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Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, 1568 Edition.

We look at objects, write about them, talk about them, consume them. They are the centre of our discipline - the focal point and its reason to be. For OBJECT No. 2 Elizabeth Craig from the Courtauld Book Library discusses Giorgio Vasari’s entry on Properzia de’ Rossi in the 1568 edition of The Lives of the Artists.

Regarded as the first of its kind, Le Vite was reportedly begun after Paolo Giovio convinced Giorgio Vasari to publish the notes he had been collecting on famous artists. When it was first circulated in 1550, The Lives of the Artists contained what Vasari considered the most eminent Italian painters, sculptors and architects from the late 1200s to his own time - the 1550s. Beginning with Cimabue, Vasari wrote biographies of the artists that had contributed to the three progressive stages in Italian art which made it 'even more glorious than that of the ancient world'.

It has been suggested by such figures as Evelyn Welch that the book has a tripartite structure centred around three artists: Giotto, the initiator of a new, innovative type of artwork that would eventually lead to the Renaissance; the fifteenth century and Donatello; and lastly, the divine Michelangelo. Giotto has been described by Ghiberti as having ‘resurrected’ art, a stance Vasari clearly agreed with.

In 1568, the original edition was expanded, corrected and illustrated. It is the latter publication that the Courtauld possesses. The illustrations include portraits of the artists, minutely decorated initials (some depicting men in various activities) and a frontispiece. Surrounded by classical frameworks, the artists are mainly portrayed either directly facing the viewer or standing in profile - a practice common in this period.

In a society where female artists were barely recognised, female sculptors were even rarer, and it is even more so surprising to see a woman have a “life” in this publication. However, famous for her intricately carved fruit stones and for sculpting the bas-reliefs of San Petronio’s façade, Properzia de’ Rossi and her skills were acknowledged and this led to her being featured in The Lives. Granted, she only received four pages but this can be deemed remarkable considering how art, along with many other activities during this period, was male-dominated. However, in Describing the Female Sculptor in Early Modern Italy, Sally Quin has argued that it was beginning to become a trend to briefly feature women in humanist texts.

Rossi’s portrait shows her gazing to her right and draped in what looks to be a velo. She follows the trend of being surrounded by an elaborate classical fictive structure featuring caryatids and a draped woman carving into a sculpture of a male head. Portrayed here with no family ties, she is shown solely as an artist, just as the other males are. Within his 1568 publication, Vasari expanded Properzia’s biography to include a list of further notable female artists such as: Plautilla Nelli, Lucrezia della Mirandola and Sofonisba Anguissola. However, none are given portraits or their own separate biography. Despite Michelangelo being the only living artist mentioned in this compendium in the 1550s, although he died before the illustrated version, we can still assume that some portraits are of a similar likeness such as Properzia’s. Yet, naturally, this is debatable. However, whether true to likeness or not, they are worth looking into.

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