text. The most important of these is the distinction between public reception and private response. As Cast explains, “for him [Vasari] art, in its final account, was still to be taken essentially as a product of reasoned judgment, defined within the idea of design. . . . Such a description is essentially concerned with the public value of art, whereas delight is private, a response to more fleeting pleasures than the unchanging truths a public or indeed a philosophical accounting of art attempts” (7). Cast then catalogues the various ways Vasari articulates such a response, bolstered by examples from the biographies. He suggests how Vasari’s usage of terms with a humanistic pedigree such as sweetness and marvel might divulge the kind of intimate and individual aesthetic experience, which otherwise remains latent in the text. Examining Vasari’s individual accounts of artists’ and patrons’ judgment and taste provides further contexts for assessing how delight animated such attitudes. Cast finds most promising those passages where Vasari employs the concept of “attention” and “attending” to convey “a form of mental activity, a giving heed to or directing of the mind toward particular qualities in things” (23–24). One might then postulate that pure delight in a work of art, unmotivated by ulterior purpose, is a mode of attention. Cast suggests that ecstatic reactions to works of art, though not showcased in Vasari, but vividly described by writers as diverse as Girolamo Savonarola (“Sopra il salmo ‘Quam bonus,’” 1493) to epitomize divine love and Benedetto Varchi to eulogize Michelangelo’s artistic wonders, demonstrate how delight can function as a factor of attention. Cast recognizes that disinterested aesthetic judgment as a philosophical category is an Enlightenment concept, but his ingenious consideration of attention and other terms as ciphers of delight renders Vasari’s fundamental text all the more prescient and revolutionary.

The delight Cast seeks is internal to Vasari’s account of artists and their works, not in the construction of the Lives per se as an opus. His concern is not the kind of Barthesian plaisir du texte that Paul Barolsky has exposed in his profound analyses of the tropes and poetic codes through which Vasari fashioned a literary masterpiece (see Michelangelo’s Nose: A Myth and its Maker, University Park: Penn State University Press, 1990; Why Mona Lisa Smiles and Other Tales by Vasari, University Park: Penn State University Press, 1991; and Giotto’s Father and the Family of Vasari’s Lives, University Park: Penn State University Press, 1992; see also the remarkable review of the trilogy by Lynette Bosch in Oxford Art Journal 16 (1993): 62–72). Cast’s book presumes a decent familiarity not only with Vasari’s Lives but also the basic social and intellectual background for Vasari’s unprecedented historical enterprise, so brilliantly synthesized in Patricia Rubin’s work (Giorgio Vasari: Art and History, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995). His second and third chapters allude to much of the material that Rubin’s study systematically examines, but in a more ruminative, and at times provocative, way. Throughout his analysis, Cast returns to the purported inception of the Lives in a conversation between Vasari, Paolo Giovio, and other members of the Farnese circle in the presence of Cardinal Alessandro. It is this origin of the project in casual conversation, as much as such social codes then permitted, and the ultimate consignment of the task to a practicing artist, that Cast finds conducive to Vasari nurturing an embryonic aesthetics of delight, almost despite himself.

Cast likewise maintains a conversational tone and structure throughout the book. This is both its greatest virtue and most serious drawback. At its best, this format accommodates rapid-fire insights that capture the breathless excitement of an animated graduate seminar. At worst, the text spins into excurses, tangents, and asides that appear dislodged from the overall argument, and, very occasionally, unintentionally misleading casual statements remain. See for instance, when Cast considers a particularly interesting consequence of artistic attention—Vasari’s analysis of Rosso Fiorentino’s initial incomprehension of Michelangelo, much as other earlier Florentines such as Fra Bartolomeo and Andrea del Sarto were stifled by the awesome grandeur of his style. This contrasts with the productive emulation of later masters like Salviati and Bronzino, who, Cast surmises, “knew far better than Rosso how to follow the example of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment” (92). The inadvertent implication here is, of course, impossible: Rosso died before the unveiling of the Last Judgment in 1541, having lived in Fontainebleau for his final decade. Such oversights suggest that production of this book would have benefited from an additional campaign of editorial polish. As an object, the volume is beautifully produced, with fine color plates (only referenced in passing), living up to the promise of its title. Yet is it unfortunate that the reader, at times, has to struggle to follow the trajectories of Cast’s nuanced arguments and digressions, however intrinsically fascinating. This is especially true when he ranges far from the delight thesis in the latter parts of the book without weaving his consistently sage observations into the principal thematic thread. Perhaps this is inevitable given the intellectual and structural nimbleness required to reconstruct Vasari’s own elusive acknowledgement of the fundamental importance of delight. In any case, all students of the Aretine polymath will remain indebted to Cast for identifying and adumbrating Vasari’s latent, even suppressed, theory of delight in art.

Jonathan Unglaub
Associate Professor, Department of Fine Arts, Brandeis University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.