Post-classical history

3 Deluge, Difference, and Dissemination

Vasari concludes the preface by announcing, “Now the time has come for the life of Giovanni Cimabue; who, as was said, gave the beginning to the new way of painting.” This proclamation promises much to the reader. We might expect an account of how invasive mobility and styles will be vanquished, how the Tuscan air will restore the visual arts to their former glory. Such a confrontation, by consequence, would present and legitimize a genealogy of native artists quarantined from the foreign. Just how fraught this conflict can be surfaces in annotations on Vasari’s printed text. In his own copy of the Lives, El Greco would push back against the negative perception of the maniera greca, writing deliberately with his pen how on this matter Vasari was confused. If Vasari truly knew anything about the manera griega, El Greco asserted in the margins of the Life of Agnolo Gaddi, “he would have commented on it differently.” For between Giotto’s style and Byzantine painting practice, the maniera greca, El Greco claims, “is the one that can teach us constructive difficulties.”1 Such a strong contemporary response to Vasari is telling. The prima maniera of Part I is conventionally understood as part of the inevitable progression to the maniera moderna of Vasari’s own time. But the Trecento is more properly understood as a contested middle ground, with artists’ movements representing significant battle campaigns. Cimabue, Giotto, and their worthy followers suppress rogue foreign styles and diffuse in their stead naturalism derived from the Tuscan terrain. But how Trecento works of art themselves resist Vasari’s insistence upon the differences between native and foreign is a testament to his artful historical narrative and beguiling rhetorical maneuvers.


Part I opens by reiterating Vasari’s condemnation of Barbarian invasions. The metaphor of the flood conveys the effect of destruction: “Due to the infinite deluge of evils that had brought down and drowned miserable Italy, not only were ruined that which one could call buildings, but—what was of more importance—all number of artists were extinguished. When, as God wished, was born in the city of Florence in the year 1240, to give the first lights to the art of painting, Giovanni named Cimabue, of the Cimabuoi family in that time noble, who, growing up, was known not only by his father but by infinite others for the acumen of his talent.”2

Like the fall of a baton, the adverb quando, the historical date, and the historical past tense dramatically announce the arrival of the messianic Cimabue into the world. His birth, placed a decade before the pivotal MCCL, breaks the malignant foreign inundations, framed through the imperfect tense as incessant waves. As in the preface, Vasari casts the Barbarians and Italy into their respective roles as aggressor and subdued victim. Yet here, artistic decline is not framed as unhealthful exposure to aria, mixtures, or pedagogy. This new figure of the flood understands the dynamic between foreign and native artists mediated through another natural element, the destructive force of water that dilutes and dissolves. It brings forth another set of oppositions, contrasting the torrent of invaders against the stable geographic entity of Italy. In his Storia fiorentina, the sixteenth-century man of letters Benedetto Varchi referred to the onslaught of Imperial troops sacking Rome in 1527 as “such a flood of such strange peoples” that verged on submerging all of Italy. This not only speaks to a shared currency of terms between Varchi and Vasari, both of whose works propagated Cosimo I’s political aims. It also reveals once again the negative perception, understandably so given its status as invasion, toward the arrival of foreign elements. Yet the metaphor of the flood implies more than just destruction of man and beast, “from the creeping thing even to the fowls of the air” (Genesis 6:7). In dismantling all forms, the cataclysm of a flood, as Mircea Eliade observed, “purifies and regenerates because it nullifies the past, and restores ... the integrity of the dawn of things.” The flood that introduces the life of Cimabue refers to annihilation and, at the same time, a baptism that creates the possibility for artistic renewal.3

This deluge does not guarantee an immediate rebirth. Any messianic savior will have to contend with Greek artists “summoned ... for no other purpose than to reintroduce the art of painting in Tuscany.” How, then, does Vasari characterize Cimabue’s interactions with these foreign artists? He reports that Cimabue escapes his school lessons to observe the Byzantine painters at work in the Gondi Chapel (Santa Maria Novella), an ersatz bottega where the young artist begins his training. Despite suggesting a pedagogical rapport between foreign teacher and native apprentice, Vasari seems reluctant to depict this relationship as a hierarchical one between master/pupil, with its overtones of obedience and submission. Cimabue learns from yet surpasses his “Greek” masters. Vasari fashions this tension into a temporal, spatial, and ethnic matrix. A sense of stasis, even unwillingness to change, exemplifies what is called the maniera ordinaria of the Byzantine artists. By contrast, Cimabue advances upon their work “in a short period of time.” Employing the figurative language of spatial distance (pass÷ di gran lunga, avanzo), Vasari likens Cimabue’s progression in the arts to a journey, a theme that will find more sustained articulation in Part II. Vasari also puts style in the service of stressing ethnic differences and patriotic allegiance: “And although he imitated the Greeks, he executed many works in his patria, honoring it with the deeds he did there, and acquired for himself both name and profit.” Painter and painting constitute part and parcel of the patria’s social and physical makeup.4


Does Cimabue himself function as a mobile agent in his biography? Like earlier commentators such as Villani, Landino, and the author of the so-called Ottimo Commento, Vasari stresses the artist’s ties to Florence through designating a toponym (Cimabue pittore fiorentino) and announcing his birthplace and his family’s lineage. Nevertheless, Vasari also recounts that Cimabue is active outside his native city, for instance, in Pisa, where he executes the panel for the church of San Francesco, now known as the Louvre Madonna (fig. 3.1). This work “was considered by those people a most rare thing, recognizing [conoscendosi] in his style [maniera] a certain something which was new and better, in the expression of the heads and folds of the cloth which those masters, spread already throughout Italy, up to then had not done.”5

The maniera greca, as practiced in Pisa and Lucca by such artists as Berlinghiero, acts as a foil against which Vasari can pinpoint the attributes of the more modern manner (fig. 3.2). To some viewers, the similarities between Berlinghiero’s approach to painting and that of Cimabue may in fact greatly outweigh the differences. The correspondences between Berlinghiero’s Hodegetria panel of the Virgin and Christ and the Louvre Madonna go beyond iconography, gesture, materials, and supports employed. Present in both works are the Virgin’s elongated nose, her expression of concern about Christ’s impeding suffering, and the slight application of color that animates the cheeks. Vasari’s priorities, however, lay in identifying what distinguishes Cimabue from his predecessors. What accomplish the “expression of the heads” (aria delle teste) are the subtle transitions that render the modeling of the flesh, combined with the direct gaze toward the viewer (fig. 3.3). So too is there a great deal of tonal variety in Cimabue’s description of drapery, a wide spectrum of light to dark blues alluding to the body underneath, which stands in marked contrast to the chrysography more standard in Italo-Byzantine works of art (fig. 3.4).


FIGURE 3.1 Cimabue, The Madonna and Child in Majesty Surrounded by Angels, c. 1280. Tempera on panel (4.27 × 2.8 m). © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Hervé Lewandowski. Louvre, Paris (formerly in San Francesco, Pisa).


FIGURE 3.2 Berlinghiero, Madonna and Child, c. 1230. Tempera on wood, gold ground (80.3 × 53.7 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Irma N. Straus, 1960 (60.173).

Further heightening this contrast in the realm of text against the masters of the maniera greca is Cimabue’s physical displacement from Florence. When staged abroad, the exhibition of the differences between styles occurs as a dramatic event. Vasari places Cimabue on a stage where a public (que’ popoli) acknowledges his difference from the maniera greca. What is more, this public, while Tuscan, is foreign insofar as it is not Florentine, thereby suggesting regional prejudice has not swayed its opinion. In fact, throughout the Lives, Vasari states that a work received the admiration of both “natives and foreigners” to lend the impression that an artist has received universal and unbiased appreciation.6


FIGURE 3.3 Detail from Cimabue, The Madonna and Child in Majesty Surrounded by Angels, c. 1280. Tempera on panel (4.27 × 2.8 m). © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Hervé Lewandowski. Louvre, Paris (formerly in San Francesco, Pisa).


FIGURE 3.4 Detail from Cimabue, The Madonna and Child in Majesty Surrounded by Angels, c. 1280. Tempera on panel (4.27 × 2.8 m). © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Hervé Lewandowski. Louvre, Paris (formerly in San Francesco, Pisa).

