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This text contains a mixture of bibliographical and historical information regarding Ghiberti’s life and the circumstances in which he received the commission for the doors for the Baptistery of San Giovanni, next to the Duomo in Florence. It contains factual information regarding the background and training of the artist; the participants and judges of the competition to win the contract; descriptive information about the location of the door, its manufacture and some of the practical difficulties experienced by Ghiberti whilst working on it. The text therefore gives information that is helpful to the historian in understanding some of the facts surrounding the production of art in fifteenth century Florence and the circumstances of production of one particular artistic creation. However, to regard this as a purely objective historical account would be a mistake. Rubin (1995, 2) comments that ‘the components of Vasari’s history had generic precedents and parallels in biography, technical treatises, and didactic literature, both classical and contemporary’. Vasari was able to fuse the elements of these different genres in order to situate Ghiberti (and the other artists in The Lives) within a developing tradition of artistic enterprise and to create a history of art that included aesthetic judgement. Vasari’s teleological view of the development of art goes beyond mere biographical and historical description and this aspect of his work is particularly important because it gives the modern reader information about how artists of the later Renaissance period viewed artistic products from an earlier time and also how a theoretical stance towards the nature of art was being developed.
Having grown up as the son of an artisan, Vasari had received part of his education in his home town of Arezzo and then spent a part of his adolescence with the Medici family, who were at that time the most prominent family in Florence. It was among their children that he furthered his education and was undoubtedly exposed to the humanist curriculum that would have been a part of their education at that time. Although Vasari would not have had a university education, he was nonetheless familiar with the basics of humanist thought. Vasari’s own life, therefore, exemplified the way in which art had become a vital part of aristocratic life and education and how it gave practitioners of the arts an entry into the highest parts of society. Whilst earlier generations of painters and sculptors had been regarded merely as craftsmen and had worked relatively anonymously, by Vasari’s time individual artists were able to capitalise on their reputations to gain high financial remuneration as well as fame. The text reveals that Ghiberti’s father had these two goals in mind when he urged Ghiberti to come back to Florence to enter the competition, which would be ‘an occasion to make himself known and demonstrate his genius’ and also that, if his son gained recognition as a sculptor, ‘neither … would ever again need to labour at making ear-rings’. The ambitious artist was, therefore, able to advance his career and wealth through winning great commissions.
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Welch (1997, 125) observes that ‘by the mid-fourteenth century a number of Italian artists, particularly in Tuscany, seem to have been aware of the need to promote themselves and their memory, either by writing themselves or by encouraging others to write about them‘. It is within this tradition that Vasari wrote his The Lives. In classical times, writers such as Plutarch and Pliny had written biographical works about famous men’s lives and the Renaissance preoccupation with the revival of antiquity provided a stimulus for this genre of biography that is focussed on the rhetorical practice of praising worthy and famous men, including artists (Pliny’s Natural History provided the model for writing about artists of Graeco-Roman antiquity (Welch, 1997, 125)). Ghiberti himself had written Commentaries, a work that included a section on antiquity, another on his own autobiography, and a third on the theory of optical illusion. This is the work to which Vasari refers in the text. Vasari alludes to Ghiberti’s use of Pliny as a model and he thus demonstrates that they are all, in their different ways, participating in an ancient tradition of writing about art and that they are all seeking a form of immortality through writing as well as through making art.
Yet Vasari is somewhat disparaging in his comments on Ghiberti as a writer and his criticism may derive from the context in which he was practicing his own art. The courtly values of ease, modesty and gracefulness as exemplified in Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier had come to dominate the world of the Renaissance courts in which Vasari worked and may have been the cause of his disdain for the Ghiberti’s ‘vulgar tone’ and his condemnation of Ghiberti’s brief treatment of the ancient painters in favour of a lengthy and detailed ‘discourse about himself’. Cole (1995, 176) argues that Vasari was influenced by Castiglione in that he ‘urged the artist to disguise his labour and study and stress his facilita (ease) and prestezza (quickness of execution)’. It may have been that Vasari perceived that Ghiberti had not lived up to this artistic ideal in his writing. Another earlier writer on art, Leon Battista Alberti, had ’always stressed the joining of diligenza (diligence) with prestezza’ (Cole, 1995, 176). The influence of such aesthetic values are revealed in many of the judgements that Vasari makes; in the text, his comments on the relative merits of the submissions for the competition include technical terms that are still used today, such as ‘composition’ and ‘design’, but he also uses terms such as ‘grace’ and ’diligence’ which have a rather more specific relationship to their Renaissance context.
The text does not only reveal the courtly values that were a part of Vasari’s aesthetic. Florence had a long tradition of civic and republican values and Vasari’s account shows the ways in which the guilds and the Commune, together with ordinary citizens, all had a part to play in Ghiberti’s enterprise. Whilst the guild of Merchants had set up the competition, the location of the door in the Baptistery nonetheless has a civic and religious function that would have made it a very public work of art. Ghiberti’s practice of appealing to popular taste is revealed in Vasari’s’ description of him ‘ever inviting the citizens, and sometimes any passing stranger who had some knowledge of the art, to see his work, in order to hear what they thought, and those opinions enabled him to execute a model very well wrought and without one defect’. Peter Burke (2000, 76) comments on the value of Vasari as a source for the evidence of a popular response to art in Florence and the ways in which ‘ordinary people, craftsmen and shopkeepers, were not only familiar with the names of the leading artists of their city, past and present, but they were not afraid to offer opinions – often critical opinions – about the value of particular works.’ Vasari’s work thus shows evidence of civic as well as courtly values and demonstrates the phenomenon of the artist who had particularly frequent opportunities for mobility, both geographically and socially, in the Renaissance period.
