Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 13, 2014
Sharon Gregory Vasari and the Renaissance Print Visual Culture in Early Modernity.. Burlington: Ashgate, 2012. 460 pp.; 12 color ills.; 140 b/w ills. Cloth $124.95 (9781409429265)
Thumbnail

Sharon Gregory’s Vasari and the Renaissance Print lays out in orderly fashion the story of prints as told by, and used by, Giorgio Vasari. The strength of the book is its wide-ranging inclusion of all types of print interactions, along with a catalogue of prints mentioned in the Lives. Acknowledging her debt (8) to Patricia Rubin’s landmark book, Giorgio Vasari: Art and History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), Gregory focuses attention on Vasari’s inclusion in his second edition (1568) of a history of printmaking embedded in the life of Marcantonio Raimondi. She carefully traces Vasari’s mentions of prints and printmakers in the Lives, beginning in Florence, moving to Venice (including the debate over whether Andrea Mantegna actually made any prints), then shifting north to discuss Martin Schongauer, Albrecht Dürer, and Lucas van Leyden, among others. Topics touched upon are Raimondi and his collaborators, the role of print publishers, and chiaroscuro woodcuts. Gregory discerns Vasari’s dislike of print sellers who unfairly gained profits from the work of others. Gregory argues against scholars such as David Landau (8–9, 13), Evelina Borea (25–26, 37), and Lisa Pon (4–5) on a number of issues. One important corrective Gregory makes is that Vasari’s text does not prove he was more interested in designers than engravers; instead, he stressed the artists’ products in their separate biographies, while in the section inserted into Raimondi’s life he focused on the printmakers, an organizational strategy that focuses much more attention on the designers than the printmakers, inadvertently leaving the impression that Vasari considered the designers more important than the printmakers.

Chapter 1, “Vasari and the History of Printmaking,” reviews the history of print collecting and collections in the sixteenth century, including ones that Vasari might have known. Especially pertinent is the collection of Don Vincenzo Borghini, the Prior of the Hospital of the Innocents and “Luogotenente” of the Accademia del Disegno, the central figure in devising ducal iconographical programs from the mid-century until his death in 1580, and an advisor to Vasari in the writing of the second edition of the Lives. It would have strengthened Gregory’s argument to incorporate more than a fleeting mention of Borghini’s print collection (42). Two essential sources should be added to the bibliography, R. A. Scorza’s “Vincenzo Borghini (1515–1580) as Iconographic Advisor” (PhD thesis, Warburg Institute, 1987), which included manuscript extracts recording Borghini’s purchases of prints and illustrated books from the Giunti; and Gustavo Bertoli’s “Conti e corrispondenza di don Vincenzio Borghini con i Giunti stampatori e librai di Firenze” (Studi sul Boccaccio 31 (1993): 279–358), which contained the relevant documents in their entirety.

Gregory reviews the printed books mentioned by Vasari in the Lives, noting that although Vasari’s inventory listed only one book among his possessions, books, like prints, were regularly borrowed, and so Vasari could have drawn upon the library of Borghini. Other libraries in Florence to which Vasari had access included those of Giovanni Mazzuoli called Lo Stradino (whose contents were assumed into the Medici library in the 1550s), Giovan Battista Strozzi, and Giovan Battista Gelli. A rather specialized book that stands out among those mentioned by Vasari in the Lives is the Giardino dei Pensieri (1540), published by the Venetian Francesco Marcolini, with whom, Gregory shows, Vasari may have had artistic dealings. As Gregory points out, according to Alessandro Nova, Vasari supplied drawings for books by Pietro Aretino that were also published by Marcolini; thus Vasari’s connections to this specific publisher are now fleshed out.

A most entertaining section is that on the woodblock portraits of artists in the 1568 edition of the Lives. The precise identity of the woodcutter who produced the blocks is elusive. Scholars had identified him as Cristofano Coriolano, who is known to have worked for Ulisse Aldrovandi, but investigation into Coriolano seems to eliminate him from contention (see Stefano De Rosa, “La bottega artistica di Ulisse Aldrovandi in una lettera inedita di Cristoforo Coriolano da Norimberga,” Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz 25 (1981): 391–98). Gregory comes to the same conclusion as De Rosa, although he is not cited, that the artist responsible for cutting the portrait wood blocks was Cristoforo Chrieger. Vasari had hoped to find credible likenesses for each artist, but in some cases this was impossible, so no artist portrait was included. Physiognomy and clothing were thoughtfully adjusted to imbue the subjects with desired traits. Gregory’s lively account reminds us to keep an eye on those fur collars (101)!

