The art life has always been a struggle

Fifteenth-century artist hijinks via Vasari’s Lives

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: Arthur Schopenhauer, Germany’s routine-loving, flute-practicing philosopher of pessimism.


For my new book project—which I should be able to announce very soon, I swear!—I recently finished working my way through Giorgio Vasari’s 1568 Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, the prototype for artist biography in the Western tradition—and a genuinely rollicking read, stuffed with vivid anecdotes about the trials and tribulations (and triumphs) of the Renaissance masters, written in a loquacious, hyperbolic, and occasionally almost breathless prose style that (at least in its English translation) I found utterly charming.  

For this issue of the newsletter, I thought I would pull out a few aspects of Vasari’s Lives that struck me as quite relatable to contemporary creative workers. Even 470 years later, some things about the art life have barely changed.

ARTIST–CLIENT NEGOTIATIONS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN FRAUGHT

And they were especially fraught at this moment, when painters and sculptors were trying to establish themselves as deserving of greater respect and higher social status than mere artisans. As a result, stingy buyers were particularly offensive figures who had to be dealt with harshly.

The sculptor Donatello, for instance, once received a commission from a Genoese merchant to make a life-size bronze bust. When the merchant came to see it, Vasari writes, “it appeared to him that [Donatello] was asking too much.” Donatello’s patron, Cosimo de’ Medici, tried to intercede in the price dispute, but when the merchant dared suggest to Donatello that he had only spent a month on the statue and could not expect such a high day rate, Donatello pushed the statue out the window and “sent it flying straightway into the street below, where it broke into a thousand pieces.”

Seeing the bust shatter, the merchant immediately regretted his stinginess and offered to give Donatello double the price to remake it, but the sculptor refused. The insult to his dignity had been too great and no amount of money or entreaties could convince him to make another work for the merchant from Genoa.

BEING BETTER THAN YOUR PEERS HAS ITS DRAWBACKS

The Lives are stuffed with stories of artists distinguishing themselves with their superior talent—only to attract the envy and malice of their peers. That undoubtedly happens nowadays, too, but in 15th-century Tuscany the consequences could be dire: Career sabotage was rampant, and physical violence was not uncommon. When the supremely gifted painter Masaccio died suddenly at the age of 26, people suspected that he may have been poisoned by envious fellow painters. And when Michelangelo was a young apprentice, one of his fellow pupils was so “moved by envy at seeing him more honored than himself and more able in art,” Vasari writes, that this jealous pupil “struck him a blow of the fist on the nose with such force, that he broke and crushed it very grievously and marked him for life.”

A VERVE FOR SELF-PROMOTION WAS A MAJOR ASSET, THEN AS NOW

Irritated that today’s artists are expected to maintain bustling social media presences on top of, you know, actually making quality work? Alas, it has always been so. Sure, social media is new—but throughout history the most successful artists have tended to be zealous and canny managers of their public profiles, and the Renaissance was no exception.

The architect Filippo Brunelleschi is a good example. To win the commission for the dome of the Florence cathedral, Brunelleschi engaged in a multitude of subtle and not-so-subtle publicity tactics, first moving from Florence to Rome, “thinking that he would be in greater repute and would be more sought for from abroad than he would be if he stayed in Florence” (it worked—the Florentines wrote asking him to return), and then waging an influence campaign to convince the city’s Consuls that he alone could successfully raise the dome. He finally got the commission, but when he was saddled with an unqualified co-architect Brunelleschi waged another campaign, this time going out of his way to discredit and disgrace his colleague rather than share credit for the dome. (Again, it worked: his co-architect was removed and the engineering marvel has forever after been known as Brunelleschi’s Dome.)

THE ART LIFE HAS ALWAYS BEEN A STRUGGLE

An accomplished and sought-after painter himself, Vasari was keenly aware of the perils of a life making art. There were money worries, capricious patrons, and the aforementioned envious competitors—and there was the sheer exertion required to make ambitious works. Pursuing this path could bring glory and riches, but it could also leave you physically and spiritually drained, a painted-out husk barely fit for human company.

Cautionary tales abound. The painter Jacopo da Pontormo wanted so badly to get a certain painting right that he “racked his brains in such a manner that it was a tragedy.” Pontormo ended up a kind of holy fool, obsessed with art but no longer able to realize his vision. Vasari writes: “At times, going out to work, he set himself to think so profoundly on what he was to do, that he went away without having done any other thing all day but standing thinking.” (This is me trying to write some days.)

There was also the risk of getting too immersed in the finer details of painting, to the point of ruin. This happened to the painter Paolo Uccello, who became so obsessed with the art of perspective that it took over his life. (Uccello would stay in his study all night trying to master its intricacies, and when his wife would call him to bed, he would refuse, saying: “Oh, what a sweet thing is this perspective!”) Vasari warns readers:

Although these [details] are ingenious and beautiful, yet if a man pursues them beyond measure he does nothing but waste his time, exhausts his powers, fills his mind with difficulties, and often transforms his fertility and readiness into sterility and constraint, and renders his manner, by attending more to these details than to figures, dry and angular, which all comes from a wish to examine things too minutely; not to mention that he very often becomes solitary, eccentric, melancholy, and poor.

Solitary, eccentric, melancholy, and poor—the artist’s life in a nutshell? That may be a bit too pessimistic even for me, but I appreciate that Vasari understood the full range of the artistic experience, from the glorious heights of “supreme perfection” to the confusing muddle of everyday trial and error.

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SPEAKING OF CANNY SELF-PROMOTION . . .

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