Post-classical history


The Path and Limits of Varietà


Raphael, Prophet Isaiah, detail of fig. 5.3

5 Varietà and the Middle Way

For Giorgio Vasari and his contemporaries, the mobility of artists functions as a brokering agent, placing artistic behavior, works of art, and topographic and natural environments into proximity and dialogue. Criticism, justification, impassioned debate, and sometimes confusion characterize this network of interactions. Varietà is a key term that points to the potentially beneficial effects of travel upon an artist’s thinking process, manner of working, and execution. But what happens to varietà? Does it endure, or does it wax, wane, and mutate over the span of Part III of the Lives? If so, what other concepts might Vasari introduce to supplement or even contradict varietà? How might these concepts exert force upon the narrative biographies of such renowned artists as Raphael and Michelangelo?

As we shall see, Vasari in the concluding section of his monumental enterprise will highlight different connotations of varietà, from varietà as the inclusion of a wide range of depicted elements, the styles of other artists, to the diversity of destinations and their regional pictorial traditions. Vasari expands the interpretative spectrum of varietà to its limits so as to explain the complexity of the maniera moderna and its central protagonists: an artist such as Raphael, born in the provinces (though from the noble and cultivated if isolated Urbino), must travel to realize varietà in his style and achieve artistic greatness. But this necessity of travel does not apply to all: born in the favored domain of Florence and benefitting from propitious astrological influence, Michelangelo travels to undertake prestigious commissions while remaining immune to the pedagogical advantages of mobility, or by its potential for contamination. In contrasting these epic careers, Vasari’s perception of mobility’s significance, and his circumspection, even uncertainty, about its appropriate status, come to the fore, as does the question of what constitutes “influence.” And in the biography of Perino del Vaga and in fact in his own career, Vasari will propose that the acquisition of varietà and appropriate “influence” entails study, physical hardship, and the hardwon mixture of stylistic differences within an apparently harmonious and bravura composition.


With Part III of the Lives, the reader encounters the age that reaches, as Vasari declares, “the ultimate perfection.” Before elaborating upon this assessment, Vasari distills the second age’s contributions into key terms: rule (regola), order (ordine), measure (misura), design (disegno), style (maniera). Varietà here does not come into sight. Instead, the concept surfaces in relation to Part III’s exemplary artist—Raphael. True, Michelangelo is the artist who carries the palm of victory, “transcending and eclipsing all others.” Also praiseworthy are Leonardo’s breathing figures, movement in Giorgione’s paintings, and Fra Bartolommeo’s coloring. Yet Raphael occupies a distinguished seat in this pantheon of artists. His itinerant career guides those artists who wish to pursue the path to good style: “But above all others [was] the most gracious Raphael of Urbino, who, studying the works of old and modern masters, took the best from all, and having gathered them together, enriched the art of painting with that complete perfection.” The viewer of hisistorie can witness sites and buildings, “the appearances of our people and foreigners and costumes ... the gift of grazia of heads, young, old, and female, reserving modesty for the modest, lasciviousness for the lascivious, and for the putti the mischief in their eyes and playfulness in their expressions.”1

The texture of prose, with its chain of verbs flitting back and forth between gerunds and past participles, and imperfect and remote past tenses, underscores Vasari’s assertion that Raphael’s formation as a painter is a process that takes place over the long term rather than the result of an instantaneous stroke of genius stemming from inspiration or astral influence. Although Vasari does not explicitly refer to varietà as the outcome of the painter’s study, his delineation of the elements in Raphael’s works—buildings, peoples, costumes, expressions, draperies—incarnates the sense of the term. Granted, mention of Raphael’s mobile career, which took him from Urbino to Rome, is absent. Yet even if mobility does not come forth, the nature of Raphael’s studies and production allude to an encounter with the foreign. Given that Vasari locates suitable models in Florence and later in Rome, we must infer that Raphael, as a native of Umbria, examined “the works of old and modern masters” thanks to his own travels or the export of objects. More explicitly referring to awareness of otherness is Raphael’s depiction of alien peoples in contrast to “our own” (strane vs. nostrali).2

It is in Raphael’s Life proper, however, that Vasari explores the artist’s itinerancy and its ties to varietà. Unlike in his other accounts of artists’ travels in which displacement involves fraught encounters with a locale’s aria or native artists, Vasari represents Raphael’s mobility as a harmonious, profitable, yet selective interaction with a place’s most distinguished inhabitants or works of art. Crowe and Cavalcaselle noted as early in 1882 that between the two poles of his life—Urbino and Rome—Raphael “wandered with but one apparent purpose in life, the purpose ... of studying everything that had been done by others before him, of assimilating the good and eliminating the bad.” More recently, Tom Henry and Carol Plazzotta have admirably presented documentary evidence along with acute stylistic observations concerning the artist’s movement from and between these geographic poles. What deserves closer examination is how Vasari incorporated Raphael’s Bildungsreise into the narrative impulse of the artist’s biography, how his style, or more precisely his styles, are a barometer that measures the impact of these encounters.3

Vasari recounts that Raphael, born in Urbino on Good Friday, begins his studies in the art of painting with his father, the artist Giovanni Santi. On account of his son’s precociousness, Santi realizes he can teach him little else and therefore places him with Pietro Perugino in Perugia, some one hundred kilometers south. After only a few months, Raphael “studying the maniera of Pietro ... imitated him to such an extent in all things, such that one could not know his portraits from the originals of his master, and between his works and those of Pietro one could not distinguish them for sure.” Eventually, Raphael executes a panel in Città di Castello, the Mond Crucifixion, “which if there were not his name written upon it, no one would believe it to be the work of Raphael, but in fact that of Pietro.” Vasari is most likely incorrect in portraying Raphael as a formal apprentice in Perugino’s workshop. Yet his recourse to the trope of master-pupil indicates the close stylistic similarities between Raphael and Perugino, a correlation upon which an observer as astute as Michelangelo commented. In fact, the Urbinate Raphael’s work resembles that of his master (active throughout central Italy) so as to raise a conundrum: how is it possible to distinguish Raphael’s style from Perugino’s? The constellation of verbs signaling the act of knowing—conoscere, sapere, discernere, credere—in the above citations implies the presence of an outside witness, the discriminating viewer whose focus is directed solely to the works of art by Raphael and Perugino. Raphael had on at least one occasion depicted a view of Perugia, executing with deliberate vertical strokes in pen and brown ink the Sobborgo Sant’Angelo with its fortifications, gates, churches, and palaces (fig. 5.1). And yet for Vasari, “external” factors such as Perugia’s Fontana Maggiore and the many paintings by Domenico Veneziano, Pisanello, and Piero della Francesca scattered in the Cathedral, San Domenico, Sant’Antonio da Padova, and Sant’Agostino—to name a few of the artists and monuments in Perugia discussed throughout the Lives and reiterated in its index—play no role in Raphael’s topographic experience. Any potential interference brought about by place—its climate, envious native artists, and overwhelming (or for that matter underwhelming) monuments—these are all eclipsed in favor of staging a pristine relationship between Raphael, Perugino, and the evaluating viewer.4


FIGURE 5.1 Raphael, St. Jerome with a View of Perugia, c. 1504. Pen and brown ink over traces of black chalk (24.4 × 20.3 cm). Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Vasari also figures another of Raphael’s destinations—Siena—in terms of personal rapport. The young artist provides Pinturicchio, despite the disparity of almost thirty years in age and experience, with compositional drawings for the fresco cycle in the Piccolomini Library, connected to the Duomo. In Perugia and Città di Castello, Raphael had equaled and eventually surpassed Perugino’s style. Now in Siena, he subverts the conventional hierarchical structure—and indeed the very terms of the contract—which would normally dictate that Pinturicchio, not Raphael the junior associate, provide preparatory drawings. Yet in the case of Raphael’s subsequent travels in Tuscany, this pattern of framing mobility in terms of establishing professional contacts changes. In the course of assisting Pinturicchio, he hears of the famed cartoons of Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari and Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina, executed in 1503–4 for the Sala della Signoria in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. “Having been spurred by the love of art more than of profit,” Vasari says of Raphael’s enthusiasm, “he left that work and came to Florence.” One document dated October 1504, a letter written by Giovanna Feltria della Rovere, sister of the Duke of Urbino, Guidobaldo da Montelfeltro, states that “Rafaelle, painter of Urbino, who having a clever mind for his craft [buon ingegno nel suo esercizio], has determined to spend some time in Florence to learn.” Several scholars, John Shearman among them, have declared this letter of introduction a fake, its having been published in 1754 and then “lost” among the archives of the Casa Gaddi. Still, the letter does not distract from the prominence in the Lives of artists’ fugues, their sudden abandonment of obligations in their burning desire to behold and study notable works of art located elsewhere.5

In his haste to see the cartoons, Raphael resembles Brunelleschi, who on hearing from Donatello about an antique sarcophagus in Cortona became “enflamed by a desire to see it,” and immediately departed for that city “as he was in cloak, hood and clogs, from the desire and love he held towards art.” Raphael’s rush toward Florence also continues the topos of foreigners journeying to study that city’s works of art. Luca Signorelli had also come to Florence “to see the maniera of those masters who were modern.” Of course, there exist works of art in locations other than Florence that attract a journeying audience: of Jan van Eyck’s paintings in Naples, Vasari states that “the entire kingdom rushed to see this marvel due to the beauty of the figures and the novelty of that invention in coloring.” Yet these incidents are few and far between. And in studying in particular the cartoons of Leonardo and Michelangelo, Raphael is but one member of his and future generations of artists to do so: ever diligent, Andrea del Sarto “on feast days and in his leisure went to draw in the company of many youths in the Hall of the Pope, where there was the cartoon of Michelangelo and likewise that of Leonardo.” Perino del Vaga too drew “in the company of other youths, Florentine and foreign from the cartoon of Michelangelo.” In Michelangelo’s Life, Vasari informs the reader that “from that cartoon studied Aristotile da San Gallo, his friend, Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, Francesco Granacci, Baccio Bandinelli and Alonso Berugotta, the Spaniard; followed by Andrea del Sarto, Francia Bigio, Jacopo Sansovino, Rosso, Maturino, Lorenzetto, Tribolo, still a child, Jacopo da Pontormo and Perino del Vaga, all of whom were and are the best Florentine masters.” The cartoon’s capacity to pull together this heterogeneous mixture of artists crossing regional and generational boundaries could be interpreted as a call for consensus concerning which models were worthy of study. As Cellini would later declare, these full-size and monumental drawings by Leonardo and Michelangelo were la scuola del mondo—“the school of the world.”6

Vasari had up to this point conceived mobility’s positive effects as replacing or eliminating a style of excess. Giotto’s travels throughout the Italian peninsula result in the demise of the maniera greca; Brunelleschi tames the maniera tedesca and restores the architectural orders to their classical purity. Raphael, by contrast, is said to increase his stylistic range thanks to studying Florentine art. In articulating the impact of these cartoons and other works in Florence upon Raphael’s style, Vasari stresses the availability of a plurality rather than a restricted set of visual forms: “Raphael studied in Florence the old works of Masaccio, and saw in the works of Leonardo and Michelangelo such things that they were for him the cause of augmenting his study in maniera, for the sight of such works, that great improvement and grace grew in his art.” The term with which Vasari describes the growth in Raphael’s style—augumentare—befits the plethora of forms under his inspection. Taking up an entire page in the 1550 edition, Vasari’s figuring of Michelangelo’s cartoon is profuse, praising its “many grouped figures sketched out in various maniere,” soldiers drying themselves as they leave the water, others stretching to put on their leggings, some who hear the sounds of the tambourines, others reclining on their side. The cartoon’s dense composition of myriad figures, at least as revealed by an incomplete copy attributed to Bastiano (Aristotile) da Sangallo, would merit such a prolix description (fig. 5.2).7


FIGURE 5.2 Bastiano (Aristotile) da Sangallo, Copy after Michelangelo’s Cartoon “Battle of Cascina, 1542. Oil on wood (76.5 × 129 cm). Holkham Hall, Norfolk. The Earl of Leicester and the Trustees of the Holkham Estate, Norfolk.