Elsewhere in Part I, the mobility of things can rouse the mental activity of setting out distinctions. Take, for instance, Vasari’s description of the antiquities gathered around the Cathedral and the Campo Santo in Pisa. These fragments have been “destroyed by fires, ruins, the fury of wars and transported to a variety of places.” Despite the arduous journey of these artifacts, “one recognizes nevertheless the differences in the styles [maniere] of all countries.” As in his discussion of Cimabue’s distinction from the maniera greca, Vasari catalogues these differences according to ethnicity: Egyptian slenderness, Greek nudity, Tuscan rusticity, and the superiority of the Romans, who “took the beautiful from all of these provinces and gathered them in a single style.” The collocation of various artifacts in one setting makes differences more apparent. Though no doubt vastly changed from the appearance that conjured Vasari’s taxonomy of difference, Méaulle’s print of the Camposanto displays how a motley collection of artifacts calls for the viewer to make sense of this bricolage (fig. 3.5). Pillage, war, and a desire for commemoration brings these objects to a concentrated point where close looking can take place, where distinctions are able to be drawn.7

Mobility also informs the recognition of stylistic differences in another significant monument of Tuscan artistic topography, the Florentine Baptistery. The key individual here for Vasari is the Florentine Andrea Taffi. Though Taffi’s biographic details remain obscure, his inclusion is meaningful as he functions as the conduit for bringing the “old way of the clumsy Greek manner” in Florence. Andrea, holding the art of mosaic in high esteem, departs from Florence for Venice. There, he encounters Byzantine artists active at San Marco, and “with pleas, with money and with promises” persuades these practitioners of the maniera greca to move to Florence. Andrea imports a certain “Apollonio pittore Greco,” who instructs artisans in the Tuscan city in mosaic making and application onto walls. The Baptistery was the location of interventions in mosaic from about 1225 through the fifteenth century. Due to these long-term campaigns, viewers witness various styles compressed and juxtaposed within a single site of dense visual forms. Vasari explains: “But when the works of Giotto, as will be said in its own place, were set in comparison with those of Andrea, of Cimabue, and of the others, people recognized in part the perfection of the art, seeing the difference between the early manner of Cimabue and that of Giotto, in the figures of the one and of the others and in those that their disciples and imitators made.”8

Giotto’s involvement in the design for the Baptistery mosaic is generally doubted, despite a number of eminent adherents who assert that the artist furnished cartoons. For his own part, Vasari does not make good on his promise to recount Giotto’s work on the Baptistery in any detail. When read with hindsight, it appears that the act of comparing the work of these artists does not literally mean side-by-side analysis in the Baptistery per se. Vasari’s statement implies instead the viewer’s awareness of Giotto’s other work in Florence and, by extension, a mental juxtaposition of that work with the maniera greca. Indeed, when encountered in this specific passage, Giotto’s name serves more as a placeholder for the more advanced style in Florence, a manner that is placed in opposition to a foreign Byzantine style and those archaic artists held under its sway (Taffi, and even to some extent Cimabue).9

What may have facilitated the impulse to mention the collision of ethnic and temporal styles is the composition of the Baptistery vault itself. The different zones may break down to distinct iconographic registers, among them the hierarchy of angels, scenes from the lives of Joseph, Christ, and St. John the Baptist, and the Last Judgment. But these running bands also make the vault into a diagram in mosaic, a table of sorts that lends itself to the making of contrasts and comparisons (fig. 3.6). Due to their placement directly on top of the other, we cannot fail to correlate and yet distinguish aspects of gesture, stance, and expression in two disparate scenes such as The Expulsion from Paradise and Joseph Led into Egypt (figs. 3.7 and 3.8). While modern specialist art historical studies might have trepidations considering in the same glance mosaics that differ in iconography, authorship, and style, Vasari and the publics he mentions evidently had no such qualms.


FIGURE 3.5 F. Méaulle, “Les chaines de l’ancien port de Pise et la statue de Jean de Pise au Campo Santo,” from Eugène Müntz, Le tour du monde: I. A travers la Toscane. Pise (Pisa, 1882).


FIGURE 3.6 Side of dome with hosts of angels: Archangels. Byzantine mosaic. Baptistery, Florence.


FIGURE 3.7 Circle of Cimabue, The Expulsion from Paradise, c. 1280–85. Mosaic. Baptistery, Florence.


FIGURE 3.8 Circle of the Master of the Magdalene, Joseph Led into Egypt, c. 1280–90. Mosaic. Baptistery, Florence.

The absence of any hesitancy may be due to the cognitive gains promised by diagnosing differences. For, as Vasari suggests, the act of witnessing distinctions in style is the means by which knowing excellence is possible. He was not alone in forging a link between seeing differences and the faculty of knowing. Benedetto Varchi defined the faculty of “cogitativa” as knowing the difference between “what is benign and harmful ... enemy from friend, relatives from strangers and a thousand other differences.” This exercise of distinguishing between things was particularly employed when encountering the foreign, as attested by a wide range of early modern sources concerned with mobility, both within and beyond Italy. As Richard Trexler observed, a task for visiting ambassadors to Italian city-states was to sort out differences in a foreign public’s nonverbal behavior. The purpose was to uncover the intended political message beneath the “skillful veneer” of spectacles mounted to celebrate their arrival. Further afield, Leo Africanus’s introductory description of Africa is essentially a catalogue of the differences between white and black Africans, in pronunciations in languages, and in dress. Traveling artists such as Albrecht Dürer explored the issue of visual difference in the graphic realm. His drawing of two women, one dressed alla veneziana, the other like a citizen of Nuremberg, exemplifies an interest in accentuating ethnic characteristics through visual discrepancies (fig. 3.9). The almost architectural solidity of Venetian dress, resembling a fluted column, as Panofsky once observed, becomes emphasized when seen against the Nuremberg Hausfrau’s elliptical and curvilinear folds. Graphically comparing and contrasting within the span of a single sheet facilitates the faculty of discernment.10

That travel accounts diagnose difference in respect to either one’s native viewpoint or a variety of foreign phenomena raises a significant issue. The recurrence of difference as a key term in both travel and art literature suggests the possibility of understanding these two genres, often quarantined, in terms of one another. When we read, for example, that the Anonimo Magliabechiano, a topographical and biographic compiler of notes on Florentine artists (c. 1537–42), concludes his account of Donatello’s works in Padua by stating that “one recognizes his style is different from the others,” primarily for the liveliness (vivacità) of the sculptor’s works, we see his remarks go beyond neutral or objective aesthetic criteria. A certain visual attribute, in this case the lack of liveliness, comes to characterize a certain region. In turn, the style of the traveling artist clashes with what is considered to be a geographic standard. This and previous examples suggest that whether ambassador, antiquarian, explorer, artist, or writer on art, difference emerges as a crucial trait if the foreign is to be grasped and controlled, and if knowledge is to be achieved.11


FIGURE 3.9 Albrecht Dürer, Lady in Venetian Dress Contrasted with a Nuremberg “Hausfrau,” c. 1495. Pen and dark grayish brown ink (24.5 × 15.9 cm). Städelisches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, Inv. No. 696.

Cimabue’s work in Pisa and the Baptistery mosaics may have brought to the fore the matter of detecting artistic differences. However, it would be misleading to suggest that Vasari’s notion of style is polarized and organized according to a set of fixed dichotomies. For Cimabue’s style contains within it a “difference within,” a concealed set of internal tensions that reveals itself when juxtaposed against more modern artists. Vasari is aware that the artistic innovations of Cimabue and his followers do not obliterate all of their evident stylistic parallels to Byzantine painting. Nor are Cimabue’s works, however exemplary, equal in merit to those demonstrating the third and most complete maniera.12


To describe this uncomfortable cohabitation, Vasari draws upon the language of concession. His rhetoric cedes ground to a particular claim, yet then opposes the very truth of that claim by marshaling morphological evidence or emotion to support a contrary view. Of the Madonna Rucellai, now ascribed to Duccio but which Vasari attributes to Cimabue, he writes: “Although it had the old Greek manner, one sees that it bears the way and line of the modern.” Likewise, although Margaritone’s paintings were worked alla maniera greca, “one recognized in them a good judgment and the greatest love.” Duccio “applied himself towards the imitation of the old manner and with the healthiest judgment gave truthful forms to his figures.”13

Gaddo Gaddi in particular represents an artist whose style is posed as a confrontation between the maniera greca and the maniera moderna. This is surprising, considering that Vasari opens his Life of Gaddo by declaring how the artist is exposed to the “the subtle air of Florence,” which removes every remnant of “rust and grossness.” Even so, Gaddi’s style exists in a halfway house. “Gaddo ... demonstrated more disegno in his works executed in the Greek style” than Andrea Taffi and others. After executing the mosaics of the prophets in the Florentine Baptistery, Gaddo continues “to study the maniera greca accompanied with the [style of] Cimabue.” Of the mosaic façade in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, Vasari notes some progression: Gaddi “somewhat improved his style, and distanced himself a little from la maniera greca.”14


FIGURE 3.10 Attributed to Gaddo Gaddi, Coronation of the Virgin, 1310. Mosaic. Cathedral, Florence.


