Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects

The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (Italian: Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori), often simply known as The Lives (Italian: Le Vite), is a series of artist biographies written by 16th-century Italian painter and architect Giorgio Vasari, which is considered "perhaps the most famous, and even today the most-read work of the older literature of art",[1] "some of the Italian Renaissance's most influential writing on art",[2] and "the first important book on art history".[3]

The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects
Title page of the 1568 edition of Le Vite
AuthorGiorgio Vasari
Original titleLe Vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori
TranslatorEliza Foster
CountryDuchy of Florence
SubjectArtist biographies
PublisherTorrentino (1550), Giunti (1568)
Publication date
1550 (enlarged 1568)
Published in English
Pages369 (1550), 686 (1568)
LC ClassN6922 V4924
Original text
Le Vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori at Italian Wikisource

Vasari published the work in two editions with substantial differences between them; the first edition, two volumes, in 1550 and the second, three volumes, in 1568 (which is the one usually translated and referred to). One important change was the increased attention paid to Venetian art in the second edition, even though Vasari still was, and has ever since been, criticised for an excessive emphasis on the art of his native Florence.


The writer Paolo Giovio expressed his desire to compose a treatise on contemporary artists at a party in the house of Cardinal Farnese, who asked Vasari to provide Giovio with as much relevant information as possible. Giovio instead yielded the project to Vasari.[4]

As the first Italian art historian, Vasari initiated the genre of an encyclopedia of artistic biographies that continues today. Vasari's work was first published in 1550 by Lorenzo Torrentino in Florence,[5] and dedicated to Cosimo I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. It included a valuable treatise on the technical methods employed in the arts. It was partly rewritten and enlarged in 1568 and provided with woodcut portraits of artists (some conjectural).

The work has a consistent and notorious favour of Florentines and tends to attribute to them all the new developments in Renaissance art – for example, the invention of engraving. Venetian art in particular, let alone other parts of Europe, is systematically ignored.[6] Between his first and second editions, Vasari visited Venice and the second edition gave more attention to Venetian art (finally including Titian) without achieving a neutral point of view. John Symonds claimed in 1899 that, "It is clear that Vasari often wrote with carelessness, confusing dates and places, and taking no pains to verify the truth of his assertions" (in regards to Vasari's life of Nicola Pisano), while acknowledging that, despite these shortcomings, it is one of the basic sources for information on the Renaissance in Italy.[7]

Vasari's biographies are interspersed with amusing gossip. Many of his anecdotes have the ring of truth, although likely inventions. Others are generic fictions, such as the tale of young Giotto painting a fly on the surface of a painting by Cimabue that the older master repeatedly tried to brush away, a genre tale that echoes anecdotes told of the Greek painter Apelles. He did not research archives for exact dates, as modern art historians do, and naturally his biographies are most dependable for the painters of his own generation and the immediately preceding one. Modern criticism—with all the new materials opened up by research—has corrected many of his traditional dates and attributions. The work is widely considered a classic even today, though it is widely agreed that it must be supplemented by modern scientific research.

Vasari includes a forty-two-page sketch of his own biography at the end of his Vite, and adds further details about himself and his family in his lives of Lazzaro Vasari and Francesco de' Rossi.


Vasari's Vite has been described as "by far the most influential single text for the history of Renaissance art"[8] and "the most important work of Renaissance biography of artists".[1] Its influence is situated mainly in three domains: as an example for contemporary and later biographers and art historians, as a defining factor in the view on the Renaissance and the role of Florence and Rome in it, and as a major source of information on the lives and works of early Renaissance artists from Italy.

The Vite has been translated wholly or partially into many languages, including Dutch, English, French, German, Polish, Russian and Spanish.

Early translations became a model for othersEdit

The Vite formed a model for encyclopedias of artist biographies. Different 17th century translators became artist biographers in their own country of origin and were often called the Vasari of their country. Karel Van Mander was probably the first Vasarian author with his Painting book (Het Schilderboeck, 1604), which encompassed not only the first Dutch translation of Vasari, but also the first Dutch translation of Ovid and was accompanied by a list of Italian painters who appeared on the scene after Vasari, and the first comprehensive list of biographies of painters from the Low Countries.[1] Similarly, Joachim von Sandrart, author of Deutsche Akademie (1675), became known as the "German Vasari" and Antonio Palomino, author of An account of the lives and works of the most eminent Spanish painters, sculptors and architects (1724), became the "Spanish Vasari".[9] In England, Aglionby's Painting Illustrated from 1685 was largely based on Vasari as well.[1] In Florence the biographies of artists were revised and implemented in the late 17th century by Filippo Baldinucci.

