Renaissance Art: Vasari's Lives of the Artists

This is the first of several assignments, spread out over the course of the academic year, in which I ask introductory students to choose particular works of art and discuss what they find interesting, confusing, or enlightening. Coming as it does at the beginning of the course, student comments tend toward the ingenuous and are often personal — "I liked this because . . . ." Some students, however, do use Vasari's comments to structure their comments and a few employ ideas they find in Barzun's discussion in From Dawn to Decadence. One student drew upon his Introduction to Philosophy course to invoke Aristotelian and Platonic notions of the beautiful.

Paolo Veronese, Feast in the House of Levi

Only a couple of students had ever taken an art history course. So we devoted a class to getting ready to choose among the artists Vasari discussed. I asked them to read Barzun's discussion and to look at Raphael's "The School of Athens, " a work Barzun refers to at some length. I provided a link to a site where students could see details of the painting as well as the whole and where they could resize the images to suit their own monitors. I also supplied the record of Veronese's run-in with the Inquisition in Venice as a way of helping students get a better idea of what Barzun means by "the artist is born." We devoted the last portion of this class to students browsing the site with the images discussed by Vasari. Their instructions were simply to find an artist or two whose work really struck them as wonderful. This was an easy way to introduce them to the enormous variety of Renaissance art. It gave them a serious task but freed them from the pressure of having to remember specific facts about specific works.

Sept. 22–24: Medieval-Renaissance Art Discussions


1. Barzun, “The Artist Is Born” in From Dawn to Decadence
2. Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists + Lives with images of works discussed (read the chapter on Michelangelo + one on any other artist)

I.  We will devote one class (Sept. 22) to “reading” a Renaissance painting, Raphael’s “The School of Athens” and to trying on Barzun’s view of the Renaissance artist. For this class you should submit two questions provoked by your reading of Barzun’s “The Artist Is Born” along with your initial reactions to the painting. The “artist” became a special category of person during the Renaissance, as Barzun seeks to explain. A quick way to begin to grapple with this is to look at Veronese before the Inquisition.

II.  We will build our second discussion (Sept. 24) on Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. As Barzun points out, Vasari’s book has shaped the way people look at the art of the Renaissance for more than four centuries.  Go to Lives with images of works discussed and browse through the images of some of the artists Vasari profiled. Choose an artist whose works you really like, and read that chapter in Lives of the Artists + the chapter on Michelangelo.  As you read, toggle back to the images so that you can see the works Vasari discussed. Submit links to two works by the artist you chose that strike you as particularly interesting along with a shallow reason or two for your selection. My use of the word “shallow” is intended to remind all of us that we are not trying to define the essence of Renaissance art but to begin to develop some appreciation for it.

Student Choices

Veronese before the Inquisition

Report of the sitting of the Tribunal of the Inquisition on Saturday July eighteenth, 1573

This is Charles Yriarte's translation from Italian, published, among other places in Francis Marion Crawford's Salve Venetia, New York, 1905. Vol. II: 29-34.

This day, July eighteenth, 1573. Called to the Holy Office before the sacred tribunal, Paolo Galliari Veronese residing in the parish of Saint Samuel, and being asked as to his name and surname replied as above.

Being asked his profession:
I paint and make figures.
Question. Do you know the reasons why you have been called here?
A. No.

Q. Can you imagine what those reasons may be?
A. I can well imagine.

Q. Say what you think about them.
A. I fancy that it concerns what was said to me by the reverend fathers, or rather by the prior of the monastery of San Giovanni e Paolo, whose name I did not know, but who informed me that he had been here, and that your Most Illustrious Lordships had ordered him to cause to be placed in the picture a Magdalen instead of the dog; and I answered him that very readily I would do all that was needful for my reputation and for the honor of the picture; but that I did not understand what this figure of the Magdalen could be doing here; and this for many reasons, which I will tell, when occasion is granted me to speak.

Q. What is the picture to which you have been referring?
A. It is the picture which represents the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with His disciples in the house of Simon.

Q. Where is this picture?
A. In the refectory of the monks of San Giovanni e Paolo.

Q. Is it painted in fresco or on wood or on canvas?
A. It is on canvas.

Q. How many feet does it measure in height?
A. It may measure seventeen feet.

Q. And in breadth?
A. About thirty-nine.

Q. How many have you represented? And what is each one doing?
A. First there is the innkeeper, Simon; then, under him, a carving squire whom I supposed to have come there for his pleasure, to see how the service of the table is managed. There are many other figures which I cannot remember, however, as it is a long time since I painted that picture.

