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The Lives of the Artists

Preface to the Work

Giorgio Vasari

1550
Six Tuscan Poets, Giorgio Vasari

It was the wont of the finest spirits in all their actions, through a burning desire for glory, to spare no labour, however grievous, in order to bring their works to that perfection which might render them impressive and marvellous to the whole world; nor could the humble fortunes of many prevent their energies from attaining to the highest rank, whether in order to live in honour or to leave in the ages to come eternal fame for all their rare excellence. And although, for zeal and desire so worthy of praise, they were, while living, highly rewarded by the liberality of Princes and by the splendid ambition of States, and even after death kept alive in the eyes of the world by the testimony of statues, tombs, medals, and other memorials of that kind; none the less, it is clearly seen that the ravening maw of time has not only diminished by a great amount their own works and the honourable testimonies of others, but has also blotted out and destroyed the names of all those who have been kept alive by any other means than by the right vivacious and pious pens of writers.

Pondering over this matter many a time in my own mind, and recognizing, from the example not only of the ancients but of the moderns as well, that the names of very many architects, sculptors, and painters, both old and modern, together with innumerable most beautiful works wrought by them, are going on being forgotten and destroyed little by little, and in such wise, in truth, that nothing can be foretold for them but a certain and wellnigh immediate death; and wishing to defend them as much as in me lies from this second death, and to preserve them as long as may be possible in the memory of the living; and having spent much time in seeking them out and used the greatest diligence in discovering the native city, the origin, and the actions of the craftsmen, and having with great labour drawn them from the tales of old men and from various records and writings, left by their heirs a prey to dust and food for worms; and finally, having received from this both profit and pleasure, I have judged it expedient, nay rather, my duty, to make for them whatsoever memorial my weak talents and my small judgment may be able to make. In honour, then, of those who are already dead, and for the benefit, for the most part, of all the followers of these three most excellent arts, Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting, I will write the Lives of the craftsmen of each according to the times wherein they lived, step by step from Cimabue down to our own time; not touching on the ancients save in so far as it may concern our subject, seeing that no more can be said of them than those so many writers have said who have come down to our own age. I will treat thoroughly of many things that appertain to the science of one or other of the said arts; but before I come to the secrets of these, or to the history of the craftsmen, it seems to me right to touch a little on a dispute, born and bred between many without reason, as to the sovereignty and nobility, not of architecture, which they have left on one side, but of sculpture and painting; there being advanced, on one side and on the other, many arguments whereof many, if not all, are worthy to be heard and discussed by their craftsmen.