FIGURE 3.11 Jacopo Torriti, Coronation of the Virgin, apse extended in 1292. Mosaic. Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.

One prominent target for Vasari’s rhetoric of concession is the Coronation of the Virgin mosaic, located on the counter façade of the Florentine Cathedral (fig. 3.10). This work’s attribution to Gaddi, and even its original placement within the cathedral itself, remains in doubt. But as Alessio Monciatti has observed, the mosaic could not remain anonymous due to its noteworthy location—an attribution on Vasari’s part had to be made. As much as scholars have puzzled over the identity of the mosaic’s maker, Vasari’s motivation behind his attribution was ideological, not positivist. This specimen that alludes only generically to Byzantine prototypes needed to be reconciled with its eminent position in the city’s topography. No matter that the mosaic bears similarities in both style and technique to other prime examples of the maniera greca such as the apse mosaics in San Miniato al Monte, the Pisa Cathedral, or Rome’s Santa Maria Maggiore (fig. 3.11). The work of “Gaddi” is deemed to have “more disegno, more judgment, and more diligence” than any other work in mosaic then in Italy, and correspondingly, less and still less evidence of stylistic otherness. Vasari enlists the Coronation to help define the traits of an interregnum, the effects of foreign invasion gasping their final yet still audible last gasps.15

Quintilian had recommended the use of concession “when we pretend to admit something actually unfavorable to ourselves by way of showing confidence in our cause.” He cites Cicero’s discussion of prejudice against his client: although someone may be accused in public assembly, such opinions must remain silent in the courts of law. Recalling these juridical origins of concession emphasizes the fact that Vasari is making an argument when he designates mixed styles with concessive terms. Furthermore, the presence of a reader is implied, one whose skepticism and response Vasari might be said to anticipate. In the end, acknowledging the presence of the maniera greca in Cimabue is a battle that Vasari is willing to lose, for the thrust of his argument brings the progression of styles forward to the work of Giotto.16


FIGURE 3.12 Giuseppe Sabatelli, Cimabue and Giotto as a Child, nineteenth century. Oil on canvas. Palazzo Pitti, Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Florence.


As in the Life of Cimabue, mobility comes into view in Giotto’s beginnings. Unlike his predecessor, however, Giotto becomes a mobile agent rather than a subject encountering foreign artists. Based in part on Ghiberti, the anecdote narrating Giotto’s origins is well known, memorialized in several nineteenth-century historical paintings (fig. 3.12): Cimabue, traveling through the Mugello, comes upon Giotto, who draws portraits of the sheep he is tending. Astonished by the boy’s precocity, Cimabue asks his father if he can take him on as an apprentice. Giotto’s father, ever gracious, concedes. Giotto goes to Florence and achieves renown as Florence’s most famous artist.17

This tale of discovery has evoked diverse, even inconsonant interpretations. Rumohr called it “too beautiful to be true” as well as “more charming than informative.” Gaetano Milanesi even disputed that Giotto’s origins were to be found in the Mugello, citing archival sources that placed the Bondone family in the quarter of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz in their psychological study of artistic anecdotes approached the story as an archetype of the rural shepherd boy as artist. According to Enid Falaschi, the story of Giotto’s origins reads “like a conventional fairy tale—only lacking the initial ‘c’era una volta.’” Hayden Maginnis commented that “a sixteenth-century audience, almost as much as a twentieth-century viewer, was unlikely to see naturalism in the Trecento depiction of sheep.” For Patricia Rubin, the anecdote expresses the precept of art as the imitation of nature and, at the same time, the classical notion that nature’s gifts can be superior to noble—and largely urban—origins. Paul Barolsky also sees the story in terms of the narrative of “the rise of the artist,” depicting Giotto as a lowly shepherd boy who will eventually exchange jokes with the likes of the King of Naples.18

We might also read this vignette and, more specifically, its characters, in terms of place, the story as a tale of moving from country to city. Cimabue, as a Florentine artist, might represent the metropolis, which in Vasari’s own words is where one can learn and acquire “the sciences and noble arts that give both fame and profit.” Giotto and his father (whom I will refer to as Bondone) exemplify the country: Bondone is a “lavoratore delle terre,” synonymous with contemporary terms that describe peasants, such as “contadino.” Giotto is fully immersed in this bucolic landscape. At the age of ten, he wanders “sometimes in one place, other times in another” with “the sheep of the farm,” set to pasture.19

While Cimabue and Giotto (and his father) may represent the dichotomy of “city” and “country,” Giotto’s journey to Florence to acquire skills as an artist suggests that these characters represent the interdependence between an artistic center and its environs. Giotto is not the sole figure in Part I of the Lives to journey to Florence for his artistic education: Antonio Veneziano goes with Agnolo Gaddi to Florence “to learn painting”; Taddeo Gaddi brings Jacopo da Casentino to the same city “to learn draughtmanship and coloring,” and who in turn brings Spinello Aretino. As the Lives progresses, the number of artists who travel to Florence, as well as to Rome, increases. These instances of immigration underpin Florence’s position as an artistic center. As formulated by Castelnuovo and Ginzburg in their seminal essay on the topic, among a center’s aspects can include a concentration of educational institutions and workshops, industry for the import and export of works of art, and a discriminating public and clientele, to name but a few.20

Yet in locating a high density of artistic activity in centers, Castelnuovo and Ginzburg’s argument could be understood to suggest that artistic styles are generated exclusively in the centers, with peripheries functioning solely as passive recipients. One critique of this model raises the possibility of periphery and center existing in a more dynamic relationship, even to the point where the periphery informs the art of the center. Indeed, the case of Giotto’s first journey to Florence does not affirm any dichotomy of Vespignano (periphery) and Florence (center); rather how Giotto traverses space and stylistic boundaries destabilizes the seemingly solid foundations supporting these two poles. To be clear: the movement between country and city, the interdependence between these two zones, and the stylistic implications of that interdependence should be the focus of attention.21

First, while Vasari’s language does allude to the distinctions between “city” and “country,” it also intertwines these seemingly opposing categories. Giotto’s origins are not found solely in the contado, but more specifically in the contado di Fiorenza. ContadoandFiorenza, country and city, exist in the genitive of possession, a relationship that underscores the rapport between the two entities. Furthermore, this contado is “close to the city by 13 miles,” an adverbial phrase of location that emphasizes the geographic proximity between country and city. To be sure, that Vasari describes Bondone’s home as the villa di Vespignano where he practices the “art of agriculture” would seem to confirm the thoroughly rural character of Giotto’s homestead. However, how Bondone works his land suggests to the reader a specific type of rural landscape, namely the pastoral. As William Empson noted in Some Versions of Pastoral, what characterizes the pastoral landscape is its irony: there is an elision of social differences in this locus amoenus,complexity is simplified. Giotto’s father exemplifies this meeting of contradictions in his handling of tools. Bondone wields the instruments of his profession “rather than seeming to be barbarously [rusticalmente] applied”; instead his hand is calledgentil and compared to a “skillful goldsmith or engraver.”22

Such a favorable characterization of Bondone contrasts with accounts by Ghiberti and the Anonimo Magliabechiano which refer to Giotto’s father, respectively, as poverissimo and un povero contadino. While it is true, as Rubin claims, that Vasari attributes to Bondone “the dexterity appropriate to an artist,” the comparison between farmers and artists runs against the grain. Early modern sources usually portrayed the peasant as an uneducated and possibly socially disruptive figure. The English pejorative word “villan” has its etymological roots in villano, the farmer employed at a villa. Machiavelli alludes to the latent violent nature of peasants in L’arte della guerra, stating that above all other professions, contadini are the most disposed by nature to serving in armies. The Florentine playwright Giovanmaria Cecchi disparaged the peasant in his prose comedies, published the same year as the Torrentino edition of the Lives. Himself a villa proprietor, Cecchi depicted contadini in the Mugello as a treacherous lot who stole wine, garlic, chestnuts, and beans from the estates where they were employed. Later treatises on villa life warned readers, presumably owners of villas themselves, of peasants’ rapaciousness. Giuseppe Falcone’s La nuova vaga, et dilettevole villa (1559) warns: “When thecontadino brings material into the granary, take care, since if he sees nobody in the house, he will easily rob you—of bread, wine, or other things.”23

