Confronting artists’ lives

Vasari’s Vite and Van Mander's Schilder-Boeck

The artists Giorgio Vasari and Karel van Mander both wrote books about art theory and the biographies of artists, which had great impact on a large audience that stretched over a sizable part of Europe. These works are important because Vasari wrote the first critical art historical work about Italian art, to which Van Mander added his expertise about Netherlandish and German art. But what do these critical art historical works describe? And how did these works influence people’s lives?

Le Vite
Le Vite is Vasari’s most influential book about art theory and artists’ lives. This work was published in 1550 and contains over a thousand pages and consists of two volumes. The structure of Le Vite is marked by an introduction to architecture, sculpture and painting. The book continues with important artists’ biographies. This last section contains life descriptions of 133 artists and is ordered chronologically starting with Cimabue and finally ending with Michelangelo. Besides artists, also assistants and pupils are included in many of the biographies. In the end of the work artists and readers are addressed by remarks, in which topics are discussed in rare detail.

Title page of Vasari's Le Vite.
This work is of great importance, as Vasari is seen as the father of art theory because he was the first to write a critical history of artistic style. Vasari not only wanted to make a compilation of information and stories, he also wished to contribute to the improvement of art by carefully describing the way works are depicted, conceived and treated by artists and what their inventions and specialties were. These descriptions could have a didactic impact on other artists. In addition to that, Vasari introduced an overarching theory of the history of art, which could be divided into three main eras: a modest, though hopeful, beginning; an improved, but still imperfect, intermediate stage; and the final attainment (also known as the High Renaissance). Besides that, Vasari offered a normative concept of three styles: the all’antica style, like the ancient Greek way of painting, was considered good and the Gothic and Byzantine style were recognized as bad by him.

This is also illustrated in Cimabue’s life description, where Vasari praises the artist for painting in ‘the good manner of ancient Greece’, in contrast to the people who taught him and painted in the 'rude manner' of their own time. Because of his way of painting, Cimabue was able to surpass his teachers. Vasari gave even more praise to the painter of the Madonna in the Santa Maria Novella. According to Vasari, this artist, although he painted in the Greek manner, also included something of the modern style, thus making people of that time marvel for they had never having seen anything better.

Vasari’s ideas, described in Le Vite, spread throughout Italy before they circulated throughout Europe. Vasari’s manner of organizing information about art became dominant and his model remained paradigmatic for a long period of time.

Karel van Mander took over Vasari’s conceptual framework while adding much information from his national records. His Schilder-Boeck, which was published in 1604, is his most influential book. This work consists of six sections, starting with ‘the didactic poem’, followed by the lives of ancient painters, the lives of famous contemporary Italian painters, the lives of famous Netherlandish and High German painters and the interpretation and explanation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a collection of classical myths that formed popular subjects for many painters in Mander’s time. The last section of the book explains how to render figures, what they mean and what they represent, and thus it gives iconographical guidelines. For example, thanks to this final section in the Schilder-Boeck, the woman sitting in the upper-left in the title page of the book can be interpreted as Cybele, the mother of the gods, because Van Mander describes Cybele as a woman with a crown of towers and a scepter in her left hand.

Title page of Van Mander's Schilder-Boek.
This work of Van Mander is considered to be a very important source for art history, especially the section about the lives of Netherlandish and German artists since the brothers Van Eyck, because is the earliest systematic account of Northern European artists. This also explains why Van Mander is sometimes referred to as the ‘Dutch Vasari’. Like Vasari, Van Mander described the specific art techniques, which were handled by famous artists. When people read these theories, they could improve their own works of art by applying the same techniques that were praised by Van Mander. An example of this can be found in the passage about the lives of Jan and Hubert van Eyck, where Van Mander described Jan van Eyck’s invention of oil painting and his making of a new varnish, according to Van Mander the best in the world. This new varnish was needed since Van Eyck was apparently struggling with his varnish before, because the sun was causing significant damage to his paintings. Van Mander also wrote down how to make this great varnish with linseed oil and nut oil. Using this new varnish, the paintings could dry inside the artist’s house and didn’t need the sunlight anymore to dry.

Vasari’s Le Vite and Van Mander’s Schilder-Boeck are very important primary sources to art history, as they are the first critical art historical works of Italy and Northern Europe. Thanks to these books, new techniques and ideas about the best ways of depicting spread, from which artist could learn and improve their own work. As a result, the art theory described in the books also shaped the history of art, as they influenced how art was valued and made. Because of the great importance of these works, I recommend everyone who is interested in art theory and artist’s biographies to come to the KNIR and see these books for themselves. Viola Lam

Carel van Mander [Het Schilder-Boeck] Het Schilder-Boeck, waer in voor den eerst de leerlustighe iueght den grondt der edel vrij schilderconst in verscheyden deelen wort voorgedragen, Daer name in dry deelen t’ leuen der vermaerde door luchtighe schilders des ouden, en nieuwen tyds, Eyntlyck d’wtlegghinghe op den Metamorphosen pub. Ouidij Naso nis oock daerbeneffens wtbeeldinghe der figueren alles diens tich en nut den schilders constbeminners en dichters ook allen staten van menschen, Door Carel van Mander schilder. (imp. Haarlem. Door Paschier van Wesbusch, Boeckvercooper. 1604. Met Privilegie)
8°, 32 - 272 - 276 p.
Rome, Library Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome, Pregiato Kd Man 1604

Giorgio Vasari [Le Vite] Le Vite de piv eccelenti architeti, pittori, et scultori Italiani, da Cimabue insino a’ tempi nostri: descrite in lingua Toscana, da Giorgio Vasari Pittore Aretino. Con vna sua vtile & necessaria introduzzione a le arti loro. (imp. Firenze. M D L.)
4°, 22 - 530 p.
Rome, Library Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome, Pregiato Id Vas

Dynes, W.R. and G. Mermoz. "Art history." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University
         Press. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
Kliemann, J. and A. Manno, “Vasari: (1) Giorgio Vasari.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online.
         Oxford University Press. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
Reznicek, E.K.J and M.J.T.M. Stompé, “Mander, van: (1) Karel van Mander.” Grove Art Online.
         Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
Rubin, P. L. Giorgio Vasari. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

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