The Lives of Artists by Giorgio Vasari

Summary
  1. Giorgio Vasari  the effective founder of art history, describes the lives and works of some of history’s great artists
Key Takeaways
  1. Vasari had titanic energy and was an accomplished artist in his own right but his most important legacy is this book – having pretty much invented art history
  2. Design is the basis of all good art – practice to imitate human and natural world
  3. Grace and effortless-seeming is the greatest compliment anyone can pay you
  4. The origin of these arts was Nature herself, that the inspiration or model was the beautiful fabric of the world, and that the Master who taught us was that divine light infused in us by a special act of grace which has not only made us superior to other animals but even similar, if it is permitted to say so, to God himself
  5. Cimabue made Byzantine art less “awkward” and was Giotto’s mentor
  6. Giotto a natural talent but worked hard and learned to draw from Nature
  7. Design and invention are the father and mother of all the arts and not of a single one alone
  8. Truly happy are the men who are by nature inclined to those arts which can bring them not only honor and great profits but, what is more important, fame and an almost everlasting reputation; even happier are those who in addition to this inclination exhibit from infancy a gentility and civility of manners which make them most pleasing to all men. But  happiest of all, finally, are those (speaking of artists) who, in addition to having a natural inclination towards the good as well as noble habits resulting from both their nature and education  live in the time of some famous writer from whom, in return for a small portrait or some other kind of gift of an artistic nature, they may on occasion receive through such writings, the reward of eternal honor and fame
  9. No doubt those who are the inventors of anything noble attract the greatest attention from historians, and this occurs because new inventions are more closely observed and held in greater amazement, due to the pleasure to be found in the newness of things, than any number of improvements made later by anyone at all in bringing these things to their ultimate state of perfection.
  10. Basis of art history lies in first-hand observation
  11. Any beginning, no matter how small, is always worth of no small praise
  12. Robbia devoted himself so completely to sculpture, altogether abandoning the goldsmith’s craft  that he did nothing else but chisel all day long and sketch at night. And he did this with such zeal that on many occasions at night when his feet became cold, in order not to leave his sketching, he would warm them up by placing them in a basket of wood shavings – that is, the kinds of shavings carpenters remove from boards when they work them with a plane. I am not in the least surprised by this, since no one ever becomes excellent in any profession whatsoever unless he learns while stills  boy to endure heat, cold, hunger, thirst, and other discomforts; those people, therefore, who think it is possible to attain an honorable rank with all the comforts and conveniences in the world are sadly mistaken: it is achieved by staying up late and working constantly, not by sleeping!
  13. Artists should pay close attention to this, since experience makes it clear that from a  distance all things – whether painting, sculpture, or any other similar thing – have greater boldness and force if they are well roughed out rather than well finished; because of the effects of distance, it also often seems that rough sketches, which are created in an instant of artistic frenzy, express the idea behind them in a few strokes, whereas on the other hand, great effort and too much diligence may sometimes diminish the power and knowledge of those who never know when to pull their hands away from the works they are creating. And anyone who knows that the art of design (to avoid speaking only of painting) are akin to poetry also knows that just as poems dictated during a poetic frenzy are the truest, the finest, and the best when compared to those produced with great effort, so the works of men who excel in arts of design are best when they are created by a single stroke from the force of this frenzy rather than when they are produced little by little according to the inspiration of the moment with great effort and labor. The artist who from the very beginning has, as he should, a conception of what he desires to create, always moves resolutely towards perfection with the greatest ease
  14. Let it suffice to say that whatever great artists pursue, so do the lesser ones
  15. Nature has created many men who are small and insignificant in appearance but whoa re endowed with spirits so full of greatness and hearts of such boundless courage that they have no peace until they undertake difficult and almost impossible tasks and bring them to completion, to the astonishment of those who witness them. No matter how vile or base these projects may be, when opportunity puts them into the hands of such men, they become valuable and lofty enterprises. Thus, we should never turn up our noses when we meet people who in their physical appearance do not possess the initial grace and beauty that Nature should bestow upon skillful artisans when they come into the world, for without a doubt veins of gold are hidden beneath the sod. And many times those with poor features develop such great generosity of spirit and sincerity of heart that when nobility of soul is joined to these qualities, they greatest miracles may be expected of them, for they work to embellish ugliness of body with strength of intellect. This can clearly be see in Brunelleschi. Heaven also endowed Filippo with the highest virtues, among which was that of friendship, so that there never existed a man more kind or loving than he. In his judgment he was dispassionate, and whenever he considered the measure of another man’s merits, eh set aside his own interest or that of his friends. He knew himself and communicated the degree of his own talent to others, and he was always ready to help a neighbor in need, declaring himself a confirmed enemy of vice and an admirer of those who practiced virtue. He never wasted his time but was always striving to asst his friends, either by himself or with the help of others, and he went about visiting his friends and always supporting them.