Vasari maintains the claim that Raphael augments his style thanks to exposure to Florentine art, even when the artist departs for Rome. For all of the fame garnered for the frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura, Raphael “had still not given his figures a certain greatness and majesty,” this despite his assiduous study of Rome’s many specimens of antique statuary. He then reworks his fresco in Sant’Agostino of the prophet Isaiah, which “because of having seen the things of Michelangelo, extremely improved [migliorò] and enlarged [ingrandì] his maniera and gave it more majesty [maestà].” With its massive proportions, even seen on a smaller scale in the muscular Hebrew script, the Isaiah seems to be an enlarged or swollen version of the already monumental figures in the Stanza (fig. 5.3). In explaining this shift in Raphael’s style, Vasari not only refers to the circumstance of seeing Michelangelo’s works, notably the frescoes for the Sistine Chapel ceiling; he underscores the factors of secrecy and manipulation of access which permitted Raphael to see his Florentine rival’s work. With Michelangelo having fled Rome because of Pope Julius II’s wrath, Bramante subsequently possesses the key to the Sistine Chapel and by extension, admission to the ceiling frescoes normally kept from public view. Out of friendship, Bramante grants Raphael entry to the chapel so that he “could understand the methods of Michelangelo.” Vasari further states that Bramante afforded Raphael this opportunity, which he refers to as an “ill deed” toward Michelangelo, in order to give Raphael both profit and fame. Spying on works of art in St. Peter’s before their completion and official unveiling continued well into the seventeenth century. Wooden scaffolding concealed, perhaps with cloth curtains, large altarpieces of the Petrine cycle which because of their enormous scale were painted on site. Such anecdotal and documented incidents point to another assumption concerning mobility. The artist’s presence in Rome is not sufficient in and of itself to effect stylistic conversion. Access to an otherwise reserved site offers the crucial viewing and study experience which makes Raphael’s amplification of style possible.8


FIGURE 5.3 Raphael, Prophet Isaiah, 1513. Fresco (205 × 155 cm). Sant’Agostino, Rome.


The metaphor of augmenting the human figure would seem to be a period-specific notion to characterize Raphael’s mobility to Rome. More generally, this amplification effect might describe the positive “influence” of works of art outside of one’s ambience. Yet this figurative language has a brief shelf life. In a summary of Raphael’s achievements, Vasari does not stress the depiction of heroic bodies. Unable to equal Michelangelo in representing the nude, Raphael pursues an alternative goal. Painting demands mastery in a wide field of subjects and techniques: “It was possible, he reflected, to enrich his works with a variety of perspective, buildings and landscapes, a light and delicate treatment of the draperies, sometimes causing the figure to be lost in the darkness, and sometimes coming into the clear light, making living and beautiful heads of women, children, youths, and old men, endowing them with suitable movement and vigor. He also reflected upon the importance of the flight of horses in battle, the courage of the soldiers, the knowledge of all sorts of animals, and, above all, the method of drawing portraits of men to make them appear life-like and easily recognized, with a number of other things, such as draperies, shoes, helmets, armor, women’s headdresses, hair, beards, vases, trees, caves, rain, lightning, fine weather, night, moonlight, bright sun, and other necessities of present-day painting.”9

From pursuing the singular goal of depicting the nude on par with Michelangelo, Raphael and his style shift in a different direction, with varietà as the target. The term is the first in this anthology of over forty-seven pictorial elements and techniques, a catalog which itself illustrates Alberti’s recommendation of employing varietà as a means to avoid monotonous repetition. This is not to say that Vasari considers the task of representing the nude to be without diverse aspects to comprehend. Excellence in painting the nude, he states, resides in understanding its complexity—its soft and fleshy parts, turning and twists, the network of bones, nerves, and veins. Yet these aspects fall within the parameters of a discrete visual task, whereas the varietà undertaken by Raphael demands the study and representation of a much larger repertoire. At issue is not only the challenge of variety in kind, in the objects to be represented. Subject matter in early modern thinking was often elided with style, be it personal, period, or regional. For example, artistic or art literary interpretations of a reclining nude in a landscape referred, if only to eventually disavow, the prototype of the donna nuda established by Titian and more generally by Venetian sixteenth-century art. Correspondingly, when Vasari mentions the subject matter of lively heads, weather effects, or armor, the reader in conjuring his own musée imaginaire might associate these genres respectively with Raphael’s recourse to Venetian portraiture, Flemish depictions of sunsets, or all’antica drawings. What is implied in the above catalogue of variety is variety in respect to style itself.10

The long-winded list is hortatory and demanding, as though instructing painters—to which this passage is addressed—what elements ought to fall under their domain of activity. But how is such varietà to be achieved? One well-established approach to this question would first outline the extensive literature on the combination of styles in art and literary theory. Such thinkers as Paolo Pino and Leonardo on imitation engaged with prescriptions laid down by the authority of classical and humanist rhetorical texts. In Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria the varieties of styles (simple, grand, and florid), of tones of voice, of composition, and of different types of eloquence compared with painting and sculpture are among the many passages dedicated to the issue of varietas.Quintilian’s commentary on varietas itself refers to Cicero’s discussion of the subject in De oratore. In his exposition on style (3.25-37), the speaker Crassus argues that through our senses we experience delight in the variety of ways, the pleasing dissimilarity between the sculptors Myron, Polyclitus, and Lysippus or between painters such as Zeuxis, Aglaphon, and Apelles. So too in oratory, “the ones admittedly deserving of praise nevertheless achieve it in a variety of styles.” Furthermore, in his De inventione rhetorica (2.1.1) Cicero rendered prescriptions concerning varietas via the anecdote of the painter Zeuxis, who travels to Croton to paint a representation of Helen not from one model but from a selection of the best attributes of five virgins from that city. This story was repeated or alluded to, ad nauseam as Panofsky quipped, in disparate early modern sources, such as Alberti’s De pictura and De statua, Raphael’s famous letter to Castiglione in which he described his method of composing his Galatea, and Vignola’sRegola delli cinque ordiniwhere the architect justifies his version of the columnar orders.11

Zeuxis’s confrontation of variety upon arrival at his destination brings to mind the tendency for classical and early modern sources to interweave mobility, geographic encounter, and varietà. Pliny the Elder, for instance, examined the varietas of natural phenomena throughout the monumental encyclopedia of the Naturalis Historia—the remarkable cases of variety in fortune, the various modes of birth, the grafting of various fruits, the different colors of leaves as well as the varieties of earth used for pottery and construction. Even Pliny’s language itself was a motley assortment of tongues, for he declares in his preface that he will employ “rustic terms or foreign, nay barbarian, words that actually have to be introduced with an apology.” In travel accounts, writers grappled with portraying and explaining the world’s variety of places, peoples, customs, flora, and fauna. The theme of diversity, a concept synonymous with variety, pervades Marco Polo’s Merveilles du monde. Franciscan missionary friars such as John of Pian di Carpini and William of Rubruck eschewed such diversity, their journeys being undertaken to implant a singular devotion to the Catholic faith. By contrast, for merchants such as Marco Polo, the world’s variety represented its bounty and therefore potential for commerce and profit. While Polo proclaimed that emperors, kings, and dukes would find “all the greatest marvels and the great diversities” of the East described in his book, other writers rhetorically questioned the possibility of ever representing the plethora of sights that they encountered, whether fictional or true, in the course of their journeys. Likewise, in his Fifth Letter addressed to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, Amerigo Vespucci stated that “to write about the numerous kinds of animals and their great numbers, I would grow too prolix with a matter so vast.” Alluding to the paragon between word and image, Vespucci further stated that “with such great diversity of forms and colors even Polykleitos, master of painting in all its perfection, would have failed to depict them adequately.” The historian of the Americas Gonzalez Ferdinando d’Oviedo in his Della naturale e generale istoria dell’Indie questioned: “What mortal mind could comprehend such diversity of languages, costumes, and customs that one sees in the peoples of these Indies? Who could explain such variety of animals, both domestic and wild?”12

If writers conveyed the wealth of variety nature provided, then natural historians journeyed in order to capture it through what Paula Findlen has called “pilgrimages of science.” The Bolognese polymath Ulisse Aldrovandi wrote in his On Animal Insects (1602) that he incurred no little expense in venturing out into the countryside in all seasons of the year to procure a “vast variety of specimens.” In a parallel gesture, Vasari conceives Raphael’s achievement of varietà as the fruit of evaluating artists and their works encountered in the course of his travels. While certainly alluding to physical journeys, Vasari modulates the descriptions of these voyages such that they bear figurative resonance: “Raphael, therefore, having made this resolution, and having known that Fra Bartolommeo di San Marco had a rather good way of painting, disegno well established, and a pleasing maniera of coloring, although at times he used too many dark tones to achieve a greater impression of relief, took from him that which seemed to him according to his need and caprice, that is to say, a middle way [modo mezzano] of doing, both in disegno and in colorito.”13

Mobility and style here become transposed to a personal and allegorical key. In lieu of directly alluding to place itself, Vasari allows Fra Bartolommeo to stand in pars pro toto for Florence, a move that apprehends Raphael’s mobility as an interaction with persons. More significantly, the artist’s navigation between the poles of disegno and colorito is figured in spatial terms as a modo mezzano, that is a “middle manner, or more idiomatically, “middle way” or “path.” Raphael’s biography is the only instance in which this expression occurs in the 1568 edition of the Lives; it does not appear at all in the 1550 edition, nor is it found in Vasari’s other significant publication, the Ragionamenti (1588). Modo mezzano is also absent in art treatises preceding the Lives, such as those penned by Cennini, Leonardo, Alberti, and the Anonimo Magliabechiano. The expression, however, is hardly a neologism on Vasari’s part. The term appears in a motley range of sources contemporary to the Lives, from medieval theology, philosophical thoughts on the state of man (between animal and man), Machiavelli’s vision of the ideal Republic (strictly following the Roman model instead of a modo mezzano between this and other republics), and musical performance techniques that combine singing and speaking.14

