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Giorgio Vasari on Lorenzo Ghiberti

This text contains a mixture of bibliographical and historical information regarding Ghiberti’s life and the circumstances in which he received the commission for the doors for the Baptistery of San Giovanni, next to the Duomo in Florence. It contains factual information regarding the background and training of the artist; the participants and judges of the competition to win the contract; descriptive information about the location of the door, its manufacture and some of the practical difficulties experienced by Ghiberti whilst working on it. The text therefore gives information that is helpful to the historian in understanding some of the facts surrounding the production of art in fifteenth century Florence and the circumstances of production of one particular artistic creation. However, to regard this as a purely objective historical account would be a mistake. Rubin (1995, 2) comments that ‘the components of Vasari’s history had generic precedents and parallels in biography, technical treatises, and didactic literature, both classical and contemporary’. Vasari was able to fuse the elements of these different genres in order to situate Ghiberti (and the other artists in The Lives) within a developing tradition of artistic enterprise and to create a history of art that included aesthetic judgement. Vasari’s teleological view of the development of art goes beyond mere biographical and historical description and this aspect of his work is particularly important because it gives the modern reader information about how artists of the later Renaissance period viewed artistic products from an earlier time and also how a theoretical stance towards the nature of art was being developed.
Having grown up as the son of an artisan, Vasari had received part of his education in his home town of Arezzo and then spent a part of his adolescence with the Medici family, who were at that time the most prominent family in Florence. It was among their children that he furthered his education and was undoubtedly exposed to the humanist curriculum that would have been a part of their education at that time. Although Vasari would not have had a university education, he was nonetheless familiar with the basics of humanist thought. Vasari’s own life, therefore, exemplified the way in which art had become a vital part of aristocratic life and education and how it gave practitioners of the arts an entry into the highest parts of society. Whilst earlier generations of painters and sculptors had been regarded merely as craftsmen and had worked relatively anonymously, by Vasari’s time individual artists were able to capitalise on their reputations to gain high financial remuneration as well as fame. The text reveals that Ghiberti’s father had these two goals in mind when he urged Ghiberti to come back to Florence to enter the competition, which would be ‘an occasion to make himself known and demonstrate his genius’ and also that, if his son gained recognition as a sculptor, ‘neither … would ever again need to labour at making ear-rings’. The ambitious artist was, therefore, able to advance his career and wealth through winning great commissions.
Welch (1997, 125) observes that ‘by the mid-fourteenth century a number of Italian artists, particularly in Tuscany, seem to have been aware of the need to promote themselves and their memory, either by writing themselves or by encouraging others to write about them‘. It is within this tradition that Vasari wrote his The Lives. In classical times, writers such as Plutarch and Pliny had written biographical works about famous men’s lives and the Renaissance preoccupation with the revival of antiquity provided a stimulus for this genre of biography that is focussed on the rhetorical practice of praising worthy and famous men, including artists (Pliny’s Natural History provided the model for writing about artists of Graeco-Roman antiquity (Welch, 1997, 125)). Ghiberti himself had written Commentaries, a work that included a section on antiquity, another on his own autobiography, and a third on the theory of optical illusion. This is the work to which Vasari refers in the text. Vasari alludes to Ghiberti’s use of Pliny as a model and he thus demonstrates that they are all, in their different ways, participating in an ancient tradition of writing about art and that they are all seeking a form of immortality through writing as well as through making art.
Yet Vasari is somewhat disparaging in his comments on Ghiberti as a writer and his criticism may derive from the context in which he was practicing his own art. The courtly values of ease, modesty and gracefulness as exemplified in Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier had come to dominate the world of the Renaissance courts in which Vasari worked and may have been the cause of his disdain for the Ghiberti’s ‘vulgar tone’ and his condemnation of Ghiberti’s brief treatment of the ancient painters in favour of a lengthy and detailed ‘discourse about himself’. Cole (1995, 176) argues that Vasari was influenced by Castiglione in that he ‘urged the artist to disguise his labour and study and stress his facilita (ease) and prestezza (quickness of execution)’. It may have been that Vasari perceived that Ghiberti had not lived up to this artistic ideal in his writing. Another earlier writer on art, Leon Battista Alberti, had ’always stressed the joining of diligenza (diligence) with prestezza’ (Cole, 1995, 176). The influence of such aesthetic values are revealed in many of the judgements that Vasari makes; in the text, his comments on the relative merits of the submissions for the competition include technical terms that are still used today, such as ‘composition’ and ‘design’, but he also uses terms such as ‘grace’ and ’diligence’ which have a rather more specific relationship to their Renaissance context.
