Under my byline

Life lines

Posted in Art, Books by Rrishi on 2 May 2009

Vasari, etching from the LivesOVERLEAF 27

When Luca Signorelli visited the Casa Vasari in Arezzo, Italy, he met the then-young Giorgio, a child (says Vasari) of eight. The encounter was apparently a memorable one, for when the boy grew up and wrote his collection of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550, revised 1568, generally known as Lives of the Artists), he described it, and the old master, with the greatest affection and respect.

“[T]he good old man,… having heard from the master who was teaching me my first letters, that I gave my attention to nothing in lesson-time save to drawing figures, I remember, I say, that he turned to my father Antonio and said to him: ‘Antonio, if you wish little Giorgio not to become backward, by all means let him learn to draw, for, even were he to devote himself to letters, design cannot be otherwise than helpful, honourable, and advantageous to him, as it is to every gentleman.’ Then, turning to me, who was standing in front of him, he said: ‘Mind your lessons, little kinsman.’”

Now, Giorgio Vasari probably wasn’t a kinsman — exaggeration is by no means a novelty in autobiography — but that Signorelli said drawing was good for gentlemen is noteworthy and, moreover, just about rings true.

Signorelli, etching from the LivesIn Italian, disegno means “drawing” as well as “design”. The two were not separated. Vasari divided art (a word whose Latin root means craft or skill) into three streams: painting, sculpture and architecture. An artist had to be able to execute different commissions with equal facility: paintings, portraits, vast scenes for civic, noble or religious patrons on canvas, wood or wet plaster — frescoes — which involved not just chemistry (mixing and experimenting with paint), mathematics (perspective, composition, foreshortening, angle of view), physics (light and colour), biology (knowledge of the human body) and techniques of capturing motion, but also engineering. Scaffolds had to be erected, raised and lowered, sculptures carved, shipped and mounted. The wealthy hired artists as architects, to design private chapels and public chambers. In times of war, some artists (like Michelangelo in Florence) were called upon to plan fortifications.

The artist was thus a man who understood design and all its applications. Not surprisingly, most of the great artists of Vasari’s time and place came from the lower middle classes, often from artisan stock and therefore accustomed to working with their hands. But with talent and patronage, an artist could become a gentleman. Vasari was a mediocre painter yet, being close to Duke Cosimo de’ Medici and in line for lucrative commissions, he died a wealthy man.

Altogether, this kind of heroic individual was a creation of the Renaissance, the very period whose artistic stars and achievements Giorgio Vasari set out to record and immortalise. In fact, he was the first to speak in terms of a rebirth or rinascita, the rediscovery of classical forms that allowed allegedly sunken disciplines to rise and shine again. His Lives set a pattern that has endured for 450 years, of the artist as superman, of great art necessarily coming out of a great life. His younger contemporary Benvenuto Cellini wrote one of the most entertaining and scandalous memoirs of all time (you can buy it in any good bookshop), and his larger-than-life life embodied that idea taken to its logical extreme, of the artist as somehow above the common run, not subject to the ordinary rules. Genius justifies all.

If we’re to take another page from Vasari’s book, let it be the one from which I quoted above: a gentleman must learn to draw, to represent an idea, in whatever field of endeavour, on paper with a few lines — beautiful or not doesn’t matter. Then, even an amateur can diagram the path to technical credibility, and help loosen the death-grip of the specialist.

Title page of Vasari's Lives

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