The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (Modern Library Classics)

The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (Modern Library Classics)

by Giorgio Vasari

ISBN: 9780375760365

Publisher Modern Library

Published in Arts & Photography/Artists, A-Z

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Sample Chapter

Preface to the Lives

I have no manner of doubt that it is with almost all writers a common and deeply-fixed opinion that sculpture and painting together were first discovered, by the light of nature, by the people of Egypt, and that there are certain others who attribute to the Chaldæans the first rough sketches in marble and the first reliefs in statuary, even as they also give to the Greeks the invention of the brush and of coloring. But I will surely say that of both one and the other of these arts the design, which is their foundation, nay rather, the very soul that conceives and nourishes within itself all the parts of man’s intellect, was already most perfect before the creation of all other things, when the Almighty God, having made the great body of the world and having adorned the heavens with their exceeding bright lights, descended lower with His intellect into the clearness of the air and the solidity of the earth, and, shaping man, discovered, together with the lovely creation of all things, the first form of sculpture; from which man afterwards, step by step (and this may not be denied), as from a true pattern, there were taken statues, sculptures, and the science of pose and of outline; and for the first pictures (whatsoever they were), softness, harmony, and the concord in discord that comes from light and shade. Thus, then, the first model whence there issued the first image of man was a lump of clay, and not without reason, seeing that the Divine Architect of time and of nature, being Himself most perfect, wished to show in the imperfection of the material the way to add and to take away; in the same manner wherein the good sculptors and painters are wont to work, who, adding and taking away in their models, bring their imperfect sketches to that final perfection which they desire. He gave to man that most vivid color of flesh, whence afterwards there were drawn for painting, from the mines of the earth, the colors themselves for the counterfeiting of all those things that are required for pictures. It is true, indeed, that it cannot be affirmed for certain what was made by the men before the Flood in these arts in imitation of so beautiful a work, although it is reasonable to believe that they too carved and painted in every manner; seeing that Belus, son of the proud Nimrod, about 200 years after the Flood, caused to be made that statue wherefrom there was afterwards born idolatry, and his son’s wife, the very famous Semiramis, Queen of Babylon, in the building of that city, placed among its adornments not only diverse varied kinds of animals, portrayed and colored from nature, but also the image of herself and of Ninus, her husband, and, moreover, statues in bronze of her husband’s father, of her husband’s mother, and of the mother of the lat- ter, as Diodorus relates, calling them by the Greek names (that did not yet exist) Jove, Juno, and Ops. From these statues, perchance, the Chaldæans learned to make the images of their gods, seeing that 150 years later Rachel, in flying from Mesopotamia together with Jacob her husband, stole the idols of Laban her father, as is clearly related in Genesis. Nor, indeed, were the Chaldæans alone in making sculptures and pictures, but the Egyptians made them also, exercising themselves in these arts with that so great zeal which is shown in the marvelous tomb of the most ancient King Osimandyas, copiously described by Diodorus, and proved by the stern commandment made by Moses in the Exodus from Egypt, namely, that under pain of death there should be made to God no image whatsoever. He, on descending from the mountain, having found the golden calf wrought and adored solemnly by his people, and being greatly perturbed to see Divine honors paid to the image of a beast, not only broke it and reduced it to powder, but for punishment of so great a sin caused many thousands of the wicked sons of Israel to be slain by the Levites. But because not the making of statues but their adoration was a deadly sin, we read in Exodus that the art of design and of statuary, not only in marble but in every kind of metal, was bestowed by the mouth of God on Bezaleel, of the tribe of Judah, and on Aholiab, of the tribe of Dan, who were those that made the two cherubim of gold, the candlesticks, the veil, the borders of the priestly vestments, and so many other most beautiful castings for the Tabernacle, for no other reason than to bring the people to contemplate and to adore them.