Gregory tackles a number of crucial questions about Vasari’s use of prints as a research aid in writing the Lives. Did Vasari use prints to describe works he had seen but did not completely recall? Did he use them to describe works he had never personally seen? Gregory’s discussion of the possibilities is quite good, but rightly measured because the evidence is inconclusive. On the one hand, the work of Bernadine Barnes has shown that Vasari may have consulted engravings of the Pauline Chapel as he prepared the second edition of the Lives (1568) (cited in Gregory’s text on p. 143 [Bernadine Barnes, Michelangelo in Print: Reproductions as a Response in the Sixteenth Century, Burlington: Ashgate, 2010]). On the other, although Vasari praised as “beautiful” a print after Raphael’s Lo Spasimo (ca. 1516) this does not prove that Vasari had the print before him when he came to describe the painting in the biography of Raphael. Vasari frequently described and praised as “beautiful” works of art he never saw. In addition, Gregory notes a case in which Vasari can be shown to have knowledge between the first and second editions of a print after Perino del Vaga, information that should have caused him to revise his text, but he failed to do so (137). All of this points to two seriously underestimated aspects of Vasari’s text and the culture in which it was produced. First, as Judith Bryce has shown, the oral tradition was vital in the early modern period (“The Oral World of the Early Accademia Fiorentina,” Renaissance Studies 9 (1995): 77–103), and Vasari’s text is dotted with asides claiming that the information was told to him by someone. Second, the number of oversights and mistakes in Vasari’s Lives is legend. The larger project interested him more than the details.

In chapter 4, “Prints in the Artist’s Workshop,” Gregory examines the influence of prints on the draftsmanship of various artists. This influence has long been associated with the appropriation of motifs, not only the lifting of landscapes and cityscapes from Northern prints, but also the use of compositional and figural elements by Andrea del Sarto, Jacopo da Pontormo, Agnolo Bronzino, Giovanni Battista Naldini, and Vasari himself. In an interesting section Gregory also traces the very style of some Florentine draftsmanship to prints. For example, she cites a comparison published by Francis Ames-Lewis, “stimulated in part by an unpublished conference paper of 1983 in which Patricia Rubin argued that Ghirlandaio’s pen technique . . . echoed that of Schongauer’s burin” (163). The unpublished paper is included in the bibliography. Another instance is that of Baccio Bandinelli, whose drawing technique does betray the influence of prints. But Leonardo da Vinci’s superb Head of Christ (ca. 1490) is unconvincingly described as copied from Schongauer’s Samson Rending the Lion woodcut of 1497–98. The differences outweigh the generic similarity. In any event, one wonders why pertinent literature on the Leonardo drawing is not cited, such as the 2003 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman, in which this drawing is cat. no. 62 (423–26); or that a comparison to Schongauer already was suggested by David Alan Brown in 1987 (as is discussed in the entry to the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition). Throughout the book there is a tendency to use Vasari quotations alone for information, but this impoverishes the record when there is also serious scholarly investigation on the same material. On Michelangelo’s noble birth only Vasari is footnoted (99), but there is also William E. Wallace’s “How Did Michelangelo Become a Sculptor” (in Pietro C. Marani, ed., Michelangelo: The Genius of the Sculptor in Michelangelo’s Work, exh. cat., Montreal: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1992, 152–53). In another case, Gregory misidentifies the goldsmith Bernardo Baldini (10–11), apparently unaware that he was a court artist and colleague of Vasari’s in the 1560s. Knowing this would have made her argument much more convincing.

A section on Andrea del Sarto and Pontormo seeks to present Vasari’s different attitude toward their use of prints. Gregory’s interpretation is that while Vasari was frustrated by Andrea’s failure to embellish and ornament, he was equally disturbed by Pontormo’s excess of “inventiveness” in that department. Her treatment considers pertinent motifs, quotations from Vasari, and her own interpretations. Little critical commentary is included on the influence of Northern prints on art in Italy, Andrea and Pontormo’s use of Northern motifs, or on Vasari’s positions and critical take on these matters. Arguments such as that of Antonio Natali, who completely rejects Vasari’s analysis of how Andrea used the prints (Andrea del Sarto: maestro della “maniera moderna,” Milan: Leonardo arte, 1998: 70), claiming instead that Andrea does not just take individual details but that he creates a higher-order synthesis, are not taken into account.

In many instances in Vasari and the Renaissance Print there is insufficient engagement with leading scholars’ ideas, which results in a historiographic weakness. It was not only Dürer’s influence to which Vasari referred, but also that of Northern prints. Thus a study such as Craig Harbison’s “Pontormo, Baldung, and the Early Reformation” (The Art Bulletin 66, no. 2 [June 1984]: 324–27) might have been included in order to expand the sample of Northern print sources that influenced artists in Vasari’s Lives. Art history was once very interested in Northern print influences on Italian/Florentine art, but that is not much signaled in the present book. An application of a theoretical and/or historiographical sensibility to the material would require engaging with Walter Friedlaender’s pathbreaking (at the time, 1925–30) passages on Pontormo at the Certosa and his exploration of Northern prints for their essential character as “un-sensual and its connection with heightened spiritual expression” (Mannerism and Anti-Mannerism in Italian Painting, New York: Columbia University Press, 1965, 25). Or the “medievalism” once spied in that use and still noted in recent literature such as Antonio Pinelli’s La bella maniera (Turin: Einaudi, 1993, 74). These and other contributions, such as Emil Waldmann’s “Dürers Wirkung auf seine italienische Zeitgenossen” (Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst 65 (1932): 208–10) or Cecil Gould’s “On Dürer’s Graphic and Italian Painting” (Gazette des Beaux-Arts [February 1970]: 103–16), could also have been considered. Nevertheless, Vasari and the Renaissance Print is a useful and wide-ranging introduction to the manifold influence of prints.

Elizabeth Pilliod
Department of Fine Arts, Rutgers University–Camden

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