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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

"Lives of the Great Artists" by Giorgio Vasari

Vasari was a renaissance artist and a friend of Michelangelo who had the idea of publishing a book of biographies of those great Italian artists, mostly from Florence, who, as he saw it, had returned painting, sculpture and architecture to the glories these arts had attained in the classical world.

The biographies are riddled with mistakes (he gets one date wrong by nearly a thousand years) and often little more than hagiographical descriptions of the listed works of that artist that Vasari has seen, but there are moments of anecdote and insight which make the reading worth while.

There are personal anecdotes:
  • Giotto, the shepherd boy, being discovered by Cimabue scratching pictures of sheep on stones in the field
  • Giotto, asked by a papal courtier for a drawing from the pope, received a freestyle perfect circle
  • Michelangelo the forger: “Michelangelo also copied the works of other masters, with complete fidelity; he used to tinge his copies and make them appear black with age by various means, including the use of smoke, so that they could not be told apart from the originals.”

There are insights into character of an artist:
  • Cimabue ... had outstanding ability, but he was so arrogant and disdainful that if anyone remarked any fault or defect in his work or if he had noticed any himself ... he immediately rejected it, no matter how precious it might be.
  • Apropos Paolo Uccello: “Artists who devote more attention to perspective them to figures develop a dry and angular style because of their anxiety to examine things too minutely; and, moreover, they usually end up solitary, eccentric, melancholy, and poor.”
  • Masaccio ... refused to give any time to worldly cares and possessions, even to the way he dressed.
  • Fra Filippo was so lustful that he would give anything to enjoy a woman he wanted”. Locked in his room to work by Cosimo de Medici “his animal desires drove him one night to seize a pair of scissors, make a rope from his bed-sheets and escape through a window to pursue his own pleasures for days on end.”
  • Botticelli was a follower of Savanarola’s, and this was why he gave up painting and then fell into considerable distress as he had no other source of income.
  • Leonardo ... would have been very proficient at his early lessons if he had not been so volatile and unstable; for he was always setting himself to learn many things only to abandon them almost immediately.
  • Leonardo ...  was always fascinated when he saw a man of striking appearance, with a strange head of hair or beard; and anyone who attracted him he would follow about all day long and end up seeing so clearly in his mind’s eye that when got home he could draw him as if he were standing there in the flesh.” 
  • Raphael ... was indeed a very amorous man with a great fondness for women whom he was always anxious to serve. He was always indulging his sexual appetites.
  • Rafael kept up his secret love affairs and pursued his pleasures with no sense of moderation.” 
In Volume Two there are some more stories, this time of artists contemporary to Vasari, many of whom he knew. Again there are some great moments:
  • There is murder. Andrea del Castagno was so jealous of  Domenico Veneziano that one night he laid in “wait for him unseen around a street corner, and when Domenico came across him on his way home, he ruptured both his lute and his stomach at the same time with some lead weights ... he then beat him wickedly about the head with the same weapon. and then, leaving him lying on the ground, Andrea returned to his room ... where he left the door ajar and sat down to draw just as he had been left doing by Domenico.” After, alerted by the commotion, he ran to Domenico and “kept crying out inconsolably: ‘Oh alas, my brother, alas, my brother!’ Finally Domenico died in his arms.” He got away with it, only being discovered when he confessed on his death bed.
  • There is theft by an ape. Giovanni Batista Rosso kept a pet Barbary ape who “fell in love” with one of his assistants and was dangled over a certain garden wall to plunder a vine and, when caught, was sentenced to be shackled to a weight so it could not attack the vines but instead it climbed onto the roof of the vine garden and, by jumping up and down, broke the rooftop tiles.
  • There is eccentricity. Piero di Cosimo had some strange habits: “Having fallen in love with painting, he cared nothing for his creature comforts and reduced himself to eating only boiled eggs which, to economize on fire, he used to cook whenever he was boiling glue, not six or eight, but fifty at a time, keeping them in a basket and eating them one by one.” Furthermore “He could not stand babies crying, men coughing, bells ringing, or friars chanting; and when the rain was pouring down from the sky, he loved to watch it as it ricocheted off the roof-tops and hurtled on to the ground. He went in terror of lightning, and when the thunder roared he would wrap himself up in his cloak, shut fast the doors and windows, and crouch in a corner of the room till the storm abated.”
  • Jacopo Pontormo liked working by himself:  Wanting to work by himself on a chapel, he “closed off the chapel with walls, hoardings, and curtains, and given himself over to complete solitude, he kept it for the space of eleven years so firmly locked up, that no living soul except himself ever went in there.
