Four racing camels and Vasari
All through history human beings have been attracted by spectacle and new experiences. As I’m only human that’s probably what drove me see the camel races the other day… What would a camel race in rural Hertfordshire be like? Would the jockeys be robots? (Since 2005 child jockeys have been replaced by robots in the United Arab Emirates.) Somehow my forays into Renaissance art and camel racing have combined to bring you these thoughts…
One of the many things I learnt about camel racing at the weekend is that camels do not turn corners well – they can only run in a straight line. And in my curiosity about art I’ve found that many great artists go through their lives like racing camels. They don’t necessarily start off easily or keep to their lane, but something drives them down a straight track with one aim – to be the artist they are.
Most of the stories in Giorgio Vasari’s book The Lives of the Artists illustrate this camel race approach. I came across his book when I studied Art History for A’ Level. Perhaps you dipped into it about the same time too. It’s only now that I realise what Vasari is talking about – and what studying Art History somehow failed to get across - that Renaissance artists primarily created spectacles – amazing emotional experiences. Yet people probably travelled to see their works more through curiosity than a love of art. Renaissance artists were so successful at creating an experience that tourists in their droves still go and see their works today, five hundred or more years later.
Giorgio Vasari was born in July 1511. To put this date into context - in Merry England that very same year and month, Henry VIII launched his flagship, the Mary Rose, from Portsmouth docks. (Coincidentally the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth is getting ready as I write – opening its doors on 31 May 2013.)
Somehow, as Vasari grew older his parents spotted the camel race that he was destined to run – they saw he had a gift for drawing. So when he reached 13 his parents packed him off to Florence, forty miles away, to be an apprentice with no less an artist than Michelangelo - sculptor, painter and architect. Though some experts say that he was actually apprenticed with Andrea del Sarto.
In those days it was artists who brought stories alive – in the same way film makers do for us today. I get the feeling that artist’s studios were big factories designed to churn out visual stories on a grand scale. I imagine it was in this type of environment that Vasari met two other young lads about the same age, who were destined to be arts sponsors. They were Alessandro and Ippolito – both from the great and rich de Medici family. These three lads hung out together in their teens – and they grew up quickly. By the age of 21 Alessandro was the Duke of Florence. Ippolito in his early twenties was a Cardinal and leading soldiers to battle in Hungary. So by the age of 21 Vasari and his parents probably thought he was set for life – he’d been trained to run a particular race – and he had at least two patrons happy to put big bets on his form as a painter.
But these were turbulent times - full of political intrigue. At the age of 24 Ippolito died, some say of malaria, others say he was poisoned. At the age of 26 Alessandro was assassinated. So in his mid-twenties Vasari lost not only two great friends but also his patrons – which must have been a blow to his career. I wonder whether it was hard for him to find work – and whether by the time he reached his early thirties he was thinking about a change. For whatever reason, he seeks advice from the historian and biographer Paolo Giovio. This older man was Leonardo da Vinci’s first biographer – and had written about Leonardo’s scientific research methods 20 years earlier when Vasari would have been a little boy of 9.
I think Giovio probably enjoyed Vasari’s company. Accounts from the time tell us that Vasari was very good looking, energetic and fun. You can tell from his stories that he liked people, he loved a good yarn and enjoyed gossip too. Giovio must have seen that Vasari’s story telling talents plus his knowledge of design and the technicalities of art were a winning combination. He came up with the ideal career suggestion – a new sort of camel race - why don’t you write about the Italian artists of our time? Meanwhile, Michelangelo also said something like – why don’t you concentrate on architecture?
So Vasari spends the rest of his thirties and forties running on two different tracks. He designs several buildings throughout Italy. For example, the building we know as the Uffizi Gallery, Florence was originally designed by him as government offices. He also energetically pursues his writing project by viewing great paintings and collecting stories of artists wherever he goes. He was probably the first art historian, seeing art as a series of movements. He spotted how artists learn from art that has gone before – but also move it on to reflect their own time.
Another incidental thing I learnt about camels at the weekend is what real and individual personalities they have – just like the artists that Vasari describes – and just like all of us. Vasari’s book is a lasting legacy because readers enjoy these personalities and their stories - as much as the art works he describes.
The role of an artist is different these days – we’re in a different camel race again. But our audience hasn’t changed. People’s curiosity and the need for an experience, a story and a bit of chat hasn’t altered since Vasari’s time. Which is where Open Studios comes in… Four racing camels and Vasari tell us a lot about what people will hunt out, enjoy and remember.
(Sources: Much of what I’ve learnt about Vasari is in the Introduction to a translation of The Lives of the Artists by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella (Oxford University Press, reissued 2008). Also, A Chronology of Giorgio Vasari, in the same book. Links to other sources are included in the article.)
What’s your camel race? Have you had a change of track at any point? If so, what or who has made you change direction? Is there a story there? If you’d like to share, we’re interested…