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Victims and Villains in Vasari's Lives.

Andrew Ladis. Victims and Villains in Vasari's Lives.

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008. x + 160 pp. index, illus. bibl. $35. ISBN: 978-0-8078-3132-8.

Andrew Ladis's Victims and Villains in Vasari's Lives presents an account of "the downtrodden, the rebellious, the lazy, the half-defeated, the self-delusional, the victimized, and the villainous" (x) in Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists (1550, 1568). The Lives of such antiheroes as Buonamico Buffalmaco, Andrea del Castagno, and Baccio Bandinelli, as related by Vasari, offer a literary counterpoint--a narrative tension--necessary for highlighting the accomplishments of the heroes of Vasari's work, and Ladis focuses here on Giotto, Domenico Veneziano, and Michelangelo. These six artists, and numerous othets, are paired by Ladis as a way of understanding Vasari's message about the production and appreciation of art, and most poignantly that those who make art arc very human and subject to human drives, ambitions, virtues, and vices.

Giotto and his frescoes in the Arena Chapel offer a kind of basso continue in Ladis's text. For example, in his discussion of Bandinelli--for Vasari, not only an antihero but an antichrist in contrast to the "divine" Michelangelo, savior of the arts--Ladis points to Giotto's Vices in the Atena Chapel to suggest the depth of tradition on which both Giotto and Vasari relied. Ladis uses these figures to illustrate Vasari's account of Bandinelli's destruction and "shredding" of Michelangelo's Battle of Cascina cartoon: Bandinelli embodies Envy with her fingers "worn down to mere stubs," and Injustice with "talons and fangs" (121). Vasari does not discuss any work in the Arena Chapel, and Ladis's many references to them--in a book about Vasari's text--are curious. But Vasari recognized the power of language to aid a reader's visualization of an image, and this may be Ladis's aim in the parallels he draws between the Arena Chapel and Bandinelli's character.

Vasari's individual Lives ultimately emphasize the greatness of Michelangelo. And it is for this reason, according to Ladis, that Vasari adds the Life of Bandinelli to the 1568 edition, a much expanded and thematically grander endeavor than the 1550 publication. For Ladis, the Life of Bandinelli (one of the longest) is a morality tale that sets up the salvation of art by the "divine" Michelangelo. Vasari's discussion of Bandinelli's tomb is particularly telling of Vasari's description of his contemporary and rival. The tomb consists of two figures, a recumbent Dead Christ supported by Nicodemus, whose lace is a portrait of Bandinelli. Vasari describes the work as having been begun and brought to near completion by Bandinelli's son, Clemente, before his departure for Rome, where he died shortly after arriving, and then finished by Bandinelli when he became aware that Michelangelo was at work on a comb sculpture for himself. Bandinelli had behaved particularly badly toward Clemente, and "would not give him anything, although the young man had been a great help to him in Florence, and, indeed, Baccio's right hand" (129). Paul Barolsky interpreted the group as a Pieta wherein Bandinelli-Nicodemus grieves for the dead son (Giotto's Father [1992], 95). For Ladis, whose debt to Barolsky is stated in the preface, "the tender image of Bandinelli sustaining the Redeemer in his arms is hardly what it seems but, instead, a grotesque Judas-like act of impiety and betrayal" (129). Vasari's Life of Bandinelli is monographic in scope and extraordinary among the Lives for the amount of information it provides. Thus, the ambiguity in Vasari about the attribution of these figures was purposeful. Always in competition--with Michelangelo, with his own son--Bandinelli could not overcome his lack of what one might call originality, which is critical to Vasari's story of art and necessary to set off Michelangelo's achievements.

Andrew Ladis's Victims and Villains in Vasari's Lives is based on a series of lectures delivered at the University of Notch Carolina, Chapel Hill in the spring of 2002. The four chapters and concluding comments adhere closely to those lectures and are without extensive notes, bibliography, and citations for the many references to Vasari. Ladis's text, however, is erudite and appealing, and the reader gains much from his visual analyses of particular works of art. We are reminded throughout of Vasari's delight in reading and, most likely, his deliberations over the writing of his text. Ladis offers a perceptive and nuanced account of Vasari, who is presented here as an artful writer whose attention to language, narrative, literary structure, and character development might be seen as exceeding his skill as a painter or architect. We are certainly reminded that there is much in Vasari's Lives still to be enjoyed and interpreted.


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Author:Och, Marjorie
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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