Paul Barolsky

the ultimate paradox
of vasari’s lives

vasari’s lives of the artists is a foundational book in the history of writing dedicated to the arts of painting, sculpture, and architec ture. His work has inspired, and continues to inspire, a vast body of commentary. Witness, for example, the flood of publications on Vasari’s book that flows forth from the presses in a steady stream, and notice the countless lectures and conferences dedicated to Vasari in 2011, events that mark the five hundredth anniversary of the author’s birth. From Vasari’s native Arezzo to Paris, New York to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Montreal, scholars from all over the world have gathered to talk about Vasari and his work. Make no mistake. There is always much more to be said about the Lives, especially about the ways in which Vasari’s book was composed and the ways in which it has influenced modern art history, fiction, and poetry.

For all the work on Vasari, I do not think that we have plumbed the depths of the Lives. I do not believe we have fully grasped a central core of his book, which is essential to its meaning. I speak of the underlying devotional character of the Lives and the foundational role of religion in relation to aesthetics. We pay lip service to this topic by observing the role of hagiography as a model for the lives of artists. We all too briefly ob serve the biblical and Dantesque character of the Lives, the apocalyptic structure of the book, in which the “divine,” messiahlike Michelangelo is the pinnacle. We also acknowledge rather briskly the place of Vasari’s book in the Counter-Reformation.

We do not, however, concern ourselves adequately with the role of Vasari’s piety when reading his book, because for us art history is severed from religion. Like Dante and Michelangelo, Vasari is concerned above all else with the salvation of his soul. Al though the idea of redemption is not his theme, it shapes Vasari’s worldview. If in unexpected ways, it informs his book.

When scholars analyze Vasan’s language, they dwell on various terms—for example, difficoltà, diligenza, disegno, facilità, fatica, giudizio, grazia, maraviglia, stupore, terribilita, which are words of art criticism and theory. Most of these terms are discussed in relation to classical rhetoric and philosophy Much less is said about the vast body of terms that pertain to the religious feelings, or affetti,of works of art, which are abundant in Vasari’s text. This is so because our modern art history is essentially secular in character. Consequently, we are not overly concerned with the ways in which theology is intertwined with aesthetics in the Lives, by the way in which aesthetics is indeed in formed by religious beliefs. On the contrary, we usually liberate aesthetics from theology.

Yes, we are aware that Vasari describes a vast body of religious art, but we do not concern ourselves especially with Vasari’s devotional responses to this art even though Vasari’s religious feelings are embedded in his descriptions, especially of paintings. Rather, we note the correspondence of his descriptions of devotional art to the intentions of the artists whose works he describes. We recognize the piety of the artists whose works Vasari interprets, but without paying sufficient attention to the empathy of these descriptions. In other words, when Vasari describes a devotional work of art in a compelling way, he is not just describing the pious intentions of the artist whose work he describes. He is also giving voice to his own piety.

Describing Giottino’s powerful and austere painting of the Lamentation from San Remigio and now in the Uffizi, Vasari focuses on the amaritudine, or “bitterness,” of the weeping figures who lament the death of Jesus. He dwells on their aspro dolore, or “bitter pain.” As if writing a sermon, he adds that this suffering is the price that we pay for i peccati nostri, “our sins.” Yes, Vasari celebrates Giottino’s invenzione, ingegno, and alta imaginazione, which are all “worthy of praise”; but in doing so, he focuses our attention in a heartfelt way on the tears of the weeping figures, which are powerfully rendered. Artistic skill is scarcely separated from the religious purpose of the painter to whom Vasari vividly responds. We might even say that Vasari’s response here, as elsewhere, is prayerful.

Describing Raphael’s Lamentation for Atalanta Baglione, now in the Borghese Gallery, Vasari says that the artifice of the picture is stupefying. But he also observes that the subject is painted in such a way as “to move the hardest soul to pity” (da far commuovere qual e piu duro animo a pieta). Clearly, Vasari is himself deeply moved. We might dwell on Vasari’s rhetorical skill in relation to the classical tradition of ekphrasis, but at the same time we need to recognize that this rhetoric is in the service of devotion and is as much a sign of Vasari’s religious fervor as it is an indication of the piety of the painter about whom Vasari writes.

When Vasari says of Michelangelo s Doni Tondo that Mary has her “eyes fixed on the supreme beauty of Jesus” (gli occhi fissi nella somma bellezza del figliolo), he celebrates the beauty of God in a Neoplatonic manner. He absorbs the Platonic association of the beautiful with truth and goodness as he talks about the perfection of Jesus—as he fixes his own eyes on this divine figure. Speaking of the figure of Joseph, Vasari de scribes the amore, tenerezza, and reverenza (“love,” “tenderness,” and “reverence”) of the “saintly old man.” In Vasari’s description, which is both theoretical and pious, art and the biographer’s own devotion cannot be separated.