Vasari’s book was divided into three parts that corresponded to three ‘ages’ of Renaissance art, roughly equivalent to the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This corresponded to Vasari’s view of the art history of the Renaissance as a progression towards increasing perfection. In the text, this teleological view is revealed in Vasari’s description of Ghiberti’s relationship with his father. Vasari attributes the initial prompting to compete to Ghiberti’s father, who wrote to Ghiberti ‘urging him to return to Florence in order to give a proof of his powers’, Ghiberti is also described as having ‘from his earliest years learnt the art of the goldsmith from his father’, yet ‘he became much better therein than his father’. Vasari thus uses his description of Ghiberti’s career to make the point that each generation has a debt to the past and can gain skill and knowledge from the past, and yet each generation exceeds the previous one and participates in the forward progression of artistic development. The Renaissance was a period in which the use of the past was a particular feature and the revival of antiquity was not restricted to the increased knowledge of ancient texts. In describing Ghiberti’s career, Vasari also reveals the vogue for casting medals in the ancient style and for portraiture that was based on the coins and medals of the Roman era, when he comments that ‘he also delighted in counterfeiting the dies of ancient medals, and he portrayed many of his friends from the life in his time’.
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The more recent past was also an important source for the Renaissance artist, as described by Vasari. In the text, Vasari makes it clear that Ghiberti owes a debt to both Giotto and Pisano: ‘the arrangement of the scenes was similar to that which Andrea Pisano had formerly made in the first door, which Giotto designed for him.’ Again, though, Ghiberti is held to have exceeded their artistry and progressed beyond the ’old manner of Giotto’s time’ to ’the manner of the moderns’. Vasari thus reveals that there was, during the Renaissance period, a self-consciousness about artistic production and the theory of art. There was a definite perception of ’modernity’ with respect to what was then current and a tendency to reject the type of style that was though to be in the ‘old manner’.
Much that is found in Vasari is still useful to our study of Renaissance art. He provides many useful factual details, such as the names and cities of the competitors for the Baptistery door commission, and the information that many foreigners were present and participating in the artistic life of Florence. He also provides evidence of the factors that affected aesthetic judgement during the period. He provides a great deal of evidence of contemporary practices and attitudes and his allusions to specific writers and works from antiquity provide us with evidence of how the study of the classical period influenced the thought and practices of Renaissance artists. His work enables us to see how the artists of the later Renaissance period were assimilating and judging the work of their immediate predecessors from the period of Cimabue and Giotto onwards. In this text, we also have an example of the way in which Vasari gives us evidence of how artists trained, when he states that Ghiberti worked on small reliefs ‘knowing very well that [they] are the drawing-exercises of sculptors’. His description of the competition also gives us evidence of the competitive spirit in which art was created, when he states that ‘with all zeal and diligence they exerted all their strength and knowledge in order to surpass one another’. Vasari also shows the ways in which different individuals felt empowered to judge art – either through formal means by being appointed by the guild as judges or through the informal means of ordinary citizens giving their opinions directly to Ghiberti. In all of these ways, Vasari gives us not only information not only about artists and the circumstances of the production of art, but also, crucially, about its audience – who they were and what they thought about it.
Vasari’s emphasis on Florence (and Tuscany) as the major site of the genius of the Renaissance also still influences the modern study of art history, as does the ways in which he has framed artistic development as a progression from cruder and more naïve forms to the greater subtlety and ‘perfection’ of the later Renaissance. In some ways, it may be that this has been a negative influence: perhaps other parts of Italy and further afield in Europe have suffered a neglect and lack of interest as a result of this (arguably) over-emphasis on Florence. It may also be that the sense of progression has given a higher value to later works of art than those of earlier periods and that this has also caused too much emphasis on what is not known as the High Renaissance period and a neglect of other periods. Nonetheless, it cannot be in doubt that Vasari has made an important contribution to art history on his work The Lives and it is this contribution that has led him to be termed, by some, the first art historian.
Castiglione, Baldasar, The Book of the Courtier, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.
Vasari, Giorgio, Lives of the Artists, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.
Boase, T.S.R., Georgio Vasari: the Man and the Book, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.
Burke, Peter, ‘Learned Culture and Popular Culture in renaissance Italy’, in Whitlock, Keith, ed., The Renaissance in Europe: A Reader, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2000.
Cole, Alison, Virtue and Magnificence: Art of the Italian Renaissance Courts, New York: Harry N Abrams, 1995.
Rubin, Patricia Lee, Giorgio Vasari: Art and History, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995.
Rud, Einar, Vasari’s Life and Lives: the First Art Historian, London: Thames and Hudson, 1963.
Welch, Evelyn, Art in Renaissance Italy: 1350-1500, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
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