Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 7, 1999
Philip Jacks, ed. Vasari’s Florence: Artists and Literati at the Medicean Court New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 320 pp.; 12 color ills.; 109 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (0521580889)

This collection consists of fourteen papers presented at an international conference held in conjunction with an exhibit of drawings by Vasari and related artists at the Yale University Art Gallery in 1994. A companion catalogue by Maia Gahtan and Philip Jacks, bearing the same title as this volume (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994) describes the role of disegno in Vasari’s artistic production. Conference acts (often generated by exhibitions) have become a convenient way of circulating new ideas beyond the circle of scholars who attend the proceedings. This admirable goal, however, is frequently sabotaged by a long gestation period during which new insights are rendered obsolete by intervening publications. Happily, this is not the case with this collection in which several essays cover the same territory from different perspectives. The reader can now conveniently check cross-referenced material and conflicting interpretations, a distinct and enriching advantage over the transience of oral delivery.

Jacks provides the reader with a synoptic overview of the historiography of Vasari as letterato, as well as summaries of the individual papers, five appendices of documents, and a useful bibliography. Two documents from the Spinelli Archive in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale give us precious information about Vasari’s workshop practice along with payment information. Such discoveries from the Yale archive were the original impetus for the conference and explain the numerous archival references and the contextual approach of the book.

The collection is grouped into four chapters on the Vite, Literati, collecting, and Vasari’s oeuvre. They provide contextual background for a number of understudied works of art from the second half of the century, culminating with the frescoes on the dome of Florence Cathedral. With one exception, all the essays relate to Vasari’s residence in Florence from 1555 to his death in 1574. Effectively, the volume addresses a particularly rich period of Florentine history that, until recently, was largely neglected for earlier, more dramatic events. The dates inscribe a stable and prosperous time of tightened Ducal control, which, despite some tensions between internal factions, permitted the making of art on a scale with (and in imitation of) the quattrocento patronage of Lorenzo il Magnifico.

John Shearman’s essay in the first section “Biographical Genre,” addresses the subject of “seeing” in the Vite. Vasari’s belief in the necessity of first hand viewing of works of art or what Shearman aptly calls “visual autopsy,” is an idea that should stimulate a rereading of the frequently nonvisual descriptions found in the Vite. The relationship of this viewpoint to twentieth-century “reading” (rather than “seeing”) of works of art deserves to be explored further in relation to the moralizing subtexts that accompany Vasari’s ekphrases. Shearman leads the way by pointing out the essential conflict of Vasari’s sincera verita with the Renaissance conception of history’s moral purpose and the artist/author’s self-image.

Several other contributors translate Leonardo’s warning: “every artist paints himself” into a literary topos that all biographers, Vasari in particular, write their own biographies in those of others. Shearman intuits that Vasari’s choice of personal exemplars reflects an inner conflict between what he considered greatness in an artist and his own more limited capacities. In a more socio-psychological vein, Elizabeth Pilliod analyzes Vasari’s motives for “damning with faint praise” (or none at all), that is, the basis for his choice and treatment of artists. While exclusion from his canon surely reflects his personal response to Florentine competitiveness and was appropriate revenge for Vasari’s own exclusion from the Accademia Fiorentina (a wrong righted when he formed the Accademia del Disegno), other reasons are not explored. Pilliod recognizes the key role of Pierfrancesco Riccio, Cosimo’s majordomo, but skirts the question of whether religious alliances may have influenced the formation of setti among artists working for the court, a topic debated in current scholarship. It may prove useful to look to other culturally grounded, causes for “patronage,” especially in gray areas where documents are ambiguous and coded.