Vasari’s characterization of Bondone bears none of these inimical attitudes. Giotto and his father are more akin to shepherds in a pastoral romance. It is not just the individual elements of, say, a rustic landscape, boulders, and sheep that conjure the image of the Mugello as a bucolic place. As Paul Alpers has claimed, what evokes the mood particular to the pastoral genre is the discontinuity between being and doing. Such discontinuities saturate the anecdote: though a farmer, Giotto’s father employs his tools as an artist; though nestled in the “periphery,” Bondone’s skill and Giotto’s precocity are known nella villa e fuori, rendering this periphery into a center of its own; though born in the country, Giotto is endowed with “a certain liveliness and readiness of extraordinary talent,” in contrast to the typical boorish peasant; and though a shepherd, Giotto renders portraits of his sheep, even with the roughest materials. In like manner, the shepherds in pastoral poetry such as Theocritus’s Idylls or Virgil’s Eclogues sing their plaintive songs with the most unpolished of instruments, the lowly wooden panpipes. In Sannazaro’s Arcadia, the poet describes his reeds as “rustic and rural panpipes, worthy because of your lowness to be sounded by a shepherd not more cultured, but more fortunate, than I.”24

While the arrival of the urban Cimabue may accentuate the contrast between center and periphery, those very distinctions and the roles of the characters are hardly secure. Cimabue, by virtue of traveling through the Mugello, becomes an artistic judge, “marveling” at the portraits in stone. Thanks to this recognition by the city traveler, Bondone, too, is transfigured, from farmer to birth father to an artistic dynasty. His encounter with Cimabue alters Giotto from shepherd to apprentice and, eventually, to renowned artist. Giotto also disrupts and in fact reverses the conventional artistic flow from center to periphery: “And having arrived together to Florence, not only in little time did the child equal the style of Cimabue, but became such an imitator of nature, that in his time he banished [sbandì] in fact that awkward Greek manner, and resuscitated the modern and good art of painting, and introduced portraying living people from life, which for hundreds of years was not done.” The shepherd’s journey to Florence occupies a key moment in Vasari’s narrative. It accounts for the resuscitation of an artistic genre (portraiture) and style (modern vs. Byzantine). This resurrection occurs in the most universal terms—note that it is not specifically Giotto’s style that becomes transformed upon his arrival to the metropolis, but more generally the art of painting.25

What is more, the language Vasari uses to describe the impact of Giotto’s entry into Florence’s artistic scene is significant. He is said to banish (sbandire) the Byzantine style. Sbandire as a concept may be most readily associated with Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. Dante in the Paradiso (7.34-39) states that Man’s nature “was expelled from Eden [sbandita di paradiso] because it turned from truth and life.” But regarding the passage under discussion, sbandire resonates more with the connotation of political expulsion insofar as it evokes a scenario in which the “native” (the style of Florence and its environs) banishes the “foreign” (the maniera greca). Sbandire could also describe the more general conflict between natives and foreigners. Giovanni della Casa, in a speech upon Charles Vs restitution of Piacenza, praised the Holy Roman Emperor’s policy of dispersing and banishing Barbarian princes and Saracens from his realm. In addition, it is possible that the word’s related terms that designated political exiles(sbandito; fuorusciti)would not be without political import in the milieu of Florence under the rule of Cosimo I. In his Storia Fiorentina, Benedetto Varchi repeatedly speaks of the political threats posed by the sbanditi and fuorusciti toward the political stability of the Republic and the Medici regime.26

Furthermore, when Vasari contends that Giotto reintroduces the art of portraiture, examining from where this bringing in occurs reveals an agenda in the realm of domestic and regional politics. For when Cimabue conducts Giotto to Florence, what is implied is the “import” of an element from the Mugellese countryside. While the anecdote could be seen as a reversal of the more usual situation in which the center radiates artistic style outward, in Giotto’s case, the center is, in fact, appropriating the periphery for the center’s benefit. In other words, Giotto’s naturalism originates from the countryside, and by extension, from nature herself.

That Giotto hails from the Medicean territory of the Mugello adds an ideological dimension to his naturalistic style, often thought of as benign and apolitical. As Zeffiro Ciuffoletti has argued, the Mugello countryside where Vasari places Giotto’s birthplace served the Medici in a number of ways: as the location from which they could trace their ancestry, a retreat in times of political unrest, and an area of significant financial investments, demonstrated above all by their working villas at Trebbio and Cafaggiolo (fig. 3.13). Cimabue’s import of the rustic Giotto is but one of several instances in the Lives in which the city intervenes and, at times, even transforms the countryside. As early on as the Life of the thirteen-century painter Margaritone, we read that the Badia of San Clemente in Arezzo is no longer standing due to Cosimo I’s decision to renovate “not only in that place, but around the city,” rendering the city’s walls and other structures alla moderna. The Medicean renovation and fortification of Arezzo is mentioned again in theLife of the miniaturist Lo Abate di San Clemente. Regarding Giuliano and Antonio da Sangallo, Vasari highlights the architect’s role in establishing fortifications to aid Cosimo I’s military campaigns in the outskirts of Florence, including Castellina, Poggio Imperiale, and Livorno, as well as a bridge to defend the Arno from Pisan attack. While these examples indicate Florence’s capacity as a political center to intrude in its territories, Giotto’s arrival to the city and what he brings represent a reversal of sorts. His naturalistic style that renders Florence an artistic center traces its origins from the periphery, signifying interdependence between these supposedly distinct entities.27


FIGURE 3.13 Giusto Utens, View of Il Trebbio, c. 1599. Tempera on canvas (143 × 242 cm). Museo di Firenze com’era, Florence.

And yet, the “simple” aspect of Giotto’s name registers how the city can blot out the artist’s bucolic provenance. Julius von Schlosser declared Vasari the “godfather” of art history: despite the many erroneously named artists in the Lives, his designations have endured. As Monique Bourin and other social historians have argued, naming is not simply family policy, but rather a form of “social management,” submitted to complex rules. Giotto’s name reflects this observation in that it differs from the more usual conventions that characterize artists’ names. Though his family name is “Bondone,” Giotto is not referred to with the hereditary patronymic (“Giotto Bondone”) as are other artists such as “Giovanni Cimabue,” “Taddeo Gaddi,” or “Andrea Taffi.” Nor does Giotto bear an appropriate toponym—such as “Giotto da Vespignano” or “Giotto da Vicchio”—as do artists with names such as Andrea Pisano or Antonio Veneziano. Giotto’s name remains singular, only specified with the designation “Pittore, Scultore et Architetto Fior.[entino]” that rests beneath his woodcut portrait (fig. 3.14). Roots to both family and place are erased, this absence filled in by the titles of his profession and adopted city. Nor is this Vasari’s invention alone. Several of Giotto’s own works, some destined for foreign export, prominently bear the name of his foster city: OPUS IOCTIFLORENTINI.28


FIGURE 3.14 “Giotto Pittore, Scultore, et Architetto Fior.,” from Giorgio Vasari, Le vite de’ piv eccellenti pittori, scvltori, e architettori, 1568.


