Post-classical history

2 Contamination, Stasis, and Purging

If Vasari’s legacy is his fashioning of a history for the visual arts, then it seems reasonable to begin an analysis of artistic mobility where that history begins, namely the Proemio delle Vite. This is not to say that the preceding sections—the dedication to Duke Cosimo I, the initial Proemio, and the technical treatise—do not raise the issue of mobility. Nevertheless, it is in the Proemio delle Vite, henceforth referred to as the preface, where the reader first encounters sustained attention to the movement of artists, objects, and techniques. The product of collaboration between Vasari and members of the Florentine Academy such as Pier Francesco Giambullari and Cosimo Bartoli, the preface is crucial if we are to understand the Lives’s prejudices and proclivities toward mobility. At the inception of Vasari’s history of style, mobility is far from being a heroic act of discovery and conquest. It is a cataclysmic event. The erratic transmission of artistic techniques from region to region menaces precise knowledge of arts’ origins. Barbarians invade and destroy. The arrival of foreign artists along with the corrupting force of aria brings about stasis, corruption, and contamination. It is in the preface that we encounter mobility’s dark side, an antagonist against which Vasari will eventually define his triumph of (central Italian) style via diffusion throughout Italy and the world at large. Only by probing this fragile construction can we appreciate how Vasari’s writing on art guides and proscribes the perception of works of art, our appreciation and esteem of artists, and their behavior.1


In the preface, Vasari depicts the movement of artists, objects, and ideas as a problem that can hinder the launch of his narrative. He first presents a seemingly reassuring catalogue of art forms and their purported places of origin: “I do not doubt at all that nearly all writers share the widespread and most certain opinion that sculpture together with painting were naturally and first found by the people of Egypt, and that others attribute to the Chaldeans the first sketches in marble and the first sculptural reliefs, just as they also give to the Greeks the invention of the brush and of coloring.” As the preface continues, however, techniques, objects, and peoples wander in a dizzying fashion between Babylon, Chaldea, Egypt, Greece, and Rome.2 Vasari does acknowledge the classical past common to Mediterranean civilizations. However, in contrast to contemporary maps of seas that link these cultures in a littoral chain, Vasari attempts to establish distinctions among places (fig. 2.1). Sculpture’s beginnings are initially associated with Babylonian idols, yet Vasari immediately contradicts this ascription in favor of Egyptian and Chaldean statuary. But then he states that Ethiopians, in fact, created the first sculptures, the technique of which was transferred to the Egyptians, and from them to the Greeks. Yet Vasari, reading Pliny erroneously, also claims that sculpture arrived in Egypt through the Greek artist Gyges the Lydian. Vasari’s description of Roman art further frustrates any attempt to establish firm links between art and region: as its armies ransack the world for spolia, Rome “becomes more ornate with foreign works of art than with native ones.” Befitting Vasari’s promotion of Tuscany, Etruscan civilization provides firmer ground. Unlike other objects and techniques moving frantically through space, Etruscan objects emerge reassuringly sottoterra.3


FIGURE 2.1 Giorgio Sideri, called Calopodio da Candia, Nautical Map of the Center East Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, mid-sixteenth century. Parchment (40.3 × 60 cm). Museo Correr, Venice.

Vasari names two factors to account for this uncertain paternity test of the arts: time, which consumes all things, and the absence of notizie or written sources, which, if they existed, might silence debate over the question of origins. Vasari is here being disingenuous, for he makes ample use of both written sources, such as Pliny filtered through Ghiberti’s Commentarii, as well as visual evidence, citing for example the famous bronze Etruscan chimera found in his native Arezzo to reinforce Tuscany’s antique origins. The confusion over origins lies not in the existence of sources, but in the nature of those sources. The sporadic mobility of art and artists from one region to the next complicates and weakens the link between a specific art form and a specific people or geographic region. Mobility threatens memory4

The menace that mobility poses to recollection is understandable given that early modern thinkers inherited a highly locational notion of memory. Well known are the scores of medieval and later treatises which, following the widely used rhetorical textbook Ad Herennium, recommend that students store information according to location. As Albertus Magnus stated, “Place is something the soul itself makes for laying up images.” While pastness was common to all things, only distinctions in place distinguished between those things. The thirteenth-century professor of rhetoric Boncompagno da Signa, for instance, advised that those desiring to memorize “the names of provinces, cities, rivers, and places should inspect a mappa mundi, in which are depicted all the regions of the world ... with their names written underneath.” This technique of arranging information appears centuries later in Lodovico Dolce’s Dialogo del modo di accrescere e conservar la memoria (1562). There, a woodcut of a city accompanies the recommendation to organize topics to be memorized—grammar, rhetoric, and dialectics, among others—into distinct places, such as an abbey, a library, or slaughterhouse, which are themselves in alphabetic order (fig. 2.2).5


FIGURE 2.2 “Topics to Be Memorized Organized as a City,” 1562. Woodcut (28 × 18.5 cm). From Lodovico Dolce, Dialogo del modo di accrescere e conservar la memoria, 1562, Typ 525 62.332, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Due to the emphasis placed on associating knowledge with fixed locations, several writers on memory warned against storing information in imaginary places characterized by a high level of traffic. As Jacobus Publicius stated in The Art of Memory (1482), “The approach and return, the wandering and frequent coming of people leads our thought astray.” Moreover, Abba Nesteros advised students wishing to forget to dislocate their memories, evicting them from their normal seat of residence. Likewise, Vasari may say it is the antiquity of things Greek or Ethiopian which render the origins of art in doubt. However, all of these civilizations and art forms share the quality of having origins in the past. As the sources depict one art form migrating from one place to another, distinctions in place, and consequently fixed memories, are lacking. Were we to depict the peregrinations of sculpture or painting from one origin to another presumed origin, we would more likely have the frenzied twists and turns of Geymüller’s map of “influence” in lieu of the crisp order of memory theaters.6


