This year Arezzo, a Tuscan provincial capital about 50 miles southeast of Florence, celebrates the 500th anniversary of the birth of favorite son Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), author of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. One of the first art historical treatises, published in 1550, it remains a touchstone for scholars and connoisseurs; some claim Vasari even coined the word Renaissance for that period of remarkable artistic flowering that occurred in Italy around 1500. As biography, the Lives is equally successful, providing colorful stories and intimate touches only a Renaissance gadfly like Vasari could know.
But the father of Italian art history was first and foremost a painter and architect in his own time. He worked for Popes in Rome and Medicis in Florence, where he designed the Palazzo degli Uffizi, now a renowned museum that displays, among many other noteworthy works, Vasari’s Portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Poor fellow. His art, generally considered Mannerist in style, has ever played second fiddle to that of Renaissance contemporaries like Michelangelo. And even in his hometown of Arezzo he is eclipsed by Piero della Francesca, who created his masterpiece The Legend of the True Cross fresco series for the Church of San Francesco.
I recently visited Arezzo, the Tuscan town hill town where Roberto Benigni filmed his 1997 film “Life is Beautiful.” It has the same noble, dignified air as Siena, but fewer tourists, with a Medieval center reached from parking lots below by escalators, one of which landed me on the piazza in front of the Romanesque Duomo. Behind it is a fortress built by the Medicis who controlled Arezzo from the 14th century onward; its ramparts overlook the beneficent Tuscan countryside, hemmed in to the northeast by the rugged Apennines.
My first stop was the Church of San Francesco down the hill from the Duomo with its glorious True Cross, which left me with a case of Stendhal Syndrome, a psychosomatic illness known chiefly by anecdote, marked by chills and tremors caused by exposure to great art. To steady my nerves I sought a café, winding my way east across Arezzo’s sedate main street Corso Italia to the gently-sloping Piazza Grande where I found a table under the elegant loggia on the north side designed by none other than Vasari.
In a tourist brochure I read that the town planned to mark the Vasari anniversary by restoring his Assumption of the Virgin (1539) and holding a special exhibition on the artist’s stylistic development at the Municipal Gallery of Contemporary Art. The Church of San Francesco was assembling another Vasari show on the Tuscan artists featured—some say favored—in his seminal book. And, of course, every day is Giorgio Vasari Day at his Arezzo home on via XX Settembre west of the Duomo with interior walls richly frescoed by its famous resident. His art may pale in comparison to that of Michelangelo, whom he counted as a friend, but you’ve got to love Vasari as a multi-faceted Renaissance man.