Vasari, the Uffizi and the Duke, Uffizi Galleries, Florence

Rare is the essay on Renaissance art that does not mention Giorgio Vasari. Yet it is for his skill as a biographer of the masters rather than as their rival that the 16th-century Tuscan is famous. Published during his lifetime, his Lives of the Artists is littered with factual errors, but its wealth of detail, from the antipathy between Leonardo and Michelangelo to the poverty that prevented Filippo Lippi from buying new stockings, makes it required reading.

Vasari was a painter and architect in his own right. As court artist to Tuscan ruler Cosimo I de’ Medici, his vision was key to the evolution of Cinquecento Florence where his major achievements were the design of the Uffizi and the decoration of the Palazzo Vecchio.

This exhibition, mounted to celebrate the 500th anniversary of his birth, focuses on the fruits of Vasari’s rapport with his Medici patron. Through paintings, drawings, sculptures, architectural models and multimedia installations, it charts the transformation of Florence into the central hub of a unified territory, similar to the capital city of a modern state.

Driving the change was Cosimo I. Although just 17 when he ascended to the Duchy of Florence in 1537, he demonstrated an iron will and masterly organisation from the first. Within months, having quelled a rebellion by anti-Medici forces, he put an end to decades of instability and secured Florence for his family for the next 200 years.

In true Renaissance spirit, Cosimo’s thirst for power went hand in hand with a passion for the arts. Even as he set about fortifying Tuscan towns and overhauling Florence’s civic landscape – widening streets and squares, finishing the Pitti palace and building the Boboli Gardens – he also gathered about him the region’s finest artists, including Jacopo Pontormo, Bronzino, Benvenuto Cellini and Baccio Bandinelli. In a move that leant institutional gravitas to Florence’s tradition of cultural excellence, he sponsored academies of literature and art.

Soon Cosimo, in keeping with the epoch’s celebration of the classical world, was being hailed as a new Augustus. A bronze bust by Benvenuto Cellini, for example, depicts him as victorious, with his gaze fixed on a distant horizon, wearing armour ornamented with eagles, lions and a Gorgon’s head crowned with a lyre. An example of Florentine tapestry, which burgeoned under Cosimo’s patronage, represents the Duke receiving civic plans from Vasari in the guise of a classical allegory.

Vasari took years to win entry to Cosimo’s inner circle. Born in 1511, his apprenticeship in Florence under Andrea del Sarto was followed by a spell in Rome where patrons included anti-Medici Florentine exiles.

Summoned to Florence in 1536 to choreograph the triumphant entrance of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Vasari found the city’s leading artists unwilling to collaborate and had to draft in his own team from Arezzo.

Vasari was certainly hampered by his outsider status but, as a painter, he also lacked the brilliance of, say, Pontormo and Bronzino, both of whom adopted Mannerist exaggeration without sacrificing individual vision. Highlights of this show include a portrait of a gentleman by Pontormo that usually resides in a private collection. Showing a young man glancing nervously to one side, a book in one long-fingered hand and a glove drooping from the other, it is a masterpiece of mental tension masquerading as physical languor.

Vasari never possessed such flair. Perhaps paralysed by his admiration for Michelangelo – whose talent he described as “divine rather than mortal” – and by his slavish obedience to classical models, his art was driven by theory rather than practice. Paintings on show here, such as the “Allegory of the Immaculate Conception”, “Six Tuscan Poets” and “Pietà”, are models of correct yet charisma-free composition, with insipid colour and figures that are more archetypes than humans. By far the strongest is a portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent. The spooky sepia backdrop of mythological masks echoes the haunted expression on Lorenzo’s face, lending the golden child of Florentine humanism an unusual darkness.

Today, Vasari’s tendency to prioritise idea over execution would see him hailed as a conceptual painter. Then, it gave him the virtue of speed over his peers. In 1541, he was the only artist prepared to accept Cosimo’s challenge to paint a Baptism of Christ in just six days to celebrate the christening of his son, Francesco. Probably sketched in minutes, the bulging, muscular bodies in a preparatory drawing on loan from the British Museum evidence Vasari’s devotion to Michelangelo.

In the mid-1550s, Cosimo rewarded Vasari with the commission to decorate the medieval Palazzo Vecchio, which the Duke had made his residence nearly a decade earlier. Now with a series of important achievements behind him, including a historic victory over Siena, it was time to transform it into a palace whose iconography would act – rather as Tacitus’s writings had for the Roman Empire – as a visual narrative of his reign.

The majestic, if somewhat lifeless, frescoes are best seen in situ. Nevertheless, a multimedia projection of the painted ceiling of the palace’s main hall, the Salone del Cinquecento, gives an idea of the grandeur of its allegories and battle scenes enclosed within gilded wooden cornices. Meanwhile an engaging glimpse of the practicalities behind its design is offered by a rough sketch by Vincenzo Borghini, one of Vasari’s closest collaborators, which maps out the cycle of images in hasty, heavily corrected scribbles.

In 1559, Cosimo tasked Vasari with the Uffizi. Literally translating as “offices”, the building’s role was to house Florence’s administrative seat and its guilds’ headquarters under a single roof. The coup de grâce was Vasari’s eponymous corridor, which connected the Palazzo Vecchio to the Uffizi, snaked along the Arno then crossed the river to join up with the Palazzo Pitti, transforming the Uffizi complex into a triumphant architectural statement of centralised political power.

Although it was only finished in 1581, seven years after his death, Vasari wrote of the Uffizi’s construction: “I have never had to build anything more difficult or dangerous because its foundations are in the river and almost in the air.”

Yet the final edifice could not be more serene. A three-sided rectangle that acts as both street and square, the strict classical rhythm of its flanks repeat a single module of a pillar-flanked portico crowned by three respective storeys of niches, windows and a loggia. Meanwhile, the shorter, river-facing side features an arcade crowned by arched windows that give on to the hills beyond the Arno. Considered an innovation at the time, this design permitted a visual dialogue between city and countryside.

Of various models and drawings that illustrate the Uffizi’s construction, the most revealing is a double page of drawings by Bartolomeo Ammanati, the sculptor and architect who assisted Vasari. His annotations – one sheet is scrawled “Of Giorgio” and the other “My model” – suggest that it was he, not his master, who originally conceived the groundbreaking riverside arch.

Although Cosimo did not live to see the Uffizi finished, the project boosted his image as a man who thrived on power; he was ultimately rewarded with the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany by the Pope. Yet the building’s rigorous classicism also marks a moment when Italian art and architecture were about to tip into a tired parody of their golden age. Today, its chief glories are the paintings inside. By the likes of Botticelli and Raphael, their fresh, risky freedoms are the fruit of an age when the ancient world inspired creativity rather than stifled it.

Continues to October 30
Florence 2011: A year in art

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