Leaving the origins of the arts unresolved, Vasari announces the temporal scheme that will guide the narrative of the preface and the Lives as a whole—the “perfection and ruin and restoration or to put it better, the renaissance” of the visual arts. In this organic process, which Vasari famously likens to a body that is born, grows, becomes old, and dies and is eventually reborn, the destructive presence of Barbarian invaders and Byzantine artists functions as a catalyst. The very notion of an eventual rinascita is predicated on the existence of the preceding “Dark Ages,” which is synonymous with the existence of foreign intruders and the rise of the Gothic and Byzantine styles, in Vasari’s terminology, the maniera tedesca and maniera greca, respectively. Yet is this interim period just a prelude to the inevitable rise of the Renaissance? Does mobility, here figured as the interaction between barbarian foreign and oppressed native artists, have larger ramifications on Vasari’s historical scheme and conception of style?7

Asking such questions challenges a tendency to understand Vasari’s depiction of “the medieval” and the “Middle Ages” as a period of artistic cessation and death. Such an assumption risks overemphasizing Vasari’s definition of artistic death as an irreversible condition of nothingness. As Patrick Geary remarks, in a social culture of memoria where the living undertook commemorative deeds for the souls of the departed, “death marked a transition, a change in status, but not an end.” While biblical images of dry bones (Ezekiel 37) or dust (Genesis 2.19; 3.7) characterize the dead, the dominant Christian metaphor for the body awaiting resurrection is the seed, as St. Paul declares in Corinthians 1:15: “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it shall rise in incorruption.” Likewise, the Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca (1612) defines death simply as “the separation of the soul from the body,” thus referring to the belief that physical death marks but one stage in the process culminating in eventual resurrection or damnation. “Death (rot, decomposition),” notes Caroline Walker Bynum in her study on the Christian resurrection of the body, “can be a moment of fertility, which sprouts and flowers and gives rise to incorruption.” Death can thus represent a particular state of being, rather than the utter absence of being per se.8

At first glance it may seem that the Barbarians’ arrival precipitates nothing less than expiration for the arts. Rovina recurs through the preface, and reinforcing the impression of destruction are the word’s synonyms and related terms that Vasari shapes in alliterative phrases (“sotterrate e sommerse fra le miserabili stragi” or “col ferro e col fuoco”). Also presented to the reader is an inventory of destroyed public buildings which recalls a Vitruvian table of contents: “anfiteatri, teatri, termi ... sepulture.” This emphasis on public buildings as opposed to private ones seems consonant with the Barbarians’ disregard for laws and public institutions as asserted by Tacitus and Thomas Aquinas, among others. The catalog of the destroyed objects amounts to a textual disintegration of “Rome,” pulverizing the city into a series of verbal fragments. Representing destruction through listing also occurs in Vasari’s depiction of early Christian church construction. The physical displacement of antique fragments (“colonne, pietre, incrostature”) to build S. Pietro, S. Paulo, and S. Maria Maggiore is equally, if not more, damaging to the arts. In this respect, Rome’s decline, especially in the 1568 edition, is linked to both internal and external factors: the Empire’s decline, Constantine’s departure, Barbarian arrival, and in particular the advent of Christianity. Most prominent in this narrative of destruction is a language of negation: “no longer finding neither a vestige nor a sign of anything good, the men that came afterwards, seeing themselves coarse and rough, particularly in paintings and sculptures, incited by nature and sharpened by the air, gave themselves to create not according to the rules of previous arts, which they did not have, but according to the quality of their minds: and in this way was born from their hands that clumsiness and awkwardness that in old things still appear today.”9

A litany of negative particles (non trovandosi, vestigio, indizio, non secondo le regole, non le avevano) emphasizes the utter lack of worthy exempla in this artistic wasteland. Earlier, Vasari had also framed the cultural decline that ensues after Emperor Constantine’s departure from Rome in negative terms: “Having changed laws, habitation, names, and languages ... every beautiful spirit and elevated mind became very ugly and base.” Buildings rise in an age where “completely erased [were] the form and good way due to dead architects and due to destroyed and ruined works.” Consequently, these buildings possess “neither grace, nor design, nor any reason whatsoever.” Negative particles also shape Vasari’s depiction of painters: they see “neither goodness nor a better perfection in things” in the ruined capital.10

This language of negation was not unique to Vasari: in a letter to Pope Leo X in which he envisions an architectural reconstruction of Rome, Raphael wrote that the Barbarian migrations had reduced the city “to a manner in keeping with misery, without art, measure, or any grace.” Such negation also appears in ethnographic and biographic writing, genres in which alterity becomes defined in negative terms against an observing self. Formulated since antiquity, this notion defines Barbarians in negative terms, whether it is their inability to speak a language, their nonadherence to the Christian faith, or their nonresidence in the civilized world. Thus Tacitus in his Germania describes northern tribes by their lack of temples, anthropomorphic deities, cities, and military techniques. Petrarch declared in his Invective against a Detractor of Italy: “We are not Greeks or Barbarians; we are Latins and Italians.” In his description of Americans, the Florentine Amerigo Vespucci offers a particularly vivid account of this principle of negative self-definition: “They have no cloth, either of wool, flax, or cotton. . . . They live amongst themselves without a king or ruler, each man being his own master, and having as many wives as they please. . . . They break marriages as often as they live and observe no law in this regard. They have no temples and no laws, nor are they idolaters. What more should I say?”11