From the things seen before the Flood, then, the pride of men found the way to make the statues of those for whom they wished that they should remain famous and immortal in the world. And the Greeks, who think differently about this origin, say that the Ethiopians invented the first statues, as Diodorus tells; that the Egyptians took them from the Ethiopians, and, from them, the Greeks; for by Homer’s time sculpture and painting are seen to have been perfected, as it is proved, in discoursing of the shield of Achilles, by that divine poet, who shows it to us carved and painted, rather than described, with every form of art. Lactantius Firmianus, by way of fable, attributes it to Prometheus, who, in the manner of Almighty God, shaped man’s image out of mud; and from him, he declares, the art of statuary came. But according to what Pliny writes, this came to Egypt from Gyges the Lydian, who, being by the fire and gazing at his own shadow, suddenly, with some charcoal in his hand, drew his own outline on the wall. And from that age, for a time, outlines only were wont to be used, with no body of color, as the same Pliny confirms; which method was rediscovered with more labor by Philocles the Egyptian, and likewise by Cleanthes and Ardices of Corinth and by Telephanes of Sicyon.

Cleophantes of Corinth was the first among the Greeks who used colors, and Apollodorus the first who discovered the brush. There followed Polygnotus of Thasos, Zeuxis, and Timagoras of Chalcis, with Pythias and Aglaophon, all most celebrated; and after these the most famous Apelles, so much esteemed and honored by Alexander the Great for his talent, and the most ingenious investigator of slander and false favor, as Lucian shows us; even as almost all the excellent painters and sculptors were endowed by Heaven, in nearly every case, not only with the adornment of poetry, as may be read of Pacuvius, but with philosophy besides, as may be seen in Metrodorus, who, being as well versed in philosophy as in painting, was sent by the Athenians to Paulus Emilius to adorn his triumph, and remained with him to read philosophy to his sons.

The art of sculpture, then, was greatly exercised in Greece, and there appeared many excellent craftsmen, and, among others, Pheidias, an Athenian, with Praxiteles and Polycletus, all very great masters, while Lysippus and Pyrgoteles were excellent in sunk reliefs, and Pygmalion in reliefs in ivory, of whom there is a fable that by his prayers he obtained breath and spirit for the figure of a virgin that he made. Painting, likewise, was honored and rewarded by the ancient Greeks and Romans, seeing that to those who made it appear marvelous they showed favor by bestowing on them citizenship and the highest dignities. So greatly did this art flourish in Rome that Fabius gave renown to his house by writing his name under the things so beautifully painted by him in the temple of Salus, and calling himself Fabius Pictor. It was forbidden by public decree that slaves should exercise this art throughout the cities, and so much honor did the nations pay without ceasing to the art and to the craftsmen that the rarest works were sent among the triumphal spoils, as marvelous things, to Rome, and the finest craftsmen were freed from slavery and recompensed with honors and rewards by the commonwealths.

The Romans themselves bore so great reverence for these arts that besides the respect that Marcellus, in sacking the city of Syracuse, commanded to be paid to a craftsman famous in them, in planning the assault of the aforesaid city they took care not to set fire to that quarter wherein there was a most beautiful painted panel, which was afterwards carried to Rome in the triumph, with much pomp. Thither, having, so to speak, despoiled the world, in course of time they assembled the craftsmen themselves as well as their finest works, wherewith afterwards Rome became so beautiful, for the reason that she gained so great adornment from the statues from abroad more than from her own native ones; it being known that in Rhodes, the city of an island in no way large, there were more than 30,000 statues counted, either in bronze or in marble, nor did the Athenians have less, while those at Olympia and at Delphi were many more and those in Corinth numberless, and all were most beautiful and of the greatest value. Is it not known that Nicomedes, King of Lycia, in his eagerness for a Venus that was by the hand of Praxiteles, spent on it almost all the wealth of his people? Did not Attalus the same, who, in order to possess the picture of Bacchus painted by Aristides, did not scruple to spend on it more than 6,000 sesterces? Which picture was placed by Lucius Mummius in the temple of Ceres with the greatest pomp, in order to adorn Rome.

