Giorgio Vasari Biography – Italian Renaissance Painter, Architect, Writer, Engineer, Historian

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Saint Luke by Giorgio Vasari. National Gallery of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Giorgio Vasari Biography and Legacy

Giorgio Vasari was an Italian painter, architect, writer, engineer, and historian, who is considered the first art historian in history.

Vasari is best known for his book Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, which is a series of artist biographies considered one of the most influential writings on art.

Early Life

Giorgio Vasari was born on 30th July 1511 in Arezzo, Tuscany.

Vasari’s father, Antonio Vasari, was a potter by trade, and so were his grandfather and great-grandfather. His grandfather, Lazzaro Vasari, was also a painter of miniatures, a creator of decorated saddles, and a fresco painter.

Vasari seemed interested in art from an early age. Looking at his interest, his cousin Luca Signorelli, the Italian Renaissance painter, sent him to train under Guglielmo da Marsiglia, an Italian painter of stained glass.

In 1527, Giorgio Vasari, aged 16, was sent to Florence by Cardinal Silvio Passerini. There he joined the painter Andrea del Sarto’s circle, where he met Jacopo Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, who were also Sarto’s students at the time.

It was in Florence that Vasari began to learn the mannerist style of painting and architecture.

Early Artistic Career

In 1529, Giorgio Vasari, aged 18, went to Rome in order to study the works of Raphael, Michelangelo, and other great artists of the High Renaissance.

From the 1530s onward, Vasari began painting in the mannerist style of the Late Renaissance period.

In March 1546, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese commissioned Vasari to paint the frescoes at the hall of the Chancery in Palazzo Della Cancelleria in Rome. The purpose of the frescoes was to celebrate the life of Pope Paul III, Alessandro’s grandfather.

In 1547, the project was completed and came to be known as Sala dei Cento Giorni. The frescoes epitomize the mannerist style of Vasari and his studio.

However, the work was not admired for its quality and received mixed reactions.


Giorgio Vasari was a favorite of the Medici family, receiving several commissions from them in cities throughout Italy.

Having the Medici family as his patrons ensured him a constant supply of work. And as a result of being constantly employed, he was able to make a comfortable living as an artist, never running out of projects.

Due to his close association with the Medici family, Vasari also enjoyed a high social standing.

Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects

At a party in the house of Cardinal Farnese, the writer Paolo Giovio expressed his desire to write a treatise on contemporary artists. The Cardinal was delighted with the idea and asked Giorgio Vasari to provide Giovio with as much information as possible.

But Giovio instead asked Vasari to take up the project and he agreed.

Vasari began writing a series of biographies on important Italian artists of the time, compiled in a book titled Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.

The book was first published in 1550 and dedicated to Cosimo I De’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. The biographies are interspersed with amusing and often far-fetched gossip, and most of the anecdotes are mostly likely inventions and fiction.

The work blatantly favors Florentine artists, attributing to them all new developments in Renaissance. And Venetian artists, as well as other artists across Europe, have been ignored.

The work also consists of a valuable treatise on the technical methods employed in the arts of the time.

Even though Vasari did not research the archives for exact dates and attributions, confused dates and places, and made no effort to verify the truth of his claims, the book was an instant success, becoming quite popular.

In 1568, a second edition of the book (which is usually the one translated and referred to today) was published.

This second edition was partly rewritten and enlarged in order to give greater attention to Venetian art and artists. This was probably because, in the years between the publication of the two editions, Vasari had visited Venice and studied its art.

Influence of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects

The work has been translated into several languages such as French, English, German, Dutch, Spanish, and Russian.

Since its publication, it has become a model for encyclopedias of artist biographies. The book received great praise and acclaim since it was first published and gained much popularity.

It is now often described as the most influential text on the history of Renaissance art and as the first important book on art history.

Unfortunately, the success and popularity of the book eclipsed Giorgio Vasari’s career as a painter and architect, thereby making him more famous as a writer and art historian for future generations.

Despite the shortcomings of the work, it is often the basis for the biographies of many other artists of the time such as Leonardo da Vinci.

Other Artistic Projects

In 1555, Giorgio Vasari and his assistants began working on the wall and ceiling paintings of the Sala di Cosimo I in the Palazzo Vecchio (the town hall of Florence).

And the frescoes began by Vasari in the cupola (a dome-like structure on the top of a building) of the Florence Cathedral was eventually completed by the Italian mannerist painters and architects Federico Zuccari and Giovanni Balducci.

Vasari also painted some of the frescoes in the Sala Regia, a state hall in the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City.

Vasari the Architect

Giorgio Vasari was also a successful architect. In fact, he was more revered and famous as an architect than as a painter.

Vasari’s loggia of the Palazzo degli Uffizi (known as the Uffizi Gallery in English) by the river Arno in Tuscany, is a unique piece of urban planning that functions as a public piazza. It is also considered a Renaissance street with a unified architectural treatment.

Another famous work of architecture by Vasari is the Vasari Corridor. The Vasari Corridor is an elevated enclosed passageway connecting the Uffizi with the Palazzo Pitti (a vast Renaissance palace in Florence) on the other side of the river.

The corridor passes alongside the River Arno on an arcade, crosses the Ponte Vecchio (an arch bridge over the Arno River), and winds around the exterior of several buildings.

The corridor is approximately 1 kilometer in length and was built in 5 months.

Vasari also renovated the medieval churches Basilica di Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella, both in Florence.

In 1562, Vasari began building the octagonal dome on the Basilica of Our Lady of Humility, also known as Madonna dell’Umilta, in Pistoia. The 59-meter-high dome was completed in 1569 and is now considered a significant example of High Renaissance architecture.

Final Years

During his lifetime, Giorgio Vasari was able to amass a considerable fortune. He also enjoyed a high social standing and great repute, especially in his later years.

Vasari was able to build for himself a big house in Arezzo, one which he designed himself. He also decorated its walls and vaults with his numerous paintings and frescoed the rooms with scenes from the bible or mythology.

After Vasari’s death, the house was turned into a museum honoring him.

In his later years, Vasari was elected to the municipal council of his hometown, eventually rising to the high office of Gonfaloniere, the holder of a highly prestigious communal office.

He was also made Knight of the Golden Spur by the Pope.

In 1563, The Accademia Delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing) was founded by Cosimo I de’ Medici, under the guidance of Vasari. It was an academy of artists in Florence, whose purpose was the promotion and diffusion of the arts.

Michelangelo was one of the first 36 artists chosen as members.

The academy continues to exist and is active to this day, regularly organizing exhibitions, conferences, and concerts, and electing notable artists from all over the world as honorary members.

Death and Legacy

On 27th June 1574, Giorgio Vasari, aged 62, died in Florence, Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

He was interred in the church of Santa Maria in his hometown Arezzo, in a chapel he designed himself.

Even though Vasari is now more famous for his book Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, he is widely regarded as one of the greatest artists of the Late Renaissance period.

He created numerous paintings and structures that epitomize the mannerist style of the period, many of which continue to exist to this day.

Vasari is responsible for a whole new genre of encyclopedias of artist biographies, laying down a model and template that is still followed up to the present day. The concept of his book has influenced generations of art historians, many of whom have copied and replicated the style of his work.

The book is the most important and influential book in art history.

And finally, Vasari has also been credited for coining the term Renaissance, for the term ‘Rinascita’ (meaning rebirth), first appeared in his book. Renaissance is the anglicized word for Rinascita.