It has been suggested this rhetoric of negation “implies the existence of a culture as a tabula rasa, waiting to receive (European) inscription.” Thus, when Ghiberti describes the age of Constantine and Pope Sylvester left “all temples white,” we might interpret this statement not only as a description of early Christian iconoclasm, but also as a comparison to the arts as a blank sheet, ready for the imprint of artistic sensation and experience. The messianic figures of Cimabue and Giotto do not, however, lead art out of its dark ages by inscribing new styles upon a completely blank slate. Instead of utter blankness, the leitmotif of “not ... not” describes artistic production that transgresses prescribed stylistic qualities. When the sixteenth-century French cosmographer André Thevet describes Brazilians as being “bêtes, brutes, sans foi, sans loi, sans religion, sans civilité aucune,” his list of negatives does not describe a cultural blank slate. Though naked, the New World body is scored, scarred, tattooed, pierced, and painted. Comorbid with explicit nakedness are the ornaments and tattoos that run rampant over skin and flesh (fig. 2.3). Correspondingly, the peoples inhabiting Rome in the wake of Barbarian invasions do not function within an artistic vacuum; what they paint, sculpt, and build is “incited by nature,” unfettered expressions of nature’s dynamic force. Given the nonexistence of classical objects, artisans are prompted by another substance—aria—an altogether different, and noxious, stimulant.12


FIGURE 2.3 “Icon Regis Quoniambec,” 1642. Woodcut (43 × 22 cm). From Ulisse Aldrovandi, Monstrorum historia, 1642, f *51–897, Houghton Library, Harvard University.


The term aria is frequently discussed as a stylistic concept that designates personal bearing, the external, often facial, expression of an interior psychological state to the observer. This connotation derives from Petrarch, who, as Leo Spitzer observed, understood aria as an individual’s “atmosphere, a kind of secular halo, round the person.” That Vasari exploits aria as a conduit of expression is indisputable. A statistical analysis, however, calls into question whether aria exclusively bears this connotation. In the 1550 edition, Vasari uses the term aria or the plural arie a total of 102 times. Just less than half of the sum—49—refer to personal expression. The remainder refer to aria as the natural element of air. In this latter sense, aria is the substance that destroys works of art and corrodes sculpture; the painted medium through which birds fly and dark and light manifest themselves in paintings; or as mal’aria, an unhealthy environment. It is this natural historical connotation of aria which Vasari deploys when he describes the rise of the bandit maniera tedesca and maniera greca.13

With few exceptions, scholars have tended to dismiss Vasari’s use of this strain of aria to explain the origins and characteristics of artistic styles as an empty literary conceit. A closer examination reveals that aria is in fact a powerful term in the early modern imagination because it explains why and how regions vary in respect to character, human morphology, and, by extension, artistic style. In the preface, aria is figured as an element symptomatic of Barbarian invasion. Artists left in the wake of the sack of Rome confront and imbibe the aria of their ruined city. This natural force is then held partly accountable for the degeneration of classical style and the spawn of the Gothic. Like an invasive species whose tendrils take hold and choke, the maniera tedesca spreads throughout the Italian peninsula, its progress providentially halted due to the opposition of Tuscan artists nourished themselves by the salubrious aria of their homeland. We might dismiss such figurative language as mere rhetoric. Nonetheless, these tropes deserve unpacking since they ultimately point to how he and other writers on art understand the associations between art and place, artistic creation and stylistic diffusion. To grasp the workings of that network, and how mobility puts stress upon and manipulates it, we must briefly observe the currency of one of its building blocks—aria—in classical and early modern thought.14

In the ancient world, air was also understood as a causal force, responsible for disease as well as the mental faculties and personal characteristics of animate beings. In Hippocrates’s treatise Airs Waters Places, air as a natural element becomes increasingly synonymous with the notion of climate, which in turn was held responsible for human diversity. Living beings, Hippocrates argues, are subject to a location’s climate in respect to health (chapters 1–11) and character (12-24). Such a deterministic view of climate served as a tool for ethnographic description. Hippocrates reports that the inhabitants of Phasis on the Black Sea live in a “hot, wet, and wooded” environment; as a result, they also have the deepest voices of any humans because “the air they breathe is not clear” and the fruits that grow there are deformed. By contrast, Asia’s temperate climate is responsible for plentiful harvests, flourishing cattle, men of fine physique, and prolific mothers. Hippocrates also speculates on the relation between climate and techne. Where the land is well watered, hot in summer and cold in winter, the inhabitants are lazy and drowsy and, correspondingly, “as the arts are concerned they are thick-witted and neither subtle nor sharp.” Equally significant is how Hippocrates stresses the importance of arriving duly prepared to contend with the air of alien locations. A good physician “will not, on arrival at a town with which he is unfamiliar, be ignorant of the local diseases, or of the nature of those that commonly prevail.” Climate may be deterministic, but it can also be understood and controlled.15