The text does not only reveal the courtly values that were a part of Vasari’s aesthetic. Florence had a long tradition of civic and republican values and Vasari’s account shows the ways in which the guilds and the Commune, together with ordinary citizens, all had a part to play in Ghiberti’s enterprise. Whilst the guild of Merchants had set up the competition, the location of the door in the Baptistery nonetheless has a civic and religious function that would have made it a very public work of art. Ghiberti’s practice of appealing to popular taste is revealed in Vasari’s’ description of him ‘ever inviting the citizens, and sometimes any passing stranger who had some knowledge of the art, to see his work, in order to hear what they thought, and those opinions enabled him to execute a model very well wrought and without one defect’. Peter Burke (2000, 76) comments on the value of Vasari as a source for the evidence of a popular response to art in Florence and the ways in which ‘ordinary people, craftsmen and shopkeepers, were not only familiar with the names of the leading artists of their city, past and present, but they were not afraid to offer opinions – often critical opinions – about the value of particular works.’ Vasari’s work thus shows evidence of civic as well as courtly values and demonstrates the phenomenon of the artist who had particularly frequent opportunities for mobility, both geographically and socially, in the Renaissance period.
Vasari’s book was divided into three parts that corresponded to three ‘ages’ of Renaissance art, roughly equivalent to the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This corresponded to Vasari’s view of the art history of the Renaissance as a progression towards increasing perfection. In the text, this teleological view is revealed in Vasari’s description of Ghiberti’s relationship with his father. Vasari attributes the initial prompting to compete to Ghiberti’s father, who wrote to Ghiberti ‘urging him to return to Florence in order to give a proof of his powers’, Ghiberti is also described as having ‘from his earliest years learnt the art of the goldsmith from his father’, yet ‘he became much better therein than his father’. Vasari thus uses his description of Ghiberti’s career to make the point that each generation has a debt to the past and can gain skill and knowledge from the past, and yet each generation exceeds the previous one and participates in the forward progression of artistic development. The Renaissance was a period in which the use of the past was a particular feature and the revival of antiquity was not restricted to the increased knowledge of ancient texts. In describing Ghiberti’s career, Vasari also reveals the vogue for casting medals in the ancient style and for portraiture that was based on the coins and medals of the Roman era, when he comments that ‘he also delighted in counterfeiting the dies of ancient medals, and he portrayed many of his friends from the life in his time’.
The more recent past was also an important source for the Renaissance artist, as described by Vasari. In the text, Vasari makes it clear that Ghiberti owes a debt to both Giotto and Pisano: ‘the arrangement of the scenes was similar to that which Andrea Pisano had formerly made in the first door, which Giotto designed for him.’ Again, though, Ghiberti is held to have exceeded their artistry and progressed beyond the ’old manner of Giotto’s time’ to ’the manner of the moderns’. Vasari thus reveals that there was, during the Renaissance period, a self-consciousness about artistic production and the theory of art. There was a definite perception of ’modernity’ with respect to what was then current and a tendency to reject the type of style that was though to be in the ‘old manner’.
