Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects reminds us just what a revolutionary force Leonardo was. A monumental achievement of writing and research, The Lives already contained more than 280,000 words in its first 1550 edition. The second, expanded edition, published 18 years later, was almost three times at long, and included commentaries on 175 different artists.
In many respects, Vasari’s tome became the foundational work of Western art history. Divided into three sections, it delineated a clear chronological progression out of the Gothic, towards the perfected emulation of Classical Antiquity, and into the “perfection” of Michelangelo.
In this, Vasari established the great narrative arc out of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance that defines the majority of art historical scholarship and curation to this day. Take a walk through the Uffizi, and you’ll be following the trajectory first laid out by Vasari.
It is Leonardo’s life which opens the third, final, and triumphant section of The Lives, the period in which Vasari saw the true realization of ‘modern’ art. Although he regarded Michelangelo as the apogee of this period, Leonardo is presented as its lodestar — a “truly miraculous and celestial” figure who perfected the modelling of figures, proportion, and anatomical precision.
For Vasari, Leonardo was such a master of verisimilitude, with a “most subtle reproduction of all the details of nature precisely as they are, according to good rule, superior order, correct proportion, perfect design”, that he is repeatedly compared to the hand of “the divine itself”.