I say, then, that the sculptors, as being endowed, perchance by nature and by the exercise of their art, with a better habit of body, with more blood, and with more energy, and being thereby more hardy and more fiery than the painters, in seeking to give the highest rank to their art, argue and prove the nobility of sculpture primarily from its antiquity, for the reason that God Almighty made man, who was the first statue; and they say that sculpture embraces many more arts as kindred, and has many more of them subordinate to itself than has painting, such as low-relief, working in clay, wax, plaster, wood, and ivory, casting in metals, every kind of chasing, engraving and carving in relief on fine stones and steel, and many others which both in number and in difficulty surpass those of painting. And alleging, further, that those things which stand longest and best against time and can be preserved longest for the use of men, for whose benefit and service they are made, are without doubt more useful and more worthy to be held in love and honour than are the others, they maintain that sculpture is by so much more noble than painting as it is more easy to preserve, both itself and the names of all who are honoured by it both in marble and in bronze, against all the ravages of time and air, than is painting, which, by its very nature, not to say by external accidents, perishes in the most sheltered and most secure places that architects have been able to provide. Nay more, they insist that the small number not merely of their excellent but even of their ordinary craftsmen, in contrast to the infinite number of the painters, proves their greater nobility; saying that sculpture calls for a certain better disposition, both of mind and of body, that are rarely found together, whereas painting contents itself with any feeble temperament, so long as it has a hand, if not bold, at least sure; and that this their contention is proved by the greater prices cited in particular by Pliny, by the loves caused by the marvellous beauty of certain statues, and by the judgment of him who made the statue of sculpture of gold and that of painting of silver, and placed the first on the right and the second on the left. Nor do they even refrain from quoting the difficulties experienced before the materials, such as the marbles and the metals, can be got into subjection, and their value, in contrast to the ease of obtaining the panels, the canvases, and the colours, for the smallest prices and in every place; and further, the extreme and grievous labour of handling the marbles and the bronzes, through their weight, and of working them, through the weight of the tools, in contrast to the lightness of the brushes, of the styles, and of the pens, chalk-holders, and charcoals; besides this, that they exhaust their minds together with all the parts of their bodies, which is something very serious compared with the quiet and light work of the painter, using only his mind and hand. Moreover, they lay very great stress on the fact that things are more noble and more perfect in proportion as they approach more nearly to the truth, and they say that sculpture imitates the true form and shows its works on every side and from every point of view, whereas painting, being laid on flat with most simple strokes of the brush and having but one light, shows but one aspect; and many of them do not scruple to say that sculpture is as much superior to painting as is truth to falsehood. But as their last and strongest argument, they allege that for the sculptor there is necessary a perfection of judgment not only ordinary, as for the painter, but absolute and immediate, in a manner that it may see within the marble the exact whole of that figure which they intend to carve from it, and may be able to make many parts perfect without any other model before it combines and unites them together, as Michelagnolo has done divinely well; although, for lack of this happiness of judgment, they make easily and often some of those blunders which have no remedy, and which, when made, bear witness for ever to the slips of the chisel or to the small judgment of the sculptor. This never happens to painters, for the reason that at every slip of the brush or error of judgment that might befall them they have time, recognizing it themselves or being told by others, to cover and patch it up with the very brush that made it; which brush, in their hands, has this advantage over the sculptor's chisels, that it not only heals, as did the iron of the spear of Achilles, but leaves its wounds without a scar.

To these things the painters, answering not without disdain, say, in the first place, that if the sculptors wish to discuss the matter on the ground of the Scriptures the chief nobility is their own, and that the sculptors deceive themselves very grievously in claiming as their work the statue of our first father, which was made of earth; for the art of this performance, both in its putting on and in its taking off, belongs no less to the painters than to others, and was called "plastice" by the Greeks and "fictoria" by the Latins, and was judged by Praxiteles to be the mother of sculpture, of casting, and of chasing, a fact which makes sculpture, in truth, the niece of painting, seeing that "plastice" and painting are born at one and the same moment from design. And they say that if we consider it apart from the Scriptures, the opinions of the ages are so many and so varied that it is difficult to believe one more than the other; and that finally, considering this nobility as they wish it, in one place they lose and in the other they do not win, as may be seen more clearly in the Preface to the Lives.