Much that is found in Vasari is still useful to our study of Renaissance art. He provides many useful factual details, such as the names and cities of the competitors for the Baptistery door commission, and the information that many foreigners were present and participating in the artistic life of Florence. He also provides evidence of the factors that affected aesthetic judgement during the period. He provides a great deal of evidence of contemporary practices and attitudes and his allusions to specific writers and works from antiquity provide us with evidence of how the study of the classical period influenced the thought and practices of Renaissance artists. His work enables us to see how the artists of the later Renaissance period were assimilating and judging the work of their immediate predecessors from the period of Cimabue and Giotto onwards. In this text, we also have an example of the way in which Vasari gives us evidence of how artists trained, when he states that Ghiberti worked on small reliefs ‘knowing very well that [they] are the drawing-exercises of sculptors’. His description of the competition also gives us evidence of the competitive spirit in which art was created, when he states that ‘with all zeal and diligence they exerted all their strength and knowledge in order to surpass one another’. Vasari also shows the ways in which different individuals felt empowered to judge art – either through formal means by being appointed by the guild as judges or through the informal means of ordinary citizens giving their opinions directly to Ghiberti. In all of these ways, Vasari gives us not only information not only about artists and the circumstances of the production of art, but also, crucially, about its audience – who they were and what they thought about it.
Vasari’s emphasis on Florence (and Tuscany) as the major site of the genius of the Renaissance also still influences the modern study of art history, as does the ways in which he has framed artistic development as a progression from cruder and more naïve forms to the greater subtlety and ‘perfection’ of the later Renaissance. In some ways, it may be that this has been a negative influence: perhaps other parts of Italy and further afield in Europe have suffered a neglect and lack of interest as a result of this (arguably) over-emphasis on Florence. It may also be that the sense of progression has given a higher value to later works of art than those of earlier periods and that this has also caused too much emphasis on what is not known as the High Renaissance period and a neglect of other periods. Nonetheless, it cannot be in doubt that Vasari has made an important contribution to art history on his work The Lives and it is this contribution that has led him to be termed, by some, the first art historian.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Primary Sources
Castiglione, Baldasar, The Book of the Courtier, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.
Vasari, Giorgio, Lives of the Artists, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.
Secondary Sources
Boase, T.S.R., Georgio Vasari: the Man and the Book, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.
Burke, Peter, ‘Learned Culture and Popular Culture in renaissance Italy’, in Whitlock, Keith, ed., The Renaissance in Europe: A Reader, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2000.
Cole, Alison, Virtue and Magnificence: Art of the Italian Renaissance Courts, New York: Harry N Abrams, 1995.
Rubin, Patricia Lee, Giorgio Vasari: Art and History, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995.
Rud, Einar, Vasari’s Life and Lives: the First Art Historian, London: Thames and Hudson, 1963.
Welch, Evelyn, Art in Renaissance Italy: 1350-1500, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Impacts of Public Art on Society

Introduction Art is wholly subjective. Ten people may have ten different interpretations of one single work of art. On the most basic of levels they could love it, hate it or be indifferent to it. On a more informed level they may read different information from it, and ask different questions as to its artistic value. Human behaviour, by the literal meaning of it, is equally as subjective. Each individual has human traits that are based on personal experience. However, group dynamics can be quantified objectively using controlled research methods.
For this essay I shall examine how art is used to encourage certain changes in human behaviour, both mentally and physically. This dissertation aims to understand how art affects the behaviour of an individual and the associated effects of the environment on the development of character of an individual as a person. Taking into consideration that art and human behaviour are subjective I intend to research, review, analyse and interpret how organisations have utilised one for the outcome of the other. I shall look at how public buildings, whose main purpose and function are not to display art, have embraced shapes and colours in order to guide the emotional and physical state of its patrons. During the analysis I shall be examining the different theories of experts in this argument. I will be considering the artistic viewpoint and the scientific approach as well as a cultural and philosophical perspective.
In my conclusion I hope to have ascertained enough information from my research to confidently state my opinions on how art, in the simplistic terms of shape and colour, has been used to project a subliminal, psychological impact on the people that come into contact with it.
The main question I am asking in this essay is whether artistic forms, be it painting, sculpture, shape or colour, has an impact on people and their behaviour in an environment that is not necessarily expected to display art. This question will enable me to research the impact of public art in buildings such as hospitals, schools, libraries and other public locations where steps have been taken to introduce art outside the confines of a museum or gallery. Therefore the objective of this dissertation would be to create an environment that would be beneficial to pupils, patients, clients and even the entire community.
