I know of Vasari largely through his Lives of the Artists (considered the first work on art history). I read this once in Florence, and it brought to life the works adorning the city around me. Born in 1511, Giorgio Vasari lived in Florence through the High Renaissance, and was befriended by Michelangelo; he knew many of the men whose biographies (and gossip) he recorded in his seminal work.
Vasari was also an architect – hence the eponymous Vasari Corridor in Florence. He designed the Loggia for the Palazzo degli Uffizi, as well as the corridor connecting Uffizi to The Pitti Palace across the Arno.
Yet I did not expect to stumble across one of his paintings in the port of Livorno.
Livorno’s port is a major stopping call for cruise ships for it is only a few hours from Florence. Yet I could not face hours in a bus followed by half a day battling crowds in my beloved city (to quote Dante, and who doesn’t?), so I chose instead explore this sea-side town.
Due to its prime seaside location, the area of Livorno has ben populated since time immemorial. Some archeological finds can be dated to Neolithic times. Etruscan ruins have been found nearby, and with the cross winds of trade came pollination from many cultures. Unfortunately, much of the city was destroyed in WWII, and Livorno is very much a modern city rather than a quaint Tuscan town.
Yet pockets of the Old Town remain. Venice Nuovo (or New Venice, sometimes called the Tuscan Venice) is an area of Livorno where the streets are, naturally, crisscrossed by canals. It was designed by the Medici architects in an effort to create the prefect city. (The town had previously been owned by the Milanese and then the Republic of Genoa, but was bought by the Florentines in 1421.) The canals were designed to link the port to the warehouses, and many of the streets in this part of Livorno are lined with the houses of the nobility and important merchant families of the 17th and 18th C.
Like its namesake, the Venice Nuovo proved a great place to simply wander. When both exploring and the Tuscan sun proved too hot, I was never short of options for a place for a coffee and a cool drink, a gelato, or something more substantial.
And so I came across the Chiesa Santa Caterina.
Unmentioned by my guide-books (and I always have a few), the church nestles in a triangle between a canal, the Via del Forte S. Pietro, and the Via Santa Caterina. I was struck first by the rough façade, so typical of many Tuscan churches of the time. Above the façade towers an octagonal dome, designed on Rome’s Pantheon.
The door stood open, so I walked in.
The church was empty. Light poured in through the windows of the dome. Large side chapels opened from the central octagonal space, giving the church a light and airy feel.
Despite the wars which have flowed through this part of Italy, and the fact the adjacent Dominican monastery was used as a prison from Napoleonic times until only a few decades ago, many works in the church have survived. This includes the Altar of Relics where, according to the pamphlet I picked up in the nave, ‘are kept different bones of Saints’.
Most surprisingly of all, however, was stumbling across Vasari’s Coronation of the Virgin. Although I knew him to be a painter, I had seen only a few of his works, and those were in Florence. I did not expect to find one in Livorno.
A true Renaissance man, as well as designing the Uffizi Loggia, Vasari also designed or built churches in Florence and across Italy, and worked on Julius III’s villa in Rome. Vasari worked on some of the frescoes adorning the cupola of Florence’s Duomo, and his more famous paintings are displayed in the Palazzo Vecchio.
Vasari’s painting was heavily influenced by his friend, Michelangelo, although his works are more Mannerist in style. He achieved success and considerable fame (and wealth) during his lifetime.
His The Coronation of the Virgin shows Our Lady (supported by tiers of angels) ascending into Heaven where Jesus, God the Father and the Holy Spirit await her arrival with a golden crown. Originally painted for St Michael’s Chapel in the Vatican (Vasari received a knighthood from the pope after his work in Rome) it was later donated to the church, and has recently been restored.
Admittedly, Mannerism (or late High Renaissance) is not my favourite style of painting. I prefer the naturalism and subtle intellectualism of Leonardo to the more obvious flourishes of Mannerism. Still, as my painting skills are exquisitely minimal, who am I to criticise? It is a beautiful peaceful work, perfect for contemplation during the slower parts of the Mass.
Discovering ‘my’ Vasari reminded me why I travel – popular places are popular because they are worth the visit, but there are always so many other unexpected finds to discover along the way.
The Literary Traveller
Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists is credited as the first work of art history. Although biased towards the Florentines painters (in the first printing Titan did not rate a mention) it remains an amazing window into the Renaissance world.
Vasari also peppers his works with delightful bits of gossips and observations of the artistic life: (these) rough sketches, which are born in an instant in the heat of inspiration, express the idea of their author in a few strokes, while on the other hand too much effort and diligence sometimes sap the vitality and powers of those who never know when to leave off.
Perfect for reading after a day of exploring the unending museum and art gallery which is Italy.