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Georgio Vasari
As a painter and devotee of art history, I've always had a strong kinship with the Mannerist painter, Georgio Vasari. Vasari had the good fortune to be born in 1511 at the height of the Italian Renaissance near its cradle, Florence, Italy. As a young man he was both an artist (primarily fresco) and a scholar. For ten years he travelled the length and breadth of the Italian peninsula studying the art and artists of his time, talking with them, copying their work, and growing into a remarkably intuitive "expert" on the art and architecture of his time. At the age of 31, he found himself in Rome and fell into the artistic circle of the wealthy Cardinal Farnese who obtained for him his first commission, a series of paintings for the Vatican Chancellery.

In his spare time, Vasari began organising the notes from his travels into a manuscript that he had published in Florence in 1550. Bearing the auspicious title, Vite de piu eccelenti architetti, scultori e pittori, it has become popularly known as The Lives of the Artists. His book was the first ever solely devoted to art history. In it he drew heavily from his close encounters with the great Michelangelo Buonarroti whom he'd met as a young man and whose work (especially his painting) he'd studied intensely. Apparently Vasari also studied Michelangelo the architect as well, for it was about this time that he undertook a five-month construction project for the Grand Duke of Florence in which he designed and built a raised walkway called the Vasari Corridor, which connected the Pitti Palace near the outskirts of town with the Uffizi (offices) at the centre of the city. This remarkable link was almost a full kilometre long, zigzagging over the rooftops and across the streets of Florence, through a church, across the Ponte Vecchio (a bridge already lined with numerous shops), then along the banks of the Arno River in what amounted to the first cross-town pedestrian walkway ever built. Today, lined with some 700 paintings from the Medici collection, it is without doubt the longest art museum in the world.

Among his other firsts, in 1561, Vasari founded one of the earliest art schools, the Florence Academy of Drawing. But despite his remarkable contributions as a painter, educator, and architect, Vasari is primarily treasured today for his Vite now simply known as Vasari's Lives. It is basic required reading for any would-be art historian. There is some disagreement amongst scholars as to who first coined the term "Renaissance" to describe the peak period of Italian art which Vasari illuminated in his book (a second edition of which he published in 1568). But there is little doubt it was Vasari who first recognised that this burst of creative artistic energy was a unique phenomenon, and that he was the world's first, true, art historian.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
15 October 1998

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