First posted March 29, 2009
I’ve been listening to a reading of Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists, which you can sample here.
Vasari relates, with earthy realism, the times and trials of artists in Renaissance Italy. For the most part, these men lived short, uncomfortable lives. Still they managed to elevate their culture to stratospheric heights. This story is told most literally in the life of Filippo Brunelleschi, who designed and supervised construction of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. The significance of this building cannot be overstated. Our American culture expects the future to improve upon the past. During the Middle Ages, Europeans knew that life had been better for their ancestors. For one thousand years, Italians shivered in the shadows of great monuments like the Colosseum. They could not equal them, or even understand how they had been built. When the base of Santa Maria was designed, no one knew how the dome could be made; they simply predicted that someone would come along and figure it out. Filippo’s gave the Florentines the first modern building to rival those of the Roman Empire.
Filippo solved enormous physical problems in his design and construction, but these were mild, compared to the Florentines, who fought him every step of the way. Filippo controlled the enemy factions by withholding information about his plans. He said only what was necessary to continue the work. Giorgio wrote:
[W]ishing to prevail, he was forced to arm himself with patience, having insight enough to know that the brains of the men of that city did not abide very firmly by any one resolution. Filippo could have shown a little model that he had in his possession, but he did not wish to show it, having recognized the small intelligence of the Consuls, the envy of the craftsmen, and the instability of the citizens, who favored now one and now another, according as it pleased each man best ; and I do not marvel at this, since every man in that city professes to know as much in these matters as the experienced masters know, although those who truly understand them are but few; and let this be said without offense to those who have the knowledge.
Before I read The Lives, I heard people asking each other, “Why is the Mona Lisa smiling?” as if it were some dark mystery. Every artist knows that Mona is smiling because the artist who painted her wanted that look. Of course, when I said this, no one believed me. Argue with me if you like, but it’s pointless to argue with Vasari. Leonardo da Vinci was still alive, during his childhood. In his life of Leonardo, Giorgio told us exactly why the Mona Lisa is smiling:
Leonardo undertook to execute, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife; and after toiling over it for four years, he left it unfinished . . . . Mona Lisa being very beautiful, he always employed, while he was painting her portrait, persons to play or sing, and jesters, who might make her remain merry, in order to take away that melancholy which painters are often wont to give to the portraits that they paint. And in this work of Leonardo's there was a smile so pleasing, that it was a thing more divine than human to behold; and it was held to be something marvellous, since the reality was not more alive.
How can people walk around wondering about something so well-documented? It makes me wonder what other “mysteries” are empty of mystery. Maybe we really do know who shot President Kennedy—no, no, it couldn’t be that simple—sorry, I got carried away for a minute.
Giorgio’s book is a lively companion. I wish I could invite him for a long dinner, served with red wine. He was an accomplished painter and an even more accomplished architect, but he freely expressed his admiration for other artists. He also confessed the insecurity he felt after seeing Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. I saw the fresco when I was twenty-five years old, and felt the despair Giorgio described perfectly:
Behind this work, bound in chains, follow all those who believe they have mastered the art of painting: the strokes with which Michelangelo outlined his figures make every intelligent and sensitive artist wonder and tremble, no matter how strong a draughtsman he may be. When other artists study the fruits of Michelangelo’s labors, they are thrown into confusion by the mere thought of what manner of things all other pictures, past or future, would look like if placed side by side with this masterpiece.