1 down, 99 to go
Starting on my journey through the 100 greatest non-fiction books, I chose Lives of the Artists by Vasari. (Mostly because it was the first one that my local library had in stock, along with being on the Gutenberg site.)
To my surprise, I enjoyed it. There’s so much personality in this book. I expected a dry accounting similar to the way people are presented in modern history books, but the voice of the author is quite strong.
Some of my favorite passages that illustrate Vasari’s editorializing:
…no one ever becomes excellent in any profession whatsoever unless he learns while still a boy to endure heat, cold, hunger, thirst, and other discomforts; those people, therefore, who think it is possible to attain an honourable 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!
He also is king of the run on sentences!
Paolo Uccello would have been the most delightful and inventive genius in the history of painting from Giotto’s day to the present, if he had spent as much time working on human figures and animals as he lost on problems of perspective; for although these things are ingenious and beautiful, anyone whose pursuit of them is excessive wastes hour after hour, exhausts his native abilities, and fills his mind with difficulties, quite often turning a fertile and effortless talent into one that is sterile and overworked; and anyone who pays more attention to perspective than to human figures achieves an arid style full of profiles, produced by the desire to examine things in minute detail.
They read (I think) like blog posts rather then a true biography or history.
What happy spirits are those who, while helping one another, also take pleasure in praising the labour of others! How unhappy are the artisans of our own times who, while doing harm to others, are eaten up by envy in attacking them when they cannot vent their malice!
And some of the descriptions of the works are incredible.
There are some astrologers to one side who have drawn geomantic and astrological figures and characters in various form on some tablets, and then send them by means of certain beautiful angels to the Evangelists, who explain them. Among them is a figure of Diogenes with his cup lying upon the stairs, a most preoccupied and thoughtful figure, which for its beauty and the disorderliness of its garments deserves praise. Likewise, there are Aristotle and Plato, the latter with the Timaeus in his hand, the former with the Ethics, while around them a large school of philosophers form a circle. […] Among them, in the figure of a young man with a beautiful form who is throwing open his arms with amazement and bowing his head, is the portrait of Federigo II, Duke of Mantua, who was in Rome at that time. Likewise, there is a figure who is bending towards the ground with a pair of compasses in hand and turning them on a tablet, which is said to be the architect Bramante, whose portrait is so well done that he seems no less himself than if he were alive. Next to a figure who turns his back and holds a globe of the heavens in one hand is the portrait of Zoroaster, and next to him is the portrait of Raphael, the master of this work, who painted himself by looking in a mirror. He has a youthful head and a very modest appearance coupled with a pleasant and gentle grace, and he is wearing a black beret. […] And behind Saint Matthew, who is copying character out of the engraved tablets held by an angel and writing them down in a book, an old man who has placed a sheet of paper on his knee copies all the words Saint Matthew is writing down. And while he remains intent in that uncomfortable position, it seems as if he is moving his mouth and head, following the movements of his pen.
This description, by the way, refers to the Room of the Signatura.
I also liked the way Vasari made sure to include who learned what from whom, building a sort of timeline and continuity along the artistic paths. There were definitely passages that were challenging to wade through, mainly because I have absolutely no art knowledge and so I lost some nuances, but all in all, it was interesting and informative.
3 out of 5 stars.