Two books, both written at about the same time in the 16th century, in the same place, and on the same subject—artists’ lives—remain the most popular and profitable biographical blockbusters of all time.
“The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects,” with its anecdote-packed profiles of over 200 Renaissance artists, was first published in 1550. Still highly readable, it remains the most invaluable collective biographical compilation ever, issued in over 1,200 successive editions over almost five centuries, many of these in abridged formats.
While Vasari’s “Lives” still outstrips the sales of all other biographies, a picaresque “Autobiography” by his contemporary, the virtuoso Renaissance sculptor and goldsmith
remains, to this day, the most widely printed autobiography or memoir in Western history, and one of the most widely read.
An innovative architect, painter and collector of drawings in his own right, Vasari (1511-1574) assembled essential, lively data about his subjects. “The Lives” begins with Cimabue (
teacher) and ends with
It also includes important theoretical chapters on the rise of Renaissance art.
Zealous and conscientious, Vasari scanned archives and innumerable other sources, assembling matchless documentary material. Even now, he is the key resource for students of this period of Italian art. To take but one example, were it not for Vasari’s study of the early Quattrocento painter
we could never have known of the Florentine’s very personal, ecstatic appreciation for perspective’s illusionistic powers. As Vasari wrote, Uccello “left a daughter…and a wife, who was wont to say that Paolo would stay in his study all night, seeking to solve the problems of perspective, and that when she called him to come to bed, he would say: ‘Oh, what a sweet thing is this perspective!’”
Vasari dedicated his book to Cosimo I de’ Medici, and whenever possible he includes in “The Lives” the artists’ Medici patronage. In the process, both subtly and overtly, he proves to be that family’s unusually effective publicist, ignoring the appalling civic price Florence paid for such sponsorship during the ascent of the Medici from small-time money lending and international textile vending to banking riches. While its members rose to ducal, grand ducal, papal and royal ranks, the family destroyed the proud Republic and almost all its independent institutions, time after time remorselessly subordinating Florence’s interests to its own. The clan’s literally crowning achievement: the 1533 marriage of a daughter, Catherine de’ Medici, to the future king of France, Europe’s richest and oldest kingdom.
How does this remarkably ruthless, rapacious family still succeed in ruling the Western imagination, continuing to personify all that is true and good and, above all, beautiful when in so many ways the opposite holds true? Because of that relentless Medici flack, Vasari.
Syphilitic, violent and a mythomaniac, the salacious, libidinous and bisexual Cellini (1500-1571) prepared his autobiography to lessen the tedium of four years of Florentine house arrest for homosexual activity. In it, he re-created his abundant cloak-and-dagger adventures during an unusually peripatetic, passionate, paranoid and intrigue-filled life in papal, Medici and French royal employ.
Cellini’s uninhibited—and partly fictionalized—memoirs reveal his “go for broke” measures to achieve desired results, whether exploiting drag for seductive purposes or employing alchemy for technical effects. Almost cinematic in effect, Cellini’s animated prose makes his readers close to prison-proof partners in his tempestuous life and creative triumphs.
Why have both these Florentine Renaissance artists’ “lives” remained incomparably appealing and best-selling over so many centuries? First, because nothing makes for better reading than the bad behavior of great artists.
Second, Vasari and Cellini had special messages, these conveyed with sly skill. Vasari wants us to believe the Medici were not, as might be said today, “toxic philanthropists.” Cellini was essentially a Giovanni One Note: “I am the greatest, as sculptor, as goldsmith, as seducer, as intriguer. All my works are magical in their genesis, their value priceless, their admiration universal.” No other ego may ever have been recorded with quite such intimate, infectious self-satisfaction as Cellini’s.
Third, post-Freudian therapeutic piffle is totally absent in Cellini’s uninhibited, unapologetic braggadocio. And honestly, aren’t we glad? Because who truly wants to learn of team players, let alone be one? If the past can predict the future, more readers can be counted upon to revel in the high- and low-jinks of Renaissance geniuses as captured by a Vasari or Cellini than to confront the high-minded sob stories of today’s washed-up celebrities and their triumphs in rehab. Lastly, on a practical note—since neither Vasari’s nor Cellini’s unfortunate heirs ever held copyrights to their forebears’ profitable efforts, these surefire best-sellers may be reprinted in any way, shape or form. And they most certainly will continue to be.
Mr. Eisler is a professor of art history at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts.
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