• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Renaissance Rumble: Giorgio Vasari vs Byzantine Art

Virgin & Child, Chora Monastery Istanbul

I daydream about a future civilisation condemning the artistic fruits of its Latin precursor by a literary genre the latter failed to conceive. It would make such a sweet revenge for Byzantine art, which was fated to be lynched by Giorgio Vasari’s jottings; an Italian painter whose views mutated into the ideological ground zero of a new discipline: “Art History.” To Eastern Romans, artistic and literary endeavours converged in snappy and evocative ekphrases – not prolix musings on past influences and tendentious “developments.” It was not, of course, that the Byzantines did not do history. On the contrary, they were proud of being one of the few states to have records that stretched to 753 BC. But it refused to value any sort of historical linearity to its art. Forget Tertullian’s rhetorical question (What did Athens have to do with Jerusalem?). The crux was what did any notion of historical “development” have to do with the essences that Byzantium had captured?

Attendant Angels, Chora Church Istanbul

In Constantinople, the icon sat at the apex of artistic achievement. It proffered a salvific glimpse; a refraction of Taboric light; a window onto the heaven that suffused earthly matter. This and not the classical statue (with its tawdry realism) was rated as the highest form of artistic expression. So while an individual genius might flash within hallowed schemata, it was only celebrated if yoked to the perfection of ancient prototypes; formulae that allowed the divine to manifest in the idiosyncratic manner that tradition prescribed (to each holy personality). Yet, using rhetorical models from antiquity, Vasari wrote The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Published in two editions (the last appearing in 1568) the painter refused to value Byzantine art on its own terms and instead contrasted it to Italian realism to the benefit of the latter. According to his account, as soon as Roman power fled East (i.e. Constantine’s reign) artistic quality (conveniently) declined. Despite first-rate powers (such as Venice) using Byzantine designs and artists for its cathedrals, Vasari concluded: “[The Eastern Romans] could only trace outlines on a field of colour… their figures are all in the same style, with eyes of the possessed, with outstretched hands, [standing] on the tips of their toes.”[1]

Dormition of the Virgin, Chora Monastery Istanbul

This decline apparently had its roots in Constantine whose arch in Rome “lacked good masters” in a verdict echoed by historians such as E. Kitzinger (a distant relation to the Byzantine historian, R. Krautheimer).[2] All ignoring the programmatic and ideological explanations for the reused reliefs, as well as the fact symbolism was far more important than realism to fourth-century Romans. This autistic reluctance to validate excellence in anything but realism is enough to test the patience of a saint. Especially given the fact Latin talent cannot avoid a genesis outside of Byzantine art. Poor Cimabue (d. 1302) had this Janus-faced, schizophrenic role foisted upon him by Vasari who had no reservations about converting him into a historiographical mechanism. Apprenticed to Eastern Romans, Vasari cast Cimabue as outdoing them because they “were unambitious,” which we swiftly discover is code for the fact they did not use “the fine antique style of Greece” as a model.[3] An objection akin to letting Gauguin or Picasso fall out of the canon on the grounds that Négritude was not a worthy marker within a tradition that produced the Riace bronzes.

Ognissanti Madonna

In other words, Cimabue was reduced from a Byzantine artist (who grafted a little more facial personality) to little more than a nakedly ideological device; a springboard for his pupil, Giotto, to enter the pool in a splash-bomb of realism. Again, whatever the merits of this argument, its effect was to relegate Byzantine art to a position it’s never truly recovered from: a religious naif or a Dark Age crook that’s either too innocent or debased to count as anything more than a predecessor to art “proper.” Yet Byzantines were perfectly capable of realism when they saw fit to pursue it. A trip to the inner west wall of the cathedral of San Lorenzo (Genoa) reveals Christ, Mary, the apostles and seraphim that are just as realistic as, say, the Ognissanti Madonna. Indeed, Vasari would have probably claimed they were the work of a Giotto-esque painter. But they’re not, they’re Byzantine frescoes.