Given that Vasari depicts Giotto as a messianic figure, we might think his works in Florence and abroad would attest to evolution of style. This, however, is not the case. Describing Giotto’s portrait of Dante in the Palazzo del Podestà, Vasari appears more interested in linking these two personalities rather than delineating the portrait’s stylistic properties. This lack of detail is also present in Vasari’s figuring of Giotto’s Annunciation in the Badia where he writes of the Virgin’s “shock and fear” as well as “the greatest trepidation, almost putting her in flight.” These are stock phrases, evoked in his characterization of Donatello’s Annunciation in Santa Croce and in Vasari’s own execution of the theme for the convent of Le Murate. Even of the Coronation of the Virgin(Baroncelli Chapel, Santa Croce), Vasari places more emphasis upon the signs of Giotto’s authorship: the description focuses on how the artist inserted his name “in golden letters.” And aside from bringing up the panel’s “greatest number of small figures” and how the work demonstrates the artist’s “diligence,” Vasari remains silent about style proper.29

Reticence also characterizes Vasari’s description of Giotto’s works executed beyond Florence. To be sure, he unwraps a banner of key words (ordine, proporzione, vivezza, facilità) when discussing Giotto’s frescos in Assisi. Yet his analysis of these works concentrates more on hailing Giotto’s journey to the pilgrimage site to complete Cimabue’s unfinished works, thus highlighting the bond between Cimabue and his successor, master and pupil. Also laconic is Vasari’s account of the Navicella in Rome whose attributes are explained with an abstract, if not generic, catalog of terms (disegno, ordine, perfezzione). The same restraint is true for Giotto’s commissions in Arezzo, Naples, Padua, Milan, and Ravenna, with a fresco cycle in Rimini the only work receiving an extended account, a work not even by Giotto himself.30

Yet if Vasari does not stress style, what is accentuated is the recognition that Giotto receives through his commissions scattered throughout the Italian peninsula. Like a domino effect, each successive work brings ever greater renown. While Giotto ostensibly travels to Assisi merely to finish Cimabue’s fresco cycle, his work there brings him “the greatest fame.” The Navicella mosaic in Rome is “praised universally by artists and other ingenious connoisseurs,” while his work in Padua and Milan bestow upon Giotto “much honor.” Giotto then supposedly executes a series of frescoes in Ravenna in San Giovanni Evangelista which are “much praised.” The fresco cycle in Rimini that Vasari attributes to him “makes known to those that look at it that he was born to give light to the art of painting.” After this campaign of work and ensuing success, Giotto returns home a conquering hero, coming back “with the greatest honor and privilege to Florence.”31

In linking Giotto’s travels and his rise as an artist, Vasari was perpetuating a tradition conveyed in earlier commentators. Already in the first decades of the fourteenth century, Riccobaldo da Ferrara, author of a world chronicle, noted that Giotto painted works in Assisi, Rimini, and Padua, a sizable geographic spread. Villani states that Giotto, “wanting to extend his reputation ..., painted something in prominent places throughout almost all the famous towns of Italy.” Ghiberti proclaims that Giotto “executed the most distinguished works, especially in the city of Florence and many other places.” Cristoforo Landino declares the artist furnished “Italy with his works,” stressing in particular the Navicella mosaics with their “lively and prompt gestures.” The Anonimo Magliabechiano states, “Italy is full of his works,” and after mentioning Giotto’s commissions in Florence, Assisi, Rome, and Naples concludes, “he painted still in many other places in panel and in fresco.” The twin notions that Giotto’s fame was universal and that he had spread a renewed manner of painting to the world were continued after the first publication of the Lives in 1550. In his account of the pageants celebrating the ill-fated nuptials between Joanna of Austria and Ferdinando de’ Medici in 1565, Domenico Melli describes a tableau vivant “closest to the eyes of the spectators” in which Cimabue and Giotto hold lanterns, symbolizing how they both brought back painting “from below the earth,” rebirthing it “to the world.”32

The yoke binding travel and increasing fame, while most articulated in Giotto’s Life, also presides over his predecessors and descendants. Cimabue’s supposed work in Santa Croce launches his successive commissions in Pisa and Assisi. Vasari’s portrayal of Duccio’s work displays this link between success in one locale and employment in another: “He made in Siena several panels on gold ground, and in particular one in Florence in Santa Trinita. He then painted many works in Pisa, Lucca, and Pistoia for different churches, which were all praised in the said cities, such that they acquired him name and gave him the greatest profit.” What is emphasized in the travels of these artists is not any particular stylistic evolution—indeed, forging a link between journey to regions outside Tuscany and improvement in style would be antithetical to Vasari’s project of promoting Florence as the cradle of the arts’ rebirth. Vasari does not indicate that the artist is in any way “influenced” by or even looks at the sights in Rome, Ravenna’s mosaics, or the courtly art in Naples. In this respect, Giotto’s style is as valuable for what it does not represent. Its worth lies in refutation, in its ability to exclude. Yet while Vasari remains silent on the impact of Giotto’s travels on his own style, these journeys do, in fact, affect the style of his time. In the Life of Margaritone we learn that the praise Cimabue and Giotto receive are in turn responsible for the loss of fame once held by “vecchi maestri,” thus suggesting the demise of maniera greca. Decline in style exists in a proportional relationship with decline in fame.33

As Rubin has observed, “geography and esteem were [the] guiding principles” of Vasari’s Life of Giotto. The operative concept here is fama. The “Preface to the Entire Work” declares that great actions of distinguished minds ensure that “eternal fame of each of their rare excellences” will endure. Yet fame for Vasari also connotes the diffusion of an artist’s reputation over a geographic area. In the same passage, he states that those distinguished minds “render them [their works] stupendous and marvelous throughout the entire world.” In justifying his intention to guard the written deeds of artists that are “prey to dust and food for moths,” Vasari stresses that the Lives will treat “the names of many ancient and modern architects, sculptors, and painters together with their infinite and most beautiful works in various parts of Italy.” That geographic diffusion was the handmaiden to fame was a well-established notion. In his Convivio Dante writes: “Fame lives to be mobile and increases in moving.” Boccaccio’s Teseida delle Nozze depicts fame as a figure that “runs throughout the entire country.” Dino Compagni reports in his Cronica delle cose occorrenti how in the summer of 1303, Uguccione da Faggiuola was removed from power in Arezzo and replaced by Federigo da Montelfeltro, “whose gracious fame flew throughout the entire world.” Vasari himself illustrates the link between fame and worldwide promulgation in his Chamber of Fame, a fresco cycle painted for his house in Arezzo. There, the foreshortened allegorical figure of Fame is seated upon a globe while holding two trumpets, attributes indicative of her status as a disseminator of reputation (fig. 3.15). This figure corresponds to that described in Vasari’s Zibaldone, in which he prescribes at least three times how to portray the allegorical representation of Fame, who in all cases is to be seated on a globe. Vasari recommends that if a motto be listed underneath, it should read: “SEMPER UBIQUE”—always everywhere.34


FIGURE 3.15 Giorgio Vasari, Fame, 1542. Fresco. Casa Vasari, Camera della Fama e delle Arti, Arezzo.


The trumpets of Fame that broadcast universal praise resonate in the well-known story regarding Giotto’s “O.” This tale indicates how an artist’s execution of cryptic forms and a viewer’s perception of those forms can traverse geographic boundaries. As Vasari recounts, Pope Benedict, having heard “so much fame and cheers about this marvelous artist [Giotto],” desired to engage him for the decoration of St. Peter’s. The Pope sends a courtier to procure drawings by Giotto and other artists in Florence and Siena. Arriving one morning at Giotto’s workshop, the courtier requests a drawing by the master’s hand. He receives instead an unusual verbal and visual response: Giotto merely draws a circle on a piece of paper with orders to “send it to Rome together with the others and see whether it will be understood.” The befuddled courtier delivers to the Pope the drawings he has collected on his journeys. Of Giotto’s tondo he describes how the Florentine artist executed the drawing in one fell stroke, without a moment’s pause. From this specimen, it was “thus understood by the Pope and many other knowledgeable courtiers how much he [Giotto] surpassed in excellence all the other artists of his time.”35

Vasari’s anecdote echoes a number of sources, the tale of Apelles’s line as recounted by Pliny and the verses on Giotto written by the fifteenth-century poet Burchiello. The circular and harmonious O-shape also operates as a frequent design principle in Giotto’s compositions. In the Wedding at Cana (Master of the Feast), the rounded shapes link the narrative’s participants and also allude to the tondezza, or the stupidity, of the master of the feast who cannot grasp that water has now been turned into wine (fig. 3.16). For the more elevated characters in this scene, the coordination of figures and vases according to this O-shape may register the pursuit of Neoplatonic ideals. Other associations with the O might be in currency, from Fame’s globe, terrestrial glory, to the trumpet’s rounded mouthpiece that spreads an artist’s name. But what is most striking about the tale in Vasari’s rendition is the emphasis placed upon the perception of such forms, the contrast between the mystified and unseeing versus those in the know. The O functions as a password of sorts that allows the artist to gain entry into the exclusive cadre of the papal court. This typographic sign is paradoxical, on one hand understood in a variety of places (Florence/Rome), yet not legible to everyone, a mark that is geographically disseminated, though not to the uninitiated.36


FIGURE 3.16 Giotto di Bondone, The Wedding at Cana, 1303–6. Fresco. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.


FIGURE 3.17 Woodcut. From Leonbattista Alberti, Dello scrivere in cifra, 1568.