Roman authors perpetuated and expanded upon Greek philosophical thinking on air to explain illness, a location’s attributes, and an individual’s shortcomings. Numerous passages in Lucretius’s De rerum natura discuss the role of air in the spread of disease. Cicero ascribes Athenian wit and the Theban stout constitution to the different air in these peoples’ homelands. Although acknowledging air’s potential as a powerful natural force, Cicero left room for individual agency: “The rarefied air of Athens will not enable a student to choose between the lectures of Zeno, Arcesilas and Theophrastus, and the dense air of Thebes will not make a man try to win a race at Nemea rather than at Corinth.” The discourse concerning air also penetrated the thinking on the visual arts. Vitruvius in his treatise on architecture advised that architects should take into account climate’s impact upon a site’s salubrity: “We must diligently seek to choose the most temperate regions of climate,” he urges, “since we have to seek healthiness in laying out the walls of cities.” No building can be healthy without taking climate, whose chief elements are the air and water of a place, into account.16

Nancy Siraisi observes that Hippocratic climate theory and, more generally, the deterministic conception of environment became “a standard part of the cosmological theory in western Europe from the twelfth to the seventeenth century.” The sixteenth-century astrologer and polymath Girolamo Cardano, for instance, applied Hippocrates’s observations to the various peoples and regions of the Italian peninsula: Florentines are superior in mathematics due to their climate; aridity produces the stubborn inhabitants of the author’s hometown, Cardano. Another early modern thinker who perpetuated Hippocratic notions of climate and its effect upon the domain of human activity, including the arts, was Cardano’s contemporary, the French natural historian and political theorist Jean Bodin. In his Six livres de la République (1576), translated into English in 1606, Bodin recommends that architects situate their buildings according to the “diversitie of places.” Bodin also speculated that climate could affect the visual arts: “Those arts which consist in handie works are greater in the people of the North than in any other, and therefore the Spainards and the Italians admire so many and so divers kinds of works made with the hand, as are brought out of Germanie, Flanders, and England.” Aria also appears in the travelogue genre, for example, throughout Giovanni Battista Ramusio’s Navigationi et viaggi, a compilation of voyage accounts published in the same year as Vasari’s Lives. A document supposedly written by Amerigo Vespucci claims that the “temperanza dell’aere” in the lands he encounters in his journeys westward generates dense woods, ferocious animals, “fruit in the greatest abundance,” and “infinite herbs and roots.” By contrast, Leo Africanus in his Descrizione dell’Africa describes the results of the noxious Egyptian aere: devastating outbreaks of plague (at one time more than 12,000 dead), a great number of crippled people, and a swelling of the testicles “in a way that is marvelous to see.”17

Lest we think that aria was restricted to the expositions of the esoteric and fantastic, the term also made its way into the correspondence and first-hand accounts of artists themselves. Aria appears as a protagonist in a letter Michelangelo wrote to his brother on 2 July 1508. The artist introduces a young Spanish painter who has come to Florence “to learn how to paint” and informs his brother that Giovan Simone will return to Florence soon “because the air here does not seem to me to be made for him.” Benvenuto Cellini too employs aria in this sense. In his autobiography, the artist recounts how his lodgings in Ferrara were of “aria cattiva,” causing him and his company to fall ill. To remedy his illness, Cellini consumes peacocks, known for their incorruptible flesh.18

Given that aria was understood as a powerful natural force in a number of contexts, it is no surprise that it emerges as a theme in treatises on architecture, often defined as a second order of nature. In De re aedificatoria, Alberti deals repeatedly with aria, and in the 1550 translation by Cosimo Bartoli the term appears twelve times in the index, a testament to its status as a locus of discussion. Echoing Vitruvius, Alberti defines aria in book 1.3 as a crucial factor when selecting appropriate building sites. He reinforces this view with the following rhetorical question: “Who can have failed to notice the extensive influence that climate [aria] has on generation [generare], growth [producere], nourishment [nutrire] and preservation [mantenere]?” The rhythmic list of substantive verbs emphasizes the sense of a biological process unfolding over time. Indeed, the phrase sounds uncannily similar to Vasari’s famous statement that the arts, like a human body, undergo “birth, growth, aging, and death” as well as a rebirth. Alberti also holds aria responsible for a location’s agricultural produce and inhabitants: “I myself have seen cities ... in which there is not a single woman who when giving birth does not realize that she has become the mother of both man and monster. I know of another town in Italy where there are so many born either with tumors, squints, and limps, or who are crippled, that there is scarcely a family that does not contain someone deformed or handicapped in some way; and it is a sure indication, when many marked discrepancies are to be seen in bodies or their members, that the climate [aria] is at fault.”19

Vasari’s notion of air as a force that gives rise to the maligned forms of the Gothic is strikingly similar to Alberti’s use of the concept. Just as Alberti sees aria as the cause of monstrous forms in nature, Vasari declares that the aria of a ransacked Rome gave rise to monstrous artistic styles. The latter figures these styles as living beings, generated by and feeding on natural elements. The most gifted architects flee from the maniera tedesca because “monstrous and barbarous, forsaken of all that comprises order, it should rather be called confusion and disorder.” Like those who, in Alberti’s account, are deformed from poor aria, buildings without a sense of composition, according to Vasari, “would represent lame men, halt, distorted, and maimed.”20

