Articles About Art - Giorgio Vasari's Stylistic Phases in the Renaissance
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Giorgio Vasari's Stylistic Phases in the Renaissance*
In 1550 Vasari retrospectively viewed the development of the rebirth of classical art as an
evolutionary process in three phases, each corresponding to a phase in human life. The first phase
could be compared to childhood, and was introduced by Cimabue and Giotto in painting, Arnolfo
di Cambio in architecture and Pisani in sculpture. The second phase, corresponding to adoles-
cence, was represented by Masaccio, Brunelleschi and Donatello. The third phase, that of
adulthood, was initiated by Leonardo da Vinci and brought to full growth by Raphael, reaching its
pinnacle with Michelangelo, the great uomo universale.
a) The first stylistic phase
Vasari said of Giotto: "... in my opinion painters owe to Giotto exactly the same debt they owe to
nature which constantly serves them as a model ..." . According to his theory, Giotto
was the first painter who broke away completely from the "crude" Byzantine style and reclaimed
a status for painting which it had lacked for centuries.
In the first phase, the three art forms were still far removed from the perfection which, to
Vasari, meant the application of all the classical principles. Artists did start, however, to resolve
artistic problems by striving to create works that were true to life. Giotto's most important
contribution was the sculptural quality of his figures, as shown in his Madonna and Child
Enthroned. The folds of drapery invest the Madonna with a weighty, substantial quality. Her
elongated face still shows a Byzantine influence, though she sits convincingly on the throne
which projects three dimensionally from the space behind. The accompanving saints have been
placed spatially in a convincingly natural way. In its iconography, however, the work still shows
Byzantine and Medieval influences. On the whole, Giotto's work indicates that he did not possess
a thorough knowledge of human anatomy; this is one of the many shortcomings Vasari found in
the attempts of artists of the first phase.
In his writings, Vasari became increasingly critical of the first phase and constantly stressed
the imperfections of art in this period, in spite of the good qualities which could be recognised.
Nonetheless, he acknowledged the considerable progress made during this phase with regard to
invenzione (inventiveness) and technical competence. Maniera (style) and mastery of disegno
(draughtsmanship) also improved. But most of the works, especially the paintings, did not satisfy
all the above-mentioned criteria.
b) The second stylistic phase
In the work of artists from this period, called the Quattrocento, there is a considerable improvement in the application of rule, order, proportion, disegno and maniera. In their portrayal of
figures, artists finally abandoned the Byzantine elements of staring eves, hands with sharp
fingers, feet balancing on the toes and the absence of shadows. Vasari commended the progress
made in compositions, which were not more naturalistic. In paintings there was greater variation
in figure positions and ornamentation; colours were brighter, and the compositions were
generally lighter and more purposefully related to the theme. Vasari equated the naturalism of art
m this period with the attainment of a greater degree of perfection a term which he used often
and without discretion).
Paolo Uccello is one of the artists Vasari discussed as a representative of the second period.
He criticised Ucello's "dry" style, which resulted from his obsession with perspective. He also felt that Ucello did not succeed in expressing the quality of grazia (gracefulness). Blunt notes that gracefulness was an important concept in Vasari's view of the development of the art in his time, although initially he did not differentiate between beauty and gracefulness.
When he wrote the second part of the Vite, however, Vasari had decided that beauty is based on
rules, such as the rules of perspective, while gracefulness is a somewhat indefinable quality
which depends on the viewer's perception. Uccello's work failed to satisfy this requirement for
Vasari regarded Masaccio as an excellent artist, and believed that his example inspired the
bella maniera which developed in the sixteenth century. He was an inventive artist who
understood that artists obtain the best results by imitating nature as closely as possible. Vasari
found Masaccio's work alive, true to nature and natural, and considered that it represented a
great improvement on the works produced in the first period. In Masaccio's fresco Tribute Money,
which was executed in 1425 in the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, the
realism of the figures is enhanced by the single light source, which accentuates important forms
in the composition. Vasari drew attention to the role of the shadows in enlivening the drapery,
and to the technical skill with which it had been rendered as "a few simple folds just as they
appear in real life". Vasari praised Masaccio for his achievement of the technique of foreshortening and the portrayal of flesh tones. A striking feature of his work is that the colour of the drapery round figures merges with the colours of the hands and faces. For the first time, figures were visually differentiated according to their actual scale, and were not rendered large or small to indicate status, as had been the case in Medieval art.
