Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 23, 2015
Maia Wellington Gahtan, ed. Giorgio Vasari and the Birth of the Museum Burlington: Ashgate, 2014. 296 pp.; 75 b/w ills. Cloth $109.95 (9781409456841)

Maia Wellington Gahtan, director of the MA program in Museum Studies at the Istituto Lorenzo de’ Medici, Florence, Italy, brings her professional interest in museological studies to this collection of essays, Giorgio Vasari and the Birth of the Museum. Indeed, all thirteen authors demonstrate not only a deep knowledge of Giorgio Vasari but also of art collecting in the Renaissance and the exhibition of Renaissance art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Many of the essays were first presented at an international conference in Florence celebrating the five hundredth anniversary of Vasari’s birth, and most have long been the subject of each respective author’s considerations.

Central to this collection is The Lives of the Artists (1550 and 1568), an account of the history of art in which Vasari focuses on several themes, including the chronological development of an artist’s career, master-pupil relationships, distinctions between the art of one city or region and another, and the ultimate progress of art. It is perhaps obvious that nineteenth- and twentieth-century curators and museum directors took up these themes in their organization of collections. Even today, what viewers see and experience when visiting many major art museums reflects Vasarian ideas about the history and appreciation of art—she or he is invited to visit galleries where national schools of art are represented by individual works organized by periods. But how did this come to be the norm? For these authors, the answer lies in Vasari’s own appreciation of the art of his time and the debt he owed to artists who preceded him. But appreciation alone would not have resulted in his later influence on museum organization had it not been for the opportunities provided Vasari by his work in Florence at the court of Cosimo I de’ Medici. Cosimo’s own ambitions to establish a grand court—first on the Italian stage but quickly on the larger stage of European politics—ensured Vasari not merely a front row seat but the conductor’s podium. It was Vasari who, from the late 1550s, designed the appearance of this court in architecture, painting, and pageantry. And Vasari’s display of Medici art collections—the birth of the museum—came to be a particularly prized and emulated aspect of the Medici court.

The essays are organized around four themes, each of which offers a perspective on Vasari’s essential importance in the development of the modern museum: Vasari’s personal collections (art, drawings, epitaphs), Vasari and illustrium imagines (the portrait gallery tradition), Vasari’s exhibitions (the organization, arrangement, and public presentation of Cosimo’s collections), and Vasari’s museological concepts and their afterlife (specifically how the Lives “influenced museum institutions and installations” (xvii)).

All of this begins with Vasari’s own art collection, traceable to the gift of drawings he received when, at the age of seventeen, he visited Vittorio Ghiberti, grandson of Lorenzo Ghiberti, a visit recounted in his life of Lorenzo. While the young Vasari may have considered these drawings little more than workshop material, the older Vasari—the artist, writer, and collector—regarded the drawings as objects that “preserv[ed] the memory of so many men” (1). For Vasari, memory—think also of memorial—and greatness are key to any museum collection. The “birth” of the museum comes when the older Vasari thinks back to this gift and sees it as critical to the elevation of the artist and the validation of his task, the writing of the Lives. Vasari’s collection of drawings is the subject of Anna Forlani Tempesti’s essay, “Giorgio Vasari and the Libro de’ disegni: A Paper Museum or Portable Gallery,” included in part 1, “Vasari’s Collections.” Early descriptions of this work and the few surviving pages demonstrate that Vasari glued drawings to larger sheets of paper and then drew elaborate frames for each. A double-sided page of drawings now attributed to an anonymous Italian artist of the fourteenth century includes frames that Vasari designed in a fourteenth-century style and a text in a Gothic script attributing the works to Cimabue. For Tempesti, this indicates “Vasari’s desire to historically and formally characterize the drawings and their author” (34). Tempesti further posits that the organization of the framed drawings into volumes “was planned out with the same criteria as the Vite—according to the various authors and schools and time periods” (38). If the drawings were now collected and displayed as evidence of the progress of art and achievements of individual artists, Vasari’s collection of epitaphs was further evidence of society’s high regard for artists as artists.

Gahtan’s contribution, “Giorgio Vasari, Collector of Epitaphs,” examines the epitaphs Vasari included in the Lives. The Renaissance interest in collecting commemorative texts is closely related to the humanist interest in ancient inscriptions. Vasari’s collection demonstrates that artists, like humanists and political leaders, were similarly honored by literary commemoration; thus the epitaphs supported the canon of art history Vasari was developing. The text of the Lives, including the epitaphs, informs an appreciation of Vasari’s own collections. In “Decorations and Collections in Vasari’s Houses in Arezzo and Florence,” Alessandro Cecchi provides information about Vasari’s personal art collection from inventories taken of both houses after his death. The iconography suggests that Vasari decorated his homes as a prince might decorate a palace, that is, with imagery and objects that speak of the owner’s character and ambitions.

