Superseding Beauty

The Italian Giorgio Vasari, who wrote the first good art history, said art was after beauty.
Beauty? What was that?
A magic amalgam of natural truth and artistic interpretation: Raw natural fact had to be worked over by the artist. It had to be modelled according to the laws of beauty, which were a priori laws—that is, they were in every man’s head already when he was born. They had to do with the shapes, distributions, proportions that please; symmetry; geometrical shapes, such as circles and triangles; color combinations.
Vasari thought the greatest painters were Leonardo da Vinci, Rafael Sanzio, and Michelangelo Buonarotti. No one had painted or sculpted as well as they, ever—nor ever would again. They had discovered just the right formula for beauty, just the right recipe for good art: something like fifty percent raw nature and fifty percent art (or artistic interpretation).

Of course if Vasari was right, what was a poor artist to do AFTER those men were dead and gone? He could only imitate them, not equal them or surpass them. He might as well give up and turn to engineering.

And in fact, artists got lost. They floundered around. Some decided to break Vasari’s rules for good art and to experiment on their own. Beauty was nice as an end, they thought, but there were other things you could aim for in a picture. There was expression. Vasari’s top artists had all restrained their figures according to the demands of grace and beauty. They didn’t paint men with their arms flailing or in unstable postures or in a rage, for example, because that ruined the harmony and serenity a beautiful picture required. Rather, they showed men and women in quiet reflection or graceful movement. They tried to make each of the details of their picture as beautiful as they could.

These new, lost, artists thought maybe beauty, or Vasari’s notion of beauty, might be crippling a picture. He said the artist should observe nature but then correct it. Why correct it? Maybe it was wrong to weed out the bad you see in nature. Maybe you should present it just as you see it, the bad along with the good, the crooked along with the straight. The raw facts, the crude facts, of nature contain as much truth as your selected “beautiful” facts.

A few started pulling their figures like taffy, making them long. The idea was to achieve some new expression. Parmigianino and Bronzino stretched them out.

The Virgin and Child by Parmigianino

El Greco pulled them even harder and misshaped them in order to show what spiritual beings they were.

Laocoön by El Greco

Greco downplayed the truth of the physical world. “We are spiritual beings basically,” he might have said. “Our struggles are all inside. Our body and the world itself is just the container where these struggles are going on. I’m not going to waste my time observing what doesn’t last. My paintings are about souls, not bodies.”

Nobody else went as far in distorting his figures as El Greco. Most painters took the middle ground and created half-beautiful paintings, trying to give their works both grace (the old beauty) and raw or even upsetting realism at the same time. An artist named Caravaggio painted dramatic scenes, some of them horrorific, with spooky stage lighting. The figures in his paintings—the prophets, the Virgins, the angels—were obviously copied from real people instead of the designs dressed up as people that the old greats had created. They weren’t beautified: if anything they were uglified for truth or emotion.



This entry was posted in aesthetics, art, art history, Beauty, great artists, Leonardo da Vinci, mannerism, Michelangelo, painting, Renaissance, Vasari. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Superseding Beauty

  1. cantueso says:

    But many paintings by Chagall and by Miró also reached this beauty ideal, and even though maybe these people learnt from nature, their paintings don’t show it.

    And the Egyptians? They learnt from each other, and by the time they made those cats the ingredient captured from nature was minimal. Things were made according to an Idea.

    You seem to think that Beauty is an Italian invention.

  2. rich says:

    I just happen to have a book here about sculptured angels in cemetries. They do not lack beauty.

    But they are all of them so anatomical, “anatomically correct” so to say, to the last feather of their wings.

    I never read an El Greco quotation before. But here in your classroom…

  3. 100swallows says:

    Rich: Oops! That’s not an El Greco quotation–I’m sorry. I put the words in his mouth. He would probably not have expressed himself that way. There are in fact almost NO quotes from him. Pacheco, Velazquez’s father-in-law, actually went to visit El Greco in Toledo but he doesn’t put any quotes in his book (as I remember). I will look up for you what there is.
    I too have seen some beautiful cemetery figures. One was on the grave of an American sculptor in the Protestant cemetery in Rome–an angel that turned his (her?) face to hide the tears.

  4. You’ll find it difficult to prove that an angel with wings is anatomically correct :). Sorry but it is one of my pet hates, so many great works of Art are spoilt by adding wings, it was a bit like The Father Christmas let down when we were children to find he wasn’t real. To the simple Christian in medieval Rome he must have suspected this to be unreal.

    I know I am a spoil sport here but where does this bit about angels having wings actually come from?

  5. rich says:

    @ Robert Mileham
    sorry, I “misuse” this blog to improve my English:

    What’s a “pet hate”?
    It’s not in my dictionnary.

  6. Rich, just a silly expression meaning ‘a specific minor irritation that I dislike, (one might even enjoy disliking it)’, oh it’s difficult to explain. I have some pictures of some great grave sculptures, real ‘howlers’, excuse the pun! Your English is very good, quite happy to add a little ‘extra’ but sometimes they are a little difficult to get the exact meaning. You will also see a difference in spelling English and English (American).

  7. 100swallows says:

    Cantueso: Vasari certainly thought that the Italians had re-discovered beauty; and Jakob Burckhardt in the nineteenth century believed so too–at least the beauty of nature, which those men believed was the model for artistic beauty. See this post:
    No, Chagall and Miró did not reach this ideal of beauty. They may have reached another but not this one (nor did they try for it, of course).

  8. cantueso says:


    But didn’t you say they were a priori, in every man’s head when he was born ? In that case they would be the same for all humans.

  9. 100swallows says:

    Cantueso: The a priori laws of good design are in everyone’s head but they guided Chagall and Miró in their creation of fantasy worlds. Those artists didn’t believe a faithful copy of natural objects would serve their purpose.

  10. alexandra says:

    Hi 100swallows,
    Have recently found your blog and have been doing a little personal research on the Italian Renaissance etc and have of course, quickly found myself in the hands of Vasari and Michelangelo. Was wondering your thoughts on why Vasari was so obsessed with Michelangelo?
    Any thoughts would be appreciated.

  11. 100swallows says:

    Alexandra: You shouldn’t see Giorgio Vasari as some kind of art dictator. Probably in this post I gave the impression that later artists were trying to free themselves from the dictates of Vasari. That is wrong. He was (or seems) a very humble little guy who undertook to do his book at the request of a Cardinal. His view of the progress of the arts was not original—many or most of the educated men of his time felt the same.
    So reading his book you didn’t “fall into his hands”: they wouldn’t close on you. It’s true that he put the conventional wisdom down in a clear and catchy way and it influenced everyone afterwards.

    As to his “obsession” with Michelangelo—don’t call it that. Remember when he came to Florence Vasari was apprenticed to Michelangelo. Imagine being a talented and ambitious boy and having as your teacher the most famous artist in Florence. Michelangelo’s reputation was very great by then but Vasari didn’t need anyone’s clue. He was awestruck by Michelangelo’s work itself like everyone else, including the great Rafaello Sanzio. There was something uniquely powerful, uniquely beautiful there. Vasari was fair: he didn’t take Michelangelo’s side in his fight with Bramante and Rafael. He genuinely admired Rafael too. He even calls him a better painter. But he thought Michelangelo was the greater artist. Read the final pages of his biography, about Michelangelo’s funeral, and get an idea of the veneration all the artists felt for him.
    See my post Michelangelo As an Angel; also my page Michelangelo Sources

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