Before examining the major works of Giorgio Vasari, it is necessary to provide a short biography to put his life and paintings in conext. Giorgio Vasari was a skilled painter as well as a brilliant architect and biographer. His achievements can be found not only in the many examples of his paintings that still exist, but in his architectural achievements as well. While Giorgio Vasari amassed great wealth in his day as a result of his many gifts, he is also recognized for his efforts in writing the Vite, which chronicles the lives and works of other Renaissance artists. In his painting, Giorgio Vasari is most closely associated with the Mannerist style which was prominent between the years 1520 until 1600. This style was a counteracting response to the Renaissance’s emphasis on balance and emotional subtlety and tended instead to employ disharmony and harsher colors and tone. It is also marked by a willingness to play with typical forms from the Renaissance and put them out of balance by changing the proportions and poses to something more exaggerated. Mannerism’s influence can be seen in several of the artist’s works, both in terms of his paintings and his architectural achievements.
Giorgio Vasari was born in Arezzo, Tuscany during the Renaissance in 1511. As a young man he showed a remarkable interest and talent for painting and soon became a student of the famous artist Guglielmo da Marsiglia. After this apprenticeship he moved on to study further in Florence, which was home to many other prominent Renaissance artists before he moved on to study in Rome. It was in this city that he was exposed to the works of his idols, Raphael and Michaelangelo and it was also in Rome that he completed many of his major works while under the patronage of the Medici family back in Florence. Throughout his life he oscillated between the two cities and to this day all of his remaining works can be found in these locations. One of his most notable paintings can be found in Florence in the Palazzo Vecchio where he completed a vast ceiling painting, one of the few he ever completed. His architectural works can be found around Florence as well and he built the loggia of the Palazzo delgi Uffizi which was the first such architectural structure in Italy of its kind. His own home in Arezzo was itself a magnificent structure and it survives today as a museum to the artist, housing some of his paintings as well as parts of the original manuscripts to his biographical collections about Renaissance artists that would later form the whole of theVite.
Sala del Cinquecento
The Sala del Cinquecento is a large fresco at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy and was completed by the artist Vasari and his assistants in 1565. Like many of the works by Vasair, this was commissioned by his patrons, the Medici family and was meant to serve as an ornate decoration to the front room of the palace. In other words, Vasari’s fresco was to be the centerpiece of the home, the first decoration guests would notice when entering.
This fresco decorates the ceiling and walls of the entryway at the Palazzo and consists of 39 panels, each of which presents an epoch in Florence’s history. All of the panels have been carefully painted and are separated by highly detailed gold trimming. These gilded dividers between each panels define the space. While the room itself is incredibly large, in depicting the history of a city was necessary for there to be some way of defining historical moments and isolating them as individual events. The gold separators further break down the space allotted; while the room itself is devoted to this fresco, each panel is in effect a small story or an individual painting in its own right. As a result, the space must therefore be defined by such divisions otherwise the continuity and epochs in history cannot be recognized. This said, the figures within each individual space or panel are proportioned according to their defined area, even though the perspective makes the human figures in each of them the emphasis). All of the panels are arranged in chronological order and while many of them present scenes from famous battles, several are dedicated to presenting the idealistic pastoral roots of the city. Despite the many different meanings behind each panel in terms of what it is trying to relate about Florence, all of the panels reflect the same general theme which is conveyed by the constant use of gold, red, and brown. All of the panels in the Sala del Cinquecento are similar in terms of the colors and general tone but each depicts a separate event or period in Florence’s history. The colors are incredibly bold in all of the panels and reds and rich browns are most often used. These deep colors are accentuated by bold lines as well and the figures that are depicted in each panel are the emphasis. Each human figure attracts the eye because of its stark contrast in terms of color with the red and brown background. These figures are all realistically represented (in that they are not contorted) but many of them posses slightly exaggerated bodily features with many of the men appearing idealistically. All of these factors are aligned with Vasari’s status as a painter in the Mannerist style in which many of the Renaissance conventions are being slightly exaggerated and presented more dramatically. There is not a great deal of rhythm in these panels aside from the fact that they all present the same color scheme because each panel is attempting to present something different to the viewer. In addition to a lack of rhythm between each panel there is also a notable lack of balance. Some of the panels, especially those that present battles or conflict, are weighted on one side. For example, on one particular panel all of the human figures are clustered on one side of the defined area while the other side remains almost bare aside from non-emphasized background images. This goes on to interrupt the overall sense of rhythm and makes each panel and individual painting within itself and allows one to stand apart from the others in ways other than general content or subject matter.
This is one of Vasari’s most famous frescos and is an excellent example of the Mannerist style, especially because of the lack of harmony and balance that was such an important component of earlier Renaissance artists that Vasari so admired such as Michaelangelo. By examining some of the panels individually it is clear that the figures are not painted as idealistically and have exaggerated features and are painted using less balanced and more dramatic color palates. Although the artist is largely recognized for his greater success as an architect, this is one of his finest and definitive pieces as a painter.
Deposition from the Cross
This painting by Vasari was completed in 1567 and was commissioned by a group of monks in Italy. In general, it depicts Christ on the Cross and those who were surrounding him at the time of his death. This is the best available example of how Vasari painted in the Mannerist style because of its use of exaggeration, especially in terms of Renaissance standards. The colors, figures, and almost every aesthetic aspect of this painting reflects a post-Renaissance desire to move away from notions of harmony and balance.