In spite of this flexibility, modo mezzano consistently refers to the principle of avoiding extremes in pursuing a path of action. Commentators on Vasari’s usage of this expression have not failed to relate it to Raphael’s synthetic style. Modo mezzano has even been interpreted as a “mean style,” a gloss upon the Aristotelian notion of moral virtue as an average between the extremes of excess and deficiency. This suggestion in turn leads to the concept’s relation with the middle style in rhetoric, expounded upon by Cicero(De oratore, 91–96), Quintilian (Institutio Oratoria, 12:10:58-68), and subsequently commented upon by early modern writers such as Speroni and Vives. Yet in its incorporation of a range of varying styles, Raphael’s pursuit of a modo mezzano might also be profitably associated with the translator’s task. St. Jerome, for instance, specifically compared translation to a journey, the translator a wayfarer keeping the via media between verba and res. Later translators perpetuated this metaphor, as when Oratio Toscanella stated that his intention in rendering Quintilian in the vernacular was to take a strada da mezzo, a path that would not stray too far in favoring words’ literal or figurative meanings. Significantly, accompanying this metaphor of mobility was one that likened translation to the act of painting. In his De Interpretatione Recta (1426), Leonardo Bruni prescribed that the translator should work like a painter, transforming the figure, stance, and movements in a composition. Giannozzo Manetti developed Bruni’s metaphor, stating that the foremost principle at stake in translation was achieving a balance between the form of bodies as well as line and color.15

Linking painting with a thoroughfare, Vasari’s modo mezzano correlates Raphael’s aggregate style with an allegorical form of mobility. Notwithstanding his supposed excess in carnal pleasures, Raphael stands as a professional ideal in following the modo mezzano. Following the right path entails selecting appropriate models to imitate as well as frequenting the social company of worthy artists. Some but by no means all artists in Part III are successful at these tasks. Artists such as Vincenzo Tamagni, who according to Vasari imitated Raphael throughout his career, “abandon past errors, and following the traces of those who found the right path, bring their works to perfection with a beautiful maniera.” Those born in Florence, such as Francesco Granacci, are most fortunate.Immediately from birth, they enter the “company of those men that Heaven has elected for distinction and superiority over others ... such that seeing other styles, ways, and difficulties, [they] are put on the road without looking for it.” By contrast, Vasari portrays Bolognese painters as being so full of envy and arrogance that “they deviated from the good path, which brings eternity to those virtuous ones who fight more for their name than merely for the sake of competition.” The injudicious and haphazard choice of models can also cause artists to err. Isolating himself from his peers, Amico Aspertini “went throughout Italy drawing and copying everything, good and bad, both relief and painting; for which reason he became a poor practitioner and inventor.” Vasari speculates that “if the works that he [Amico] did and the designs in that art had been undertaken according to the right path and not by chance, it would have been possible that he would have passed infinite ones considered rare and expert.”16

In drawing abstract principles from biographical details, Vasari interprets physical mobility as an entry to a labyrinth with differing outcomes—professional, stylistic, and moral. For instance, despite being related to the renowned Domenico Ghirlandaio, Davide and Benedetto do not achieve artistic excellence: Benedetto goes wandering in France as a soldier, while Davide deviates from the preferred medium of painting to, as Vasari disparagingly puts it, “dally [ghiribizzare] in mosaic.” Artists’ amorous and/or conjugal relations also play in a role in their mobility, and by consequence, their work and reputation. Andrea del Sarto forgoes his chance of achieving greatness at the French court because of his appetite for a woman “that always kept him poor and lowly.” Giulio Romano cannot return to Rome to accept the prestigious commission of overseeing the building of St. Peter owing to hindrances of the Cardinal of Mantua, his wife, and children. Severely disappointed, he fails and dies days later. Reminiscent of the mythological tale of Hercules choosing between Virtue and Vice at the crossroads, Antonio da Sangallo on his way home from Rome to Florence sights “a woman of the Deti family with the most beautiful appearance, and becomes inflamed due to her beauty and grace.” Refusing to heed the counsel of his friends and relatives who point out the woman’s baseness and lowly station, Antonio marries her, a union which results in the disappointment, ruin, and death of several of his family members, his father among them.17

To digress further for a moment, another thread in this interweaving of biography and mobility is the impact of actual historical events. The sack of Rome demonstrates “how violent occurrences strongly detour fantastic minds [pellegrini ingegni] from their first objective, and make them twist backwards from the road.” Vasari’s statement contrasts two types of mobility, one effected by the advent of Imperial troops, the second the imaginative wandering of the artistic mind, denoted by pellegrino, a term that bears associations with pilgrimage and the foreign. Yet for all the power attributed to the artist’s ingegno, it cannot withstand war’s dire circumstances. This implicit dictum requiring the condition of peace for the arts to flourish is not, however, universally valid and irrespective of place. Although once exposed to the company of great artists and the nourishing aria of Rome, Vincenzo Tamagni regresses into mediocrity upon returning to his patria of San Gimignano as a result of the sack. Another artist, Schizzone, becomes a soldier, “deviates from his art,” and dies shortly thereafter.18

Seeing modo mezzano as akin to a strand of discourse running throughout Part III and throughout the Lives is useful insofar as it offers an alternative reading of style—not only as an innate and static personal attribute or product of organic growth, but as a dynamic process that undergoes progressions and regressions, deviations, and straightforward advances. As the above examples demonstrate, not all artists pursue the correct path during all or most of their careers; some engage in the wrong road altogether. To be sure, Vasari does not consistently state what is the desired end of these journeys, although his position can be inferred as he employs allegorical mobility to state the stylistic characters of the terza maniera which leads the arts to their “highest perfection.”19


Vasari remains silent on how the concept of a modo mezzano might lead to the formation of Raphael’s varietà. Instead of resorting to a figure of speech associated with mobility, he calls upon the resonant term mescolare. In the same passage in which he alludes to Raphael’s modo mezzano, Vasari states that by “mixing [mescolando] with that way some others chosen from the best things of other masters, [Raphael] made of many maniere a single one, that was then always held to be his own, which was and will always be infinitely esteemed by artists.” Here, then, is a positive use of mescolare, in contrast to its negative connotations of corruption, as seen in Vasari’s criticism of Tuscan artists “mixing” their style with the maniera greca. Furthermore, mescolare comes to describe the process by which Raphael formed his style, the fruit of his sojourns in Perugia, Florence, and Rome.20

That mixing could result in varietà was not found in Vasari alone; medieval and early modern thinkers also used this term when describing the gradations of similarities and differences of phenomena which composed variety found in the world. In his De vulgari eloquentia, Dante explained the presence of distinct vernaculars in Trento, Turin, and Alessandria by affirming that the language of these border regions was not Italian, but derived from the mixing (commistionem) with other ways of speaking. The metaphor ofmescolare to account for variation that exceeded unilateral categories is also present in the travel treatises collected in Ramusio’s Navigazioni e viaggi. Defying a simplistic bifurcation between Arabs and Africans, Leo Africanus commented that Arabs who settled in African lands “remained citizens of that country and mixed with Africans, who at that time, because they were ruled for many years by Italians, retained this language, and for this reason by using it ... corrupted their native Arab little by little.” At one point in his translation of the Greek historian Flavius Arrian’s description of the lands from the Red Sea to India, Ramusio characterizes the diverse population of one island near the promontory of Siagro by stating that “the inhabitants are very few, they are foreigners, mixed of Arabs, Indians, and a part also of Greeks, who navigate in order to trade.” This is not to say that these travel writers understood the process of mixing as creating variation in all respects. Gonzalez Ferdinando d’Oviedo seemed to argue for the essentially base nature of Indians when he declared that “the mixed children born of Christians and Indians, although raised with the greatest effort in good manners, [neither] their vices nor mean inclinations can be removed.”21

These examples point to the generally incoherent nature of the variety that arises from mixing. Likewise, Raphael’s mixed style itself is contradictory, simultaneously diverse and unified: “He made of many maniere a single one, which was then always held to be his own.” In addition to being able to mix, Raphael resists allowing this plethora of modes to surpass his personal style. A case in point would be Raphael’s rapport with Dürer. Vasari informs the reader that the German artist sends Raphael a self-portrait in watercolors as “a tribute,” a term that intimates Dürer’s acknowledgment of his Italian counterpart’s artistic superiority. Raphael as well sends drawings to Dürer, yet instead of referring to these works as “tribute,” Vasari places emphasis upon Dürer’s appreciation of them (“they were most dear to Albrecht”). Although it is known that Raphael borrowed a number of motifs from Dürer’s prints, most notably testified by figures and landscapes in the Vatican Logge, Vasari’s portrayal of the relationship is one of distant and mutual respect. Other works by Raphael, such as the Vision of Ezekiel, contain echoes of particular motifs from Dürer’s Landauer Altarpiece or Nemesis print, notably the triadic hierarchy of a monumental towering figure, swirling cloud formations, and landscape view below (figs. 5.4 and 5.5). Furthermore, Vasari implies that Raphael’s followers, such as Marcantonio Raimondi, studied directly from Dürer’s works, yet this interaction remains on the level of replicating the German artist’s technique in prints. But absent from Vasari’s characterization of the interaction between the northern artist and his Italian counterpart is the concept of imitation or emulation. There is no suggestion of any rapport resembling that between teacher and pupil.22


FIGURE 5.4 Raphael, The Vision of Ezekiel, c. 1518. Oil on wood (40 × 30 cm). Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence.


FIGURE 5.5 Albrecht Dürer, Nemesis (The Great Fortune), c. 1501–2. Engraving (33.3 × 22.8 cm). British Museum, London.