Paul Barolsky moves away from personal bias in the biographies to describe Vasari’s linguistic play, viewing word tricks as transpositions from the realm of pictorial deception. Barolsky’s own skill in slipping back and forth from the verbal to the visual to unravel the tapestry of names, labels, and folk tales used in the Vite, parallels as it demonstrates Vasari’s skill as verbal “trickster.” By informing ourselves of the literary devices lurking beneath Vasari’s stylistic labels, the enlightened reader can presumably avoid embarrassing identification with the ignorant patron, dupe of the clever artist, portrayed in the episodes Barolsky enumerates. These different readings of the Vite remind us of the discipline’s increasing awareness and acceptance of the leaven of subjectivity, not only in our “reading” of texts, but in the texts themselves.

Section Two, on Literati, extends the themes of the first group of essays. David Cast focuses on the terminology of the Vite, specifically the use of the Aristotelian term pratica. The transferrence of the word from philosophical discourse carried an ethical dimension that supported Vasari’s need to attach moral values to art. Cast stresses the importance of the mid-cinquecento commentaries on Aristotle by Bernardo Segni, an influence generally overlooked in the literature on theory. The sense of “effortless creativity,” that Paolo Rossi perceives in Cellini’s self-created image is seen as a sort of sprezzatura of the pen comparable to his visual fantasies. The identification of the artist’s character with those qualities described as inherent in his art properly belongs to the history of style. Reversed, as a biographical technique, it finds resonance in Rossi’s analysis of Cellini’s autobiography. Rossi proposes higher status as the impetus for Cellini’s literary pretensions; a comparable desire to imitate princely activities, is suggested as a motivation for Vasari’s collecting by Catherine Monbeig Goguel.

Four articles on Vasari as Collezionista tie the drawings in the exhibition to the papers on the Vite. Goguel views Vasari’s assembling of the Libro de’ Disegni not merely as a parallel activity but as a preparation for his compilation of the Lives. Just as the writer Vasari took Raphael as his biographical model, so Florian Harb proposes that the artist Vasari depended on Raphael for his ultima maniera. Discussing Vasari’s limited collection of antiquities, Goguel underscores their function as prestigious gifts to patrons and their value as commodities exchangeable for benefices. Vasari’s appreciation of Tommaso Porta’s ability to contraffare antiquities as a skill rather than as forgery is observed by Goguel along with its importance for questions of authenticity in relation to attribution. Focus on Vasari’s ownership of particular paintings by Piero di Cosimo and Parmigianino leads Alessandro Cecchi to reclaim a decorative ensemble—a series of allegorical virtues made for the Palazzo Vecchio. Creighton Gilbert redates the inventory of a group of works from Vasari’s collection listed in the Spinelli Archive (Appendix III, pp. 143–46) to the 17th from the 16th century, the period of its ownership by Vasari. Gilbert’s approach sends a cautionary word to those engaged in archival activities: a document can be as open to interpretation as a signed drawing—a subject deserving a conference of its own.

The final section of the collection, “Istoria and the Representation of History,” includes five essays in which istoria and invenzione are viewed exclusively as support for princely and papal ambitions. Robert Williams, Rick Scorza, and Henk Th. Van Veen deal with Vasari’s frescoes for Cosimo I in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence; each emphasizes Cosimo’s manipulation of Vasari’s decorations. Though they don’t always agree in their interpretations, all utilize preliminary drawings and schema, finished paintings and literary and archival sources to demonstrate changes in the meaning of programs over time. Jan De Jong’s discussion of the frescoes for Pius IV and Gregory XIII in the Sala Regia in the Vatican (the only non-Florentine subject among the essays) treats a similar propagandistic project in papal Rome, which raises the crucial questions of audience and reception in determining the “true” subject of an historical painting.

Finally, Cristina Acidini’s essay combines material from the Spinelli Archive (Appendix V, pp. 248–252) with conservation data on the dome of Florence Cathedral. Scrutinized under the lens of connoisseurship, the data results in a reconsideration of the hands in the completed fresco, particularly the role of the Bolognese artist Lorenzo Sabatini. This essay splendidly demonstrates, as do many of the others, that more than one approach is needed to resolve problems of authorship. The collection as a whole also demonstrates that archival tools, like the works of art they record, can be exploited to produce conflicting conclusions.

Leatrice Mendelsohn
New York City