The Juiciest Gossip about the Renaissance Masters

Alina Cohen
May 31, 2019 4:17PM

Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1495–1498. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Giorgio Vasari, often credited as the first art historian, documented the evolution of Italian Renaissance art with painstaking detail. He even gave the era its name, splitting the so-called “rebirth” of Western painting, sculpture, and architecture into three chronological eras. His groundbreaking tome, Lives of the Artists, published in 1550, narrativized artistic innovations from the mid-13th to the late-16th century in a series of biographies on the Italian artists he considered most important. While Vasari meticulously described the art itself and the technical skills it required, he was also a wonderful storyteller. The Lives of the Artists is full of illuminating, gossipy anecdotes that create vivid portraits of its subjects.

Vasari alleges that the Renaissance brought Classical ideals back to European art. That perspective derides the Gothic and Romanesque styles that flourished throughout the continent before the artist Cimabue—who Vasari credits with bringing “back to life the art of painting” with his perspectival techniques—was even born. (To offer a reference point, construction on Notre Dame, today an undisputed masterwork, began in 1163.) More recently, Vasari’s authority on matters of taste and facts has been questioned. Some of his assertions have proven anachronistic or otherwise false. To be fair, many of the artists he wrote about were long dead by the time he began his book.

Still, Vasari’s achievement remains an astounding feat that continues to shape the way we think about Italian Renaissance art and artists. While he glorified many of his subjects, Vasari also relished in the details of their professional rivalries, betrayals, and artistic angst. His characterizations offer intriguing psychological portraits of artists who are simultaneously cast as divinely brilliant and humanly fallible. Below, we enumerate four of the most exciting bits of gossip from The Lives of the Artists.

Legends of Giotto’s mirthful artistic genius

Unknown Artist, Florentine School, Five Famous Men (detail featuring portrait of Giotto), ca. 1490–1550. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Vasari’s book tracks a rising admiration for individual artists during the Renaissance. He credits Giotto with bringing drawing “fully back to life” from the flattened Gothic and Romanesque styles that dominated the medieval period. One patron after another, Vasari asserts, sought out Giotto’s services. Even though Vasari was born over 150 years after Giotto’s death, he describes the artist as a witty prankster, offering two now-famous (but contested) anecdotes.

In the first, Pope Benedict IX sends a courtier to Giotto’s studio to procure proof of the artist’s storied skill. “Giotto, who was a most courteous man, took a sheet of paper and brush dipped in red, pressed his arm to his side to make a compass of it, and with a turn of his hand made a circle so even in its shape and outline that it was a marvel to behold,” Vasari writes. The courtier was bewildered but he brought the painting back to the pope anyway. Benedict, on the other hand, got the message. He was so impressed by Giotto’s circle that he commissioned the artist to create a set of paintings for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. A new proverb developed from this story that suggested the courtier’s foolishness in not recognizing the skillfuless of Giotto’s trick: stupid people began to be referred to as “rounder than Giotto’s ‘O.’”

The second story relates that when Giotto was a young man studying with Cimabue, he painted a fly atop one of his instructor’s figures. The fly appeared so real that Cimabue attempted to swat it away. Giotto’s greatness, according to Vasari, lay in his ability to create such true-to-life likenesses. Yet this parable is suspiciously similar to that of Zeuxis, a 5th-century Greek painter who famously rendered grapes so real that birds flew into his canvases in their attempt to eat them. Giotto’s trick was also a subtle dig—early on, he far surpassed his master.

Friendly competition becomes an ugly rivalry

Vasari loved a good feud. He discusses the friendship—and inevitable rivalry—between Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Lorenzo Ghiberti. In 1401, the trio, among other artists, were summoned to Florence to compete for a commission to design the doors to the Baptistery of San Giovanni. Donatello and Brunelleschi agreed that Ghiberti’s submission was the best, and the consuls hired him to reimagine the doors. Yet this amity didn’t last long.

