What are the best books on...


Kenneth Bartlett recommends the best

Renaissance Books

If you’re going to look at the past, you have to understand the people who were living there and see the world through their eyes, says historian and Renaissance specialist Kenneth Bartlett. He explains that while Machiavelli is much misunderstood and maligned, Donald Trump is a Machiavellian in the truest sense of the word. He picks the best books of the Italian Renaissance.

  • 0553212788.01.LZ_


    The Prince
    by Niccolo Machiavelli

  • 0812210379.01.LZ_


    by Francesco Guicciardini

  • 0140441921.01.LZ_


    The Book of the Courtier
    by Baldesar Castiglione

  • 0199537194.01.LZ_


    The Lives of the Artists
    by Giorgio Vasari

  • 0140447180.01.LZ_


    The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini
    by Benvenuto Cellini

Kenneth Bartlett

Kenneth Bartlett is a Professor of History and of Renaissance Studies, a program he helped establish in 1979, at Victoria College in the University of Toronto.

Save for later

Kenneth Bartlett

Kenneth Bartlett is a Professor of History and of Renaissance Studies, a program he helped establish in 1979, at Victoria College in the University of Toronto.

Save for later

You’ve chosen books written during the Italian Renaissance. Would these authors have referred to it as ‘the Renaissance’ themselves? Did they feel there was something special in the air?

All of these books are written at approximately the same time; they date from the first decades of the 16th century. The last to die were Cellini and Vasari, who died at almost the same time. They would have been perfectly aware of being in the Renaissance. The term is first used by Vasari in his Lives of the Artists. He talks about the ‘rinascita’—the rebirth—of culture and learning. It’s a recovery of antiquity and the application of those principles to art in his own time. He rejects the Middle Ages as a ‘Gothic’ period, a term of opprobrium pertaining to the Goths that destroyed the Roman Empire.

They were very aware that they were living in a new age, one of energy and rediscovery and one in which the new principles of beauty and understanding, the complexity of human nature and the possibility of human agency, were all very visible.

There’s also a lot of politics going on—including the sack of Rome with the Pope having to hide in Castel Sant’Angelo. Could you set the scene a bit, in terms of the history?

The golden age of the Italian Renaissance was the 15th century. If you think of Florence, we think of the regime of Lorenzo de’Medici—‘il Magnifico’—who came to power with the death of his father, in 1469. He died in 1492. This was a period of efflorescence of Italian scholarship, of learning, the development of a style of art that reproduced what the eye sees—rather than relying on symbolic iconography—and of classical archaeology and architecture with the recovery of Vitruvius.

One reason there was this explosion of culture was a period of relative peace after 1454. The five major Italian states did a deal recognising spheres of influence and the amount warfare was reduced.

“Beginning in 1494, Italy became the battleground of Europe”

But then it all came tumbling down. In 1494, Charles VIII of France invaded Italy to claim the throne of Naples. That destroyed the Italian state system. It also began the intervention of northern European monarchies into Italy. The Italians—who fought wars with professional mercenaries—couldn’t stand up to the enormous feudal levies of France.

Beginning in 1494, Italy became the battleground of Europe. Not only did France have claims to Naples and Milan, but so did the Spaniards. Then, later, when Charles V of Hapsburg inherited the crown of Spain in 1516, so did the Hapsburgs. So the hegemony of Europe, between the Hapsburgs and the Valois in France, really took place fighting over Italy. That was the proxy war of control of the continent. Italy suffered terribly.

Then came the Protestant Reformation of 1517 with Luther. That then disrupted the universality of the Church. It also divided the church, in terms of jurisdiction and revenue.

And the Church began to fight back. It was in that element of fighting back that many of the things that had characterised the Italian Renaissance were suppressed. There was the creation of the Roman Inquisition in 1542, and then the Index of Prohibited Books in 1559, which meant you couldn’t have that exploration of the human condition with very few restrictions anymore.

“They were very aware that they were living in a new age—one of energy and rediscovery and one in which the new principles of beauty and understanding, the complexity of human nature and the possibility of human agency, were all very visible”

So we can really see the Italian Renaissance reaching a point of splendour at the end of the 15th century.

There are powerful memories of that subsequently—and that’s the period of the books that I’ve chosen, partly to see how authors who wrote about politics and culture responded to an age of crisis. How do cultural leaders and thinkers respond to the dissolution of their world? And, for others, how does this concept of human agency and the great individual allow the sense of chaos to permit this great individual to rise?