Last Judgment, Scrovegni Chapel

Indeed, Byzantine flirtations with realism often resulted in greater achievements than their Latin equivalents. In my view, the tremulous tension of Chora is superior to the colourful flatness of Padua’s Scrovegni Chapel, which is stylistically more akin to the contemporary Byzantine manuscript illumination tradition than the cutting edge of cosmopolitan ostentation. Vasari’s curmudgeonly opinions are at their most oblivious when he refers to mosaics. Commonly thought of as Byzantium’s finest medium, the Italian claimed they: “All resemble grotesques rather than what they’re meant to represent.”[4]

Census, Chora Church Istanbul

A charge so malicious that it reminds me of a Byzantine equivalent, the sourpuss Gregory Melissenos, a cleric who declared that “When I enter a church of the Latins, I do not revere any of their images because I don’t recognise any of them. At most, I may realise the figure of Christ here and there but even then I don’t revere him since I don’t know how he’s inscribed. Therefore, I make the sign of the Cross and revere it. Note that it’s the Cross I make myself that I revere, not the stuff I see before me.”[5]

Anastasis, Chora Church Istanbul

In nuce, the Latin weaponised realism against the Byzantine and the latter militarised the formulae of icons against the former. Questions of representation were pointed like rocket-launchers at one another. Vasari loathed the “possessed” eyes of icons, while Byzantines would have argued possession was entirely the point – mastering a perfect form with emptied eyes lay closer to notions of the devil than anything else. If the West sought perfect figures and proportions, the world that it sketched was delivered sans theosis. To Byzantines this would have amounted to a barren exercise. The Bible is full of warnings to not neglect our gifts (1 Timothy 4:14); to fulfil our calling as created (and creators) in the image of God. The whole point of the biblical panoply was that its characters weren’t solely temporal figures but had one foot in heaven, just as Christians we were called to “be godly” for “this life and for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8). To excise this celestial backdrop would have been as if fish had drawn themselves without water.

Last Judgment and Virgin in Glory, Cathedral San Lorenzo Genoa

Some Latins were wise enough to appreciate this aspect of Byzantine art. To give some examples: first, Pope Paul II collected twenty-five mosaics.[6] Second, Lorenzo de’ Medici kept two Byzantine icons of Christ (one is now kept in the Bargello Museum) in the Sala Grande of the Medici Palace in Florence, as well as mosaics in his private study, indeed the antiquarian even tried to revive the craft.[7] Third, Basilios Bessarion’s secretary (Niccolo Perotti) possessed a mosaic icon of Saint Demetrios, now in the Museo Civico, Sassoferrato. None of these can have been isolated individuals as large icons cost approximately one-hundred florins on the Italian market i.e. similar to the prices that ancient statuary fetched.[8] I’ll finish by urging you to read a wonderful unpublished 2011 PhD thesis by M. J. Milliner at Princeton (advisor: S. Curcic), which observed that instead of Byzantine stasis and Renaissance innovation characterising depictions of the Theotokos, what he found instead was “Byzantine dynamism followed by relatively homogenous mass production in the Renaissance and beyond.”[9]

Saint Demetrios, Museo Civico Sassoferrato

[1] Vasari 1966, 2:29; Vasari 1977, 46.

[2] Vasari 1966, 2:14; Vasari 1977, 32.

[3] Vasari 1966, 2:36; Vasari 1977, 50.

[4] Vasari 1966, 2:30; Vasari 1977, 46.

[5] H. Maguire, The Icons of Their Bodies: Saints and Their Images in Byzantium (1966), 46 n.52.

[6] E. Muntz, L’art a la court des papes pendant le XVe XVIe siècle, recueil de documents inedits tires des archives et des bibliotheques romaines, 3 vols, 1878-1882, II (Paul II 1464-1471), 1879, 143.

[7] C. S. Wood & A. Nagel, Anachronic Renaissance (2010), 130-133.

[8] L. Fusco & G. Corti, Lorenzo de’Medici: Collector and Antiquarian (2006), 121-28.

[9] M. J. Milliner, The Virgin of the Passion: Development, Dissemination and Afterlife of a Byzantine Icon (2011).