Brunelleschi’s greatest accomplishment, the famous dome atop Florence’s cathedral, was the result of a subsequent competition. The building had been under construction since the late 13th century, and its patrons needed someone who could figure out how to vault the gigantic dome. Brunelleschi worked in secret to solve the architectural problem. He even suggested that the consuls in charge of the project hire other architects—simply, according to Vasari, so that “they might bear witness to [Brunelleschi’s] exceptional talent, rather than because he thought they might discover a means of vaulting the dome.” But in 1420, when Brunelleschi described his solution in “his method,” it was mocked as “that of a madman.”

Brunelleschi wasn’t daunted. Since the officials wouldn’t take him seriously, he drafted a written version of his proposal. The confidence of his design wooed them, and Brunelleschi finally won the commission. The officials, however, didn’t trust that a single individual could pull off the architectural feat. They paired Brunelleschi with Ghiberti, giving each man the same salary. Brunelleschi began scheming about how to kick his collaborator off the project. One morning, Brunelleschi feigned illness and stayed home from work. When his workmen asked Ghiberti how to proceed, he said he wouldn’t make any decisions without Brunelleschi. Officials questioned Ghiberti’s competence, and, much to his rival’s pleasure, was ultimately disgraced.

Hidden jealousy with deadly consequences

Vasari’s chapter on the Florentine artist Andrea del Castagno and the Venetian Domenico Veneziano is his most dramatic—and factually inaccurate. Vasari begins the double biography with theatrical flair: “How blameworthy it is to find the vice of envy in a distinguished person, a vice no one should possess!” He continues, “And what a wicked and horrible thing it is to seek, under the guise of false friendship, to extinguish in others not only their fame and glory but their very lives as well!” Yes, dear reader, this is a tale of murder.

Vasari describes Andrea as spiteful and envious of other painters. When he saw a defect in another artist’s work, Andrea would scratch the surface with his nails. His critics also knew that he was willing to take revenge for negative reviews of his own work.

Andrea met Domenico when they both received commissions, along with Alesso Baldovinetti, for a now-lost altarpiece for Florence’s Santa Maria Novella. Domenico was already a highly respected artist. His acclaim, along with his status as an outsider in the city, made the younger Florentine resentful. The wily Andrea hid his angst and befriended Domenico (his outward affection and internal rage make him a literary prototype for Iago, one of Shakespeare’s best villains).

One night, Domenico left Santa Maria Novella to play his lute. When he returned, Andrea struck the lute—and then his rival—with pieces of lead. To finish off the job, he smashed in Domenico’s head. Andrea escaped suspicion for the murder; everyone believed him to be the victim’s good friend. On his deathbed, Andrea finally confessed. There’s a significant problem with Vasari’s salacious story of artistic envy, though: Domenico actually died after Andrea, making the murder impossible.

Michelangelo’s endlessly petty rivalries

Vasari’s narrative culminates with the High Renaissance. Italian art had reached its pinnacle, he contends, when Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael were working. In these pages, Michelangelo comes across as particularly difficult.

Michelangelo wasn’t afraid to tussle with Pope Julius, who commissioned the artist to make a tomb for St. Peter’s Basilica. Michelangelo paid for the Carrara marble himself, expecting swift reimbursement. Yet he found it difficult to track down the pope to reclaim his money. Michelangelo got so angry that he left for Florence before finishing the commission. Vasari also offers a second tale about Michelangelo’s flight from Rome. In this version, the pope became angry when the artist wouldn’t let him see his works in progress. Julius bribed Michelangelo’s apprentices to let him see the tomb. The artist was so mad about the betrayal that he lurked in the chapel to catch the pope and his assistants in the act.

The pair eventually made up, and Michelangelo returned to Rome. Though he wanted to finish the tomb, the pope gave him another project, instead: to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. More of a sculptor than a painter, Michelangelo was angry about the commission. He recommended Raphael, a young upstart from Urbino, in his place. The pope’s architect, Bramante, and Raphael had become co-conspirators while Michelangelo was away from Rome. The pair hoped to see Michelangelo fail. They successfully urged Julius to stick to his original request.

It was Michelangelo got the last laugh. Raphael, according to Vasari, died from too much sex in 1520, before reaching the age of 40. Michelangelo lived for another 44 years. And the Sistine Chapel ceiling, of course, remains a masterpiece of Western art.

Alina Cohen
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019