That’s one of the reasons that I choose Benvenuto Cellini. Not only was he one of history’s great liars but he also really created the model of the artist as somewhat outside the rules of society. Society was dissolving and the rules that were there could not restrain his genius. So he got into all kinds of trouble—murdering people, stealing, having a large number of mistresses and illegitimate children and all of the things that we associate with la vie bohème, in the first decades of the 16th century.

Let’s go through the books you’ve chosen one by one, starting with Machiavelli’s The Prince.

I choose Niccolò Machiavelli because he wrote the one book that is still widely read by all kinds of people. I see people on the metro reading Machiavelli’s Prince. There’s Machiavelli on Management There’s a whole culture around Machiavellianism and the Machiavelli figure in literature and drama. And it’s all based on The Prince.

But what I’d like to say is that The Prince is an occasion piece. It was written in 1513 after the Medici had been returned to power. Machiavelli was out of a job—he’d been tortured and fired—and couldn’t afford to live in Florence. And his obsession with politics and international affairs was such that he couldn’t let go. So he started a correspondence with his friend Francesco Vettori and, from that correspondence, arose The Prince.

“I see people on the metro reading Machiavelli’s The Prince”

It was a book about how to deal with the crisis of Italy after the French invasions. Machiavelli’s response, in The Prince, was that the only way Italy was going to maintain its independence, and freedom, and drive out the barbarians—which is a term he always used for northern Europeans—was to beat them at their own game — to be more violent, more vicious, more brutal, and more faithless. He saw in the figure of Cesare Borgia—the Duke Valentino of The Prince—a figure who was capable of doing this: a person without morality, without pity, with no principles whatsoever, being the Pope’s son.

Machiavelli saw, at that moment, an opportunity to try to undo the crisis of Italy. But he was also a committed republican. He was completely committed to the idea of principle in government.

The Prince is a moment of trying to address a crisis and the solution was to out-brutal the brutality of the northerners. When we put him in context, though—when we look at the Discourses and the other things he wrote—he is talking about the corruption of human nature. Italians had reached a state of such moral weakness, such political and military weakness, that they could be walked over by the barbarians. The Prince is a kind of antidote. It was a cold shower. It was the tough drill sergeant who was going to restore what he calls ‘virtù.’

“All of these books provide us with an insight into how Italians, at a time of crisis, saw their world.”

Virtù has nothing to do with virtue—it comes from the Latin ‘virtus,’ meaning manfulness and resourcefulness. Only with enough virtù is it possible to overcome the forces of malicious fortuna or fortune. That is how he sees the world: a struggle between ability (virtù) and fortune (fortuna) over which we only have limited control. All we can do is struggle against it.

So The Prince is focusing on a moment of struggle, saying, ‘Okay the virtù that we need now is the virtù of the brutality and viciousness of Cesare Borgias.’ But he says in the Discourses, when this heroic figure—this man on horseback—appears, that when he’s done his job, he should retire. He should let the republic rise again. Which is very naïve. But Machiavelli was a politician and, consequently, naïve by choice and by nature.

I always tell my students, if you’re going to talk about Machiavelli, don’t just talk about The Prince—put it in the context in which The Prince was written and all the other things that Machiavelli wrote. Then it becomes much more important and much more comprehensible, how this dedicated republican could suddenly write a book about brutality and about despotism.

You say in the introduction to your book that “the past must speak to the needs and concerns of the present and the future.” You mentioned people reading Machiavelli on the metro: why do you think people are drawn to him today?

I think for two reasons. One is that most people—I mean, look at the election we just had in the United States—look for simple solutions to complex problems. Machiavelli’s solution was very simple: find a man on horseback, somebody with sufficient virtù, to come and solve all the problems. And then, when the problems are solved, he can go away. That was the lesson of Donald Trump. He said, ‘I’ve got the only answer, if you want these problems solved, elect me.’ That is true Machiavellianism—that you need a man on horseback to address the problems in a way that the consultative world of democracy really doesn’t allow for.

On the other hand, there is this idea that, in order to succeed in the world, principles get in the way. That is why books like Machiavelli on Management become popular. It’s this idea that the important thing is the ability to deliver—whether you’re in government, in business, or in almost any aspect of life. What matters most is the ability to deliver what you promise, regardless of how you do it. And Machiavelli, then, has been adopted as a kind of patron saint of delivery systems because that’s what The Prince is about.