Family portraits and series of uomini illustri formed the basis of many Renaissance collections, and Vasari contributed to the formation of these in significant ways. Nadia Cannata’s essay, “Giorgio Vasari, Paolo Giovio, Portrait Collections and the Rhetorics of Images,” opens part 2, “Vasari and Illustrium Imagines.” Foremost for Giovio and Vasari was the desire that significant deeds not be forgotten. To this end, Giovio’s famous collection of portraits at his villa in Como and his insistence on the veracity of these portraits—that they be as close as possible to their subject—is “a rhetorical device needed to bring vividness to a historical narration, thus, in turn, validating the truthfulness of the historian’s statements” (77). This offers a way of thinking about Vasari’s inclusion of artists’ portraits in the 1568 edition of the Lives as giving veracity to his canon. Tommaso Casini, in “Portrait Galleries, Artists’ Biographies and the Birth of Academies and Museums,” notes that the inclusion of an artist’s portrait becomes standard in later biographies, and that Vasari’s initiation of this practice recognized the nobility of the arts, thereby sanctioning their collection and organization in spaces designed specifically for their presentation and study. One type of portrait was of particular interest in the sixteenth century—papal portraits. Rick Scorza, in “Vasari, Borghini and Cristofano dell’Altissimo: The Papal Portraits in the Sala delle Carte Geografiche,” studies Vasari’s efforts to identify likenesses of medieval popes for Cosimo’s series of uomini illustri, itself inspired by Giovio’s collection. Scorza notes the popularity of this project and the many requests that came to Vasari for copies. One would like to know how such series of papal portraits fit into Counter Reformation ideas and practices, particularly in Florence where relations with Rome were often strained.

Part 3, “Vasari’s Exhibitions,” includes essays by Andrea Gáldy (“Vasari, Exhibitor of Art: Medici Collections of Antiquities”) and Donatella Pegazzano (“Giorgio Vasari, Rome and Early Forms of Display of the Medici Collections in Florence: Models and Afterlife”) on the Scrittoio di Calliope in the Palazzo Vecchio, where Vasari organized Cosimo’s collection of ancient Etruscan bronzes. Gáldy notes that Vasari described this room with the words ordine (“categorization and a scholarly historical framework”), maniera (“a particular style and quality of workmanship”), and bello/bellisimo (“a net result of the two”), concepts that became central to the organization of later museums (123). After 1560, ancient sculptures were sent from Rome to Florence from the young Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici to his parents. It would be helpful to speculate if this shift from collecting Etruscan bronzes to ancient Roman statues signals a turn within the Medici court from a Tuscan audience to a European, and imperial, stage.

Emilie Passignat (“The Order, the Itinerary, the Beholder: Considerations on Some Aspects of the Ragionamenti del Sig. Cavalier Giorgio Vasari”), Henk Th. van Veen (“Virtual Guided Museum Tours: Vasari’s I Ragionamenti and Cosimo Bartoli’s Ragionamenti accademici”), and Claudia Conforti (“Giorgio Vasari Architect: The Uffizi of the Gallery”) examine Vasari’s understanding, even invention, of an ideal viewer of art. Vasari’s Ragionamenti, written at the end of the 1550s, recounts a conversation between Vasari and Prince Francesco de’ Medici in the Palazzo Vecchio regarding Vasari’s frescoes in the palace. For Passignat, the Ragionamenti is critical for an understanding of museum organization involving “an itinerary during which a story is being told or a theme is being expounded” (158). For van Veen, it is the prince who ensures that his guide, the painter, addresses every detail of a room’s decoration and meaning. Van Veen further suggests that Vasari’s previously unidentified source is his friend Cosimo Bartoli’s Ragionamenti accademici, published in 1567 but composed in the 1550s. Both Bartoli and Vasari focus their dialogues on the description of the paintings’ invenzioni and the explanation of their meaning. Concluding this section, Conforti focuses on Vasari’s creation of the Uffizi for Cosimo as both “assertion and celebration of Medici absolutism” and that early visitors read it as such (179).

Part 4, “Vasari’s Museological Concepts and their Afterlife,” opens with Luigi Zangheri’s essay, “The Accademia del Disegno and its Museology.” Vasari and others established the Accademia del Disegno in Florence in 1563–64 for the promotion of the arts. With Vasari’s leadership and Cosimo’s support, the Accademia quickly became “a proto-museum in its approach to showing and collecting works of art” (200). Ingrid R. Vermeulen’s “Paper Museums and the Multimedia Practice of Art History: The Case of Stefano Mulinari’s Istoria Pratica (1778–80) in the Uffizi” examines Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici’s collection of drawings assembled in the seventeenth century with the assistance of Filippo Baldinucci following the model of Vasari’s Libro de’ disegni. Of the thousands of drawings in the collection, only fifty were reproduced in Mulinari’s Istoria Pratica, including notable works by early Italian artists. Previously such catalogues focused on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century examples. In its focus on earlier works, the Istoria Pratica relied on a Vasarian model for the display of paintings from the early Tuscan School. The final essay is Elizabeth Pilliod’s “Vasari: The Territory Beyond.” Pilliod emphasizes that the first step in researching Italian Renaissance art is to read Vasari for information about an artist’s oeuvre. Her focus turns to earlier generations of scholars and collectors whose knowledge of works and certainty regarding attribution did not require scrutiny of Vasari’s Lives, noting that it was not until the late nineteenth century that scholars—or collectors—needed Vasari. The nineteenth century, of course, was the century when many European museums were organized with a new purpose and audience in mind—the education of a growing middle class. It was also a century of nation building and colonial expansion. A nation’s prized culture was now accessible in specially designed temples—museums—dedicated to its display and celebration. The museums were open to citizens who therein learned about their glorious past and deserved inheritance. Vasari’s narrative of orderly progress in the history of art once again offered a method and rationale of organization to museum curators and scholars.

The essays contained in Giorgio Vasari and the Birth of the Museum offer varied perspectives on understanding the influence of Vasari’s Lives of the Artists on the creation and development of the modern museum. Individual lives are sometimes the focus of an author’s discussion, but it is the structure of the Lives that is most significant. With his Lives Vasari created the intellectual context for the study of individual artists’ careers within a narrative of art’s history, and that narrative was then enshrined within museums.

Marjorie Och
Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Mary Washington