The aria of a sacked Rome, in combination with other key factors such as the lack of appropriate models and internal decline, generates styles that violate the rational proportions of the human body. The maniera tedesca follows a “rampant nature,” characterized by a paperlike fragility, intertwining vines and leaves, and an excess of seemingly superfluous ornament. Raphael, in his letter to Pope Leo X, also declares that architecture built in this manner exhibits “strange animals and figures and leaves outside of every reason.” Vasari’s maniera tedesca is epidemic, infecting an infinite number and all manner of buildings—from churches to private residences. Reaching as far as Milan, Venice, Padua, and Bologna, while also closer to home in Siena, Lucca, and even Arezzo and Florence, the corrupt style is found “per tutta Italia.” The vines of Vasari’s Gothic ensnare together such wildly disparate buildings as San Marco in Venice and the Duomo in Arezzo. Though they are distant in respect to chronology and style, Vasari crams them into the same taxonomic class. More concretely, the metaphors of aria and what it spawns may account for the intertwining vegetal and figural ornament almost choking the architectural structures which Vasari observes (fig. 2.4). This maniera even comes to besiege ethnic identity, as it does for the Italian architect Arnolfo, whom Vasari refers to at times as “Arnolfo tedesco.”21

There was no lack of art theoretical discussions, both in archival and published accounts, concerning aria in Vasari’s wake. Vincenzo Danti’s Trattato delle perfette proporzioni (1567) refers to aria as a causal factor for the diversity and imperfection of human beauty. Preserved in a manuscript entitled Lettione nell’Accademia del Disegno, a lecture delivered to the Florentine Accademia del Disegno sometime in the third quarter of the sixteenth century discusses at length Hippocrates’s Airs Waters Places as well as other works on climatic thought by Aristotle, Plato, and Galen.22 This climatic theory of the arts would continue well into the twentieth century. But the larger issue at stake is that in mentioning aria as a cause for the rise of good or bad styles, Vasari considers artists as subject to certain environmental conditions. The implications of this observation are twofold. First, if maligned styles are a result of aria, it follows that works of art and artists themselves are understood to exist beyond the confines of the workshop and studio. Art and its maker are physical beings, thus susceptible to the processes of the natural world. Second, the concept of style draws upon assumptions aside from those nested in rhetorical theory. Art historians have been right to stress Vasari’s engagement with rhetorical topoi expounded by Cicero and Quintilian in composing his lexicon of stylistic terms. However, recognizing aria as a causal force suggests that style becomes a living organism, a part of the natural world, and therefore, is subject to the workings of that world. In terms of aria’s relevance for this specific inquiry into mobility and style, the traveling artist over the multivolume span of the Lives will have to confront the aria of a foreign location. Aria becomes a byword for a general artistic environment, with an artist’s response to that environment not only social and intellectual, but somatic as well. And this environmental contagion becomes a historically specific synonym for one of several current connotations of “influence.”23


FIGURE 2.4 Main portal of the Pisa Baptistery. Detail of Apostles, Baptistery, Pisa.


Vasari’s assertion that the corrupt Roman air engenders monsters casts mobility’s impact on style in relation to the natural environment. Yet he also represents mobility in terms of foreign and native artists interacting with one another: “There had remained in Greece the remnant of artists, who were old, who made images of earth and stone, and painted other monstrous figures with but an outline and a field of color. And these, being alone in the profession, brought to Italy the art of painting along with that of mosaic and sculpture, which they coarsely taught to the Italians as they knew. Such that the men of those times, not being accustomed to seeing anything good or of better perfection in these works, seeing only these things, marveled at them, even though they were disfigured, and nevertheless understood these to be the best.”24

The pedagogical rapport between these obsolete “Greeks,” by which is meant Byzantine artists and their Italian pupils, results in artistic contamination. As the anthropologist Mary Douglas observed in her seminal account on pollution, the idea of contamination often connotes instances when a society’s boundaries and classification systems are transgressed. The dangerous effect of natives consorting with foreigners is also an ancient topos. Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero were among those classical authors issuing injunctions against seaports, locations where the frequent coming and goings of foreigners could corrupt indigenous inhabitants. This xenophobia continued well into the early modern era and penetrated writing on art of the time. Declaiming against the “Gothic” style, one speaker in Filarete’s architectural treatise states outright: “I think that only barbaric people could have brought it into Italy.” Of course, foreign presence was not always synonymous with contamination. Filarete’s contemporary, the humanist Flavio Biondo, heralds the arrival of Byzantine scholars, such as Manuel Chrysoloras of Constantinople, for instructing Greek to students in Venice, Florence, and the Roman Curia.25


FIGURE 2.5 Florentine School, Madonna del Popolo, c. 1260–80. Tempera on panel. Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence.


FIGURE 2.6 Byzantine, Virgin and Child, 1192. Fresco. Church of Panagia tou Arakos, Lagoudera, Cyprus.