“Machiavelli was not a bad man; he’s had a bad reputation, most of which came from a book written by Innocent Gentillet during the French Wars of Religion.”

The Prince is the ultimate deliverer—he’s going to deliver Italy from bondage and he’s going to recreate a nation of tough soldiers full of virtù, able to withstand any assault of fortune. That’s why, I think, he’s terribly attractive. It’s sort of like teen movies: we seem to be attracted to bad men.

Machiavelli was not a bad man; he’s had a bad reputation, most of which came from a book written by Innocent Gentillet during the French Wars of Religion. It was called Anti-Machiavel and it blamed the French Wars of Religion on the fact that the queen regent of France, Catherine de’Medici, was a Florentine. Machiavelli was a Florentine, Catherine de’Medici was a Florentine, and this is what they do—terrible, horrible things.

There is this attraction to people with power, people with influence, people with a larger-than-life personality and character. We’re attracted to these characters in Game of Thrones and we’re attracted to these characters in literature. You don’t want to marry them—you don’t want your sister to marry them—but, at the same time, there’s something fatally magnetic about the man of action. That’s what Machiavelli does in The Prince: he creates a man of action.

The Prince is also quite thoughtful isn’t it? He’s looking at history, coming up with examples—saying that when Louis XII did such-and-such, he wasn’t able to hold on to Milan for such-and-such reason. It’s not out-and-out Machiavellianism or cynicism is it?

Not at all. Machiavelli was a student of history. He was a true humanist, recognising the value not only of classical examples but of his own time, in providing insight into how to behave. Probably the single most famous letter written in the Italian language was Machiavelli’s letter to Vettori. He is talking about his writing of The Prince and how he spends the day with wood-cutters and playing cards. Then he goes to his house and strips off his sweaty clothes. He puts on these curial robes and enters his library—where he discusses world affairs with the Ancients.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

Whatever decision you ultimately reach about how problems should be solved, Machiavelli says that history is a guide. History is something that will assist you in making decisions, not because history repeats itself—it doesn’t—but because there are parallels of examples that force you to think about (a) what could go wrong and (b) what has gone right.

So I think that Machiavelli is very thoughtful and highly educated. He realises that history is part of the information system needed in order to solve the problems of his own time. And, consequently, for us to solve the problems of ours.

How was his book received at the time?

Not at all. First of all, he dedicated the book to one Medici prince who died. He then rededicated it to the next one, a cousin, who paid no attention to it whatsoever. It was not printed in his lifetime. It was hardly known at all. It was only Machiavelli-after-Machiavelli that took on this reputation. In the French Wars of Religion in the 1560s, with Gentillet, it became very popular. Although there are references to him in, for example, Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s advisor, who spent a lot of time in Italy and thought that Machiavelli was providing some very good advice about how to respond.

One of the lines I love from The Prince is “how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live.” That maybe sums up human nature.

That’s right. We’re all told to behave in a particular way—but if we behave that way, either nothing would get done, or everything would get done badly. That is his point. Ultimately, what matters is the ability to deliver. And the greater the crisis, the more important this delivery system must be.

Let’s go on to you next book, not nearly as well known, which is Francesco Guicciardini’s Ricordi.

He and Machiavelli were friends. For a while, they lived across the road from one another. Guicciardini was slightly younger. He was born in 1493 into one of the great patrician families of Florence. He was a lawyer, then a diplomat—a very successful one—and a papal governor under Clement VII. Then he made the ultimate mistake—advising the Pope to support the French and not the imperials. Rome was sacked in 1527 and so Guicciardini was sacked as well. And he went back to Florence.

But he did two things. Throughout his entire career he wrote a series of maxims—political observations about human nature, about the nature of politics, and especially where human nature and political circumstances coincide. He was an incredible observer.

Then he wrote perhaps the single most important history—between Tacitus in the 2nd century and Edward Gibbon in the 18th. That is his History of Italy, which he wrote after losing his job once more under Cosimo deMedici.

“He and Machiavelli were friends. For a while, they lived across the road from one another”

Guicciardini’s response to the crises of Italy is very different from Machiavelli’s because he saw it first-hand. He was the one who had to deal with the invasions that resulted in the sack of Rome and all these terrible things, including the reconquest of Florence by the Medici in 1530. All of this he observed, which is why his history only covers things that he had actually seen between 1494 and 1538.

