Lives of the Artists


Vasari, Giorgio, Le vite… [The Lives of the Artists] Bologna: Evangelista Dozza, 1647.  Old Library G.13.27-28.

The first edition of what is regarded as the first art history book, The Lives of the Artists  by Giorgio Vasari, or more accurately,  Le vite de’ più eccellenti architetti, pittori, et scultori italiani, da Cimabue insino a’ tempi nostri was published in 1550 in Florence.  Magdalene is fortunate to have a first critical edition of The Lives of the Artists, with a preface and notes by Carlo Manolessi, published in Bologna in 1647.  Patricia Lee Rubin writes, ‘Claiming to correct the nearly infinite errors of the Giunti text [the publisher of the second edition of 1568], it added considerably to the faults and only..marginally to the information’.

Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574)  originally from Arezzo, was an Italian writer, painter and architect, best known for The Lives of the Artists.  He trained in Florence, was a friend of Michelangelo and was patronised by the Medici family.  His most important works which can still be found are the ceiling paintings in the Sala di Cosimo in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.  Amongst his architecture, Vasari was responsible for the commencement of the Uffizi complex.  The Corridoio Vasariano (Vasari Corridor), now named after the architect, is the passageway he designed to allow the Medicis and other Florentine nobility to walk safely from the Uffizi to the Palazzo Pitti.


Page 14 of The Lives of the Artists, describing The Mona Lisa

An understanding of Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists, Paul Barolsky argues, ‘yields insight into the aesthetics of Italian Renaissance paintings: Vasari’s vocabulary, rightly understood, teaches us how to look at Italian painting.’  The book is famous for being an early source of information about Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.  On page 14 Vasari writes a description of the portrait’s features and provenance in detail, a description which is still intensely discussed by art historians.  A short extract from the page illustrated above reads:  ‘La bocca, con quella sua sfenditura, con le sue fini unite dal rosso della bocca, con l’incarnatione del viso, che non colori, ma carne pareva veramente’ (The mouth, with its cleft, with its ends united by the red of the lips to the embodiment of the face, are not colours but real flesh).  Barolsky writes ‘by cataloguing the beauty of her face, detail by detail..he appropriately uses the language of the Tuscan poets to bring out her divine grace and loveliness…Vasari’s great description…contributes to her enduring fame as a great figure.’


Engraving of Leonardo Da Vinci in The Lives of the Artists

The book, in two volumes, has been digitised online, via the Bayerische StaatsBibliothek in Germany.

By Catherine Sutherland

Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections


Barolsky, Paul.  Why Mona Lisa Smiles and other Tales by Vasari.  Pennsylvania: Penn State Press, 2010.




Rubin, Patricia Lee.  Georgio Vasari: Art and history.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

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