  • Francesco Mazzuoli (Parmigianino) gave up art to practise (unsuccessfully) alchemy: “Would to God that he had always pursued his studies in painting, and not indulged in fantasies of solidifying quicksilver to make himself richer than he had been created by Nature and Heaven!
  • Some artists have amazing imaginations. “He would sometimes stop to contemplate a wall at which sick people had for ages been aiming their spittle, and then he described battles between horseman, and most fantastic cities, and the most extensive landscapes ever seen: and he experienced the same with the clouds in the sky."
Some great moments from Volume 1:
  • Almighty God ...fashioned the first forms of painting and sculpture ... the ideas of softness and of unity and the clashing harmony made by light and shadow were derived from the same source.
  • The first men were more perfect and endowed with more intelligence, seeing that they lived nearer the time of the Creation
  • It goes without saying that the arts must have been discovered by some one person
  • Christianity ... strove to cast out and utterly destroy every least possible occasion of sin; and in doing so it ruined or demolished all the marvellous statues, besides the other sculptures, the pictures, mosaics and ornaments representing the false pagan gods.
  • The best historians have tried to show how men have acted wisely or foolishly, with prudence or with compassion and magnanimity; recognising that history is the true mirror of life, they have not simply given a dry, factual account of what happened to this prince or that republic but have explained the opinions, counsels, decisions, and plans that lead men to successful or unsuccessful action.” 
  • Some men become great artists by diligent application and others by study; some by imitation, somebody knowledge of the sciences .... and some by combining all or most of these things.
  • Anyone who does violence to his nature by fanatical studies may polish one facet of his genius but cannot produce work with the facility and grace associated with artists who can put each stroke in its place temperately and with a calm and judicious Intelligence.
  • He portrayed a dead body, foreshortened, with a crow picking out its eyes, and a drowned child, whose body, sodden with water, is arched up grotesquely.
  • He lived to a ripe but disgruntled old age.
  • The appearance of a man of outstanding creative talent is very often accompanied by that of another great artist at the same time and in the same part of the world so that the two can inspire and emulate each other.
  • There are many men whom nature has made small and insignificant, but who are so fiercely consumed by emotion and ambition that they know no peace unless they are grappling with difficult or indeed almost impossible tasks and achieving astonishing results.
  • Lumps of earth often conceal veins of gold
  • One of the worst things that can happen to a man is for him to work and study hard in order to benefit others and make his own name, and then be prevented by sickness, or perhaps death itself, from finally completing what he has begun.
  • When a man becomes a priest for the wrong reasons the outcome is invariably shameful and unhappy.” 
  • True wealth consists in being content with just a little.
  • The artist himself must decide after careful consideration what to reject and what to accept, using his own judgement and not relying on the theories of others.
  • He lived honorably from his work and he spent extravagantly on his love affairs.”
  • To produce perfect work, painters and sculptors need both application and natural talent
  • Men of genius sometimes accomplish most when they work the least; for ... they are thinking out inventions and forming in their minds the perfect ideas which they subsequently express and reproduce with their hands.
  • He was a slow thinker, and when the wax is hard it does not take a good impression.”
  • If life was found to be agreeable than so should death, for it came from the hands of the same master.
And volume II
  • No one ever achieved excellence in any occupation who did not, when still a child, start to put up with heat and cold, and hunger and thirst, and other discomforts. and so those people utterly deceive themselves who come to believe that they can reach an honourable level while enjoying all the world's ease and comforts; success comes from continuous study and wakefulness, not from falling asleep.”
  • Very often work in the rough, brought to birth in an instant from the art’s inspired frenzy, can express its makers concept in just a few strokes, whereas, in contrast, excessive diligence and labour often remove the force and understanding of those who never know how to lift their hands from what they are doing.”
  • If all those alive in this world believed they would still be alive after they could no longer work, many of them would not come to beg in their old age for what they consumed so unsparingly in their youth, when rich and plentiful rewards clouded their common sense and made them spend recklessly beyond their need. For seeing how harshly we regard someone who has fallen from prosperity to poverty, everyone should strive, albeit steering a decent middle course, not to have to beg a living in old age.
  • Florence deals with its craftsman as Time does with its own works, which, which once they are done, it then undoes and consumes bit by bit.”
  • When someone teaches us excellence and gives us a good way of life, he puts us no less in his debt and must be no less regarded as a true father than the one who begets us and simply gives us life.”

June 2019; Volume 1 = 462 pages; Volume II = 373 pages

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