Machiavelli’s response is that we have to temporarily store our values and principles and adopt the principles of the barbarians in order to beat them at their own game. Guicciardini is the ultimate civil servant. He is the ultimate cog in a wheel who says, essentially, ‘I do what I’m told and I deliver. I don’t think about whether it’s right or wrong. It’s not my place to make that consideration. I will simply do what I’m told and I will do it to the best of my ability. I will ensure that my masters are victorious, regardless of what it takes.’ He’s the ultimate collaborator and, ultimately, when he sees the invasions of Italy and he knows the Italians cannot win—he throws in his lot with the Hapsburgs. He say, ‘We’re not going to win this so I’m going to get what I can out of it. I’m going to make sure that I’m going to be the victor regardless of what’s going on. I’m going to get my share of the power and the wealth because, after all, what am I doing? I’m doing my job. I am fulfilling my obligations to my master. Who my master is, what I’m told to do, these are irrelevant. I simply deliver. I am a delivery mechanism.’

“if you’re going to look at the past, you have to understand the people who were living there and to see the world through their eyes”

That is why I put the two of them together. They are different ways of approaching crisis. Machiavelli thinks of the desperate surgery needed to save the patient and afterwards the patient will recover, Guicciardini says, ‘I want to be the person that delivers the life support because then I’ll decide how many drips we’ll get into the IV and I’m the one who will ultimately determine whether the patient lives or dies. And that’s not going to be my call. Somebody will tell me to turn off the machine and let the patient die or heal the patient and get what you can out of it. That’s the way I see the world.’

Isn’t he the one who served three different popes and then, somewhere in the aphorisms, mentions that, personally, he prefers Martin Luther because Protestantism is a better religion?

Exactly. He was the ultimate realist. I don’t want to say he had no principles, but he was the person who thinks that principles ultimately don’t matter. Even his marriage is a famous story. He thought of going into the Church because his uncle was the bishop of Cortona and died and he could inherit his bishopric if he wanted. Guicciardini thought, ‘I’m a lawyer, I’m a very good lawyer, I know canon law, there’s a good chance if I’m a bishop I’ll be a cardinal, and if I’m a cardinal I could probably manipulate the situation and become pope.’ His father talked him out of it, saying he had no spirituality at all and saw the church as nothing but an imperfect organisation, and that this was not a good idea.

When he decided not to become a cleric, he got married. In his description of his marriage, he wrote, ‘Then I decided to get married. I chose a woman of the Salviati family because this is a family that has much influence and wealth—the two things I was looking for. So they got married. Apparently they disliked each other, and he spent as much time away from her as possible. He chose her purely because she provided things that he wanted. They were not love and companionship, they were wealth and power.

Did he intend these aphorisms to become public or where they just his personal notes?

They’re in three series. Series three is an editing of the first two and much enlarged. They show clear signs of being polished. So my theory is that, yes, he intended them to be read by others. They fall into a historiographical tradition in Florence called the ‘ricordanze.’ Merchants would keep not only ledgers but describe the details of their lives and keep what amounts to a kind of memoir. So the ricordanze of Guicciardini are a kind of memoir of his political observations and his view on human nature.

He says things about Machiavelli in them as well. He says it is foolish and pointless to continually compare us to the Greeks and Romans at every turn. The two of them had a relationship. It wasn’t all that close because they had different principles and values but, at the same time, it was one of mutual respect and a concern for Florence: Machiavelli because he was a patriot, Guicciardini because he had a lot of property in the city.

In the edition I was reading there were also quotes from Lord Francis Bacon and Montesquieu. I have to say, a lot of the things he’s saying feel a bit too cynical or realist to a modern reader.

Well, it is. His view of human nature all comes down to a very famous description of why people do what they do. It’s called the ‘particolare.’ The particolare is your immediate self-interest. Guicciardini observing people, especially people with people, sees that they will always sacrifice others and the future for their immediate, recognisable self-interest.

That particolare is his own principle: I’m going to gain something out of everything that I do. I am looking at it from my point of view and what’s in it for me. It’s what we would call political and social cynicism.

“Guicciardini would say that if you choose to be nice and kind, you have an ulterior motive.”

Montesquieu wasn’t really cynical, but during the civil disturbances during the minority of Louis XV, he also saw the sort of things that Guicciardini was talking about. He realised that he was right. With Francis Bacon, it was the same. He was the chancellor to James I who was fired because he was caught with his hand in the till. These are people who observed up close what Guicciardini was talking about. And so their conclusions were not unlike his.