After this, in comparison with the arts related and subordinate to sculpture, they say that they have many more than the sculptors, because painting embraces the invention of history, the most difficult art of foreshortening, all the branches of architecture needful for the making of buildings, perspective, colouring in distemper, and the art of working in fresco, an art different and distinct from all the others; likewise working in oils on wood, on stone, and on canvas; illumination, too, an art different from all the others; the staining of glass, mosaics in glass, the art of inlaying and making pictures with coloured woods, which is painting; making sgraffito work on houses with iron tools; niello work and printing from copper, both members of painting; goldsmith's enamelling, and the inlaying of gold for damascening; the painting of glazed figures, and the making on earthenware vessels of scenes and figures to resist the action of water; weaving brocades with figures and flowers, and that most beautiful invention, woven tapestries, that are both convenient and magnificent, being able to carry painting into every place, whether savage or civilized; not to mention that in every department of art that has to be practised, design, which is our design, is used by all; so that the members of painting are more numerous and more useful than those of sculpture. They do not deny the eternity, for so the others call it, of sculpture, but they say that this is no privilege that should make the art more noble than it is by nature, seeing that it comes simply from the material, and that if length of life were to give nobility to souls, the pine, among the plants, and the stag, among the animals, would have a soul more noble beyond compare than that of men; although they could claim a similar immortality and nobility in their mosaics, seeing that there may be seen some as ancient as the most ancient sculptures that are in Rome, and that they used to be made of jewels and fine stones. And as for their small or smaller number, they declare that this is not because the art calls for a better habit of body and greater judgment, but that it depends wholly on the poverty of their resources and on the little favour, or avarice, as we would rather call it, of rich men, who give them no supply of marble and no opportunity to work; in contrast with what may be believed, nay, seen to have happened in ancient times, when sculpture rose to its greatest height. Indeed, it is manifest that he who cannot use and waste a small quantity of marble and hard stone, which are very costly, cannot have that practice in the art that is essential; he who does not practise does not learn it; and he who does not learn it can do no good. Wherefore they should rather excuse with these arguments the imperfection and the small number of their masters, than seek to deduce nobility from them under false colours. As for the higher prices of sculptures, they answer that, although theirs might be much less, they have not to share them, being content with a boy who grinds their colours and hands them their brushes or their cheap stools, whereas the sculptors, besides the great cost of their material, require many aids and spend more time on one single figure than they themselves do on very many; wherefore their prices appear to come from the quality and the durability of the material itself, from the aids that it requires for its completion, and from the time that is taken in working it, rather than from the excellence of the art itself. And although that does not suffice and no greater price is found, as would be easily seen by anyone who were willing to consider it diligently, let them find a greater price than the marvellous, beautiful, and living gift that Alexander the Great made in return for the most splendid and excellent work of Apelles, bestowing on him, not vast treasures or high estate, but his own beloved and most beautiful Campaspe; let them observe, in addition, that Alexander was young, enamoured of her, and naturally subject to the passions of love, and also both a King and a Greek; and then, from this, let them draw what conclusion they please. As for the loves of Pygmalion and of those other rascals no more worthy to be[Pg xxix] men, cited as proof of the nobility of the art, they know not what to answer, if, from a very great blindness of intellect and from a licentiousness unbridled beyond all natural bounds, there can be made a proof of nobility. As for the man, whosoever he was, alleged by the sculptors to have made sculpture of gold and painting of silver, they are agreed that if he had given as much sign of judgment as of wealth, there would be no disputing it; and finally, they conclude that the ancient Golden Fleece, however celebrated it may be, none the less covered nothing but an unintelligent ram; wherefore neither the testimony of riches nor that of dishonest desires, but those of letters, of practice, of excellence, and of judgment are those to which we must pay attention. Nor do they make any answer to the difficulty of obtaining the marbles and the metals, save this, that it springs from their own poverty and from the little favour of the powerful, as has been said, and not from any degree of greater nobility. To the extreme fatigues of the body and to the dangers peculiar to them and to their works, laughing and without any ado they answer that if greater fatigues and dangers prove greater nobility, the art of quarrying the marbles from the bowels of mountains by means of wedges, levers, and hammers must be more noble than sculpture, that of the blacksmith must surpass the goldsmith's, and that of masonry must be superior to architecture.