In this respect, Raphael’s capacity to appreciate Dürer’s works, yet retain his own facture, stands in distinct contrast to Jacopo Pontormo. After a great number of the German artist’s prints arrived in Florence, Pontormo decided to implement some of their inventions for his frescoes in the cloister of the Certosa del Galluzzo. The Florentine artist determined to imitate the German artist’s figures and facial expressions along with their liveliness and varietà. But Pontormo takes this imitation to an extreme. He assumes Dürer’s style so thoroughly “that the gracefulness [vaghezza] of his first maniera ... was altered by that new study and labor.” In fact, in Vasari’s assessment, Pontormo’s manner was “so much damaged [offesa] by coming upon that German [style], that one did recognize in all these works, however beautiful they all were, little of that goodness and grace that he had once imparted to all of his figures.” Later art historians have borne out Vasari’s observations, though in more measured and generous terms. Despite their damaged state, several of the Galluzzo frescoes betray Pontormo’s use of motifs and compositional strategies from Dürer’s prints. The Christ before Pilate adapts from Dürer’s Passion cycle woodcut of Christ before Herod the tall, wiry, and hand-bound Christ, the witnesses’ outstretched hands and expressive faces and, more generally, the elongated and vertical series of figures (figs. 5.6 and 5.7).23

Pontormo’s mimicry reaches such an extent that Vasari states that his fresco of Christ before Pilate could be mistaken to be by the hands of “oltremontani,” an artist from north of the Alps. Mutation of style, then, becomes equivalent to deterioration in style and transformation of identity. On Vasari’s score, Pontormo loses both his dolcezza and grazia in addition to forsaking his ethnic self as a Florentine artist. Of course, imitation in and of itself is not a fault, for Vasari clearly states, “Let no one blame Jacopo for imitating Albrecht Dürer, since many painters have done so and still do so.” Rather, Vasari faults Pontormo for his indiscriminate and all-encompassing imitation of Dürer “in everything, in draperies, in the expressions of heads and attitudes.” The issue thus becomes the overreliance on a model such that its style pervades all parts of a composition.24

While Vasari faults Pontormo for his ill-advised imitation of Dürer’s prints, his criticism also alludes to the phenomenon of movable objects, their diffusion, and at times, their disturbing effects. In the technical treatise, Vasari refers to the ubiquity of Italian and German engravings “that we can today see throughout Italy.” It is also noteworthy that the index of places to the 1550 edition Lives ends with “CARTE STAMPATE” of or after Raphael, Mantegna, Rosso, and Perino del Vaga as though to allude to the ability of these objects to travel to all topographic locations. At various points in the Lives, Vasari also discusses the role of mobile objects in shaping both the style and key life events of artists. For instance, Raphael’s St. Cecilia altar-piece, transported to Bologna in San Giovanni in Monte, is responsible for the death of Francesco Francia. The terrifying beauty of Raphael’s painting plunges Francia into a profound melancholy, causing him to fall ill and eventually pass away. In a like manner, Dürer’s prints have debilitating consequences for Pontormo, though at least these are not fatal.25

In listing those aspects imitated by Pontormo—draperies, expressions, and attitudes—Vasari’s language loops back to the issue of varietà and its limits. Although Vasari praises Raphael’s varietà and his discovery of a middle path, these virtues reach a breaking point. As the supreme example of Raphael’s synthetic style crafted from details of other artists, Vasari offers the artist’s frescoes of the Sibyls and Prophets in Santa Maria della Pace (see fig. 1.23). Once again, Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel vault are cited as the chief supplementary aid. But Raphael goes one step too far: if he had “held [fermato] his style there and neither sought to aggrandize it nor to vary it to demonstrate that he understood nudes as well as Michelangelo he would not have partly taken away that good name that he had acquired for himself.” As evidence of Raphael’s excess and overwrought ambition, Vasari refers to the fresco Fire in the Borgo, with its robust muscular nudes and drawn-out limbs (fig. 5.8). These nudes, Vasari determines, fail to be excellent in all respects.26


FIGURE 5.6 Pontormo, Christ before Pilate, c. 1535. Detached fresco (321 × 320 cm). Certosa di San Lorenzo al Monte al Galluzzo, Pinacoteca, Florence. Photo Scala, Florence, courtesy of the Ministero Beni e Att.


FIGURE 5.7 Albrecht Dürer, Christ before Herod, 1509. Woodcut (126 × 97 mm). British Museum, London.

In using the word perfetta to characterize Raphael’s style in the Pace, Vasari is not only performing a value judgment, but also describing a state of completion. If Raphael has achieved a maniera perfetta, it follows then that any change in style would be superfluous. Yet this aggrandized transformation is precisely what Raphael attempts. Varying his style such that the stamp of personal ownership fades produces a watered-down and inevitably inferior version of Michelangelo’s representation of the nude. Other elements in the Fire in the Borgo such as its lighting effects, architectural ornament, perspectival constructions, and still lifes do not redeem Raphael’s focus on the nude. Varietà can thus be stretched too far, causing the viewer to focus unduly on one element as opposed to the composition as a whole. The mobility that led Raphael to Rome where he witnessed Michelangelo’s unsurpassed portrayal of the human figure does not result in an instantaneous conversion of style; rather, Raphael’s stylistic transformation requires the artist’s tempered intervention. Note that Vasari places Raphael’s deeds in the active tense—he sought to aggrandize, to vary, to demonstrate—thereby suggesting that his paintings were the result of a deliberate process and not one of passive “influence.” Deploying the verb fermare to indicate what Raphael choose not to do, Vasari broaches that style is a flexible instrument, beholden to the artist’s agency—in this case, one that is misguided.27


FIGURE 5.8 Raphael, Stanza dell’Incendio di Borgo: Fire in the Borgo, 1514. Fresco (width at base: c. 770 cm). Vatican Palace, Vatican City.


Raphael alone cannot claim varietà as an attribute of his personal style. As Vasari testifies, Michelangelo’s frescoes on the Sistine Chapel’s vault offers future painters “novelty and inventions of poses, draperies for figures, new ways towards expression, and the ferocity of things variously painted.” The Last Judgment too is identified with varietà. Along with depicting the horror of the end days, Michelangelo “portrayed the entire Passion, having in the air diverse nude figures to carry the cross, the column, the lance, the sponge, the nails, and the crown, with diverse and various poses.” Furthermore, one cannot “imagine how much varietà there is in the heads of those Devils, in truth, monsters from hell.” As is evident in the drawing studies that bend, twist, and contort the human figure, the viewer will come to see how Michelangelo “came to vary so many poses in the strange and diverse gestures of youths, the elderly, men, [and] women” (fig. 5.9). As though diffusing varietà throughout the city, works derived from the Last Judgmentdisplay this hallmark feature. Across the Tiber, frescoes based on Michelangelo’s drawings and sketches in the Trinità dei Monti exhibit “a certain variation and terrible might in the poses and groups of those nudes that rain from the sky and fall upon the center of the earth, converted in the diverse forms of devils, very terrifying and bizarre.”28

Despite what might appear to be a plethora of varietà on Michelangelo’s part, Vasari makes it plain that the artist restricts his pursuit of it to the human figure: “One sees that it was the intention of this singular man not to want to engage in painting anything but the perfect and most proportionate composition of the human body in the most diverse poses.” Vasari goes so far as to criticize those artists whose engagement in varietà does not, or more precisely, cannot concentrate upon the human figure. He chides those who, “not well established in disegno, have sought to gain themselves a place among the first masters with the varietà of tints and shadows of colors, and with bizarre, various and new inventions.” Significantly, Vasari does not pinpoint the origin of Michelangelo’s varietà and, more generally, his artistic ability in mobility. Nature itself is the source of the artist’s talent: Michelangelo was accomplished in all tasks, however difficult, “having had from nature a very able talent [ingegno] and applied to these most excellent virtues of disegno.”29

As in his Life of Giotto, Vasari attributes to mobility little bearing on Michelangelo’s style. Michelangelo is, of course, in line with other artists who undertake the pilgrimage to Rome to view antique ruins. To Michelangelo “came the desire to move to Rome, due to the marvels of the ancients about which he heard.” Yet when Vasari describes specific works of art which Michelangelo executed in Rome, the artist is hardly a disciple of the antique. Despite its mythological subject matter and Heemskerck’s sketch that shows it in the midst of ruins, the Bacchus placed in Jacopo Galli’s garden is not a slavish imitation of classical sculpture (fig. 5.10). The statue is Michelangelo’s own hybrid invention in which “one recognizes that he had wanted to maintain a certain mixture of marvelous members, and particularly to have given it the svelteness of a male youth and the fleshiness and roundness of a woman.” Michelangelo even seems exempt from the task of studying and imitating the antique. His Sleeping Cupid, executed in Florence and buried in a vineyard, passes for an antique sculpture in Rome, winning him a considerable sum. Whereas Donatello and Brunelleschi prowled Rome in their reverent hunt for craggy ancient ruins, Michelangelo’s works surpass the boundaries of the stone medium and verge on becoming animate. Of the Pietà commissioned by the French Cardinal Jean Villiers de La Grolais, Vasari exclaims, “Certain is the miracle that a rock, that in the beginning is without any form at all, is brought to that perfection that Nature in her labor forms only in flesh.”30


FIGURE 5.9 Detail from Michelangelo, Studies for the Last Judgment, 1534. Black and red chalk on paper (384 × 252 mm). British Museum, London.


FIGURE 5.10 Maarten van Heemskerck, The Garden in the Casa Galli, with Michelangelo’s statue of Bacchus, c. 1532–36. Pen and brown ink, brown wash (13 × 20.5 cm). From the Roman Sketchbook I, inv. 79 D 2, fol. 72 recto.

If Rome has any effect on Michelangelo’s artistic production, it seems limited to providing him with noble or papal patronage—and given the artist’s famed outbursts and tirades, Vasari frequently relegates or discounts this support altogether. This indifference toward a local artistic milieu, whether in the form of works of art, artists, or patrons, only becomes exacerbated in Vasari’s representation of Michelangelo’s travels to other non-Florentine Italian regions. Vasari does acknowledge that Michelangelo, fleeing Florence around the time of the expulsion of the Medici in 1494, received the assistance and patronage of Giovanni Francesco Aldrovandi in Bologna. With reference to style, however, Vasari does not mention the concepts of imitation or decorum according to place, despite the fact that Michelangelo’s sculptures for the Ark of St. Dominic conform to Nicola Pisano’s and Niccolò dell’Arca’s earlier works for the ensemble. Rather, Vasari employs superlative language to characterize Michelangelo’s sculptures, declaring flatly that “they are the best figures there.” Vasari is also silent regarding Michelangelo’s study of Jacopo della Quercia’s reliefs on the façade of St. Petronius, whose monumental figures have often been taken as sources for the compositions in the Sistine Chapel. Instead, Michelangelo’s sojourn in Bologna becomes an occasion to assert his identity as Tuscan artist and intellectual. Aldrovandi, Vasari asserts, loved Michelangelo “because of his disegno and the pronunciation of Michelangelo’s reading as a Tuscan being pleasing to him, willingly listened to the works of Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, and other Tuscan poets.”31

Vasari continues the thematic thread of Michelangelo’s indifference to location in depicting the artist’s stay in Ferrara. Stopping in that city after fleeing a Florence besieged by Imperial troops in 1529–30, Michelangelo coolly responds to Duke Alfonso’s attempts to retain him in service. The artist refuses offers of lodgings in the ducal palace, horses, and other gifts, reassuring his traveling companions that he has brought 12,000 scudi with him to Ferrara, a sum which he would gladly avail if need be. In narrating Michelangelo’s resistance to the duke’s hospitality, Vasari reiterates and modulates the claim made in the Life of Andrea Pisano: though mobility may occur under harsh circumstances, a skillful artist can be self-sufficient.32

Vasari articulates this position most clearly in Part III in the prelude to his Life of Guglielmo de Marcillat, an itinerant artist with whom he had once trained as a painter: “The benefit that one draws from virtù is truly most great, and is yet not found in one country alone, but is equally common to all; because whatever strange and far region or a barbaric and unknown people a man be from, if he has a spirit ornamented with virtù and does ingenious work with his hands, appearing new in every city where he trods and demonstrating his worth, such force does the virtuous work have that from tongue to tongue he makes his name ... and his qualities become most esteemed and honored.” In the 1568 edition, Vasari appends a statement that suggests that these traveling artists, recognized and cherished abroad, can find a new homeland: “They forget the country of their birth and choose a new one for their last resting place.”33