Literature Review The connotations of colour and human behaviour, specifically mood, have been understood and utilised for millennia. During the Vedic Age in India (1500BC – 600BC) there was a conceptual belief that colour could represent different emotions, one such concept proposes that: “there are three interwoven mental states which are; energy, inertia and clarity and that we all fluctuate between degrees of these states. These three qualities are given colours… Energy is symbolised by red, inertia by black or dark blue and clarity is light and colourless.” (McDonagh 2003: 170). Considering that this is not a new subject there is a wide selection of literature available on this particular subject.
I am attempting to focus my essay on the four most relevant subjects that encompass the whole of my research: Connotation of Colour throughout history; Psychology and Physiology of Human Behaviour (in controlled environments); Public Art in alternative locations (not museums or galleries); and Philosophy of Pragmatism in Art. My literature review will be made up from a combination of books, journals, research studies and interviews. Due to the overlapping nature of this essay I shall be focusing on a wide aspect of subject matter including art history, architecture, philosophy, psychology and sociology. I have accumulated around fifty sources for this essay and have systematically narrowed them down to include only the information that is relevant to my purposes. Having read through the information I have discovered that what started as a simple question has unearthed a number of different theories and interpretations; including opinions that were contrary to my original beliefs; thus forcing me to truly take on an objective view of my work. Using critical analysis of the literature I intend to produce a well argued, objective essay that shall help me answer my original question.
During my research into the above subjects I found a number of published authors, sociologist, psychologists and artists who are experts in their particular field. It was both assuring and eye-opening to read and interpret their views and as such I believe they shaped my approach to writing this essay. I found some more important to my research than others, and these included the following: Malcolm Miles writing about public art in cities in his book ‘Art, Space and the City: Public Art and Urban Futures’; Alexander Schauss’ study on the affect of colour in a controlled; Carolyn Bloomer writing about the interpretation of colour in her book ‘Principles of Visual Perception’; psychologist Tony Cassidy and his research into colour tests in his book ‘Environmental Psychology: Behaviour and Experience in Context’; pragmatist John Dewey and his early twentieth century theories on the conception of art as a means of improving life; and author Christopher Day in his work on how colours can improve daily living in his book ‘Environment and Children: Passive Lessons from the Everyday Environment’.
Methodology The methodology I am using in this essay will predominantly be data-analysis from previously researched case studies, journals and published works. I shall, however, use data-gathering in my essay wherever possible; be it from interviews with art curators, members of the public or my own observation.
I have chosen to analyse previous work and research on my subject matters due to the wealth of information available. Where I believe that vital information or data is missing I have decided to collate it myself. I believe this will allow my essay to objectively interpret cited work but also to include subjective and personal opinions on a range of subjects. After all, art and human nature are subjective topics.
A questionnaire that aims to investigate what works and what does not work and whether art serves a specific purpose will be given to participants. Within the time constraints to complete this dissertation, a questionnaire is useful for this kind of investigation as it can reach more people. Observation is considered too time-consuming, taking too long to be meaningful. Other factors that need to be taken into consideration include obtaining/seeking permission/consent from the head teachers of the schools or directors of the hospitals to carry out the investigation. A letter to the school or hospital to obtain their approval and consent for the investigation will be written, in addition to a letter to the parents of the pupils who are under the age of 16 for their consent and approval for their son/daughter to take part in the investigation.
Human Research Ethics (Ethical issues)
Due to the nature of this essay I shall be examining, amongst other findings, how human behaviour can change in relation to the environment that they are in. Because this deals with the mental and physical state of an individual I understand that I am in a position of trust, and as such any data will be gathered in strict confidence. However, because a large percentage of my findings are from data that has already been gathered I do not find myself in a position where my research ethics are questioned. I understand that if I was to delve further into the research on human behaviour patterns I would need to pay close attention to confidentiality and care towards any participants in my research; especially if I was to recreate the ‘Baker-Miller Pink’ test, in which individuals who have just been arrested are place in a pink holding cell and their mental and physical state is measured. It would also be of utmost importance to deal with any participants in prison or mental health facilities with integrity and diplomacy.