They say, next, that the true difficulties lie rather in the mind than in the body, wherefore those things that from their nature call for more study and knowledge are more noble and excellent than those that avail themselves rather of strength of body; and they declare that since the painters rely more on the worth of the mind than the others, this highest honour belongs to painting. For the sculptors the compasses and squares suffice to discover and apply all the proportions and measurements whereof they have need; for the painters there is necessary, besides the knowledge how to make good use of the aforesaid instruments, an accurate understanding of perspective, for the reason that they have to provide a thousand other things beyond landscapes and buildings, not to mention that they must have greater judgment by reason of the quantity of the figures in one scene, wherein more errors can come than in a single statue. For the sculptor it is enough to be acquainted with the true forms and features of solid and tangible bodies, subordinate on every side to the touch, and moreover of those only that have something to support them. For the painter it is necessary to know the forms not only of all the bodies supported and not supported, but also of all those transparent and intangible; and besides this they must know the colours that are suitable for the said bodies, whereof the multitude and the variety, so absolute and admitting of such infinite extension, are demonstrated better by the flowers, the fruits, and the minerals than by anything else; and this knowledge is supremely difficult to acquire and to maintain, by reason of their infinite variety. They say, moreover, that whereas sculpture, through the stubbornness and the imperfection of the material, does not represent the emotions of the soul save with motion, which does not, however, find much scope therein, and with the mere shape of the limbs and not even of all these; the painters demonstrate them with all the forms of motion, which are infinite, with the shape of the limbs, however subtle they may be, and even with breath itself and the spiritual essence of sight; and that, for greater perfection in demonstrating not only the passions and emotions of the soul but also the events of the future, as living men do, they must have, besides long practice in the art, a complete understanding of physiognomy, whereof that part suffices for the sculptor which deals with the quantity and the quality of the members, without troubling about the quality of colours, as to the knowledge of which anyone who judges by the eye knows how useful and necessary it is for the true imitation of nature, whereunto the closer a man approaches the more perfect he is.

After this they add that whereas sculpture, taking away bit by bit, at one and the same time gives depth to and acquires relief for those things that have solidity by their own nature, and makes use of touch and sight, the painters, in two distinct actions, give relief and depth to a flat surface with the help of one single sense; and this, when it has been done by a person intelligent in the art, has caused many great men, not to speak of animals, to stand fast in the most pleasing illusion, which has never been seen to be done by sculpture, for the reason that it does not imitate nature in a manner that may be called as perfect as their own. And finally, in answer to that complete and absolute perfection of judgment which is required for sculpture, by reason of its having no means to add where it takes away; declaring, first, that such mistakes are irreparable, as the others say, and not to be remedied save by patches, which, even as in garments they are signs of poverty of wardrobe, so too both in sculpture and in pictures are signs of poverty of intellect and judgment; and saying, further, that patience, at its own leisure, by means of models, protractors, squares, compasses, and a thousand other devices and instruments for enlarging, not only preserves them from mistakes but enables them to bring their whole work to its perfection; they conclude, then, that this difficulty which they put down as the greater is nothing or little when compared to those which the painters have when working in fresco, and that the said perfection of judgment is in no way more necessary for sculptors than for painters, it being sufficient for the former to execute good models in wax, clay, or something else, even as the latter make their drawings on corresponding materials or on cartoons; and that finally, the quality that little by little transfers their models to the marble is rather patience than aught else.

But let us consider about judgment, as the sculptors wish, and see whether it is not more necessary to one who works in fresco than to one who chisels in marble. For here not only is there no place for patience or for time, which are most mortal enemies to the union of the plaster and the colours, but the eye does not see the true colours until the plaster is well dry, nor can the hand judge of anything but of the soft or the dry, in a manner that anyone who were to call it working in the dark, or with spectacles of colours different from the truth, would not in my belief be very far wrong. Nay, I do not doubt at all that such a name is more suitable for it than for intaglio, for which wax serves as spectacles both true and good. They say, too, that for this work it is necessary to have a resolute judgment, to foresee the end in the fresh plaster and how the work will turn out on the dry; besides that the work cannot be abandoned so long as the plaster is still fresh, and that it is necessary to do resolutely in one day what sculpture does in a month. And if a man has not this judgment and this excellence, there are seen, on the completion of his work or in time, patches, blotches, corrections, and colours superimposed or retouched on the dry, which is something of the vilest, because afterwards mould appears and reveals the insufficiency and the small knowledge of the craftsmen, even as the pieces added in sculpture lead to ugliness; not to mention that when it comes about that the figures in fresco are washed, as is often done after some time to restore them, what has been worked on the fresh plaster remains, and what has been retouched on the dry is carried away by the wet sponge.