Vasari does not waver on his view of travel as travail and hardship. Charged words such as strana, lontana, barbara, and incognita indicate the adversity of foreign origins, adversity that the artist with his exercise of virtù can overcome. This claim places emphasis on the artist, as opposed to the patron, as responsible for successful mobility. Of course, such a view is hardly historically representative, and the extensive and important literature on Renaissance patronage has done much to qualify perceptions of the heroic artist winning merit by toiling alone. Vasari’s point is instead critical and perhaps even argumentative, pushing back against the socioeconomic realities of artists that were highly dependent upon the taste and indulgence of patrons: in an ideal scenario, the artist and his skill occupy primary roles, whereas patrons and audience, local artists and works of art, are secondary, existing to praise the artist so as to render him immortal.34

Michelangelo stands in contrast to Raphael concerning the part played by mobility in the formation of their styles. Raphael’s travels throughout the Italian peninsula are a necessary first step in his procedure of mixing a variety of styles to forge his own. In contrast, Vasari professes that Michelangelo’s journeys to Rome, Bologna, Ferrara, and Venice have little or no effect on his method of painting. As the opening passages of his Life reveal, Michelangelo’s varietà in depicting the human figure as well as his excellence in other areas such as architecture, moral philosophy, and poetry—the wide range of which could be conceived as yet another type of varietà—is due to celestial influence. Borrowing from both Ascanio Condivi’s 1553 biography of the artist and Benedetto Varchi’s funeral oration in 1564, Vasari evokes the horoscope to describe the specifics and consequences of Michelangelo’s birth. The divine artist was born under a “fateful and happy star in the Casentino,” with the astrological configurations of Mercury and Venus in the second house of Jupiter auguring that “one ought to see in his deeds marvelous and stupendous works through the skill of his hand and talent.” Furthermore, this celestial influence falls on Michelangelo in a specific location. Vasari declares that God has chosen to bestow this universal genius to Florence “as his patria, as most deserving above all other cities, to bring all her talents to perfection through one citizen.” The implication, then, is that Michelangelo’s talent as an artist originates and is localized in but one place, thus undermining the necessity of mobility for the development of his style.35

If mobility plays any role in the reception of Michelangelo’s biography, it manifests itself allegorically. Leone Leoni’s portrait medal depicts the artist as an indigent pilgrim with staff, rosary, and flask, wandering through a stony landscape with a guiding dog (fig. 5.11). The portrayal of a pilgrim is a play on words, pointing to a wide-ranging mind that possesses the creativity of an ingegno pellegrino. The muscular quasi-nude may also allude to the pictorial sources—Ghirlandaio’s frescoes in the Tornabuoni Chapel among them—that Michelangelo drew on throughout his long career. But the inscription, taken from Psalm 51:13, also depicts Michelangelo as a moral and artistic guide on a journey through life: “Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.” However intricate the medal’s layers of meaning, it indicates ex negativo the relative indifference of biographers toward Michelangelo’s recourse to alien artistic topographies. More than anything in Rome and certainly more than the works of art in Bologna or in Venice, Florence and its monuments such as Masaccio’s frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel and the ambience of the Medici sculpture garden in San Marco provide ample pedagogical models on which Michelangelo could draw. In sum, varietà can but does not exclusively arise from mobility.36


FIGURE 5.11 Leone Leoni, portrait medal of Michelangelo. Obverse: Michelangelo as pilgrim, 1561. (Diameter: 5.9 cm). Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.


Though Michelangelo can afford to be nonchalant toward ancient and modern works of art in Rome, the journey there is still sine qua non for other artists. Here the idea of aria remerges to underscore the city’s potent impact on artists’ styles, health, and constitutions. Previously in the Lives, the aria of Rome gave rise to the maniera tedesca in architecture, while Florence’s climate eliminated the maniera greca’s roughness in painting. In Part III, Rome’s aria becomes a positive force, while still retaining its potential as a carrier of infectious disease. Wielding once again this concept in his arsenal of terms, Vasari underscores both the benefits and hazards of travel. Aria, then, becomes a byword for a general artistic environment, emphasizing its effect on the displaced artist. The artist’s body and health become the barometer by which the impression of the foreign is filtered, absorbed, rejected, or appropriated. This bifurcation in aria’s nature is not unique to Part III. Already in Part II, Vasari informs us that Ghiberti related in his own I commentarii that “in the year 1400 a certain corruption of pestilent aria came to Florence,” prompting his departure to Romagna in the employ of Pandolfo Malatesta. In contrast, Masolino flees from Rome, where he had gone to study and paint a cycle of famous men in the Orsini residence on Monte Giordano, “due to the aria that was causing him pain in the head.” Befitting Vasari’s habitual vaunting of Florence, it is immediately after this escape from Rome’s climate that Masolino paints the scenes of St. Peter’s life in Santa Maria del Carmine, a work that demonstrates the seconda maniera’s departure from Giotto’s style. These statements might be interpreted to imply that aria, healthful or harmful, is an entrenched characteristic of a certain place; at the same time Vasari recognizes the possibility of modifying the aria of a location through the art of architecture. In the Life of Alberti, he praises the erudition that enables the architect “to site buildings to avoid the heaviness of pestilent winds, the insalubrities of aria, smells, vapors of crude and unhealthful waters.”37


FIGURE 5.12 Marcantonio Raimondi, after Raphael, Detail from Plague in Crete, 1512–16. Engraving (original size 194 × 250 mm). British Museum, London.

While aria is certainly present in Part II, its currency becomes increasingly diffused in Part III, as though Vasari is attempting to reiterate and develop this natural historical metaphor that so penetrated the discourse in the preface. Notably, the concept’s counterpart—mal’aria— emerges in contemporary imagery, as in Marcantonio Raimondi’s print Plague in Crete after a design by Raphael (fig. 5.12). To the far right in the engraving, the bending or crouching male figure covers his mouth and nose so as to protect himself from the foul smells emitted by the plague victim. But Vasari’s recapitulation of aria affirms the benefits of Rome’s climate, whereas previously Tuscany’s air alone was conducive toward artistic creation. Granted, Vasari reports that Michelangelo, joking with him, declares that any good quality of his mind was due to being born “in the pure air of your country in Arezzo.” Yet this statement runs alongside others which indicate the beneficial aria of Rome. In the prelude to the Life of Vincenzio da San Gimignano, Vasari exclaims: “How much obligation do sculptors and painters owe to the air of Rome and to those few antiquities that the voracity of time and the gorging of fire, despite themselves, have remained there!” Through recourse to the term “obligation [obbligo],” Vasari binds artists and aria in a rapport akin to the ties that constrain creditor and debtor. Framing this analogy as a rhetorical question, marked by the interrogative quanto, he also points to the impossibility for artists to repay their debts to Rome and its treasures. Alluding to the natural historical properties of climate, Vasari then adds that aria “forms in the body another spirit, and converts the appetite to another taste.” The artist’s metaphysical state and bodily constitution are in dialogue with, and indeed can be manipulated beneficially by, location.38


FIGURE 5.13 Fra Bartolommeo, Approach to a Mountain Village, c. 1501. Pen and brown ink, traces of black chalk (original 290.8 × 200.6 mm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.270).

Thus, despite acquiring the maniera moderna from Giorgione, Sebastiano del Piombo is persuaded by his patron Agostino Chigi to follow him to Rome, “having understood how much the aria of Rome was propitious to painters and to all talented persons.” As for Vincenzio, the artist paints façades near the Curia di Pompeo and the Campo di Fiore in addition to “infinite works throughout that city [Rome], which thanks to the aria and the site continually made beautiful talents to work there.” From these specific examples, Vasari promulgates a more general maxim in the 1568 revision of this passage. “Experience teaches us,” he states, “that very often the same man does not have the same manner and or produce work of equal excellence in every place.” Instead, the traveling artist “improves and worsens according to the nature of the place.” Vincenzio exemplifies this principle. Upon returning to San Gimignano in the wake of the sack of Rome, he can no longer execute works worth mentioning because he was “no longer among such divine talents and outside the aria [fuor dell’aria] that nourishes beautiful minds and makes them create rare things.”39

Vasari, however, also lets it be known that Rome’s aria is not always beneficial. In fact, when combined with intemperate behavior it can lead to death. The master of stained glass Claudio Franzese, whose name points to his Gallic origins, eats and drinks excessively, “as is the custom of that nation,” and this habit being “a pestilent thing in the aria of Rome,” brings on a fever and death within six days. Michelangelo spends the summer months in Florence when he organizes the shipment of marbles for the Tomb of Julius II in order to flee from the mal’aria afflicting Rome at that time. Even if records do not indicate that the summer in question was pestilent, mal’aria in Rome was common enough. On 14 July 1532, G. M. della Porta wrote to Michelangelo urging him to remain in Florence in August due to “the danger in the mutation of the air in every place this season.” Vasari himself reports in his autobiography that he received authorization one summer to depart from Rome, which in retrospect he ought to have accepted because “between the heat, the aria, and exertion I fell ill in sorts, such that in order to recover I was forced to be carried by litter to Arezzo.”40

While Rome’s mal’aria accounts for outbreak of illness, it also acts as a touchstone to test artists’ merits or shortcomings. Vasari’s portrayal of Fra Bartolommeo’s journey to Rome is a case in point: “Having heard much about the distinguished works of Michelangelo in Rome as well as those of the graceful Raphael, prompted by the cry that he heard continually of the marvels done by the two divine artists, with the prior’s approval he went to Rome, where, received by Fra Mariano Fetti, Friar of the Piombo, he painted there two paintings of Peter and Paul at his convent of S. Silvestro at Monte Cavallo. But since he did not succeed well in that aria, as he had done in the Florentine [aria], considering the ancients and modern works that he saw, and in such quantity, stupefied in such a way that the virtue and excellence he seemed to have diminished, he decided to depart.”41

As indicated from his biography and work, Fra Bartolommeo does not seem to have been averse to travel per se. Hundreds of landscape studies, often drawn spontaneously in pen and brown ink, testify to the artist’s journeys around Tuscany, with Prato, Siena, and Bibbiena among his destinations. Mobility itself emerges as a subject in one of these sketches that shows an approach to a village on a crest of a hill, with groups of travelers on horseback and foot proceeding up and down along the path (fig. 5.13). But arrival in Rome, at least in Vasari’s view, is an event that disturbs this mode of observing bucolic settings. For in the city, Fra Bartolommeo must contend with a formidable series of pairs: Michelangelo and Raphael, ancient and modern works—even his commission of painting Saints Peter and Paul takes the form of a couple.42

Unlike Vincenzio, who flourishes in Rome, Fra Bartolommeo, like his compatriots such as Rosso Fiorentino and Andrea del Sarto, languishes. In that city’s aria, here an umbrella term that signifies the natural element of air as well as daunting stylistic models, the artist becomes stunned (stordí), as though taking numbing blows to the body. Vasari’s statement that the Florentine did not succeed well in the aria of Rome may show an awareness that Fra Bartolommeo departed due to illness, as attested by a document that places him in July 1514 at the Ospizio della Maddalena, a convent for elderly friars or those suffering from ill health. However, whether referring to a medical condition or not, when considered within the broader context of the Lives, Vasari’s account of Fra Bartolommeo’s exposure to aria performs an analytical function. It registers the confrontation between artist and geographic location, and in doing so, explains the qualitative stylistic differences between artists and their performance in a variety of places.43