Giotto’s “O” could thus be said to function as a cipher, a device that masks the customary significance of language. In his treatise Dello scrivere in cifra, translated by the Florentine Academician Cosimo Bartoli in 1568, Alberti pioneered a method of writing in code in which letters and numbers stood in for one another on a rotating basis by means of two circumscribed disks (fig. 3.17). Alberti stressed that this system would be particularly useful for communicating messages across distances: “With a tactful use of these tables ... it will be possible to he who is besieged and many miles away to communicate. . . . What is more extraordinary than having a way to scramble information, even to the furthest region?” These methods should be limited to a chosen few: “I would like that my little work be kept among our friends, such that it doesn’t fall into the hands of the public at large, profaning a subject that is appropriate to men of state given to the most important transactions.” Alberti’s recommendation that correspondence dealing with affairs of state ought to be restricted was not far from actual diplomatic protocol. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, ambassadorial correspondence regularly employed ciphers to conceal information of a sensitive nature. The earliest surviving diplomatic records that display the use of ciphers in the Venetian archives are from 1411, while those from Florence, Genoa, and Milan date from 1414, 1454, and 1481, respectively. That ciphers were implemented in delicate diplomatic situations is attested by a document from the Venetian Senate to the first diplomat to venture to Constantinople after the Byzantine Empire’s fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. As the letter states: “We are sending you here inserted a cipher with which you might wish to write something secretly.” Varchi reported that a letter dated 10 December 1527 and written in cipher to Pope Clement VII managed to be intercepted, subsequently decoded in Venice by a secretary of the Republic, and publicly displayed in the Piazza San Marco. Varchi’s retelling of the incident suggests that what impressed the public more than the contents of the letter itself was the demonstration of the “science of deciphering.”37

Giotto’s “O” also may be understood to function as a cipher comparable to the secret characters used in diplomatic correspondence. His drawing is dispatched across a geographic distance and is intelligible only to its intended recipient, Pope Benedict and his cadre of sophisticated courtiers (cortigiani intendenti). At the same time, this vignette demonstrates that disegno, as embodied in Giotto’s “O,” is a universal language, transcending the particularities of regional speech and dialect. Yet this language alone does not elicit admiration. While the papal court marvels at the physical appearance of the O, supplementing their appreciation is the courtier’s description of the artist’s dexterity, “the way in which he had turned it [the tondo] without moving his arm and stopping.” Underlying this statement, then, is the acknowledgment that words as well as images are responsible for the recognition of Giotto’s skill. The inscription on Giotto’s “O” implicitly advances Vasari’s own project. Written language underscores the fact that what generates artists’ fame is the account of their deeds via the Lives, the printed page diffused to a potentially extensive audience.


In addition to spreading the artist’s fame, mobility holds consequences for an artist’s social bearing. Giotto’s sojourn at the Angevin court in Naples is instructive on this account. After being called to the papal court, Giotto receives a charge from yet another sovereign, King Robert of Naples, to execute a number of works, among them a fresco cycle in the royal church of Santa Chiara. Parallel with his movement from Vespignano to Florence to Naples is Giotto’s transformation from shepherd boy to city artisan to “court artist.” Vasari recounts that King Robert loved Giotto for more than just his painting; the ruler appreciated the artist’s witty bantering. For Martin Warnke, the historical incident of Giotto in Naples—as opposed to Vasari’s portrayal—and especially the artist’s designation as a familiaris of the Angevins, exemplifies the rise of the artist’s social status when migrating from city to royal or princely court. Francis Ames-Lewis qualifies this claim. The title of familiaris or valet de chambre offered the artist “a position from which he could aspire to become a courtier, but he did not yet rank intellectually alongside the courtiers.” What is, in fact, so striking about Vasari’s account is how the artist’s behavior is distinct from that of a courtier. This is made clear in the anecdote in which King Robert states that if he were Giotto, he would stop painting on account of the hot weather: to the king’s statement the artist replies, “If I were you, I would do the same.” It could be argued that the reflexivity of these statements (“if I were you—if I were you”) linguistically demonstrates the equality between patron and artist, if only temporarily, during their exchange. However, if Giotto catapulted to the status of courtier, would not the language of formal address and deference characterize his speech? Instead, Giotto’s repartee resonates with what Bakhtin called the “carnivalesque,” a mode of speech that counters established social hierarchy through laughter and parody. Contrast this to Vasari’s own complaint about working in hot weather in the opening lines of his Ragionamentiwhich comprises but a prelude to a learned explanation of Palazzo Vecchio’s allegorical program. Giotto’s “wit,” as it has been called, does not acknowledge the infallibility of King Robert’s utterances. The artist parrots royal words to create the effect of deadpan humor. Giotto resembles less the nobleman and more the jester, along the lines of a Buffalmacco, less a courtier and more a trickster.38

Qualifying the notion of the “rise of the artist” does not imply that mobility has no bearing on artists’ social standing in Vasari’s account. On the contrary, Part I of the Lives is littered with examples in which traveling artists receive recognition, from both their destinations and place of origin. The artist Jacopo di Casentino, whose name indicates his roots in the northeastern Tuscan town, gains recognition for the works he paints in Arezzo “per tutta la città.” He also earns praise there for conveying the principles of painting to the native resident Spinello Aretino, who in turn instructs Bernardo Daddi. Andrea Pisano receives Florentine citizenship and serves as a magistrate. Vasari also indicates that artists receive incentives to become immobile, to establish familial and blood ties once abroad. To prevent him from leaving Florence, Gaddo Gaddi is given a wife of noble extraction with whom he has several children, among them Taddeo Gaddi, who became “a good master of painting.”39

The most extensive description of mobility and social standing in Part I occurs in the prelude to Gherardo Starnina’s Life, here rendered in Gaston du C. de Vere’s translation in almost biblical prose: “Verily he who journeys far from his own country, dwelling in those of other men, gains very often a disposition and character of a fine temper, for, in seeing abroad diverse honourable customs, even though he might be perverse in nature, he learns to be tractable, amiable, and patient, with much greater ease than he would have done by remaining in his own country. And in truth, he who desires to refine men in the life of the world need seek no other fire and no better touchstone than this, seeing that those who are rough by nature are made gentle, and the gentle becomes more gracious.”40

So does travel abroad furnish Starnina with social polish. Though rough in manners in Florence—we read that his behavior caused him to attract several enemies—after having journeyed and worked in Spain, he returns home to win the affection of many. “So thoroughly,” Vasari writes, “had he become gentle and courteous.” In his commentary on this passage, Bottari understood Starnina’s journey as an escape from the highly competitive and malicious atmosphere of Republican Florence, a situation upon which Dante had memorably remarked. Close attention to the terms Vasari uses can also demonstrate that time spent abroad acts as a sort of mollifying agent, changing a personality that is “hard” and “rough” (duro, rozzo), rendering it instead “courteous” and “kind”(gentile, cortese). Vasari forges an alchemical and metalworking metaphor to describe this conversion, comparing travel that refines (affinare) Starnina’s temperament via “fire” and “experiment” (fuoco, cimento). These terms have their roots in texts dedicated to either alchemy, forging, or casting metals. Astrological and magical treatises routinely list sulfur as one of the ingredients that will “refine and purify gold” (aurum purificat et affinat). The terms cimento, affinare, and fuoco appear throughout Cellini’s treatise on goldsmithery. Vasari himself uses these terms in his Ragionamenti: in the hall dedicated to Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, Vasari’s frescoes celebrate this condottiere with an allegorical figure of Military Virtue, which has “a crucible full of gold with burning coals at her feet. Through that test [cimento] the gold refines itself.”41

In describing Starnina’s Spanish sojourn, Vasari likens travel to the flame that, in the alchemical procedure, speeds up the organic process that renders lower metals (such as lead and copper) into their higher, purer counterparts (such as silver and gold). Evoking this metallurgical metaphor to explain spiritual purification or social polish is not unique to Vasari. In canto 26 of the Purgatorio, the Occitan poet Arnaut Daniel is depicted “weeping and singing” as he repents for the sin of lust; upon concluding his verses, “he then enters the fire, which refines him.” Commenting on this passage, Vellutello remarked that these flames “purified him [Autin], as it does to gold and all other metals.” In turn, the speaker in Petrarch’s Canzone 360 declares that the divine part of human nature “like gold, refines itself in the fire.” Lodovico Dolce compares the alchemical flame to learning, which refines judgment of various things, “most of all, that of painting.” Ripa in his Iconologia construes the quality of valor to “gold that refines itself in the flame,” emerging as a man approaches maturity.42

For Vasari, the artist’s journey to Spain has little artistic consequence, aside from his rendering of “Spanish dress which in that time [was] used in that country” in the now destroyed fresco cycles in the Chapel of St. Jerome in Santa Maria del Carmine. What travel does stimulate is a process of refining artists socially. In this respect Vasari is consonant with other early modern discussions that conceive travel as a means of increasing worldliness, erudition, and strength of character. In Thomas Wilson’s The Arte of Rhetorik (1553), one topic suggested for an oration is the situation in which “I would counseil my frende to trauaile beyond the Seas for knowlege of the tongues, & experience in forein countries.” Wilson’s sample oration speaks of travel as “Profitable,” “Praise worthie,” and “Necessarie.” In one of the first published books dedicated to how one ought to travel, The Traveiler (1575), Hieronymus Turler claims he has written “in the behalf of such as are desierous to traveill, and to see foreeine Cuntries, & especially of students. For since Experience is the greatest parte of humane wisdome, and the fame is increased by traveil: I suppose there is no man will deney, but that a man may become the wiser by traveiling.”43 Travel, therefore, affords social polish and opportunity not offered by the accidents of birth.