They add, moreover, that whereas the sculptors make two figures together, or at the most three, from one block of marble, they make many of them on one single panel, with all those so many and so varied aspects which the sculptors claim for one single statue, compensating with the variety of their postures, foreshortenings, and attitudes, for the fact that the work of the sculptors can be seen from every side; even as Giorgione da Castelfranco did once in one of his pictures, wherein a figure with its back turned, having a mirror on either side, and a pool of water at its feet, shows its back in the painting, its front in the pool, and its sides in the mirrors, which is something that sculpture has never been able to do. In addition to this, they maintain that painting leaves not one of the elements unadorned and not abounding with all the excellent things that nature has bestowed on them, giving its own light and its own darkness to the air, with all its varieties of feeling, and filling it with all the kinds of birds together; to water, its clearness, the fishes, the mosses, the foam, the undulations of the waves, the ships, and all its various moods; and to the earth, the mountains, the plains, the plants, the fruits, the flowers, the animals, and the buildings; with so great a multitude of things and so great a variety of their forms and of their true colours, that nature herself many a time stands in a marvel thereat; and finally, giving to fire so much of its heat and light that it is clearly seen burning things, and, almost quivering with its flames, rendering luminous in part the thickest darkness of the night. Wherefore it appears to them that they can justly conclude and declare that contrasting the difficulties of the sculptors with their own, the labours of the body with those of the mind, the imitation of the mere form with the imitation of the impression, both of quantity and of quality, that strikes the eye, the small number of the subjects wherein sculpture can and does demonstrate its excellence with the infinite number of those which painting presents to us (not to mention the perfect preservation of them for the intellect and the distribution of them in those places wherein nature herself has not done so); and finally, weighing the whole content of the one with that of the other, the nobility of sculpture, as shown by the intellect, the invention, and the judgment of its craftsmen, does not correspond by a great measure to that which painting enjoys and deserves. And this is all that on the one side and on the other has come to my ears that is worthy of consideration.

But because it appears to me that the sculptors have spoken with too much heat and the painters with too much disdain, and seeing that I have long enough studied the works of sculpture and have ever exercised myself in painting, however small, perhaps, may be the fruit that is to be seen of it; none the less, by reason of that which it is worth, and by reason of the undertaking of these writings, judging it my duty to demonstrate the judgment that I have ever made of it in my own mind (and may my authority avail the most that it can), I will declare my opinion surely and briefly over such a dispute, being convinced that I will not incur any charge of presumption or of ignorance, seeing that I will not treat of the arts of others, as many have done before to the end that they might appear to the crowd intelligent in all things by means of letters, and as happened, among others, to Phormio the Peripatetic of Ephesus, who, in order to display his eloquence, lecturing and making disputation about the virtues and parts of the excellent captain, made Hannibal laugh not less at his presumption than at his ignorance.