  16. Filippo’s hologram in his head – “…And none of you has remembered to point out that the internal scaffolding can be constructed to do the mosaics and countless number of other difficult tasks. But I, who envision the dome already vaulted, recognize that there is no other way to vault it than the one I have set forth.”
  17. The greatest gifts often rain down upon human bodies through celestial influences as a natural process, and sometimes in a supernatural fashion a single body is lavishly supplied with such beauty, grace, and ability that whatever the individual turns, each of his actions is so divine that he leaves behind all other men and clearly makes himself known as a genius endowed by God (which he is) rather than created by human artifice. Men saw this in Leonardo da Vinci, who displayed great physical beauty (which has never been sufficiently praised),a  more than infinite grace in every action, and an ability so fit and so vast that wherever his mind turned to difficult tasks, he resolved them completely with ease. His great personal strength was joined to dexterity, and his spirit and courage were always regal and magnanimous. And the fame of his name spread so widely that not only was he held in high esteem in his own times, but his fame increased even more after his death
  18. The greatest geniuses sometimes accomplish more when they work less since they are searching for inventions in their minds, and forming those perfect ideas which their hands then express and reproduce from what they preciously conceived with their intellect
  19. The loss of Leonardo saddened beyond all measure everyone who had known him, for no one ever lived who had brought such honor to painting. His splendidly handsome appearance could bring calm to every troubled soul, and his words could sway the most hardened mind to either side of a question. His great physical strength could check any violent outburst; with his right hand he could bend the iron ring of a door-knocker or a horseshoe as if it were made of lead. His generosity was so great that he sheltered and fed all his friends, rich and poor alike, provided they possessed talent and ability.
  20. No one should think it strange that Michelangelo took pleasure in solitude, as a man deeply enamored of his art, which wants a man to be alone and pensive for its own purposes, since anyone who desires to apply himself to the study of this art must avoid companions: it so happens that those who attend to the considerations of art are never alone or without thoughts, and people who attribute their desire for solitude to daydreams and eccentricity are wrong, for anyone who wishes to work well must rid himself of cares and worries, since talent requires thought, solitude, comfort and concentration of mind. All the same, Michelangelo cherished the friendship of many people, great men, learned scholars, and talented people, and he maintained these friendships whenever it was appropriate
  21. Michelangelo possessed such a deep and retentive memory that after seeing the works of others a single time, he recalled them in such detail and used them in such a way that scarcely anyone ever realized it; nor did he ever create any works which resembled another, because he remembered everything that he had done
  22. As long as he wants to be rich, he will continue to be poor
  23. Anyone who follows others never passes them by, and anyone who does not know how to do good works on his own cannot make good use of works by others
  24. Now, if I have reached the goal I desired, that is, to be useful and to give pleasure, I shall be extremely grateful, and if I have failed I shall rest content, or at least less troubled, having toiled in an honorable cause and one that should make me worthy, among men of talent, of at least their compassion, if not their forgiveness…As for the rest, having done the best I knew how, accept it willingly and do not ask of me more than I know or am capable of, and be satisfied with my good will, which is and always will be to help others. – Vasari
What I got out of it
  1. Really insightful book on the personalities and works of some of history’s best artists. Mastery in one realm can shed light on all others.