Saint Luke paints a portrait of the Virgin

Giorgio Vasari – the painter who gave the name to the Renaissance

St. Luke painting the Madonna, 1565
St. Luke painting the Madonna, 1565

Giorgio Vasari, nicknamed Aretino (Giorgio Vasari, Aretino; born July 30, 1511 – died June 27, 1574) is a famous Italian painter of the Mannerist period, who was glorified not so much by paintings as by his work on the history of art of the XIV-XVI centuries.

The work of Giorgio Vasari was multifaceted: he painted on canvas and wood, working with oils and tempera, painted churches with frescoes, and gained some fame as an architect. But his name immortalized literary research work, considered one of the first works in art history.

Giorgio Vasari has been working for over twenty years on “Biographies of the most famous painters, sculptors and architects.” Although before him there were authors who described the fate of artists, it was Vasari-Aretino who is considered the forerunner of art history and even the founder of this science – his work was so large-scale, covering the biographies of 178 Italian creators of the Renaissance and the Mannerism period that replaced it. Vasari’s main achievements are a focused research approach, systematization of data and an attempt to create a holistic picture of the history of art.

Six Tuscan poets
Six Tuscan poets

Giorgio Vasari is a man with an interesting destiny: he created a work of art of such significance that he overshadowed the artistic work of the painter with his glory. But Aretino is also interesting as an artist – a master of religious and mythological genres, a battle painter and a portrait painter.

Vasari painted artsy, compositionally complex paintings, saturated with allegories. Anyone who wants to get an idea of ​​Mannerism, just look at these works – and the peculiarities of the style will become clear.



Giorgio Vasari was born on July 30, 1511 in the family of a potter who lived in Arezzo, a small town located in the Italian region of Tuscany. Interestingly, the family name comes from the word vasaio, meaning “potter”. But the nickname that the painter later received – Aretino – was given at the place of his birth.

When the child was eleven years old, he was sent to study painting. The talent of the boy who helped paint the temple was noticed by Cardinal Silvio Passerini. He sent a 13-year-old boy to the capital of Tuscany – Florence, which was one of the centers of Italian art.

Saint Luke paints a portrait of the Virgin
Saint Luke paints a portrait of the Virgin

The artist’s youth was not easy. He was still a teenager when he lost his father, and all the burdens of supporting a large family (and Aretino had five brothers and sisters) fell on his shoulders. Talent and hard work helped out: despite his young age, Vasari-Aretino quickly gained respect in the professional environment and acquired influential patrons from the aristocratic Medici family.

Giorgio had many mentors. At first he was taught by the Frenchman Guillaume de Marseille, who by the will of fate ended up in Arezzo, and after moving to brilliant Florence, the young man’s teachers were Mannerist painters Andrea del Sarto, Baccio Bandinelli (Baccio Bandinelli) and Rosso Florence Rosso Fiorentino).

Giorgio Vasari, Pope Clement VII, husband of Catherine de Medici and Henri II of France, October 28, 1533
Pope Clement VII, husband of Catherine de Medici and Henri II of France, October 28, 1533

Giorgio Vasari had a chance to study with Michelangelo Buonarroti himself.

It was this painter who was for him the personification of genius. But Aretino himself did not become the successor to the ideas of the Renaissance. He was closer to the principles of mannerism, which rejected the Renaissance clarity and simplicity in the name of intricacy and showiness.

The work of Giorgio Vasari fully reflects the features of the era in which he happened to live: he was born at the end of the Late Renaissance, when the great Michelangelo was still working, but the crisis of the Renaissance worldview had already begun. In art, the principles of mannerism prevailed, with its striving for external effects, behind which a disturbing outlook and the search for new artistic meanings were hidden.

Giorgio Vasari. Lorenzo Medici (1449-1492), Magnificent
Lorenzo Medici (1449-1492), Magnificent

The master’s paintings were typical of mannerism. His brush is characterized by:

  • broken poses (mannerist painters were constantly looking for the most effective poses for their characters, often neglecting naturalness and proportions);
  • multi-figure compositions;
  • colorfulness (despite the fact that he preferred a cold palette);
  • detailed, masterful elaboration of details;
  • expressiveness and sometimes even affective emotionality, which is especially noticeable in paintings dedicated to the martyrdom of saints (later this somewhat theatrical dramatization of plots, characteristic of mannerism, would develop and bring the emerging baroque to the level of high drama).
Judith and Holofernes. Giorgio Vasari
Judith and Holofernes
Gradually the painter became a very wealthy person.

But, as Aretino himself said, it was not profit that attracted him, but fame. Did he know that the 5-volume “Biographies” of famous artists would bring him true fame and immortality? Be that as it may, in 1550 Vasari publishes the first version of his work, on which he had worked for many years.

Alessandro Medici. Giorgio Vasari
Alessandro Medici

But the result did not satisfy him. The next eighteen years Vasari devoted to the completion of the “Biographies” (in parallel, he continued to paint and opened the Academy in 1562 in Florence). In 1568, the second edition was published – significantly supplemented and supplied with portraits of heroes.

Working on this book, Vasari painstakingly collected data on his predecessors and contemporaries: from Cimabue to the Mannerists. The monk Matteo Faetano and the writer Annibale Caro assisted in the literary processing.

Giorgio Vasari. Ceiling from the corridor Vasari
Ceiling from the corridor Vasari

True, later it was discovered that there were inventions and inaccuracies in the work. And several colleagues, whom the author disliked, got a lot of stinging words. Aretino devoted many pages to his work (excessive modesty was uncharacteristic for him).

But still, despite certain shortcomings, “Biographies” went down in history and immortalized the name of their creator – both as a biographer, and as a novelist, and as an art theorist. It was he who gave the name to the Renaissance era, using the word Rinascita – Renaissance.

Annunciation 1570-71. Giorgio Vasari
Annunciation 1570-71

The life of the master was cut short six years after the publication of the second edition of the Biographies, on June 27, 1574.

The most famous paintings by Giorgio Vasari
  1. Perseus and Andromeda (1580). Taking the popular story about the salvation of Andromeda, the master presented it in a manner characteristic of the Mannerists: each character seems to be trying to assume a theatrical pose. The main characters are surrounded by many mythological figures, and a panorama of the landscape opens up in the background. But, interestingly, the composition does not look overloaded, all the details are harmoniously interconnected. Art critics also note the excellent study of anatomy – in this the artist was equal to Michelangelo.
  2. “Annunciation” (1564-1567). For the popular biblical story, delicate shades are chosen that emphasize the integrity of the Virgin Mary. Complex and graceful poses, beautiful draperies, many symbolic details are characteristic signs of the author’s style.
  3. The Martyrdom of St. Stephen (c. 1560). This is an example of the expression that the mannerist masters loved so much. The crowd rains a hail of stones at the martyr. The enlightened humility with which he accepts the execution is in stark contrast to the aggression of the torturers. And again – compositional richness, complex interaction of many characters.
  4. “Portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent” (about 1533-1534). The painter depicted the great Florentine ruler, who at that time was no longer alive. The work attracts attention with philosophical psychologism: the painter painted this statesman and poet as a wise and tired man, deeply immersed in thought. The work clearly sounds the call of the creator to the powerful of this world: be like Lorenzo the Magnificent, the patron of the arts and “the vessel of all virtues.”
  5. “Saint Luke paints a portrait of the Virgin” (1565). This work uncommonly reveals a classic religious plot – the painter made it “multi-layered”. It is believed that the artist portrayed himself in the image of St. Luke.
Giorgio Vasari. Ceiling from the corridor Vasari
Ceiling from the corridor Vasari