I think that if we were in government at any level, including the papal court, we would probably see people doing exactly that: acting in their own immediate self-interest to the detriment of others and to the detriment of the well-being of the institution as a whole.

So when we disapprove of these sentiments—either Machiavelli arguing the ends justify the means or Guicciardini without any principles at all—are we talking from a present when we have the liberty to be nice?

Well, Guicciardini would say that if you choose to be nice and kind, you have an ulterior motive. You think that that will be repaid in the future, that you will get a reward as consequence—not that it is good for your spirit or your soul. He was an Aristotelian, unlike his father who was a famous Platonist. He saw the world in material terms, stuff that you could measure and weigh.

Why should we read him then, if he comes to such a depressing conclusion?

Because of his brilliant insight into human nature. His history is wonderful because he has insight into personality. He helps explain why people like Clement VII acted the way they did. He puts it in the category of, ‘he did it because he thought it was best for him at the time’. Generally, historians don’t like that sort of thing. They slip back into the 19th century ‘great man’ theory, that people with great power create great events and do great deeds.

So Guicciardini’s insight into human nature and why events unfolded the way they did is absolutely marvellous. He also writes brilliantly. He’s always really intellectually engaging. He looks at all sides of the situation. If you look at his description of Savonarola, for example, he doesn’t say he was a madman and did all kinds of evil deeds, he says he seemed to believe what he said. He seemed to be pious but nevertheless the final effects were bad. And Savonarola was executed as a consequence.

It’s the refusal to make value judgements that makes him quite attractive for our own time. He looks at the evidence and he draws his conclusions from the evidence. That’s why we need to read him.

“Machiavelli lost some of his shine when Mussolini wrote an introduction to The Prince and said he slept with Machiavelli’s book under his pillow”

The interesting thing is that if you look at Machiavelli and Guicciardini together, during the period of Italian unification—the Risorgimento—Machiavelli was a hero because Machiavelli wrote in The Prince that we have to free Italy from the barbarians and we should unite Italy. And in chapter 26 of The Prince is the “Italia Mia” poem by Petrarch: “in the Italian breast, the Roman heart is beating still.”

Guicciardini was specifically vilified. In a famous 1869 article by Francesco de Sanctis, he talks about the Guicciardinian man—Italians who did not think about their nation and their fellow Italians but thought only in terms of getting what they could from the barbarians who were keeping Italy under oppression until 1861. So, one of the reasons that Guicciardini hasn’t been read very much is that he was identified with forces of evil.

The view of the two of them kept changing depending on Italian culture and politics over the next 400 years. Machiavelli lost some of his shine when Mussolini wrote an introduction to The Prince and said he slept with Machiavelli’s Prince under his pillow—and Mussolini’s identification of the man on horseback with himself. It reduced Machiavelli to being someone who seemed to be in favour of fascism.

Whenever you look at in history—and that’s something I mention in my book—you have to look at it through the eyes of the historian and when the historian is writing. There is no absolute in history. It is always contingent. It always depends on the environment in which the historian is working.

I wonder how Guicciardini is being received at the moment, when so many Italians seem to be bemoaning the fact that their politicians are all out for themselves and not thinking about Italy as a whole.

And that’s exactly what Guicciardini said would always happen. Guicciardini said that we would be naïve to think that anyone would behave any differently. It’s always been the case. Some were just better than others at hiding it—saying that they’re working for the general good when, in fact, the general good corresponds with their own particolare.

Let’s talk about your next book. This is The Book of the Courtier by Castiglione. This was supposedly the biggest bestseller of the 16th century. Is that true? Was it immensely popular at the time?

Absolutely, and it’s still read. It’s an interesting book. Castiglione was a courtier. He was a Mantuan nobleman who ended up at the court of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino. Guidobaldo was sick all the time and spent much time as an invalid. He was also impotent and unable to have an heir.

Much of the court was actually run by Elisabetta Gonzaga, the Duchess of Urbino who was distantly related to Castiglione. They had this close, purely platonic—and there’s no doubt that it was purely platonic—relationship.

“As far as Castiglione is concerned, what matters is culture, understanding, and belief in higher things. He is very much like Eliot in The Waste Land”

But Castigilone is, I think, addressing the same issues that Machiavelli and Guicciardini are addressing, but in a different way. The Book of the Courtier is not just a courtesy book. The world is full of courtesy books—like Della Casa’s Galateo which I edited and translated.