Q. How you painted other Last Suppers besides that one?
A. Yes.

Q. How many have you painted? Where are they?
A. I painted one at Verona for the reverend monks of San Lazzaro; it is in their refectory. Another is in the refectory of the reverend brothers of San Giorgio here in Venice.

Q. But that one is not a Last Supper, and is not even called the Supper of Our Lord.
A. I painted another in the refectory of San Sebastiano in Venice, another at Padua for the Fathers of the Maddalena. I do not remember to have made any others.

Q. In this Supper which you painted for San Giovanni e Paolo, what signifies the figure of him whose nose is bleeding?
A. He is a servant who has a nose-bleed from some accident.

Q. What signify those armed men dressed in the fashion of Germany, with halberds in their hands?
A. It is necessary here that I should say a score of words.

Q. Say them.
A. We painters use the same license as poets and madmen, and I represented those halberdiers, the one drinking, the other eating at the foot of the stairs, but both ready to do their duty, because it seemed to me suitable and possible that the master of the house, who as I have been told was rich and magnificent, would have such servants.

Q. And the one who is dressed as a jester with a parrot on his wrist, why did you put him into the picture?
A. He is there as an ornament, as it is usual to insert such figures.

Q. Who are the persons at the table of Our Lord?
A. The twelve apostles.

Q. What is Saint Peter doing, who is the first?
A. He is carving the lamb in order to pass it to the other part of the table.

Q. What is he doing who comes next?
A. He holds a plate to see what Saint Peter will give him.

Q. Tell us what the third is doing.
A. He is picking his teeth with a fork.

Q. And who are really the persons whom you admit to have been present at this Supper?
A. I believe that there was only Christ and His Apostles; but when I have some space left over in a picture I adorn it with figures of my own invention.

Q. Did some person order you to paint Germans, buffoons, and other similar figures in this picture?
A. No, but I was commissioned to adorn it as I thought proper; now it is very large and can contain many figures.

Q. Should not the ornaments which you were accustomed to paint in pictures be suitable and in direct relation to the subject, or are they left to your fancy, quite without discretion or reason?
A. I paint my pictures with all the considerations which are natural to my intelligence, and according as my intelligence understands them.

Q. Does it seem suitable to you, in the Last Supper of our Lord, to represent buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs, and other such absurdities?
A. Certainly not.

Q. Then why have you done it?
A. I did it on the supposition that those people were outside the room in which the Supper was taking place.

Q. Do you not know that in Germany and other countries infested by heresy, it is habitual, by means of pictures full of absurdities, to vilify and turn to ridicule the things of the Holy Catholic Church, in order to teach false doctrine to ignorant people who have no common sense?
A. I agree that it is wrong, but I repeat what I have said, that it is my duty to follow the examples given me by my masters.

Q. Well, what did your masters paint? Things of this kind, perhaps?
A. In Rome, in the Pope's Chapel, Michelangelo has represented Our Lord, His Mother, St. John, St. Peter, and the celestial court; and he has represented all these personages nude, including the Virgin Mary, and in various attitudes not inspired by the most profound religious feeling.

Q. Do you not understand that in representing the Last Judgment, in which it is a mistake to suppose that clothes are worn, there was no reason for painting any? But in these figures what is there that is not inspired by the Holy Spirit? There are neither buffoons, dogs, weapons, nor other absurdities. Do you think, therefore, according to this or that view, that you did well in so painting your picture, and will you try to prove that it is a good and decent thing?
A. No, my most Illustrious Sirs; I do not pretend to prove it, but I had not thought that I was doing wrong; I had never taken so many things into consideration. I had been far from imaging such a great disorder, all the more as I had placed these buffoons outside the room in which Our Lord was sitting.

These things having been said, the judges pronounced that the aforesaid Paolo should be obliged to correct his picture within the space of three months from the date of the reprimand, according to the judgments and decision of the Sacred Court, and altogether at the expense of the said Paolo.

"Et ita decreverunt omni melius modo." (And so they decided everything for the best!)

Crawford observed: "The existing picture proves that Veronese paid no attention to the recommendations of the Court, for I find that it contains every figure referred to."