Turler’s adages on travel draw heavily upon ancient authors; his gathering together of classical views on journeys from “sundrie Books” testifies to how often ancient Greek and Roman writers discussed this theme, frequently in regard to the two epic literary voyagers, Ulysses and Aeneas. Horace praises in his Epistles (1.2.17-22) the “worth” and “wisdom” of Ulysses, a voyager who had “looked with discerning eyes upon the cities and manners of many men” and overcame adversity “for a return across the broad seas.” In his treatise on morals (De finibus bonorum et malorum), Cicero lauds Pythagoras, Plato, and Democritus “for they, we are told, in their passion for learning travelled through the remotest parts of the earth.” Cicero himself was praised by Quintilian for having traveled to Rhodes to “refashion and recast” his oratorical style.44 Vasari’s more immediate predecessors also undertook the subject of travel’s benefits. Dante’s Ulysses proclaims, “neither the sweetness of a son, nor compassion for / my old father, nor the love owed to Penelope ... could conquer within me the ardor that I had to gain experience of the world and of human vices and worth.” When his crew becomes hesitant as they approach the Pillar of Hercules, Ulysses persuades them to endure, declaring, “you were not made to live / like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge.” Glossing this passage, Landino understood Ulysses’ speech as an exhortation to “train oneself in virtue and investigate truth.” Petrarch, in turn, compared Ulysses’ wanderings with his own travels throughout the Italian peninsula, France, and Germany. “Compare my wanderings to those of Ulysses,” he states in Familiares 1.1; “if the reputation of our name and of our achievements were the same, he indeed traveled neither more nor farther than I.”45


Although Vasari sees travel in positive, if not heroic terms, he also interprets this act in the sense true to its etymological roots, that is, travail, a word synonymous with “labor,” “toil, “suffering,” and “trouble.” Exemplifying Vasari’s equivocal stance toward mobility is the prelude to the Life of Ambrogio Lorenzetti: “A painter, or any other rare talent is certainly greatly pleased, [when] called outside his homeland to honor another; and if by chance [that other country] is more noble in customs, mind, and ability, he, once unhappy, is filled with joy in seeing himself awarded, embraced, and largely honored. Because he can truly consider himself most happy, given that many in their own homeland, however excellent they may be, are little esteemed and almost many times villainously neglected without receiving recognition or seeing any sign of honor, and remain poor, humble, without any reputation due to their poor misfortune, enduring everything contrary to their merit.”46

The passage affirms at first travel as a means to acquire honors and fame, the assertion of a self upon the world. But success is conditional, not guaranteed. Upon arrival in a foreign country, the migratory artist will be awarded only if circumstances there are appropriate, namely if that country is endowed with “customs, talent, ability.” It is more frequently the case that artists are “little appreciated.” Vasari’s language, through the repeating preposition senza, negative particles (alcuno), and oppositional words(contrario), emphasizes an absence of honors.

The acknowledgment of an artist’s worth, then, does not occur a priori—rather such recognition is contingent upon his displacement. This tension between the artist’s intrinsic value and local reception echoes Christ’s sermon on the book of Isaiah found in the Gospels: “I say to you, that no prophet is accepted in his own country.” In a gloss on this passage the chronicler Franco Sacchetti extended Christ’s words with examples from both Roman history and those more immediate in Florence’s past: “Truly the world ... has always little esteemed those from their own homeland. Who does not believe me, look at Rome and how she accepted Scipione Africanus and Asiaticus and Furius Camillus and many others. But Rome also brought to herself many valorous ones from diverse parts of the world such as Virgil, Horace, Seneca, Lucian, Tullius, and Statius, and many others: that which her daughter [Florence] has not done, which did little accept Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, and their remains at the present prove this.”47

Vasari’s variation on the nemo propheta in patria trope would seem to valorize the traveling artist. In the Life of Andrea Pisano, he remarks how the sculptor was “esteemed in that profession the best man that the Tuscans had had until their time.” His works “were so honored and rewarded, and most of all by the Florentines.” Yet the identity of Andrea’s audience—Fiorentini or the more encompassing Toscani—cannot obscure the fact that the platform where he gained such praise was outside his native Pisa. Due to receiving fame abroad, Andrea “did not regret changing his homeland, family, colleagues, and friends.” While a customary reaction to migration might be remorse, Andrea does not lament relinquishing his ties. Here Vasari takes a more moderate stance on the pain of mobility than other traveling artists who commented upon displacement’s effects. Ghiberti, supported by the authority of Vitruvius, had categorically declared: “Only he who has learned everything is nowhere a stranger; robbed of his fortune and without friends, he is yet the citizen of every country, and can fearlessly despise the changes of fortune.”48

For Ghiberti, then, an artist’s skill is a means to overcome the adversity of travel. By contrast, in the Life of Antonio Veneziano, Vasari conceives such acumen as a liability, the very cause of an artist’s ostracism. Antonio, after having acquired in Florence the art of painting, returns to Venice to allow his native city to harvest “the fruit of the long labors endured by him.” Elsewhere in Part I, the theme of repatriation is generally celebrated. Simone Martini, after “copying the style of Giotto” in Rome and executing while in Avignon “many paintings in fresco and panel,” enjoys the benefits of his experience abroad: “And having returned to Siena his homeland, he was much esteemed there ... and having worked in fresco he also wanted to show the Sienese that he was a most worthy master in tempera.” Ambrogio Lorenzetti, “desirous to see the praised works of the new Florentine artists,” goes to that city, and these same artists in turn are “curious to see his way of working.” Again, this journey is framed in positive terms. Ambrogio’s works “confirmed his name and increased his reputation infinitely.”49

Antonio, however, does not enjoy a triumphant return home. Having acquired training in tempera and fresco in Florence, he returns to Venice to paint a wall in the Great Council Hall. Though he conducted the work “excellently and with much majesty,” such was the hostile reception to his work that “poor Antonio found himself so beaten and dejected that for the better, having left Florence, he returned there with the intention of never wanting to ever return to Venice.” Antonio’s travail not only alludes to the pain of mobility. The tale of his repatriation also serves to portray the artistic community of both Florentines and Venetians, patrons and artists alike. While in Florence, Antonio is “not only esteemed and admired by Florentines, but appreciated still greatly for his virtue and his other good qualities.” By contrast, Vasari unleashes a torrent of grave terms—invidia, ambizione, tirannia, maledicenza, ingratitudine—to depict the native son’s reception in Venice.50

The portrayal of this Venetian public is more subtle than a simple snub. It differs from Petrarch’s famous dismissal of those ignorant and unable to understand the beauty of Francesco da Carrara’s painting by Giotto. Vasari makes a distinction between observers/patrons of art (alcuni gentiluomini) and artists. The former, who generally show favor to foreign painters, have eyes “blinded” to the truth. More complex is Vasari’s characterization of Antonio’s fellow Venetian artists. The word invidia, or envy, expresses their reaction to Antonio no less than four times and is accompanied by emulazione, a contemporary term that refers to ambition and competitiveness. This atmosphere of envy in Venice’s artistic scene contrasts with the more collegial working environment in Florence. Unlike some painters, who “due to envy and malice defraud ideas,” Gaddo Gaddi, Cimabue, and Andrea Taffi collaborate to finish the mosaics in the Florentine Baptistery with mutual “generosity” (carità). The Venetian artists’ envy of Antonio reveals their awareness of the supposed superiority of his artistic skills honed abroad. Implicit within the very word invidia, literally “looking upon” with an evil eye, is the visual recognition of an adversary’s advantages. As Francis Bacon commented in his Essays, “There seemeth to be acknowledged, in the act of envy, an ejaculation, or irridation of the eye.” The figurative blindness of the Venetian noblemen serves as a counterpoint to the artists’ coveting eyes. And it is no accident that the artists who exemplify the hardship of travel originate from Siena, Pisa, and Venice—in other words, from locales other than Florence.51