Analysis and Interpretation – Connotations of Colour In the search for an ideal environment that would benefit people who come into contact with it I believe that the first place to look is in the past, and understand how history has harnessed colour as a means of expressing emotion. The idea of colour may seem like a simple concept but, depending on your particular viewpoint, it can prove to mean many different things. In the world of physics colour is determined by the wavelength of light; to a physiologist and psychologist colour is perceived by neural responses in the eye and brain; to the sociologist it is linked with our own culture and to the artist it is an expressive creation. The basic premise of colour, that is, the colour that we can make ourselves, is that it is made up of three primary colours; red, blue and yellow: “Primary colours are ones that cannot be made by mixing other colours.” (Morris 2006: 56). When the primary colours are mixed they create the secondary colours: “The secondary colours are orange, green and violet. They are produced by mixing two primary colours.” (Morris 2006: 56). Finally there are the tertiary colours; these are created by “mixing any primary colour with its adjacent secondary colour… produces a tertiary colour” (Morris 2006: 56) and include combination colours such as orange-yellow and blue-green. The full spectrum of colour is possible by mixing colours in relation to the desired outcome, like adding ingredients to a recipe. The origins of humans recreating colour can be traced back to primitive cave paintings, examples in Europe date back 32,000 years. Although primitive by today’s standards, these depictions of wild animals by the hunter-gatherers were exquisitely painted on the rock surface using red and yellow ochre, hematite, manganese oxide and charcoal. Even though the use of reds and yellows was mainly due to the materials available to them, the colourful imagery could be described as abstract insomuch that the actual animals were not as vividly coloured as the artwork portrayed. Interestingly the two colours used are primary colours.
As mentioned previously the ancient Indian cultures believed that different colours signified separate mental states. The Egyptians also used colours to connote different meaning in that they “originated the idea of red fiends or red devils, the origin of the Christian image of a red Satan. In later dynasties, words with evil connotations were written in papyri in red ink.” (Eiseman 2000: 35). Red is a colour that is perhaps the most powerful hue and its meaning around the world has always symbolised energy and life; the word ‘red’ in many different languages is derived from the word for ‘blood’. However, different cultures interpret colours in different ways; like the Egyptians before them, the Japanese saw red as the colour of demons and devils, yet in the Middle East that imagery was not apparent: “During the early Kamakura period, about AD 1200, Japanese artist Jigoku Soshi painted his ‘Hell Scroll’ with frightening red demons chasing tormented victims; while to Persians and Turks, as reflected in their magnificent carpets, red symbolizes happiness and joy.” (Eiseman 2000: 32). In the West our cultural understanding of semiotics has conditioned us to add extra information to data that we can see. In the UK red is seen as the colour of danger; a red light means stop, a red traffic sign is a warning. Because red is such a vibrant colour, and the fact that is the first primary colour of the spectrum of light, it holds an unrivalled importance in the way it used in the natural and man-made world: “Reds are generally regarded as stimulating and exciting.” (Miller 1997: 104). In terms of human physiological reaction to the colour red, it is thought to “speed up heart and respiration rates and to raise blood pressure, and [is] associated with strength, passion, and the colour of blood and fire.” (Bloomer 1976: 120). Red has always been seen as the colour of power and energy; this has been demonstrated in the socio-political arena by the Communist movement; so much so that during the McCarthy Communist witch-hunts in 1950s American, the phrase ‘Better Dead than Red’ was echoed around the country. The phrase is a strong indicator of how powerful the word ‘red’ truly was. Only three letters long, it embodied all that was ‘un-American’ in the world, promoting fear and a Cold War that lasted over forty years, yet when include with two other colours it symbolized undying patriotism: ‘red, white and blue’.
Looking at another primary colour, blue, it is interesting to see how different cultures perceive this particular colour to that of red. In the modern West the most simple, almost child-like reading of the two colours is ‘hot’ and ‘cold’. However, throughout history the reproduction of the colour blue has meant more than just a signifier for cold water. In ancient Egypt the colour was used to connote loyalty and virtue: “these identifications with the hue go as far back as 1340BC to the Egyptian civilization and the reign of King Tut.” (Bleicher 2004: 37). However, whereas the Egyptians considered blue to be a symbol of truth, the Cherokee tribes and the Japanese see it differently: “to the Cherokee, blue is a symbol of defeat. In Japanese theatre, blue is the colour for villains.” (Hullfish