But for all that the nobility of these arts was so highly valued, it is none the less not yet known for certain who gave them their first beginning. For, as has been already said above, it appears most ancient among the Chaldæans, some give it to the Ethiopians, and the Greeks attribute it to themselves; and it may be thought, not without reason, that it is perchance even more ancient among the Etruscans, as our Leon Batista Alberti testifies, whereof we have clear enough proof in the marvelous tomb of Porsena at Chiusi, where, no long time since, there were discovered underground, between the walls of the Labyrinth, some terra-cotta tiles with figures on them in half-relief, so excellent and in so beautiful a manner that it can be easily recognized that the art was not begun precisely at that time, nay rather, by reason of the perfection of these works, that it was much nearer its height than its beginning. To this, moreover, witness is likewise borne by our seeing every day many pieces of those red and black vases of Arezzo, made, as may be judged from the manner, about those times, with the most delicate carvings and small figures and scenes in low-relief, and many small round masks wrought with great subtlety by masters of that age, men most experienced, as is shown by the effect, and most excellent in that art. It may be seen, moreover, by reason of the statues found at Viterbo at the beginning of the pontificate of Alexander VI, that sculpture was in great esteem and in no small perfection among the Etruscans; and although it is not known precisely at what time they were made, it may be reasonably conjectured, both from the manner of the figures and from the style of the tombs and of the buildings, no less than from the inscriptions in those Etruscan letters, that they are most ancient and were made at a time when the affairs of this country were in a good and prosperous state. But what clearer proof of this can be sought? seeing that in our own day—that is, in the year 1554—there has been found a bronze figure of the Chimæra of Bellerophon, in making the ditches, fortifications, and walls of Arezzo, from which figure it is recognized that the perfection of that art existed in ancient times among the Etruscans, as may be seen from the Etruscan manner and still more from the letters carved on a paw, about which—since they are but few and there is no one now who understands the Etruscan tongue—it is conjectured that they may represent the name of the master as well as that of the figure itself, and perchance also the date, according to the use of those times. This figure, by reason of its beauty and antiquity, has been placed in our day by the Lord Duke Cosimo in the hall of the new rooms in his Palace, wherein there have been painted by me the acts of Pope Leo X. And besides this there were found in the same place many small figures in bronze after the same manner, which are in the hands of the said Lord Duke.

But since the dates of the works of the Greeks, the Ethiopians, and the Chaldæans are as doubtful as our own, and perhaps more, and by reason of the greater need of founding our judgment about these works on conjectures, which, however, are not so feeble that they are in every way wide of the mark, I believe that I strayed not at all from the truth (and I think that everyone who will consent to consider this question discreetly will judge as I did), when I said above that the origin of these arts was nature herself, and the example or model, the most beautiful fabric of the world, and the master, that divine light infused by special grace into us, which has not only made us superior to the other animals, but, if it be not sin to say it, like to God. And if in our own times it has been seen (as I trust to be able to demonstrate a little later by many examples) that simple children roughly reared in the woods, with their only model in the beautiful pictures and sculptures of nature, and by the vivacity of their wit, have begun by themselves to make designs, how much more may we, nay, must we confidently believe that these primitive men, who, in proportion as they were less distant from their origin and divine creation, were thereby the more perfect and of better intelligence, that they, by themselves, having for guide nature, for master purest intellect, and for exam- ple the so lovely model of the world, gave birth to these most noble arts, and from a small beginning, little by little bettering them, brought them at last to perfection? I do not, indeed, wish to deny that there was one among them who was the first to begin, seeing that I know very well that it must needs be that at some time and from some one man there came the beginning; nor, also, will I deny that it may have been possible that one helped another and taught and opened the way to design, to color, and relief, because I know that our art is all imitation, of nature for the most part, and then, because a man cannot by himself rise so high, of those works that are executed by those whom he judges to be better masters than himself. But I say surely that the wishing to affirm dogmatically who this man or these men were is a thing very perilous to judge, and perchance little necessary to know, provided that we see the true root and origin wherefrom art was born. For since, of the works that are the life and the glory of the craftsmen, the first and step by step the second and the third were lost by reason of time, that consumes all things, and since, for lack of writers at that time, they could not, at least in that way, become known to posterity, their craftsmen as well came to be forgotten.


Excerpted from "The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (Modern Library Classics)" by Giorgio Vasari. Copyright © 2002 by Giorgio Vasari. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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