Vasari, however, largely characterizes the advent of the Byzantine artists as a corrupting force, issuing terrifying artistic consequences. And like the Gothic, the maniera greca spreads from Rome outward, even penetrating the confines of Tuscany, the heartland of salubrious artistic style. An example of stylistic contamination Vasari may have had in mind is the venerated Madonna del Popolo (c. 1260–80), variously called imago, icona, and tabula in early sources and placed from about 1460 in the Brancacci chapel in S. Maria del Carmine. Surrounded by Masaccio’s fresco cycle narrating the Life of St. Peter, a paragon according to Vasari of the good “modern” style, the Madonna del Popolo undeniably alludes to Byzantine prototypes (fig. 2.5). The icon’s format—the enthroned Virgin Mary, flanked by angels and holding the Christ child in her arms, along with the elongated lines articulating her drapery and the gestures of tilted heads and blessing hands—harnesses the pictorial authority of earlier exemplars (fig. 2.6). Identifying such parallels assists the modern art historian in speculating on origins, continuity, and function of devotional imagery. But for Vasari, who is observing works according to preordained stylistic criteria, finding visual correspondences is more akin to diagnosing a set of signs, symptoms, and causes. Just as a physician would, for example, understand swollen, pus-filled lymph glands and the darkening of the body as a visual indication of plague, so too does the observer of art comprehend hieratic composition, abstracted facial features, and application of gold foil as evidence of the maniera greca. The infiltration of Byzantine artists or their pictorial models is the cause of this malady.26


FIGURE 2.7 Attributed to Meliore di Jacopo, Christ in Judgment, 1260–75. Mosaic. Baptistery, Florence.


FIGURE 2.8 Michelangelo, St. Bartholomew from The Last Judgment, 1534–41. Fresco. Sistine Chapel, Vatican.

True, Vasari does not liken maniera greca outright to disease. But it is significant that one of Vasari’s principal sources, his contemporary Giovanni Battista Gelli’s biographies of artists, repeatedly deploys mescolare—a term with charged biological connotations—to describe the interaction between foreigners, both Greeks and Germans, with the Italians. This word according to early modern usage could signify not only “mixing,” but also sexual coupling. Appropriately, Gelli’s depiction of such intercourse between native and stranger carries organic overtones: strangers “began to mix with us, such that the noble and genteel Italian blood began to coarsen and become rough.” Gelli also specifically cites the mixing between “barbarous people” for the decline of the arts. As in the exposure to corrupt aria, results of mixing with foreigners are described as monstrous. The infected Italian artists erect buildings in the maniera tedesca with figural ornaments that “have more the air of monsters than of men.” Their sculptures “bear more resemblance to every other thing than men.” And drawing once again upon the metaphor of abnormality, Gelli likens the figures in Byzantine painting to flayed victims and states once again, that their foreheads and wide open eyes “appeared more of monsters than of men.” Gelli’s criticism recalls so-called Italo-Byzantine works such as the mosaic of Christ in Judgment that display the characteristics of flatness, frontality, and wide open eyes (fig. 2.7). The lack of subtle contours and modeling which Gelli condemns finds a ready parallel in contemporary depictions of skinned figures, the most famous of these being Michelangelo’s St. Bartholomew (fig. 2.8). The monstrous flatness in the maniera greca mosaics and Michelangelo’s flayed skin is antithetical to morbidezza, or fleshiness, one of the prime aesthetic qualities of the good and modern manner of painting.27

Vasari, in turn, describes the maniera greca’s figures as “mostruose.” He also condemns Byzantine art with the unusual word baronesche. The term is a play on the name of the less than comely Baronci family, ridiculed in several fifteenth-century Florentine novellas. In Boccaccio’s Decameron (6.6) the comical Michele Scalza declares that while some have faces that are “well composed and duly proportioned,” in the members of the Baronci family “you will see one with a face very long and narrow, another with a face inordinately broad, one with a very long nose, another with a short one, one with a protruding and upturned chin, and great jaws like an ass’s.” Through the term baronesche Vasari does more than craft an analogy between the maniera greca and the Baroncis’ misshapen faces; he is also implicitly stating that the maniera greca is a regressive style. Scalza quips that when God created this family, he “began to learn how to paint.” Scalza charitably concludes his description of the Baronci by stating: “Their faces resemble those that children make when they begin to learn to draw.”28

The link between artistic instruction and misshapen forms constitutes the backdrop for Vasari’s depiction of the rapport between Byzantine artists and their Italian charges. In this respect, we should recall that imitatio was a cornerstone yet also a contentious issue in Renaissance treatises on education in the liberal arts. Pedagogical treatises frequently urge caution in choosing appropriate teachers, as they would provide the exempla for pupils to follow. Unlike its synonyms, such as docere, insegnare with its etymological origins in the process of making an impression in wax seals connotes a student’s receptiveness, and therefore vulnerability, to a teacher’s “stamp.” The fifteenth-century humanist Battista Guarino stated: “And it is of capital importance not to hand over beginning pupils to coarse [rudibus] and uneducated [indoctis] teachers.” Cennino Cennini echoes this view when he exhorts the reader of Il libro dell’arte: “But I give you this advice: take care to select the best one [i.e., teacher] every time, and the one who has the greatest reputation.” As Cennini declares, he was spared exposure to maniera greca as he traced his artistic lineage to Giotto, who “changed the profession of painting from Greek back to Latin.” The warning to stay away from foreign teachers was in fact a widespread classical and early modern topos. On the Education of Children, once believed to be written by Plutarch, warns that children educated by “the wicked and barbarian might carry off something of their lowness.”29

Fifteenth-century writers on education such as Gaurino, Vergerius, Palmieri, Alberti, and Vittorino da Feltre reiterated Quintilian’s claims that the purpose of Renaissance education was not to acquire knowledge for its own sake; knowledge ought to be applied, specifically through exercising the skill of oratory, in public affairs. As foreigners do not share the same notions of law and order, their presence, as Aristotle stated in his Politics, threatens the integrity and stability of the state. When read against such views, Vasari’s hostility to Byzantine art takes on another dimension. In following the baronesche style of foreign models, the Italian artists in this distant era are not only usurping wholesome aesthetic principles via recourse to an ethnic manner of working. They also endanger civic ideals insofar as their artistic creations, products of contamination, transgress the once pristine stylistic norms of a native and insulated populace.30