I say, then, that sculpture and painting are in truth sisters, born from one father, that is, design, at one and the same birth, and have no precedence one over the other, save insomuch as the worth and the strength of those who maintain them make one craftsman surpass another, and not by reason of any difference or degree of nobility that is in truth to be found between them. And although by reason of the diversity of their essence they have many different advantages, these are neither so great nor of such a kind that they do not come exactly into balance together and that we do not perceive the infatuation or the obstinacy, rather than the judgment, of those who wish one to surpass the other. Wherefore it may be said with reason that one and the same soul rules the bodies of both, and by reason of this I conclude that those do evil who strive to disunite and to separate the one from the other. Heaven, wishing to undeceive us in this matter and to show us the kinship and union of these two most noble arts, has raised up in our midst at various times many sculptors who have painted and many painters who have worked in sculpture, as will be seen in the Life of Antonio del Pollaiuolo, of Leonardo da Vinci, and of many others long since passed away. But in our own age the Divine Goodness has created for us Michelagnolo Buonarroti, in whom both these arts shine forth so perfect and appear so similar and so closely united, that the painters marvel at his pictures and the sculptors feel for the sculptures wrought by him supreme admiration and reverence. On him, to the end that he might not perchance need to seek from some other master some convenient resting-place for the figures that he wrought, nature has bestowed so generously the science of architecture, that without having need of others he has strength and power within himself to give to this or the other image made by himself an honourable and suitable resting-place, in a manner that he rightly deserves to be called the king of sculptors, the prince of painters, and the most excellent of architects, nay rather, of architecture the true master. And indeed we can affirm with certainty that those do in no way err who call him divine, seeing that he has within his own self embraced the three arts most worthy of praise and most ingenious that are to be found among mortal men, and that with these, after the manner of a God, he can give us infinite delight. And let this suffice for the dispute raised between the factions, and for our own opinion.

Now, returning to my first intention, I say that, wishing in so far as it lies within the reach of my powers to drag from the ravening maw of time, the names of the sculptors, painters, and architects, who, from Cimabue to the present day, have been of some notable excellence in Italy, and desiring that this my labour may be no less useful than it has been pleasant to me in the undertaking, it appears to me necessary, before we come to the history, to make as briefly as may be an introduction to these three arts, wherein those were valiant of whom I am to write the Lives, to the end that every gracious spirit may first learn the most notable things in their professions, and afterwards may be able with greater pleasure and benefit to see clearly in what they were different among themselves, and how great adornment and convenience they give to their countries and to all who wish to avail themselves of their industry and knowledge.

I will begin, then, with architecture, as the most universal and the most necessary and useful to men, and as that for the service and adornment of which the two others exist; and I will expound briefly the varieties of stone, the manners or methods of construction, with their proportions, and how one may recognize buildings that are good and well-conceived. Afterwards, discoursing of sculpture, I will tell how statues are wrought, the form and the proportion that are looked for in them, and of what kind are good sculptures, with all the most secret and most necessary precepts. Finally, treating of painting, I will speak of draughtsmanship, of the methods of colouring, of the perfect execution of any work, of the quality of the pictures themselves, and of whatsoever thing appertains to painting; of every kind of mosaic, of niello, of enamelling, of damascening, and then, lastly, of the printing of pictures. And in this way I am convinced that these my labours will delight those who are not engaged in these pursuits, and will both delight and help those who have made them a profession. For not to mention that in the Introduction they will review the methods of working, and that in the Lives of the craftsmen themselves they will learn where their works are, and how to recognize easily their perfection or imperfection and to discriminate between one manner and another, they will also be able to perceive how much praise and honour that man deserves who adds upright ways and goodness of life to the excellencies of arts so noble. Kindled by the praise that those so constituted have obtained, they too will aspire to true glory. Nor will little fruit be gathered from the history, true guide and mistress of our actions, in reading of the infinite variety of innumerable accidents that befell the craftsmen, sometimes by their own fault and very often by chance.

It remains for me to make excuse for having on occasion used some words of indifferent Tuscan, whereof I do not wish to speak, having ever taken thought to use rather the words and names particular and proper to our arts than the delicate or choice words of precious writers. Let me be allowed, then, to use in their proper speech the words proper to our craftsmen, and let all content themselves with my good will, which has bestirred itself to produce this result not in order to teach to others what I do not know myself, but through a desire to preserve this memory at least of the most celebrated craftsmen, seeing that in so many decades I have not yet been able to see one who has made much record of them. For I have wished with these my rough labours, adumbrating their noble deeds, to repay to them in some measure the debt that I owe to their works, which have been to me as masters for the learning of whatsoever I know, rather than, living in sloth, to be a malignant critic of the works of others, blaming and decrying them as men are often wont to do. But it is now time to come to our business.



Art Theory