Giorgio Vasari has a lot to answer for, like many people with a mission. An artist himself, he covered the ceiling of the huge council chamber in the Palazzo della Signoria in the centre of Florence with earnest historical paintings of battles and heroes, there to this day. More significantly, he set out to raise the status of artists. Following in the footsteps of Plutarch who wrote biographies of famous people in the ancient world, Vasari set out to write the lives of famous Tuscan artists and, in the process, raise their status.
Born in Arezzo in 1511, his city had by then lost its civil and cultural independence to Florence. But what concerned the young painter was his low status as an artist. In the ancient world, poets and philosophers had kept the company of rulers in both church and state, while artists and architects were enrolled in the powerful medieval guilds. These protected their financial and family interests, but not their status. To practise as painters, they had to enrol in the guild that dealt with colours and dyeing fabrics – a key industry in Florence in the 1400s – whilst sculptors were lumped in with the stonecutters. This did not seem to concern Donatello, Desiderio da Settignano and the great Della Robbia family, all Florentine sculptors from the 1400s who they provided the figures to adorn the facades of churches and the shrines within as well as the communal fountains throughout the city.
Leonardo was fastidious. His contemporaries commented on how he painted richly-garbed while listening to music – a courtly figure indeed. But it was Michelangelo, twenty-three years younger than Leonardo, who inspired Vasari to write his first Life.
Vasari was thirty-six years younger than Michelangelo, and fifty-three years old when his hero died. He said he had actually met Michelangelo. No wonder that the first of his Lives was about Michelangelo. Vasari consciously set out to write the contemporary artist into historical record. His hero would be the first artist that he would try to raise to equal the great heroes of Antiquity. Here was his chance! Thus Michelangelo became the first contemporary artist to achieve the status of a philosopher or writer and join the company of famous people. Even so, it was a slippery business. The dust and dirt associated with sculptors lumped into the same guild as stonecutters – much to Michangelo’s chagrin –, marked them out from painters who could manage with only one servant, both valet and assistant, mixing colours and generally clearing up around his master.
Both Leonardo and Michelangelo expressed themselves in words, Michelangelo in poetry and Leonardo in numerous treatises written from right to left as it was easier for a left-handed person to do. They were started and left unfinished when his hugely inventive mind swooped from one subject only to start upon another. Herein lies the movingly immense power of the hundreds of sheets of paper now in the Queen’s collection and on show in the Queen’s Gallery next to Buckingham Palace. They provide us with a unique journey into the restless workings of a brilliant inventor and artist’s mind. How they actually came to be in the Queen’s collection is a story to be told another time.
Leonardo died 500 years ago at the Chateau d’Amboise in the Loire Valley while under the protection of the young king of France, Francois I. Legend has it that Leonardo expired in his arms. True or not, it served Vasari’s purpose to emphasise that artists were now freed from the guilds to become the equal of philosophers and poets, worthy to keep the company of kings. Giorgio Vasari ‘s Lives of the Artists was justified. They too, Leonardo had shown, could be in the company of kings.