Artibus et Historiae no. 64 (XXXII)

2011, ISSN 0391-9064

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SHARON GREGORY - Caravaggio and Vasari’s Lives

Caravaggio’s early biographers presented him as an artist who had no theory, who painted exactly what he saw without regard for the idealizing tradition of the High Renaissance. Bellori went so far as to state that Caravaggio “lacked invenzione, decorum, disegno, or any knowledge of the science of painting”. As late as the early twentieth century, he was considered to be an artist whose chief aim was to defy tradition and authority. Not until 1955, with Friedländer’s Caravaggio Studies, did a scholar systematically argue that Caravaggio both respected and responded to the work of many exemplary artists, including Michelangelo and Dürer.

By the 1980s, Caravaggio had ceased to be seen as an unlettered artist. Instead, scholars began to consider his familiarity with texts by contemporary theologians and writers of the ancient world. I propose another literary source for Caravaggio: Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. Vasari applied to visual artists the familiar ancient formula of biography – the lives of famous men as examples to be imitated by the reader. Interspersed throughout his book are comments on works of art and issues related to contemporary art theory. In short, the Lives was for artists a sort of textbook on fame and how to achieve it.

When Caravaggio arrived in Rome in 1592, he was virtually penniless and without a patron. His early paintings, made for the open market, were for the most part still-life arrangements and genre scenes. I propose that Caravaggio was, instead, competing on his own terms with artists whose fame was assured; to this end, he responded to passages in Vasari’s Lives. In several instances, Caravaggio’s early works reflect Vasari’s descriptions of paintings by artists as illustrious as Leonardo and Raphael – sometimes more closely than they reflect the paintings themselves.

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