Alongside diagnosing the mixture of the alien with the indigenous, Vasari plots style on another axis, that of time. For the Renaissance viewer, the maniera greca was, according to Anthony Cutler, “simply the past, a past whose superannuation was proved by the fact that the building and painting of his own day were different.” However, this past as conceived by Vasari was not the past in the sense of elapsed time. What characterizes Vasari’s notion of maniera greca is its absence of chronological progression. Maniera greca does not just function as an index of decline, but also designates a condition of interminable stasis.31

Vasari’s language shares much with the concepts of temporality that underlie much ethnographic writing. In his insightful account Time and the Other, Johannes Fabian argued that anthropological narratives often exhibit a “denial of coevalness,” a refutation that observer and object of study exist in a state of shared historical time. Such disavowal of coevalness manifests itself in the belief that “primitive” peoples exist in a timeless, unchanging world. The temporalization of the Other, frozen in a state of unchanging pastness, is not unique to twentieth-century ethnography. In Germania, Tacitus declared that the clothing of northern tribes is identical to that worn by the first Romans, thus equating cultural remoteness with temporal distance. Vitruvius, furthermore, suggested that fire was responsible for forcing the earliest humans as well as the barbarians living on the Empire’s fringes to emerge from the forest and to congregate. Early modern commentators on Vitruvius extended this analogy to present circumstances. Cesare Cesariano, for instance, posited a similar function of fire for both early humans and the peoples discovered by the voyages undertaken for the Spanish and Portuguese crown. Reinforcing this parallel is the accompanying woodcut (fig. 2.9). The dense groups of barely clothed figures merge with the lush vegetation in the background, a pictorial gesture that makes a parallel between early humans and primordial nature. This stylistic and semantic collapse between figure and ground, body and wilderness resembles later depictions of New World peoples. In a woodcut commemorating the tableau Brazilian village erected for the procession of Henry II in Rouen in 1550, naked figures are lost in the morass of trees, bushes, and flames (fig. 2.10).32


FIGURE 2.9 “Discovery of Fire in the Golden Age.” Woodcut (20.9 × 18.3 cm). From Cesare Cesariano, Di Lucio Vitruvio Pollione De architectura libri dece, 1521. Warburg Institute Library, London.


FIGURE 2.10 “Brazilian Village.” Woodcut. From Cest la deduction du sumptueux ordre, plaisantz spectacles et magnifiques theatres dresses, et exhibes par les citoiens de Rouen . . . a la sacree maiesté du treschristian roy de France, Henry Seco[n]d . . . et à tresillustre dame, ma dame Katharine de Medicis, 1551, Typ 515.51.272, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Linguistically, such denials of coevalness often manifest themselves in the use of the historical present. When Amerigo Vespucci states that the inhabitants of the New World “are familiar and gentle ... they have very well-formed bodies,” his descriptions in the present tense suggest that these peoples were, are, and will forever appear that way. This temporal distancing also manifests itself in the contrast between the one-time task of observing, placed in the remote past tense, with the inhabitants’ actions, put into the imperfect. In a passage on cannibalism, Vespucci states: “I beheld a certain city, where I resided for perhaps twenty-seven days, where human flesh was being hung up near the houses, just as we show butcher’s meat.” Whereas Vespucci represents his supposed presence in the Americas as single events, measured concretely in temporal units (twenty-seven days), it seems as if human flesh hangs over the longue durée, suspended forever.33

In describing Byzantine artists, Vasari also suggests a parallel between temporality and stylistic alterity. First, his designation of artistic inertia is coupled with the notion of regression. The Byzantine sparse mode of painting, with its outlines and fields of color, recalls the primordial stylistic elements of Egypt and Greece. Furthermore, Byzantine artists execute their works of art in the imperfect tense, suggesting that their methods will continue indefinitely: “facevano imagini di terra e di pietra”; “dipignevano altre figure mostruose.” In the technical treatise, the use of the imperfect tense also describes tempera painting in terms of continuity: Greeks were always working in tempera; these “old masters” were laying gesso (usavano) on panel; they were mixing(temperavano) the colors with egg yolk. Gelli inflects this temporal continuity as stylistic uniformity among any number of Byzantine artists: “you will see that the figures of those times to be of almost the same manner. . . . They resemble themselves in the bust, indeed, are almost the same.” By contrast, in Gelli’s time, “there is not found two [artists] that resemble each other” such that one could never be mistaken for another.34

Vasari’s construction of an “ethnic narrative” for style is not unique to the maniera tedesca and maniera greca. As Alina Payne has shown, the notion that style is frozen also applies to Vasari’s conception of the architectural orders. Once invented and codified, the Doric continues to be the Doric, the Corinthian will be recognized as the Corinthian in perpetua, freely available for use according to the dictates of decorum. Drawing their authority from Vitruvius’s status as a classical writer, the orders represent a solidified and thus stationary body of classical knowledge. By contrast, in tension with their timelessness and uniformity, Byzantine and Gothic styles do, in fact, develop over time, although this evolution does not follow an upward trajectory. The fact that Vasari explicitly states that the maniera greca is not antica, but vecchia, draws comparisons between Byzantine style and an organic being. Its eventual demise is thus foreshadowed and, as we shall see, the mobility of artists plays an active role in its extermination.35