Fra Bartolommeo had, for instance, succeeded in the Florentine air, only to falter miserably upon venturing south. To exemplify this claim, Vasari offers the specific example of the full-length figures of Saints Peter and Paul (figs. 5.14 and 5.15). Scholarship has taken Vasari’s statement that Raphael completed the St. Peter to account for the stylistic differences between these two works—the pronounced shading of Peter’s face and especially his rigorous anatomical structure contrast with Paul’s less extreme tonal shifts and more coherent volumetric pose. Yet when read in the context of aria, these differences in style take on further significance. They recount a narrative of journey, progression, regression, and ultimately failure. Aria explicates what is lacking, what is notpresent in St. Paul.44 Rather than visually assessing the individual work of art, aria has a more global valence, commenting on the interactions between groups of objects, pinpointing their affinities and divergences. Aria is not witnessed within works of art in an iconographic sense, but between works of art. Finally, while imbibing the aria of Rome seems necessary to achieve artistic greatness, its effects are available only to a select few. Hippocratic thought proposed that the aria of a certain place was fixed and therefore determined a degree of uniformity in individuals originating from a set locale. Vasari, however, manipulates aria’s supposed stable characteristics to shape his narrative that privileges key artists. What is ironic is that the highest of the elect, Michelangelo, does not seem to be nourished by Rome’s aria, his talent preset by celestial influence. Nor does aria enter into Vasari’s discussions of Raphael, whose interactions with place occur in terms of allegorical mobility. The assumption common to these strategies is that representations of mobility unearth multifaceted aspects of artists’ personhood and style, be they subject to astral fluid, the characteristics of geography, or the vicissitudes endured by the pilgrimage of the soul.


FIGURE 5.14 Fra Bartolommeo and Raphael, St. Peter, 1513–14. Oil on panel (209 × 107 cm). Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City.


FIGURE 5.15 Fra Bartolommeo, St. Paul, 1513–14. Oil on panel (209 × 107 cm). Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City.

Does aria, in sum, have fixed parameters of signification? How can we reconcile the contradiction between Rome’s once insalubrious climate and its current (in Part III) status as the epicenter of ancient monuments and capital of modern works of art? Over the course of the Lives, Vasari exploits nuances of aria’s connotation to serve his narrative goals. Aria explains ex post facto the rise, fall, and resurrection of styles. And that aria stands at the intersection between art theoretical, geographic, and scientific thought reveals a further implication: given that mobility exposes artists to a foreign environment, artworks by extension constitute a key appendage of place, a component of a city’s representational apparatus wielding powerful natural historical valence. This holistic view of the arts not only challenges distinctions between media and discipline; through aria, the natural world is intrinsic to the definition and significance of cultural production.


A protagonist in Part III who personifies these kaleidoscopic aspects of nature, place, and mobility is the Florentine artist Perino del Vaga. In this biography, one of the longest in the Lives, Vasari transposes mobility from the realm of prestigious patronage to the domain of the artist’s own self-agency. Whereas Raphael and Michelangelo display the results of their travel, be it physical or allegorical, Perino exhibits his varietà in several locales, for the most part in Rome, thereby bringing to the fore the differences between regional styles. Part of Perino’s mutability in style and locale is due to his status as someone born outside the institutions of courtly and papal sponsorship. An interloper with few allegiances to respect, Perino is free to acquire a variety of styles and exhibit them where and how he sees fit.

We become immediately aware in the opening lines of Perino’s Life that the artist shares none of the noble parentage or ties to a princely court that Michelangelo and Raphael enjoy. Abandoned by his relations and left an orphan, Perino is an “impoverished spirit.” How the artist is wet-nursed makes his humble origins abundantly clear: Perino is first raised in misery at a farm where he was suckled by a goat and then fed on the plague-infected milk of his father’s second wife. Along with astral and sanguine fluids, breast milk was thought to explain the spread of personal characteristics, and in some cases, disease, Perino’s earliest nutrition would hardly seem to augur for survival, let alone the attainment of an illustrious artistic career. According to the Tuscan fourteenth-century moralist Paolo da Certaldo, children nourished on animal milk “do not have perfect wits as one fed on women’s milk, but always look stupid and vacant and not right in the head.” In his De re uxoria (1416), a treatise on the ideal wife and mother, Francesco Barbaro exhorted mothers that if they could not breastfeed their own children, a wet nurse should be well mannered and dignified in speech. “In this way,” Barbaro reasoned, “the young infant will not imbibe corrupt habits and words and will not receive with his milk, baseness, faults and impure infirmities.” Thus, when Michelangelo in a well-known anecdote claimed that by being wet-nursed by the wife of a stone-cutter, he “sucked in the hammer and chisels I use for my statues,” he was drawing on a widely held notion that traits could be transmitted to infants through breast milk. As a newborn, Raphael was not sent out to a wet nurse as was often done, but was “breastfed continually” by his own mother, thus accounting for his “good and excellent manners.” By contrast, Perino’s consumption of diseased and animal breast milk foretells his miserable childhood circumstances.45

Perino’s journey to Rome also differs from the more exalted path of Raphael and Michelangelo, both of whom arrived in that city under papal or other ecclesiastical auspices. His is a tale of exploitation and hardship. Vaga, a painter active in Toscanella, persuades Perino to leave Ridolfo Ghirlandaio’s workshop in Florence. What convinces the apprentice to relinquish this dynastic bottega is Vaga’s assurance of a Roman sojourn. “Such was the desire for Perino to reach an excellent level in his profession,” Vasari narrates, “that when he heard Rome mentioned, all was softened within him [tutto si rintenerí].” This expression attests to the power of the mere prospect of journeying to Rome. Elsewhere Vasari uses the word rintenerire to describe environmental agents that soften otherwise durable substances, as, for instance, when water or humidity weakens gesso. Likewise, mobility can dissolve civic and professional links, however fast or appealing. Fittingly, Perino assumes the name “il Vaga,” not only a reference to his teacher or the quality of gracefulness (vaghezza). The moniker alludes to the vagabondage involved in achieving his arrival in Rome. In fact, the name may also pithily comment on Perino’s way of painting, a style that wanders among a variety of styles.46

In Rome, Perino collects the elements of his diverse style. The city’s initial impact on the young artist is powerful, with an arsenal of superlatives and adverbs of quantity conveying the encounter: the artist sees “the most marvelous buildings of edifices”; he is beside himself “most admiring of the valor of so many famous and illustrious men” who created these works, now reduced to ruins. Further reinforcing Perino’s passionate response is a network of words—desire (desiderio), inflaming (accendendosi), longed for(ardeva)—which suggest his will to equal the monuments which he observes. Yet Vasari also draws a distinction between the greatness of Rome and Perino’s “infinite lowliness and poverty,” a gap that the artist breaches by moving from one workshop to the next, “like a day laborer,” to provide himself with the means to survive. He establishes a rigorous schedule, spending half the week working for others, the other half devoted to disegno. In spite of these adverse conditions, Perino greatly enlarges his pictorial stockpile: he draws from classical statuary and the vault of the Sistine Ceiling, follows Raphael’s maniera, acquires the craft of executing grotteschi in stucco under Giovanni da Udine, and grasps the representation of ignudi in all of their difficulty. As a sketch of grotesques and nude figures demonstrates, Perino retained and exploited this multifaceted repertoire years after his hard-won Roman sojourn (fig. 5.16). For decorative schemes of the Palazzo Doria del Principe in Genova, the artist calls into service decorative motifs culled from the Domus Aurea, Logge, and Cardinal Bibbiena’s Loggetta along with manipulated citations after Michelangelo’s Cascina cartoon. Despite the prestige of this later commission, Vasari stresses that the acquisition of the visual lexicon hardly took place under favorable circumstances. The industrious artist alone compiled this variety.47

Perino proceeds to exhibit his versatile style for a cosmopolitan clientele, patrons both “Italian” and foreign, mercantile and ecclesiastical. And to emphasize that Perino’s activity encompasses the entire city of Rome, Vasari provides a series of topographic cues that call upon the reader to locate and visualize the painter’s works. The topographical rhetoric that Vasari deployed to place Donatello’s sculptures in Florence in Part II is now marshaled for the benefit of Perino’s paintings in Rome. Perino paints a chiaroscuro façade upon a residence “across from the house of the Marchese of Massa, near Maestro Pasquino,” a phrase that presupposes prior familiarity with the speaking statue and its location near Piazza Navona. Alluding to location, but not specifying it in detail, is a pattern in Vasari’s portrayal of Perino’s Roman works. For the archbishop of Cyprus who possesses “a house near the Chiavica,” Perino adorns the garden walls with “diverse poesie aside from painting there a loggetta with small figures, various grotteschi and many landscape paintings.” The eminent Fugger banking family constructs a house near the Banchi, which Vasari reminds us is “on the way to the church of the Florentines.” Perino covers the Fuggers’ courtyard and loggia “with many figures ... in which one sees a beautiful maniera.” For the tabernacle attached to a house, known locally as the “Imagine di Ponte” due to its proximity to the Castel Sant’Angelo bridge, Perino executes a scene of the Coronation of the Virgin along with a choir of seraphim, angels, “and other putti of great beauty and variety.” Lorenzo Pucci, the Cardinal Santiquattro, assumes “in the Trinità [dei Monti], a convent of Calabrian and French friars ... a chapel to the left hand side of the high altar” where Perino paints the prophets Isaiah and Daniel, putti holding the cardinal’s insignia as well as numerous architectural scenes. He also paints for the hall of Marchionne Baldassini’s house, “near S. Agostino,” various figures of philosophers between the niches, scenes from Roman history spanning from Romulus to Numa Pompilius, and “various ornaments imitating various pieces of marble.” Significantly, one of the surviving fragments from this fresco cycle reflects upon the Roman cityscape itself. The backdrop of the scene depicting the augur Attius cutting a stone includes generic classical buildings and specific monuments, among them the Pantheon, which root the istoria in its local urban setting (fig. 5.17).48


FIGURE 5.16 Perino del Vaga, Grotesques with Nude Figures, c. 1528–32. Brown ink and wash on paper (284 × 421 mm). Biblioteca Reale, Turin.