This is really a humanist neoplatonic study of the perfectibility of men and women and how, in a time of crisis and disillusion, of impotent rulers (literally or figuratively) when the world has turned upside down, where you live through words rather than action, and where the court is ruled by two women—the Duchess and Emilia Pia—you need other things in order to ask yourself what really matters.

“There’s a whole book on women and women are in charge of the discussions.”

And, as far as Castiglione is concerned, what matters is culture, understanding, and belief in higher things. He is very much like Eliot in The Waste Land. He is collecting shards against our ruin. You have to keep culture alive. Italy is oppressed, it is ruled by barbarians, by savage foreigners, by brutal oppressors. But Italian culture is still alive—as long as people read the books, know classical literature, read the Greek and Roman authors, are able to practise the arts of human intercourse. What he’s really talking about in this book is that it’s through words and ideas and books that civilisation is sustained. That’s why these things become important and that’s why it’s in the frame of a courtesy book—four nights of discussion in which all the interlocutors are all very different characters but all of them are putting forward the view of what really makes a civilised human being and what civilisation is.

The wonderful thing, of course, is that he brings women into it. There’s a whole book on women and women are in charge of the discussions. It’s a very modern book, from that point of view and a very civilised one. His response to the situation of Italy is not to out-brutalise the brutality of the barbarians, not to collaborate, but to make sure that the culture is maintained. Civilisation is being kept—whether secretly or openly—so that when a better world emerges, when the impotence has gone and the light shines during the day, you can bring these things back and civilisation and culture will again rule.

And what culture specifically does he like? Are we talking about art, painting, and books?

Everything. The book is about what it is to be a cultivated human being. What is it to be a human being? What separates us from the barbarians? He goes back to his classical sources—he was classically trained like all of these gentlemen—but it’s also in conversation. You could know everything but unless you’re able to externalise that experience, what meaning does it have? And art, you could have the most beautiful visions of the universe but unless you can reproduce what the eye sees and take the two dimensional plane and turn it into a three dimensional image, what is the point? You could have all the principles of the world but you need to exhibit those principles in the company of others. That’s why there is so much emphasis on interaction in Il Cortegiano.

Does our idea of a ‘Renaissance man’ partly come from discussions like this?

Exactly right. He really comes down to the fundamental statement of what the Renaissance man was: it’s not just being able to do all of these things—from having wonderful conversation that is both witty and profound, being able to dance, being able to provide advice to a prince—but on top of that, to do it in a way that does not intimidate others. You become part of a community.

He called it ‘sprezzatura’ which is untranslatable. Sometimes it’s translated as ‘nonchalance’ which is not right. It’s wearing your learning, your sophistication, your achievements lightly so that you do not make others feel uncomfortable and so that you don’t stand out. You realise that you are part of humanity and not some miraculous figure beyond the experience of others.

So it’s an enjoyable book?

It is. It’s wonderfully readable. The jokes—there are all kinds of jokes—aren’t funny. After 500 years, the jokes cease to maintain their humour. But the characters are beautifully drawn. You have the misogynist, you’ve got the person who wants to be liked too much, you’ve got the person who wants to turn everything into a kind of joke. All of these personalities are so beautifully drawn that, although it’s a dialogue, it’s almost drama.

Let’s talk about your next book, which is Vasari’s Lives of the Artists.

I chose Vasari because, to some extent, he invented art history as we know it. He wrote Lives of the Artists, and the first edition was published in 1550. It’s a collection of lives that are not randomly chosen. They are put together in a teleology, a sense of progressive development. The first ones are ‘i primi lumi’—Cimabue and Giotto and so on. They are the ‘first lights’ who took Italy out of the medieval—what they call maniera greca or Greek style of Byzantine painting—into something that reflects human experience. If you paint a tree, you don’t paint a platonic tree; you paint a tree you can identify, its species etc. You paint what people look like. You rediscover the art of portraiture. You create a curvilinear perspective: a three dimensional scene on a two dimensional plane.

“He [Varsari] invented art history as we know it”

These then develop and he works forward in these three divisions towards the ultimate fulfilment and that is Michelangelo. Michelangelo has finally done it. He has achieved it. And that’s why he refers to him as ‘il divino’—the divine one—because he has almost got the power of creation in a Biblical or a platonic sense. He’s the demiurge, the figure that can create beauty and perfection out of anything that you give him. He was also Florentine, as was Vasari. Well, Vasari was born in Arezzo. He treats non-Florentines either shabbily or superficially. He had real trouble with Raphael though because he knows how fantastic and wonderful Raphael was. He was able to get away with it because Raphael, in fact, spent some time in Florence. Vasari is a Florentine particularist.

