Book Review: Vasari’s "The Lives of the Artists"

Well faithful readers, I’m sure that you’re tired of hearing about Vasari in my posts. I don’t blame you. I’ve been writing Vasari-inspired posts for the past several weeks, as I’ve slowly worked my way through the Lives of the Artists text. The funny thing is, I never intended on reading the whole book this fall. I checked out Lives so that I could verify a couple of quotes, but then I just kept reading. And reading. And reading. And now, 500+ pages later, I’ve finally finished! So, this review will probably be my last Vasari-centric post, at least for a while. Here are my final thoughts on Vasari’s Lives:

– This book is simultaneously boring and fascinating. It’s difficult to read Vasari’s lengthy passages which describe works of art, especially since there were no reproductions available in my text. (This website, however, promises to display illustrations with each biography, although I don’t know if all extant reproductions will be provided for every description in the text.) However, many of Vasari’s anecdotes and short stories are really fascinating. I especailly found the story of Brunelleschi and Ghiberti’s rivalry to be quite riveting.

– Vasari’s hyperbolic writing style is a little silly. He is over-the-top in his praise for the majority of artists in the book. Likewise, much of art in the book is described as the most beautiful thing in the world – those descriptions become old after a few paragraphs. Vasari also opens many chapters with generalized, broad statements about life, happiness, or art (a type of “Happy is the man who…” statement), and that also gets a little annoying.

– I can see why Vasari is sometimes called “The Father of Art History.” His methodology of verifying multiple sources for information helped set a precedent for the discipline. He also offers critiques for works of art, and it’s easy to see how he helped to set the standard for art criticism. Even though his writing is prolix and dull at times, it’s quite interesting to see his methodology and ideological influences.

– I would recommend this book to a serious art historian. I think anyone with a mild interest in art would get bored quite easily: the interesting anecdotes and stories are embedded deep within Vasari’s text. If you want to know more interesting stories without reading the book, just let me know. I took notes!

* I am counting this book as part of Heidenkind’s Art History Challenge.

  • heidenkind says:

    w00t! You deserve huge props for making your way through this whole book. I totally agree with your assessment of his writing. I love the personal anecdotes about the artists, but the descriptions of paintings make my brain buzz. I only read the entry on Raphael because I was writing an essay on La Fornarina, but that was more than enough for me. I'll probably have to read Lives at some point in the future, but I'm going to put it off as long as possible. 😉

  • sonoroy says:

    I like the book a lot. No, it's not a page turner. That's true of a lot of texts. What I like is being able to live in the mind of a man who loved art and who lived in the 16th century. There are some great stories in there, Sodoma's menagerie and race horse, Rosso's baboon

  • M says:

    Thanks for your comment, sonoroy! (And welcome to my blog!) I loved the menagerie and baboon stories, as well. Such anecdotes were some of my favorite things about "Lives of the Artists." And you're right: it's really neat to discover the thoughts of a man who loved art (and created art!) during the Renaissance. As a historian, it makes me feel like the I intimately connect with someone who lived hundreds of years ago.

  • jsiah10 says:

    I just started reading The Lives of the Artists because I wanted to read his interesting anecdotes, but the parts in between are a little too slow for me, so I'll take you up on your offer! What were a few of the best stories?

  • M says:

    jsiah10: Thanks for your comment! One of my favorite stories revolved around the competition between Ghiberti and Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi didn't like Ghiberti very much, partially because Ghiberti received the commission for "The Gates of Paradise" doors for the Florence cathedral's baptistery. However, when Brunelleschi's design was picked for the dome of Florence cathedral, Ghiberti was chosen to work with Brunelleschi to complete the project! Ghiberti was earning a salary equal to that of Brunelleschi, even though he wasn't competent in terms of architecture. Brunelleschi was furious, and would sometimes feign illness (and consequently stay home from work) so that Ghiberti would be stuck trying to manage a project that was beyond his ability. Ghiberti finally admitted that he wasn't capable of managing the project, and Brunelleschi took over as sole director.

    Another fun story revolves around the artist Uccello. He had never seen a chameleon before, and decided to paint a camel instead. (You can see my post on the topic here).

    I also liked a story about Michelangelo's "David." Michelangelo was working on the statue, and someone commented that the nose was too large. So Michelangelo pretended to sculpt the nose in front of this critic, and the person noted that the nose looked much better afterward.

    If you're interested in seeing my notes from the book, feel free to email me (my address is on the top left corner of my home page).

Email Subscription



This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.