Variety in location thus accompanies Perino’s pictorial variety in subject matter, medium, and patronage. The faculty of imagining place that Vasari’s topographic language demands is shared by the growing number of guidebooks to Rome in the sixteenth century. These volumes ranged from vernacular translations of Flavio Biondo’s De Roma instaurata (1446), Francesco Albertini’s Opusculum de mirabilibus novae et veteris urbis Romae (1519), Bartolomeo Marliani’s Topographia antiquae Romae (1534) to Lucio Fauro’s Delle antichita della citta di Roma (1548). Enriching this engagement with the representation of place via text would be the rise later in the century of print albums and plans portraying Rome, a trend that would culminate in Antoine Lafréry’s publishing enterprise of the Speculum romanae magnificentiae (1547-77). While such guidebooks and print albums could presumably be read and flipped through by the proverbial armchair traveler, Vasari’s prose demands the reader’s prerequisite knowledge of the Roman cityscape, be it through lived experience or encounter via verbal or oral means.49

The plague that struck Rome in 1523 stops short Perino’s frenetic activity. Vasari matter-of-factly states that “in the year MDXXIII began the plague, which was of such kind, that if he wished to survive, it was best for him to intend to depart from Rome.” This dispassionate language, written at a generation’s remove, radically differs from contemporary accounts of the rapidly spreading disease that beset the city. Baldassare Castiglione in a letter to Gian Giacomo Calandra on 23 October 1523 describes in harrowing terms the turmoil afflicting Rome. “Death seems to stare one in the face,” he writes, “and I am here in the Vatican, where there is no guard, excepting in the Pope’s rooms, so all I can do is to wash in vinegar, carry perfumes in my hands, and commend myself to God—at home, not in church. The Angel of the Castello stands with his sword drawn.” He sketches a pathetic scene in the street in which he passes a girl, about ten years old, “whose father and mother were both dead, and who was left, without another creature in the house, alone with these dead bodies.” Less sympathetically, Cellini relates in his autobiography that during this plague he would walk around ruins armed with a musket to avoid contact with the infected.50

Vasari’s description of the 1523 Roman plague in Perino’s Life carries none of this dramatic import. When he announces that Perino decides to leave Rome and return to Florence, it is not due to the latter’s famed salubrious aria, as extolled from Villani to Vasari himself. Perino’s manner of deliberating whether he should go to Florence suggests a tempered patriotic allegiance. The goldsmith nicknamed Piloto, a close friend of the artist, persuades him to leave Rome and return to his native city. Perino had not been home for years, Piloto reasons, and “it would be a great honor for him to make himself known and to leave in that [city] some sign of his excellence.” Of course, the couple who had raised and trained him, Andrea de’ Ceri and his wife, were now dead. Even so, Perino, “having been born in that country, although he had nothing there, had love for it.” Like their French counterpart “il Viator,” Perino’s given name (“Il Vaga”) as well as that of his companion, “Il Piloto,” or “the Pilot,” testifies to a wayward behavior that diverges from the lure of regional roots. Up to this point in the Lives, Florentine artists such as Giotto and Donatello long to return to their city after prolonged periods of absence. But Perino’s consideration of why he ought to return exhibits a more measured affection for his patria. The anecdote’s immediate setting is not a city withstanding a cataclysmic plague but a nonchalant breakfast scene. His many years away from Florence, which might appear to be reason enough, rank alongside a desire to gain honor for himself. The justification recalls Dello Delli’s wish to return to Florence, not from homesickness but from a yearning to demonstrate his rise from poverty. Perino’s mobility to Rome and his many commissions embedding him in that city’s artistic life have shifted and destabilized the monolith of civic identity.


FIGURE 5.17 Perino del Vaga, Tarquinius Priscus and the Augur Attius, c. 1520–22. Detached fresco transferred to canvas (132 × 158 cm). Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

When Perino does return to his native place, Vasari presents a vignette that depicts the artist sorting through a complex set of reactions, one that involves the rekindling of memory, yet estrangement as well: “And having arrived in that [city], [Perino] had the most pleasure in seeing the old works having been painted by past masters, which were already a school for him in his boyhood, and likewise even those of those masters who were then living. . . . It came to pass that having found himself one day with many craftsmen, painters, sculptors, architects, goldsmiths, and carvers of marble and wood to honor him, that according to the timeworn custom they were gathered together, some to see and accompany Perino and hear what he was saying, and many to see what difference there was between the artists of Rome and those of Florence in practice, and the majority [of them] to hear the criticisms and praises that artists often tend to level at one another.”51

The passage’s opening—arrivati in quella città—anticipates Perino’s posture concerning Florence, an attitude of remoteness in respect to time and place. Note that Vasari does not say “in his city” or “in our city,” or more neutrally “in Florence”; rather the distal demonstrative—that city—foreshadows a lack of proximity, even a sensation of alienation. To be sure, that Perino revisits the works of those masters he studied in his youth testifies to his ties to the city. Yet the very necessity of reseeing assumes a period of absence combined with direct contact at the present. Terms and phrases such as “cose vecchie,” “maestri passati,” and “sua età puerile” further suggest that what Perino beholds does not have currency for him now. These works belong to an past age. Even contemporary works of art of Perino’s own time are minimized, for the Florentine masters (whom Vasari does not bother to name) are only considered praiseworthy “in that city,” as opposed to surpassing chronological or geographic boundaries.

Disentangling the ties between Perino and his homeland does not provoke lament, as in the rhetoric of exile. Nor does the “Florentine” artist endure censure upon his return, as does Antonio Veneziano after having demonstrated in Venice the knowledge he acquired while abroad. Perino enjoys the honor conferred by a multitude of artists ranging from painters to wood carvers. The flocking company of artists, their willingness to see, hear, and accompany Perino indicate a position far above his origins as an impoverished child suckled by a goat. Other period authors and Vasari elsewhere in the Lives register the performance of comparable ritualistic gestures of reception and hospitality on occasions such as artists’ obsequies or ceremonies for visiting dignitaries. Further attesting to Perino’s standing is his ability to unify, if only momentarily, the otherwise fractious assembly of artists specializing in differing media. Only in rare instances such as Michelangelo’s funeral or the nuptials of Francesco de’ Medici does Vasari describe a similarly ecumenical gathering.52

The rationale for Perino’s enthusiastic reception, however, does not lie in his having wielded a Florentine style abroad. Nor does his recognition consist solely in having related to the crowd of artists what he has witnessed in Rome, as does, for instance, the Florentine architect Simone del Pollaiuolo. Vasari narrates that Simone, after a period observing and measuring the antiquities in Rome, returns to Florence and “due to having become a great spinner of tales recounted the marvels of Rome and other places with such accuracy, that he was from then on called il Cronaca, it seeming to everyone that he was a chronicler of things in his conversation.” Nor does Perino in Florence ostentatiously exhibit his knowledge of the antique, as does Baccio d’Agnolo, in whose Palazzo Bartolini the imitation of classical ornament verges on the ludicrous. Vasari quips that its cornice, copied from the frontispiece of Monte Cavallo in Rome, resembles a cap on a small head, and the Florentines themselves criticize the building, loaded as it is with square windows, pediments, portals, and columns, as appearing more a temple than a palace.53

Perino’s knowledge, Vasari suggests, and by consequence his working procedure occupy a position between the polar extremes of Florentine and Roman. His origins in Florence combined with his sojourn in Rome permit him to convey what incongruities, whatdifferenza, to use Vasari’s precise term, exist between those two cities’ artistic practices. In the case of Cimabue, Brunelleschi, or Donatello, mobility evokes an awareness of the distinctions between styles: maniera moderna vs. maniera greca; Ionic vs. Doric vs. Corinthian; Florentine vs. Venetian, and so on. Yet for Perino, that destination he encounters is hardly foreign. At the same time, his time spent in Rome renders Florence no longer the exclusive fountainhead of his stylistic and civic identity. Vasari now allows differenza to function in an additive, as opposed to an oppositional, mode. Differenza becomes varietà.

But how does Perino expostulate this difference? After stating the Florentine artists’ wish to see the differenza between Florentine and Roman practice, Vasari inserts another vignette that narrates how Perino’s explication unfolds. The artists “discoursing together of one thing and another, and examining the works, both ancient and modern, in the various churches, came to the Carmine to see Masaccio’s chapel.” The paintings prompt analytical conversation in that compressed space: “There, inspecting the paintings and multiplying in various discussions praise of that master, all marveled that he possessed so much judgment so as to be able in his time to work with so much of the modern manner in the design [disegno], invention [invenzione], and coloring [colorito].”54

The first few lines’ principal verb—pervennero—is surrounded by a satellite of gerunds (ragionando, guardando, moltiplicando), suggesting that the act of moving involves the complementary acts of seeing and discussing. Yet this discursive realization of space—what Michel de Certeau would call the “tour”—quickly shifts from being a wide-ranging visit to old and modern works in churches to zero in on Masaccio’s frescoes. Distillation of urban space into a single chapel is then accompanied by a reduction in the historical register. The chronology and merits of Florentine artists preceding and working alongside Masaccio become elided, with Giotto alone remaining the artist’s sole model. This impulse toward reduction continues when Perino declares to the company of artists that by painting just one figure next to another in the Carmine he would be able to demonstrate that the works of artists of his own day “do not lack liveliness and are, in fact, more beautiful.” Perino’s challenge thus advances the claim that the essence of style can be distilled and discerned in a single figure. Regarding Vasari’s narrative, restricting the number of elements for comparison could possibly expedite Perino’s explication of differenza. And this strategy eschews the need for drawn-out descriptions which already populate the artist’s biography, certainly among the most prolix in the Lives.55

Perino’s commentary on the Carmine and the possibility to surpass Masaccio reiterates the notion of differenza as distinctions in style plotted along the axes of ethnicity and history. Masaccio personifies the “Florentine” style, standing in contrast to what Perino embodies—the Roman style, which doubles as the modern as well. This is a reversal of sorts given that Florence typified the maniera moderna in contrast to the timeless Byzantine world whose maniera greca was static, bereft of stylistic development. Whereas Giotto diffused Florence’s style through his mobility and pupils, the city must now import the modern style from abroad, albeit through the acceptable vehicle of a native son. Perino’s brief repatriation suggests that the arts of Florence have not experienced smooth chronological development. Intercession of a mobile figure is needed to jump-start the historical progression of time.56

It is through a demonstration piece, and not through verbal or oral communication alone, that Perino sets out to indicate the differenza between Florentine and Roman modes of painting. Aside from the figure of St. Andrew juxtaposed next to Masaccio’s St. Paul, a project that never reached completion, Perino undertakes another ambitious commission to incite the paragone between styles. The stage of this confrontation was a free wall in the meeting place of the Confraternity of the Martyrs located at the monastery of San Salvatore di Camaldoli, a few hundred meters south of the Carmine. According to Vasari, the challenging subject to be executed, the ten thousand martyrs sent to death by two Roman emperors, provides Perino with the opportunity to display his powers of invention.57

In agreeing to carry out an iconographic theme which demands a dense and complex composition, Perino redirects the tactic of exhibiting differenza. As one version of the modello connected to the lost cartoon shows, the artist counters an emphasis on the singular, formulating instead a work that has varietà as its hallmark (fig. 5.18). Vasari’s first-hand description employs the conjunction oltre che in succession to emphasize the plethora of bodies, postures, and ornament. Kneeling, upright, and bowed, the martyrs are “all nude and bound in diverse ways, twisting with woeful gestures in various attitudes.” The textures of the bodies themselves range from exposed muscles swelling to cold sweat breaking out on the skin. In their facial expressions one sees “the constancy of faith in the elders, the fear of death in the youths, in others the pain of torture.” The soldiers lead the captives with ferocity, “terrible, most impious and cruel.” Varietà also extends to the emperors’ and soldiers’ “most ornate and bizarre” all’antica costumes—leggings, shoes, helmets, shields and other types of armor, “having been realized with all that copia of the most beautiful ornaments.”58


FIGURE 5.18 Perino del Vaga, Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand, 1522–23. Ink, brown wash, white heightening, black chalk on paper (35.8 × 33.9 cm). Albertina, Vienna.