Vasari states how and when Barbarian modes of artistic production become annihilated in the following passage: “And yet the spirits of those who were born, aided in some localities by the purity of the air, purged themselves such that, in 1250, Heaven, through piety moved by the beautiful talents that the Tuscan soil was producing every day, brought them back to their initial form.” Like an iron branding flesh, the punches MCCL inked and pressed onto paper mark identity—in this case, when and where style achieves its resurrection, and who accomplishes this feat. Other Roman numerals printed in the 1568 edition of the preface carry some weight, demonstrating as they do Vasari’s use of epigraphic and manuscript sources. But these dates—among them, CCCCXXXVIII (ecclesiastical construction in Ravenna), DCCCCLXXIII (rebuilding of San Marco in Venice), MXIII (rebuilding of S. Miniato al Monte)—represent the crests and troughs of rogue artistic styles, ultimately leading to 1250 as a year of reckoning. The year 1250 may refer to a specific historical event—the death of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II—thus signaling the end of a period when imperial authority asserts itself throughout the Italian peninsula. This significant date may equally allude to a year of civil unrest but also to the rise of political conditions which would eventually culminate in the Medici regime. This view thereby implies a rapport between the Lives and other contemporary publications, such as Cosimo Bartoli’s Italian translation of Alberti’s De re aedificatoria,Giambullari’s Il Gello, Carlo Lenzoni’s spirited defense of the Tuscan dialect, and Paolo Giovio’s Historiarium sui temporis, all of which in varying degrees promoted Cosimo I de’ Medici’s cultural and political standing.36

Historical narrative and by extension the objective “dates” contained therein constitute an exercise in what Hayden White has called “emplotment,” the procedure by which facts are encoded as part of larger plot structures. Although White’s larger typological categories—tragic, comic, romantic, and ironic—may seem reductionist to some, his argument does bring up the question of how the seemingly innocuous Roman numerical sequence MCCL figures in Vasari’s history of style and how it relates to the depiction of mobility in general.

We should recall that Vasari’s MCCL occurred earlier in the preface, functioning as the end bracket of the Dark Ages that began with the fall of Rome and of painting and sculpture into ruin. This use of Roman numerals to commemorate an end of something is consonant with their appearance elsewhere in the Lives, as Vasari often employs this typographic convention to indicate the date of an artist’s death. In the life of Antonello da Messina, Vasari also mentions MCCL to signal the advent of oil painting and unifying colors. In the preface, the sequence MCCL could be said to encompass both of these functions—a liminal figure signifying both ends and beginnings. It closes the era in which artists practice the maniera tedesca and maniera greca, while at the same time signaling the commencement of stylistic transformation. Vasari not only figures MCCL as a discrete point that combines with others to form a whole and solid spatial structure of time. Like an eruption that overturns tectonic layers, this date breaks the spell of timelessness and duration characterizing the age of rogue styles. MCCL proclaims a change in the dynamic, location, and effects of the stylistic intercourse between Italian artists and their Barbarian invaders.37

“Purging themselves” (purgare/purgarsi)—the verb that describes the specific action occurring at 1250—is significant. The word can refer variously to the act of exonerating oneself of criminal charges, the cleansing of the soul in purgatory, or the retouching and correcting of works of art.38 Yet in the case of artistic revival, the term draws on the act of purging in the medical sense, that is the ingestion of a purgative to remove that which is thought to provoke infection or disease. The purgative in question is aria, no longer the aria of a corrupt Rome but rather that of the flourishing Tuscan landscape. Vasari would later draw on the vivid and sensuous metaphor of aria as an effective purgative in the dialogue Ragionamenti (1588) in which he depicts himself explaining to Ferdinando de’ Medici the allegories and histories he and his workshop have painted in the Palazzo Vecchio. There, Vasari employs the phrase purgazione dell’aria to depict a force that potentially should remove the “seeds” of the poor building style left by the Barbarians who inundated Italy. Furthermore, Vasari declares that the ways of building, “barbarous and different” from classical methods, were refined by the local air and time, thus marking a return to construct buildings in the Tuscan order, equal in prestige with though not strictly imitative of antiquity.39

While the air of Rome after the Sack by Vandals, Visigoths, and other Barbarians once gave rise to monsters, now aria functions as a cleansing agent of style. What is different about this aria’s quality is its location, the terren toscano. Here Vasari was drawing on not only medicinal notions of aria, but also the discourse of civic encomium. As the fourteenth-century chronicler Dino Compagni wrote: “This city of Florence is very populous and its good climate promotes fecundity [generativa per la buona aria]. Its citizens are well-bred and its women lovely and adorned; its buildings are beautiful and filled with many useful crafts, more than any other city in Italy. For these reasons many people from distant lands come to see Florence—not because they have to, but because of its crafts and guilds, and the beauty and decoration of the city.”40 By stating that the purging of style takes place in Tuscany, and specifically in Florence, Vasari establishes the location and intimates its characteristics—artistic, civic, natural—which the artist will have to either forsake or contend with upon traveling. The mobility of appointed and select artists will eliminate the last vestiges of the Barbarian legacy, replacing in its stead the style of Cimabue, Giotto, and their followers.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!