One of the first things one recognizes about this painting is the way emotion is achieved through the use of line and color in particular. Interestingly, the emphasis of the painting, which is Christ and in a secondary sense those who surround him, does not make the viewer feel the emotion. In fact, the expression of Christ is not necessarily pained. In other words, Vasari is not attempting to invoke emotion through painting detail but rather through other means. For instance, the paleness of the emphasis figure’s skin is accentuated by the skin color of those around him. This use of color makes him look weaker and more frail. Those around him, especially the men who are at the top of the cross are all of a more healthy coloring. They do not have much expression painted on either but are rather granted emotion by the fact of their coloring and lines. The men all have exaggerated arm muscles and faces that are sharp yet not detailed enough to offer any real insight or meaning. The lines with which the men are painted offer no balance either. While their muscles are fluid looking there is an alternating tendency between this fluidity and the sharpness of other features, especially those of the faces. In addition to this, the lines and emphasis of the painting are exaggerated by the sharpness and relative detail of the background, which is painted in quite a bit of detail—far more detailed than the faces of the men surrounding the Christ figure. This would suggest that expression through detail is not as important as expression through color and line, an idea that is consistent with the theories underlying mannerism.
While the balance in this painting is distorted because of the lack of consistency in detail between the emphasis and the background, in some ways it is very balanced. The emphasis is placed directly in the center of the painting and thus draws one’s attention not only because of his coloring but because of his position at the center of the activity. A sense of action around this figure of emphasis is also important because it makes Christ look still (which draws attention even more) and also because it creates a sense of rhythm among those who surround Christ. For example, the lines are flowing around the emphasis, especially in terms of the flowing fabrics. There is a sense of movement that forms a perfect circle around the emphasis and thus the balance is readily clear. Not only is there is a center, but it is a direct center. This is one of the only ways that this painting deviates from the ideas behind mannerism—it still conforms toRenaissance notions of perfect balance and harmony. The space in this painting is used to create a balance with the center literally being the “center of attention” for the viewer. The only time the balance is thrown off is in terms of color. The eye is drawn to Christ’s feet where his onlookers sit, many of whom are dressed in dramatically bright colors such as deeper reds and blues. This offers stark contrast between the more neutral tones near the head of Christ and prompts the viewer to look more closely at both the Christ in contrast as well as the people who sit on the ground near him. In short, this painting shows how Vasari understood the Mannerist style, even if there are some aspects of it that are more closely aligned with earlier Renaissance concepts of balance and harmony.
The Prophet Elisha
The medium used for this painting is tempera on wood and it depicts the prophet Elisha as the emphasis as he is hunched over at the bottom center of the painting and surrounded by a number of other figures. While the other figures are depicted with the exact same amount of detail as Elisha, it is the prophet that is the emphasis because of color as well as balance. For instance, the light in this painting seems to be directed at Elisha as he is kneeling and this light almost reflects off of his skin. As a result, his skin tone and color is more luminescent than those around him. Vasari chose to paint him in robe that is a richer red than that which is seen in the rest of the painting and this, coupled with the fact that the emphasis is at the bottom (due to the perspective and that he is closer than the images at the top) makes Elisha the object of the viewer’s attention. Aside from that issue, the colors used in the background (which is actually the top of the painting itself) are quite dark and muted compared to those used for closer objects. In addition, while there are a number of figures sitting at the table near the top of the painting, they are too far away for any real detail to be given to them. On this note, the figures that are closer in terms of perspective are not painted with significant attention to facial detail and like in Vasari’s other paintings, emotion is conveyed by these uses of color and perspective rather than by direct attempts to paint a particular emotion on the countenance of the emphasis.
This painting differs from others by Vasari in that it does not rely so much on differences in line and textures to achieve an overall effect. This painting instead relies upon perspective and color. The perspective forces the viewer to look closely at the center image at the bottom since it is the closest and thus the most details. Among these figures then is that of Elisha in the center and the coloring is such that we see a light about him which conveys the notion of holiness just as well as a painted expression might. Unlike Renaissance painters before him, Vasari is attempting to distort principles of harmony to create meaning. He is not using form or abject emotion but is rather creating emotion through reliance on more abstract terms, most notably through the aforementioned use of perspective and color. There is no harmony between the background and foreground and the two could almost be individual paintings since they have so little to do with one another in these terms.
This is one of the earliest paintings by Vasari but it still reflects Mannerism, perhaps even more so than some of his later works. This was commissioned by the Medici family and was meant to stand alone in a room. While Vasari is most known for his devotional paintings, this is one of the stranger works he produced in that it is more secular, especially when compared to his later works that depicted either Christ, saints, or other religious imagery that came straight from biblical references.
What is most striking about this painting is the use of line. It varies between incredible smooth and fluid to completely straight and choppy. The figures in the background are the most fluid and are comprised of flowing lines and dark colors that are almost like a pool rather than something the viewer can focus on. The perspective creates the emphasis which is the dead man being carried off to his tomb. Unlike those who are holding him his features are very rough and the lines are incredibly sharp, especially in his facial and bodily features. Aside from the aspect of differing lines, color is also used to achieve an emotional effect. The dead man’s features are painted with more dramatic and sharp lines and the color used for his skin is almost exaggerated since it is so sickly, especially when used in contrast against the healthy tones used for those who are carrying him. For example, the man on the right is painted in outstanding fleshy tones and is the picture of health and thus contrasts sharply with the figure of death he is carrying.
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Carden, Robert Walter. The Life of Giorgio Vasari: A Study of the Later Renaissance in Italy. New York; P.L. Warner, 1910.
Rubin, Patricia Lee. Giorgio Vasari: Art and History. Yale University Press 1995.
Vasari, Giorgio. Vasari on Technique. New York: Dover, 1965.