Vasari delineates the elements that make up this varietà, though he does not elaborate on how the composition might exemplify the differenza between regional styles. We might infer that the diversity in bodily movement and emotional expression has parallels with Roman sources: classical sarcophagi and reliefs, Raphael’s Sea Victory at Ostia in the Stanze, antique ornaments in the Logge, or Polidoro da Caravaggio’s method of applying white highlights on figural groups. Yet for every Roman prototype of varietà in Perino’s work, a possible Florentine counterpart exists as well. The most obvious analogues are Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina, a cartoon that Perino studied assiduously in his youth, along with Pontormo’s drawing of the Victory and Battle of the Ten Thousand Martyrs, both works that share a preoccupation with the variations possible in the contorted and multiplied human figure. As for costumes and ornament, a similar wealth of sources pervades Filippino Lippi’s frescoes in the Strozzi Chapel.59

Cutting through this quarrel between regions, however, is Perino’s own personal style. The artist’s rendition in the Logge of the passage from the book of Joshua (10:11-13) that narrates the sun standing still contains a figure with outstretched arms and fluid arrangement of bodies which bears a resemblance to the Martyrdom modello (fig. 5.19). And yet, for the Florentine artists and connoisseurs inspecting Perino’s work, Vasari explains, Michelangelo’s cartoon becomes the most salient point of comparison. This may of course be a case of viewing new or strange works of art in terms of others that are more familiar. Nonetheless, the Florentine reaction calls into question just how much romanità Perino’s style contains. What does seem at work is that artists’ mobility, be it Perino’s travel to Florence or Michelangelo’s move to Rome, blurs the distinctions between ethnic styles. The purpose of Perino’s composition may have been to relate the differenza between Florentine and Roman style. But the modello’s elaborated character indicates that differenza here does not depend upon a fundamental opposition of ethnic styles. The otherwise impassable confrontation resolves in the combination of regional pictorial modes, transposed and embodied in the concept of varietà. Heterogeneous yet amalgamated, varietà is not exclusive to a particular geographic location, but rather is mobile itself.60


FIGURE 5.19 Attributed to Perino del Vaga, The Sun Stands Still, c. 1517–20. Fresco. Vatican Logge, Vatican City.

The portability of varietà to locales far from the artistic centers of Rome and Florence manifests itself in Perino’s many frescoes, stuccowork, and oil paintings for the Palazzo Doria del Principe in Genoa (fig. 5.20). An impresario overseeing a team of painters and sculptors, Perino executes work extending from the palace’s façade to its innermost chambers and back out into the city’s urban fabric. Francisco de Hollanda, after spending a week in Genoa in June 1538, would remark that due to such interventions “almost the entire city is painted inside and out.” As Vasari recounts Perino’s decoration for the Doria palace, “there is no room there that has not something by his hand and is not full of ornaments.” Perino’s production there included designs for the exterior; marble portals with architectural ornament, grotesques, and masks on staircases and ceilings; frescoes in the entrance atrium, the Loggia degli Eroi; and monumental ceiling paintings and triumphal arches for the ceremonial entry of Emperor Charles V. He was even reportedly responsible for designing standards for the admiral Andrea Doria’s galleys. Of several of these works, Vasari declares, “no one could imagine the beauty, abundance, the variety and the great numbers of the little figures, animals, foliage, and grotesques that are in them, all executed with lively invention.” Varietà even inflects the regional makeup of his assistants, originating from locales that range from Tuscany to Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy. Just as Giulio Romano had brought the diversity in style, media, and genre of Raphael’s workshop to the Gonzaga court, turning Mantua into a miniature Rome of sorts, so too did Perino saturate Genoa with imported pictorial ideas.61


FIGURE 5.20 Perino del Vaga, La Loggia degli Eroi, 1521–33, Palazzo Doria, Genoa.


FIGURE 5.21 Perino del Vaga, The Shipwreck of Aeneas: Neptune Saving Aeneas and His Crew, c. 1528–29. Ink, wash, white heightening on paper (186 × 349 mm). Louvre, Paris. © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Gérard Blot.

Focusing on one painting, The Shipwreck of Aeneas, as the center of gravity for Perino’s sojourn at the Doria court, Vasari reiterates how mobility, differenza, and varietà are nodes in a delicate conceptual network. The deteriorated and lost fresco, whose appearance is preserved in a bravura ink-and-wash drawing, presents “nude figures, living and dead, in attitudes of infinite variety,” not to mention ships, galleys, turbulent waves, cloud bursts and contorted sea creatures (fig. 5.21). For traveling artists such as Perino or traveling viewers such as Francisco de Hollanda en route from Portugal to Rome, the very theme of the Trojan hero’s travails on the Eastern Mediterranean must have borne a degree of personal resonance as it certainly did for the seafaring Andrea Doria. But even before setting brush to canvas, Perino confidently conveys his compositional ideas with a cartoon, only finished in parts and executed in a motley spread of techniques—chiaroscuro, charcoal, black chalk, some figures shaded, others only outlined. Girolamo da Treviso, whose mere name identifies him as the mouthpiece for colorito and northern Italian painting, objects: “Cartoons, and nothing but cartoons!” he decries, “I have my art at the tip of my brush.” When Perino publicly exhibits his cartoon and all of Genoa rushes to see it, the central Italian artist and by extension, central Italian sources and emphasis upon disegno, are vindicated. However, the distinction implied in this case between disegno and colore or, for that matter, regional modes in general is extreme; the surviving modello shows how painterly Perino’s drawing process could be; Dürer’s print of the Sea Monsters with its delineated agitated waves is also a compelling point of comparison; and as opposed to being in the traditional Florentine medium of buon fresco,the mural of the Shipwreck was executed in oil, a technique heavily associated with the north, the most famous example being Leonardo’s Last Supper in Milan. Perino’s style, in addition to exposing difference by rubbing against an ethnic antagonist, embeds a set of differences within itself. Varietà is a historically contingent and historically rooted concept that can be used to take stock of these stylistic confrontations. And mobility provides the stage where these theoretical, regional, and personal debates can unfold.62


FIGURE 5.22 Giorgio Vasari, Copy after Perino del Vaga’s Compositional Study for “The Death of the Ten Thousand Martyrs,” sixteenth century. Brown ink, brown wash, and white gouache on paper prepared with gray-brown wash, drum-mounted to cream wove paper (36.9 × 34.4 cm). Harvard Art Museums / Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Bequest of Charles A. Loeser, 1932.265.

The traveling artist and the locomotion of varietà destabilize and uproot the entrenched notions of place, identity, and style which Vasari otherwise seeks to maintain. The mobility of artists to, from, and between regions necessarily constrains him, making him adopt the sharply patriotic tone for which he has been subsequently criticized by generations of art critics and historians. But Vasari may allow these tensions between geography and mobility to persist over the course of the Lives given the differences within his own selfhood. For Vasari himself embodies a number of contradictions, a go-between among disciples, regions, and skills, a traveling writer who paints and a traveling artist who writes. “During the time when I rewrote and reprinted the work,” he declares in the epilogue, “I broke off my writing more than once ... either for journeys or because of a superabundance of labors, works of painting, designs, and buildings.” Transposing this labor into an allegorical mode, Vasari also states that never did he expect “to write such a large volume or to embark on such a wide sea.”63

Vasari as a mobile individual is best discussed in relation to the traveling artist’s autobiography, the subject of the final chapter. However, it is worth briefly noting by way of conclusion how the act of mobility, varietà, and his somatic presence in the text acted in dialogue with his style as a painter, architect, designer, and court impresario. Vasari himself copied that exemplar of varietà he upholds, Perino del Vaga’s cartoon of the Ten Thousand Martyrs (fig. 5.22). Whereas his predecessors strove to collect and diffuse pictorial models, work that could take years, Vasari’s task is to quickly cover lengths of wall space within a matter of days. The physical labor of mobility in the past translates into today’s fast execution. Armed with the varietà of inventive architectural settings, costumes, fictive sculptures, and contorted figures, he decorates the Sala dei Cento Giorni in the Cancelleria in Rome within a mere one hundred days, a span of time that explains the hall’s name. Certainly for his commission for the Salone del Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Vasari undertakes excursions to portray the meters of landscapes and battlegrounds—“all of which I had to copy from nature on the actual site and spot.” Nonetheless he suggests that his depictions of the “varieties of bodies, faces, vestments, habiliments, casques, helmets, cuirasses, various headdresses, horses, harnesses, caparisons, artillery of every kind, navigations, tempests, storms of rain and snow, and so many other things, that I am not able to remember them” are owed to years of study and experience abroad in his youth (fig. 5.23). The designs for his own house in Arezzo visually manifest this claim, because there “I depicted ... all the places and provinces where I had labored, as if they were bringing tributes, to represent the gains that I had made by their means.” The description could apply equally well to the landscape capricci which surround Diana of Ephesus in the Chamber of Fortune; or below more poignantly, to the artist seated in a bay window who examines the drawing of the building he has just studied outside the grate. The view from behind seems exhortatory, urging the viewer or future artists to follow in the footsteps of Vasari’s industriousness (figs. 5.24 and 5.25).64


FIGURE 5.23 Giorgio Vasari and Assistants, The Taking of Siena, 1563–71. Fresco. Palazzo Vecchio (Salone del Cinquecento).

Such mobility demands the exertion of labor, manifesting itself somatically in the artist’s sweat, as Vasari so often declares. This can also take the form of metaphorical perspiration, as when Gozzoli climbs the allegorical mountain of style. But it is most often literal, as when Maturino da Firenze and Polidoro da Caravaggio sweat as they hunt for antique motifs throughout Rome or when Vasari himself pauses in the heat of August from painting in the Palazzo Vecchio. All the same, mobility can be restorative, as when Vasari narrates that, exhausted from work, he receives leave from court such that “I might go about for some months to divert myself, and so setting out to travel, I passed over little less than the whole of Italy, seeing again innumerable friends and patrons and the works of various excellent.” Be it for study or work, the maintenance of social bonds or freedom from patrons’ obligations, Vasari in his own words alludes to the multifaceted act of displacing oneself. What he has accomplished in the Lives is to elevate mobility as an artistic behavior that demands reckoning with, providing the ample fodder that so incited subsequent generations of commentators to affirm, dispute, and elaborate upon his text.65


FIGURE 5.24 Giorgio Vasari, Chamber of Fortune, 1542–48. Casa di Vasari, Arezzo.


FIGURE 5.25 Giorgio Vasari, Detail from Chamber of Fortune, 1542–48. Casa di Vasari, Arezzo.

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