He also believed that art is not only genius, but also technique. He was the one who convinced Cosimo de’Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, to found the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno in 1563—which still exists—to train artists. And to train them how to draw. That Florentine obsession with ‘disegno’ or composition is part of Vasari’s definition of what constitutes perfect art and beauty: the ability to create a design, a composition, that will be intellectually, visually, culturally, and spiritually fulfilling. That’s why he loves Michelangelo, because Michelangelo did all of those things.

He was an artist as well wasn’t he?

Yes. I don’t want to say he was entirely a second-rater. He was not of the quality of Raphael or Michelangelo, but he was a good artist. What he did, like Guicciardini, fulfilled the terms of his contract with his employers. Sometimes it’s almost laughable. You go into the Sala dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. The ceiling is the apotheosis of Cosimo I. That’s really weird, in itself, but it was required.

“Much of what we know, especially about the personal lives of the artists, comes from Vasari because there are no other sources”

He was an architect. He designed the Uffizi, one of the buildings that is now the art gallery, so that Cosimo could keep an eye on his bureaucrats. He worked for the Pope and did some remarkable things in Rome. He was a jack-of-all-trades. We might call him an engaged minister of culture for the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. As a bureaucrat, he was able to deliver. That’s why I separated him from Cellini because Cellini is very different. Vasari worked within the system. He took advantage of his patrons, he took advantage of the opportunities that he had, and he tried to expand them by founding the Accademia del Disegno.

To a historian, how accurate is his portrait of, say, Michelangelo?

Much of what we know, especially about the personal lives of the artists, comes from Vasari because there are no other sources. He got it from gossip and hearsay. That is how he did much of his research: by asking people who knew them or by asking somebody whose father had worked with them.

Was it true? Well, it was what other people believed to be true. There are hundreds of examples where modern scholarship has shown that Vasari was wrong. But this is what he was told. And, of course, nothing is ever all true because it has to be filtered through the eyes of the historian or the art historian, and we are all flawed observers.

I like his description of Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and how his neck hurts. Was he sitting in a chair?

No, he was standing. The old film The Agony and The Ecstasy is completely wrong, he didn’t lie on his back. Michelangelo had terrible personal hygiene. And, for the rest of his life, he had a sore neck, and wasn’t able to have full rotation, because of spending three years, twelve hours a day, seven days a week, like this.

So Vasari’s book is basically saying that Michelangelo, at the end, is perfection. He’s a minister of culture, I suppose, presenting a great case study.

Michelangelo died in Rome in 1564 and the Pope wanted him buried in Rome. But while the body was being displayed at the Santi Apostoli, agents of Michelangelo’s nephew stole the body and quickly took it to Florence. There was a great state funeral and he’s buried in Santa Croce, in a tomb designed by Vasari.

“Michelangelo had terrible personal hygiene. And, for the rest of his life, he had a sore neck”

So there is a sense, then, of perfect fulfilment. Vasari was of course alive and a contemporary of the old Michelangelo. It’s nice to believe that you live in an age of perfection and that, finally, the divine has been achieved.

Lastly, we have this book by Cellini. You’ve already hinted that it’s quite a lively autobiography and he gets up to all sorts of things. But he started out as a goldsmith.

Yes, that was not uncommon. Lorenzo Ghiberti and Brunelleschi started as goldsmiths as well because you work with shapes and a design. Cellini was also the son of a musician, who wanted to train him as a musician and instrument-maker. So he was a musician his entire life.

He too has the ability to work in almost every genre, but, when we think of his work, it’s really his sculpture that stands out. There’s the Perseus that’s in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, or the Salt Cellar he made for Francis I that is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. These are the perfect and ideal works of Cellini.

“The book is wrong. It is a series of untruths. He didn’t shoot the constable of Bourbon as he was coming over the wall in May 1527”

He invented the idea of the artist—not like Vasari as a bureaucrat and the client of a patron who had to fulfil the patron’s desire—but as in the19th century as the genius not restricted by law, morality, common practice, or anything. If you murder somebody, well, ‘I’m a genius and I murdered somebody. So what are you going to do? You’re going to kill a genius just because he murdered some useless person? Of course you’re going to sleep with me while I have four or five other mistresses because you have a chance to sleep with a genius. If you have a child, that child will be the child of a genius. So, of course you will. Of course, I’m going to try and seduce you. Why? Because I’m a genius and I have earned this by my superhuman ability.’