Vasari attributed the start of the rebirth of architecture to Brunelleschi. The orders and
proportions of antiquity reappeared in his designs In Brunelleschi's design for the Ospedale degli
Innocenti, which commenced in 1419 (Piazza della SS. Annunziata, Florence), Vasari found
evidence of a clarity of design, which was achieved through the use of Corinthian capitals and
pilasters and windows crowned with pediments.
Vasari found that the sculptors of this period had also progressed. Their improvements were
so numerous that there was little left for the sculptors of the third period to do to realise the ideal
of perfection. In contrast to the work of the sculptors of the first period, their work was more
graceful, more realistic and in better style. This was the result of a better sense of disegno (in this
context, composition) and proportion. Vasari extolled the virtues of Donatello, describing him as a
skillful craftsman, gifted with the inspiration of a virtuoso. He commended Donatello's sculpture
of Mary Magdalen (c. 1454--1455, wood, nearly two metres high, Baptistery, Cathedral of Flor-
ence) as "a finely executed and impressive work", and declared: "it is so perfect that it wins the
highest praise from all those who praise or understand the art of sculpture".
(c) The third stylistic phase
Vasari was convinced that artists had attained absolute perfection during this phase. Inventive-
ness reached its culmination and all works of art had been executed in imitation of nature, and
drawing on the greatest works of previous artists. At this stage, Vasari feared, the danger existed
that artists could retrogress from the high standard that had been achieved and that development
would be arrested. This is the period we refer to as the High Renaissance. According to Vasari, the
third style commenced with Leonardo da Vinci, whose work satisfied all the criteria we have
discussed before. Vasari regarded the Mona Lisa as a demonstration of inspired gracefulness, and
as evidence of how accurately art could imitate nature.
Vasari believed that, of the artists of the third period, Raphael's work was the most graceful.
He studied the masters of antiquity and of more modern times, and borrowed the best elements
from their work. Consequently, in a work such as the School of Athens (1509-1511) he reached a
pinnacle of classical elegance and gracefulness. In this work the figures and the architectural
framework form a harmonious composition. The arrangement of the figures and the relations
among them indicate Leonardo's influence, while the sculptural depiction of the figure of
Heraclitus was inspired by Michelangelo. The design of the architectural space is unmistakably
copied from Brunelleschi and Bramante.
Vasari's Vite is structured in such way that it builds up towards the climax of Michelangelo's
life and his work in all the arts. According to Vasari, he was the greatest of artists and surpassed
all others, living or dead. Vasari contended that Michelangelo overshadowed even nature through
his divine inspiration
In discussing Michelangelo's David (1501 - 1504), 'vasari said that the gracefulness of the
figure and the serenity of the pose had never before been realised in such a way; the harmonious
proportions of the head and hands are unparalleled and each part is in harmony with the beauty of the whole. Even works where Michelangelo deviated from accepted norms and proportions,
such as the sculptures in the Medici Chapel, Vasari saw as examples of perfect excellence. In this
regard he said that Michelangelo had created a style that was more varied and original than that
of any other master. Vasari's conclusion on Michelangelo's work was that, in every respect, it
fulfilled the criteria for perfection in disegno and maniera, as well in the other criteria that have
been previously mentioned. Since Michelangelo's work formed the pinnacle of all art creation, art
could, therefore, not develop further, but could only retrogress. However he did keep a back door
open by saying that retrogression could be avoided through the virtu (genius) of great artists. It is
highly debatable whether Vasari understood the styles we call Mannerism and Mantiera, although
we accept his criteria for bella maniera as the rudiments of these styles.
* Drawn from notes compiled by E.A. Maré for the University of South Africa