Yet to overemphasize Vasari’s ambivalent stance toward travel would be to neglect another and perhaps more salient type of travel in Part I, the dissemination of Giotto’s style throughout the Italian peninsula via his students. Itinerant artists are not, of course, the only agents of mobility. As a number of instances in Part I make plain, the export of works of art enable the diffusion of artists’ style and their reputations: Margaritone’s works are transported throughout Arezzo and Tuscany; Ugolino “executed many panels and infinite chapels throughout Italy ... and many more [panels] outside Italy”; Ambrogio Lorenzetti sends a panel in tempera to Volterra, which became “a highly praised thing in that city.” Yet for the first two artists, Vasari notes that this export spreads the maniera greca: Margaritone’s Crucifix is “lavorato a la greca”; Ugolino paints “many great panels throughout Italy ... with a good execution without leaving, however, the style of his master at all.” Vasari does not care to dwell on these works, since Ugolino’s masters themselves “always held on to the way of the old ones” (al modo de’ vecchi).52

Giotto’s journey throughout Italy, while ostensibly having no impact on his own style, according to Vasari, combats the deluge of Byzantine style that was once practiced and distributed by his predecessors and less illustrious contemporaries. The starting point for this narrative of dissemination occurs toward the end of Giotto’s biography in the list of his students. This catalog indicates succession from master to pupil, thus fueling the historical progression of style. At the same time, the roll call demonstrates how much Giotto’s style is transmitted through geographic space: “His disciples were the above mentioned Taddeo and Puccio Capanna, who painted in Rimini in the church of San Cataldo of the Preaching Friars. . . . And also his pupil was Ottaviano da Faenza, who in San Giorgio di Ferrara . . painted many things, and in Faenza his homeland. . . . And Guglielmo da Forlì, who executed many works, and particularly in the chapel of San Domenico in his city. Also students of Giotto were Simone Sanese, Stefano Fiorentino,and Pietro Cavallini Romano, and infinite others who approached his style in imitation of him.”53

Despite Giotto’s strong ties to Florence, the various toponyms and locations stress the reach of his style toward all points of the compass. The geographic spread of Giotto’s family tree almost resounds with the words of the Messianic Christ: “Go ye into the whole world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). Place names, scattered like seed in a field of prose, constitute a linguistic attempt to account for those stylistic patterns witnessed in works inhabiting the peninsula. Giotto and the Giottesque are everywhere. A Pietà by the Neapolitan painter Roberto d’Oderisio demonstrates the consequences of Giotto’s lengthy sojourn and the presence of his followers abroad (fig. 3.18). Several aspects of this panel immediately recall the figural depiction and portrayal of emotions particular to the Florentine master. The draped sculptural bodies of St. John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene, application of gilt ornament, clasped hands, anguished faces, and lamenting angels echo extant details from Giotto’s work in the convent of Santa Chiara in Naples. Further afield and better preserved, Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua also provide stylistic analogies to d’Oderisio’s panel (fig. 3.19). “Magistro Iotto pictore de Florentia,” as he was described in one Neapolitan notarial document from 1332–33, had his style perpetuated far afield from his place of origin.54

Another idea at play in the catalogue of Giotto’s descendants is that of a Florentine commodity that becomes widely exported. And unlike Andrea da Pisano’s pupils, who execute “infinite awkward things on the façade of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Pisa, Venice, Milan and throughout Italy,” Giotto’s disciples maintain or improve upon the style of their master. Puccio Capanna, “having adopted the working method and style of Giotto,” takes the design of Giotto’s crucifix in the Ognissanti “throughout Italy.” After Giotto’s death, Stefano Fiorentino “advanced him in style, invention, and design” such that he appeared a miracle “throughout Tuscany.” Pietro Lorenzetti painted frescoes in Siena “imitating the style of Giotto, already diffused [divulgata] by infinite masters throughout Tuscany.” Pietro Cavallini, whose name bears the additional designation Romano, was “the most perfect master of mosaic, which art together with painting he learned from Giotto ... he was certainly of the greatest profit to his city.” Simone Martini, “copying the style of Giotto,” worked in Rome, Avignon, and Siena. Taddeo, among the “true and good imitators in the style of Giotto,” worked with great diligence in Pisa’s Camposanto. In turn, the generation who comes after Giotto’s students or those “influenced” by him further perpetuates this geographic dissemination. Thus Pietro Lorenzetti leaves “his disciple Bartolomeo Bolghini Sienese, who painted many panels in Siena and throughout Italy.” Ambrogio Lorenzetti works in Massa, making known there “his judgment and talent in art.” Agnolo Gaddi leaves pupils who work in Urbino, Città di Castello, Verona, Mantua, and Siena.55


FIGURE 3.18 Roberto d’Oderisio, Saint John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene, c. 1350. Tempera on wood, gold ground (58.4 × 39.7 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.102).


FIGURE 3.19 Detail from Giotto di Bondone, Lamentation over Christ, 1303–6. Fresco. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

Bringing to the fore the metaphor of germination, Vasari declares that Jacopo Casentino’s works are “sown [seminate] in various places through Casentino as one can still see.” Furthermore, Jacopo in Arezzo trains Spinello Aretino, who in turn works so much that “in that city and beyond there is not a church, nor hospital, nor chapel, nor maestà that was not worked by him in fresco.” The appearance of the key term seminare offers an exception to the proverbial swallow who alone does not a summer make. The previous train of unremitting examples suggests that although this figure of latent growth had not yet explicitly reared its head until now, it nonetheless courses through the sequence of Vasari’s writing, in the field of place-names and germs of the modern style deposited by mobile artists and artworks. The analogy of artist to sower and style to seed underscores how artist and artifact are not instruments of dry cognition, in spite of a longstanding convention to see this period as the rise of the artist-intellectual. As seen in the discourse surrounding aria, contamination, and purging, they act in and are subject to the natural world at large. The metaphor of sowing posits style as an organic, almost animate entity whose behavior must be described and controlled by the critic.56


FIGURE 3.20 Master Venceslao, Month of April, c. 1400. Fresco. Torre dell’Aquila, Castello del Buonconsiglio, Trento.

“The one who sows [semina] good seed [buono seme] is the Son of Man,” Christ explains in the Parable of the Weeds, “and the field is the world” (Matthew 13:37). The implications of the dissemination metaphor that describes the mobility of Giotto and artists in his wake would not be lost on the many early modern readers and viewers attuned to the agricultural labor. Just as the farmer must plow fields and spread seeds over vast tracts of land, so too must the traveling artist in Part I promulgate the beginnings of good style. Portrayals of the act of sowing and the tilling of fields, such as those seen in the fresco of the months in the Castello del Buonconsiglio, convey the sense of travail and duration involved in these tasks. The caravans of man and beast trudge across the winding and multi-tiered farmland (fig. 3.20). But bearing the produce from dissemination is not immediate. It adheres instead to the exigencies of the seasons, cycles of farming, and ultimately nature itself.57

Correspondingly, when read with a perspective that focuses upon artistic mobility, Part I of the Lives hardly emerges as an immediate transition to the seconda maniera. There are no uncomplicated “fusions” or “hybrids” between the maniera greca and the nascent modern style. Instead, Vasari presents the interaction between physical displacement and stylistic impact as one involving struggle. Giotto’s triumphant fame counteracts and dissipates the deluge of Byzantine art and artists. In addition, a focus on artistic mobility reveals both the political and social dimensions of artistic geography and selfhood. In the guise of Giotto’s migration from the country to the city, Vasari underscores Florence’s domination and simultaneous dependence upon its territories. Furthermore, the triumph of Giotto’s travel contrasts with the hardship of movement and repatriation for artists originating outside the favored city walls of Florence. Part II, by contrast, will recount the artistic achievements of Florentine artists in Florence—Brunelleschi’s dome, Ghiberti’s Doors of Paradise, Massaccio’s Carmine Chapel, Donatello’s Prophets. And whether mobility can penetrate this intensely regional focus on style is the debate that lies ahead.

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