View of the RenaissanceEdit

The Vite is also important as the basis for discussions about the development of style.[10] It influenced the view art historians had of the Early Renaissance for a long time, placing too much emphasis on the achievements of Florentine and Roman artists while ignoring those of the rest of Italy and certainly the artists from the rest of Europe.[11]

Source of informationEdit

For centuries, it has been the most important source of information on Early Renaissance Italian (and especially Tuscan) painters and the attribution of their paintings. In 1899, John Addington Symonds used the Vite as one of his basic sources for the description of artists in his seven books on the Renaissance in Italy,[12] and nowadays it is still, despite its obvious biases and shortcomings, the basis for the biographies of many artists like Leonardo da Vinci.[13]

Contents of the 1568 editionEdit

The Vite contains the biographies of many important Italian artists, and is also adopted as a sort of classical reference guide for their names, which are sometimes used in different ways. What follows is the complete list of artists appearing the second (1568) edition. In a few cases, different very short biographies were given in one section.

Volumes and partsEdit

The 1568 edition was published in three volumes. Vasari divided the biographies into three parts. Parts I and II are contained in the first volume. Part III is presented in the two other volumes.

Volume 1Edit

The first volume starts with a dedication to Cosimo I de' Medici and a preface, and then provides technical and background texts about architecture, sculpture, and painting.[14] A second preface follows, introducing the actual "Vite".

Biographies, first part

Biographies, second part

Volume 2Edit

Biographies, third part

Volume 3Edit

Biographies, third part (continued)


Eliza Foster's 1850-51 translation of Vasari's Lives

There have been numerous editions and translations of the Lives over the years. Many have been abridgements due to the great length of the original.

The first English-language translation by Eliza Foster (as "Mrs. Jonathan Foster") was published by Henry George Bohn in 1850-51, with careful and abundant annotations. According to professor Patricia Rubin of New York University, "her translation of Vasari brought the Lives to a wide English-language readership for the first time. Its very real value in doing so is proven by the fact that it remained in print and in demand through the nineteenth century." [15]

The most recent new English translation is by Peter and Julia Conaway Bondanella, published in the Oxford World's Classics series in 1991.[16]

Versions onlineEdit



See alsoEdit

  • Egg of Columbus (Lives contains a similar story to the Columbus' egg story)


  1. ^ a b c d Max Marmor, Kunstliteratur, translated by Ernst Gombrich, in Art Documentation Vol 11 # 1, 1992
  2. ^ "University of Leeds website". Retrieved 5 February 2014.
  3. ^ Murray, P. and L. Murray. (1963) The art of the renaissance. London: Thames & Hudson (World of Art), p. 8. ISBN 978-0-500-20008-7
  4. ^ Salmi, Mario; Becherucci, Luisa; Marabottini, Alessandro; Tempesti, Anna Forlani; Marchini, Giuseppe; Becatti, Giovanni; Castagnoli, Ferdinando; Golzio, Vincenzo (1969). The Complete Work of Raphael. New York: Reynal and Co., William Morrow and Company. p. 607.
  5. ^ "Christopher Witcombe, Art History and Technology". Retrieved 5 February 2014.
  6. ^ "Takuma Ito, Studies of Western Art No. 12, July 2007". Retrieved 5 February 2014.
  7. ^ "John Addington Symonds, Renaissance in Italy, 1899, Vol. 3, Part 2". Retrieved 5 February 2014.
  8. ^ Professor Hope, The Warburg Institute, course synopsis, 2007 Archived 27 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ "Abstract from the transactions of the bibliographical society". Retrieved 5 February 2014.
  10. ^ Elinor Richter, reviewing Philip Sohms study of style in the art theory Archived 5 July 2007 at the Wayback Machine :"Giorgio Vasari's Vite, the first edition of which was published in 1550, provides the foundation for any discussion of the development of style."
  11. ^ Stephanie Leone, The Renaissance Society of America, 2007: "[...] the traditional definition of Renaissance art as the humanistic innovations of Florentine and Roman artists, to which Giorgio Vasari's Vite (1550, 1568) gave rise."
  12. ^ "Full text of John Symonds' "Renaissance in Italy"". 13 March 2004. Retrieved 5 February 2014 – via Project Gutenberg.
  13. ^ "Bernard Barryte, The life of Leonardo da Vinci, University of Rochester Library Bulletin (1984)". Retrieved 5 February 2014.
  14. ^ Vasari, Giorgio. (1907) Vasari on technique: being the introduction to the three arts of design, architecture, sculpture and painting, prefixed to the Lives of the most excellent painters, sculptors and architects. G. Baldwin Brown Ed. Louisa S. Maclehose Trans. London: Dent.
  15. ^ Patricia Rubin, “Eliza Foster (dates unknown)”, Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 2019 (28). doi:
  16. ^ Vasari, G. The Lives of the Artists. Translated with an introduction and notes by J.C. and Peter Bondanella. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Oxford World’s Classics), 1991. ISBN 9780199537198


External linksEdit