The book is wrong. It is a series of untruths. He didn’t shoot the constable of Bourbon as he was coming over the wall in May 1527. He didn’t save the papal court by scurrying along the passetto to Castel Sant’Angelo. He didn’t do most of the things he said he did. However, he created the image of the artist as a larger than life figure, the creator. He who creates cannot be restricted by law or morality or principle of any kind because, then, you restrict a genius. You won’t get the full advantage of his ability. So leave me alone. Let me seduce your sister, let me steal from the pope by stealing gems from his tiara as he was accused of. Why? Because I’m a genius. You have to let me do this. You have to understand who I am.

Was he imprisoned in Castel Sant’Angelo and escaped?

Yes. He was working for Clement VII and he was part of a group that ran from the Apostolic Palace along the passetto in order to escape the imperials. For sure. But did he do all the things that he said he did? Of course he didn’t. But it makes a good story. There’s an Italian saying that you may have heard: se non è vero, è ben trovato. It doesn’t matter if something’s true as long as it makes a good story. That’s true in Italian politics and it’s true in Cellini’s autobiography.

“He invented the idea of the artist…as the genius not restricted by law, morality, common practice, or anything.”

What’s more, it covers a relatively short period of time. It talks about his past but mostly it’s from 1558 to 1563 or so. It’s highly focussed on, to some extent, his most interesting time at the court of France and his work for the Pope.

I found it quite interesting that he starts off as a goldsmith and instrument-maker but that, in that era, with talent, you could basically end up rubbing shoulders with the pope.

Yes, there is this social mobility. This really begins, especially with Raphael and Michelangelo, because their genius was recognised as an element of social mobility. They were then not restrained by the social order. These people were the companions of popes and kings because they were geniuses. This is very different from the 15th century model when artists were craftsmen.

If you look at Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, the model he is using is collections of saints’ lives. They are all exemplars, the way that saints’ lives’ collections—the Legenda Aurea—are exemplars, of genius operating within a context. When you look at Cellini, there’s no sanctity at all. It’s the idea, almost like the golden ass of Apuleius or any other late classical or rollicking stories that allow the hero to reach fulfilment. And through his freedom—yes, people get killed along the way—he is able to create things of lasting importance and beauty. Like Caravaggio, he is effectively saying, through the example of his life, that, ‘As a person I may be a jerk but as an artist I am ideal. Don’t define me by your rules because if I had to obey your rules, I would not produce the works of the imagination that I do.’

How was the book received at the time?

It was incredibly popular because it reads like a novel. All autobiographies are a subgenre of fiction—this is just on another level. You have to be pretty naïve to believe everything that he says he did. But you also understand, by sympathising with Cellini himself, that he was capable of doing that. This is the difference between normal people who say what they are going to do it and then do it, under the restrictions of law and convention, and those people who say, ‘This is what I did and even the things I didn’t do, I was capable of doing.’ And there it is. I think the modern parallel would be with a rock star—Mick Jagger, maybe, or someone like that. Did Mick Jagger do all the things that they said he was supposed to have done? Maybe, maybe not. But he would be capable of it. And we cut him a lot of slack. We don’t really care when he throws the furniture out of a hotel window onto the street. Or if he engages in drugs or has innumerable wives or mistresses. Why? Because he is different from us. He is a genius and genius knows no bounds.

I think Cellini even starts off by saying that the reason Florence is called Florence is because of one of his ancestors.

And, of course, absolutely untrue. Do I contradict myself or do I want to entertain multitudes?

It’s lovely to be able to talk about these books and to make the statement as clearly as I can that Italian Renaissance books have a message for us today. The message that I try to bring up in my book is that if you’re going to look at the past, you have to understand the people who were living there and to see the world through their eyes. And all of these books provide us with an insight into how Italians, at a time of crisis, saw their world. They help us understand the movement and the progress of history from one moment to another, and the kind of decisions that people made, and also the values that they held and the values that they chose not to accept.

Interview by Sophie Roell

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by donating a small amount, or by visiting our site before you make purchases from Amazon. Since we are enrolled in their affiliate program, we receive a small percentage of any product you buy, at no extra cost to you.