Art Appraiser & Art History Writer and Editor
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"The Collector of Lives": A Review

Often viewed as the father of art history, Giorgio Vasari published The Lives of Artists in 1550 and offered the first detailed depiction of the lives of Renaissance artists. Now, over four-hundred-fifty years later he is the subject of a new biography titled The Collector of Lives, which details the life and influence the artist and writer had on the historiography of the history of art and also positions him as a successful artist in his own right.

Vasari is often remembered for his writings, but he had a successful career as an artist as well. He wrote a short section on his own life in his 16th century tome, but The Collector of Lives broadens the scope so we see a portrait of a man’s life and career. Born in 1511 in Arezzo, he built his career to a point where he consistently won commissions from the papacy in Rome and the Medici in Florence and during his life he was a staple at the most important courts in Italy. He was keenly aware of the business side of the industry, and worked the system in order the gain success despite the fact that he was not a master of the craft like his contemporaries Michelangelo or Raphael. As the authors purport, he may have been a favorite simply because he could get the job done and not miss deadlines. We also learn about his family and marriages and the ties he felt to his hometown of Arezzo.

The book was co-written by Ingrid Rowland, a well-regarded art historian of Renaissance art, and fellow historian and writer Noah Charney. The authors place the artist’s life in context of the historical events, such as the Siege of Rome and the dramatic murder of Alessandro de’ Medici. They offer the usual criticism of the accuracy of his biographies, acknowledging that Vasari had an agenda to promote the lives of Italian artists and usually does so with hyperbole. Overall, however, they use The Collector of Lives as a way to better understand Vasari’s own connection with the world of art in the 16th century.

The book begins and ends with the story of the fresco in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, which is considered Vasari’s masterpiece. Over the years there have been allegations that Vasari’s work covers a fresco by Leonardo Da Vinci. A scholar has even presented material in order to break through the wall to see what is below. It is argued that since Vasari believed in preserving the knowledge of the lives of Renaissance artists he would not have painted directly over a work by Da Vinci, but rather, would have found a way to conserve it below. Perhaps that is how Vasari should be remembered -- as an artist understanding his place in the history of art.