Vasari’s book is replete with fervent descriptions of works of devotional art of this kind. But it also consists of remarkable spiritual rhetoric of a different kind. In his almost rapturous celebration of Michelangelo’s Moses, for example, Vasari’s devotional rhetoric reaches a peak when he says that God “wished to prepare and restore Moses’ body for the Resurrection long before that of any one else by the hands of Michelangelo.” The implications of this statement, which has re ceived almost no attention, is that the “divine” Michelangelo makes visible to us in the Moses the prophetic idea of what the perfected, resurrected body will look like at the end of time.

Such writing is framed by accounts of art that point to the deep biblical structure of Vasari’s book. Describing the Rucellai Madonna by Duccio that Vasari claims was painted by the Florentine Cimabue, whose biography is set at the beginning of Vasari’s history of the journey of art toward perfection, Vasari writes that “all the men and women of Florence” accompanied the visit ing king Charles d’Anjou to behold the picture, which had never been seen. Vasari subliminally suggests a kind of Epiphany, when the three kings beheld the Messiah and were the first gentiles to do so. According to a rich pictorial tradition, the kings were ac companied by a great multitude. In Vasari’s word picture, which includes such a multitude of Florentines, we have not the Epiphany of Jesus as such, but the epiphany of a great work of art. Vasari transforms the Epiphany of Jesus into the Epiphany of Art. This transformation was especially easy to accomplish, since the painting depicts Jesus in the lap of Mary with his hands raised as if he were blessing the beholder. Vasari’s translation of religion into aesthetics goes almost undetected.

Vasan’s fable of Cimabue is closely related to the biographer’s subsequent description of the festivity inspired by Leonardo’s lost cartoon of Mary and Saint Anne with Jesus and the Baptist. Reminding us of the response to the Rucellai Madonna, Vasari tells us that for two days men and women, young and old, came to see the “marvels,” maraviglie, of Leonardo’s picture and that they were stupefied by what they saw. Although he is talking about the effect of art on the beholder, the stupor also implicitly evokes the marvel of those who came to worship the Messiah. Again, Vasari exploits the Epiphany of Jesus in the service of the Epiphany of Art.

Dwelling on the beauty and grace of the painting, Vasari focuses on the smiles of both Mary and Saint Anne. He says that Anne’s smile, or ghigno, expresses the height of joy (colma di letizia) as she sees her progeny, becoming divine (divenuta celesta). We have here the suggestion of the very mystery of Incarnation—divinity in the flesh. What Vasari says resonates with his description of the Mona Lisa, since Vasari celebrates this painting in implicitly religious terms. Dwelling on the rosy color of her flesh, or came—what he also calls her incarnazione, which is a compelling feature of the picture—Vasari also says that her smile “was so pleasing that it was a thing more divine than human.” By bringing to gether the language of “Incarnation” with the term “divine,” Vasari evokes the mystery of the Godhead, which is both umano and divino. When he describes the smile of Mona Lisa as a ghigno, he uses the same word that he employed to describe Saint Anne, thereby intensifying the divine aura of the Mona Lisa. In Vasari’s epoch-making account of the picture, which is the foundation of the modern myth, religious doctrine is trans formed into art criticism. Present in the description of a secular picture, such spiritual meaning is transformed into aesthetics. This devotional implication of Vasari’s aesthetic description universally escapes notice.

When Vasari transformed religion into aesthetics, he began with his religious beliefs, which were foundational in his world view, and then applied them to the celebration of art, which rendered them subordinate to the art they glorified. We tend to ignore this central fact because, as I have said, religion is not a foundation for our own practice of art history, which is decidedly secular, and so we dwell on the classical roots of Vasari’s writing without adequate consideration of the rhetorical role of religion in his celebration of art.

Given the primacy of religion in Vasari’s book, its ultimate paradox is found in the eventual subordination of religious meaning to aesthetics—for example, the poetic adaptation of the Epiphany of Jesus to the glorification of a devotional image, or the poetic adaptation of Incarnation to the celebration of a superbly painted portrait. Although religious truth was apparently paramount in his worldview, as I have urged, Vasari nevertheless asserted the primacy of aesthetics over religion when he inverted their roles and used religious dogma to celebrate the virtues of art. Whereas it was the ostensible role of art to celebrate religion, Vasari re versed their roles in such a way that now religion served in the glorification of art. Thus, we have the beginnings of what eventually came to be called the modern “religion of art.”