Uffizi on Madison

Any event prompting a reacquaintance with The Lives of the Artists, the seminal art historical tract by Giorgio Vasari, is, almost by definition, a good one. So it is with “Michelangelo, Vasari and Their Contemporaries; Drawings From the Uffizi,” an exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum.

Vasari (1511-1574) was a vastly important figure in 16th-century Florence; the city and era are inconceivable without him. Renowned in his own time as a Michelangelesque painter, Vasari was also the architect of the Uffizi; he helped found the Accademia del Disegno; he was a theatrical set designer and—yes, that’s right—a wedding planner.

Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici charged Vasari with the restoration of the Palazzo Novo, a municipal building built during the 13th and 14th centuries. The Duke, having come to power at the age of 17, decided that the Palazzo Vecchio, as it came to be known, would make a fine home. Spectacular quarters would confirm his authority.

Vasari had daunting precedent to build upon. He would enlarge the already imposing Salone dei Cinquecento and transform it into the Duke’s court. Decorations by Bronzino, Filippo Lippi, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Giotto, as well as sculptors like Verrocchio and Donatello, were his competition. Cosimo, ever mindful of art as a diplomatic tool, demanded that tradition be honored. Vasari, a proponent of masters past and current, was happy to oblige.

You’d think history would remember Vasari as a Florentine mover and shaker, and it does, but less for his architectural and artistic efforts than for The Lives of the Artists, his biased, sometimes gossipy, hyperbolic and indispensable volume.

Beginning with Cimabue—who played hooky from school, Vasari tells us, to learn about art—Vasari touches upon, among others, Leonardo, Raphael, Correggio and his friend Michelangelo, who was sent by “the benign ruler of heaven.” Vasari was a huckster with a stellar inventory.

“Drawings From the Uffizi” aims to recover Vasari the artist and impresario from under the historian’s shadow. Divided into three sections, the exhibition traces the masters to whom Vasari looked for inspiration; painters whose work was already extant at the palazzo; Vasari’s and his collaborators’ contributions; and painters who worked under Cosimo’s heir, Francesco de’ Medici.

Box office necessities hamper that goal, if just a bit—the exhibition’s title makes plain that Michelangelo is the star draw. His two drawings—Studies of a Male Leg (ca. 1525-31) and Bust of a Woman, Head of an Old Man and Bust of a Child (mid-1530’s) evince considerable flair, but not necessarily mastery. They capture Michelangelo on a bum day.

The latter sheet is particularly vexing—why the curators laud it as a masterwork is a mystery. Michelangelo’s pictorial stylizations are unctuous, and its surface manipulation, done in black chalk, is greasy in effect. Pontormo’s Male Nude Seen From Behind and Study of a Head (ca. 1545-53) beats Michelangelo at his own game of anatomical distortion in service of understated drama.

A quartet of drawings by Bronzino—a trio, really, given one attribution—is the high point. Forget accuracy: Half-Length Portrait of a Gentlewoman (ca. 1530-40), the maybe-Bronzino, is a showstopper. The subject’s thoughtful expression is uncanny, as are the silky contours with which her features have been put into place. A scholar suggests that it might be the work of Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio, Domenico’s son. Degas thought enough of the drawing to copy it. We should follow his lead: It’s a drawing of sublime proportions.

The majority of artists included are known primarily to specialists, but they’re no slouches as draftsmen. There’s a lot to be said for Santi di Tito’s tender Studies of the Head, the Face, and the Bust of a Child (ca. 1570), a portrait, perhaps, of his son. The cloying expression of Head of a Young Man (late 16th century) by Girolamo Macchietti is redeemed, if just barely, by his exquisite manipulation of red chalk. Blunt architectural studies by Vincenzo Borghini are those of an exacting, intuitive hand, and Jacopo Zucchi’s Allegory of the City of Pistoia (ca. mid-1560’s) is a refreshing divergence into grotesquerie.

As for the man himself, Vasari comes across as capable but stilted, a consummate professional but uninspiring artist. He’s at his best working loosely—Study for the Decoration of a Ceiling With Virtue Overcoming Fortune and Envy (ca. 1548) is bracingly to the point—but his Pietà and Allegory of Charity (ca. 1541-42) are cornball theater. You’ve got to wonder if Vasari’s stage settings were any better.

Even on the slim evidence here, viewers won’t be impelled to seek out Vasari the artist. Within a scholarly context, however, his greater accomplishments and workmanlike expertise are impressive. It’s doubtful that history or, in its own modest way, the Morgan will alter Vasari’s standing as the essential documentarian of an astonishing artistic epoch. But that’s not to say there aren’t substantial pleasures to be had in “Drawings From the Uffizi.”

“Michelangelo, Vasari and Their Contemporaries: Drawings From the Uffizi” is at The Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, until April 20. Mario Naves can be reached at mnaves@observer.com.

Uffizi on Madison