Art as History by the First Historian of Art: Giorgio Vasari’s Ritratto di sei poeti toscani

The Oriel Ritaratto di sei poeti toscani (Portrait of Six Tuscan Poets)

The Oriel Ritaratto di sei poeti toscani (Portrait of Six Tuscan Poets)

With the kind permission of the Provost and Fellows of Oriel College, Oxford.


Hanging in the senior common room of Oriel College, above the fireplace and in pride of place at the heart of the room, hangs a rather curious painting. Surrounded by dark portraits of former provosts and fellows, the painting catches the eye if for no other reason than its incongruity with the surrounding works. Depicting six men in intense discussion, its crowded frame and bright, almost fresco-like quality immediately mark it out as something different.

The painting, called Portrait of six Tuscan poets or simply Six Tuscan poets, is the work of the Italian painter and scholar Giorgio Vasari. Produced in 1544, it portrays, as its title suggests, six poets who all hailed from the region of Tuscany, the hinterland of the city of Florence and the cradle of the Renaissance. The painting’s central figure, seated on a Savonarola chair and shown in his distinct, aquiline profile, is Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1321), author of the Divine Comedy. To his immediate right is Francesco Petrarcha, known in English as Petrarch (1304-74), who is dressed in clerical garb and holds in his hand a copy of his own Scattered Rhymes, identifiable by the cameo of Laura on its cover. Behind Dante stands Guido Cavalcanti (c. 1255-1300), author of a body of Italian love poems, who in the image can be seen pointing to the book in Dante’s hand, and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75), author of the Decameron. A little removed from the conversation, stand Cino di Pistoia (1270-1336) and Guittone d’Arezzo (c. 1230-1294), both likewise Tuscan poets of the dolce stil novo, the new vernacular poetry.[1]

Vasari himself was a Tuscan, born in Arezzo in the year 1511. Today, despite having produced a wide range of artistic and architectural works, Vasari is remembered not primarily as an artist but rather as Europe’s first art historian. His Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times, published in Florence in 1550, was an enormous compendium of biographies of the greats of the Italian Renaissance, including such well known figures as Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo. In it, Vasari not only demonstrated his own historical genius, but he birthed an entire intellectual genre – art history – that captured the spirit of an age in which artists were coming to be held in the same esteem that poets and writers had long enjoyed.

The Six Tuscan Poets fits into this genius of Vasari’s for the blending of art and intellectual history, but functions in reverse to the Lives. Where the Lives uses the techniques of biography in order to reveal art, the Six Tuscan Poets uses art in order to create intellectual history. It was an ideological and intellectual statement, painted to advertise Tuscan cultural supremacy in an Italy that was divided between a tapestry of polities and dialects. Since 1300, the literary output of Tuscany’s writers had been slowly establishing Tuscan as the ideal standard of the Italian language. Codifiers like Pietro Bembo (1470-1547), who published his Prose della volgar lingua in 1525, served to concrete this position by consciously holding up Tuscan models as pinnacles of poetic expression. But this growing consensus over the form of Italian had been sharply challenged by proponents of Latin, who entirely rejected Italian as a medium either of art or of scholarship. Vasari’s painting was thus, like many produced in Florence at the time, a triumphant statement of the cultural and intellectual superiority of Tuscany. The items laid out on the table before the conversing poets express their mastery of the intellectual world: astronomy, astrology, geometry, geography, grammar, and rhetoric.[2] The copy of a book of Virgil – widely recognised as the greatest Latin poet – in Dante’s hand reminds the viewer that the six were all masters of the Latin tongue and fluent in the greats of the Classical age. They wrote in Italian not because they could not write in Latin, but because they had found in the new language a mode of expression that surpassed the old. As Vasari himself declared, in the Lives, ‘Tuscan genius has ever been raised high above all others.’[3]

Vasari sought to do more, however, than simply display Tuscan supremacy in his painting. He also sought to write his own chapter in the intellectual history of vernacular poetry. Pietro Bembo may have looked to the Tuscan poets as the pinnacles of Italian expression, but it was Petrarch and Boccaccio that he admired. Dante’s Italian, peppered with Latinisms and with vulgar terms, was, for the highly influential Bembo, ‘like a wide and beautiful field of grain which is all over mixed with oats and chaff and harmful weeds.’[4] Florentines were not happy with this increasing demotion of their native poet. Luca Martini, the patron of Vasari’s painting and an active member of the Florentine Academy, was a deep admirer of Dante and the Six Tuscan Poets constitutes a conscious and explicit response to the emerging consensus that sought to sideline him. In Vasari’s image, Dante occupies the centre ground, the clear focus of the picture. He alone is seated, whilst the other figures crowd in around him, listening to what he has to say. He holds the work of Virgil before Cavalcanti, illustrating some technical point (a knowing reference to Dante’s view that Cavalcanti undervalued Virgil). Petrarch cranes his head in, raising his hand as if wishing to intrude on the conversation, but Dante silences him with the flick of his index finger, which gestures to Petrarch’s Scattered Rhymes, perhaps urging Petrarch to attend to Italian rather than to the Latin in which most of his works were composed. Cino di Pistoia and Guittone d’Arezzo, as minor poets, look on silently at this commanding display. The painting creates a stark and striking genealogy of Italian poetry, with the four great poets at its heart, crowned with laurel wreaths, and Dante as their core.[5]

Vasari’s painting was thus art acting as intellectual history. Made in dialogue with the scholarship of its day, the image was a vignette that gave Vasari’s history of Italian literature in a single glance. It was a powerful story and one that has had great influence. Dante now is widely recognised as the great Italian vernacular poet. Likewise, Vasari’s comparative demotion of Boccaccio, who stands passive in the background of the fevered discussion, has been so enduring that Martin Eisner has recently felt the need to devote an entire book to the attempt to rehabilitate him.[6] The painting thus provided, in and of itself, a program for understanding the history of the nascent Italian literature; a curriculum and a canon.

The sour note in all of this is that, sadly, we cannot know for certain whether Oriel’s painting is the original. Two copies, both plausibly Vasari’s, are known to exist in the world. One, an oil-on-board, came to France in the seventeenth century with the notorious art collector Cardinal Mazarin, thence into the hands of Philippe d’Orléans. In the 1790s it was sold to Jeremiah Harman and moved about English high society, being displayed in London at various points during the nineteenth century. It was auctioned by Christie’s in 1917 and Sotheby’s in 1961, before eventually being acquired by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 1971.[7] The other, an oil-on-canvas, was housed in the Imperial Gallery in Vienna until the mid-eighteenth century, when it came via Brussels to London where it was bought, in 1790, by James Clutterbuck Smith, an Orielensis who donated it to the college in that same year.[8]

Oriel’s is the less technically accomplished of the two; the faces lack the depth and naturalism of Vasari’s original, appearing flatter and more caricatured. The furrowed, concentrated expressions of Petrarch and Boccaccio have softened to become more passive, even slightly vacant. Of itself, this proves nothing, however, and the true identity of the two paintings may never be conclusively be proven. We know from Vasari himself that the work was widely copied and if the Oriel painting is one such, it is nevertheless a masterful one. For many years it was simply taken for granted that it was indeed the original and guides to Oxford published in the nineteenth century routinely noted the painting, which at that time hung in the library, as one of Oriel’s great treasures.[9] Whether it is the work of Vasari or of some Florentine imitator, however, it remains one of Oxford’s hidden gems, a remarkable work of both art and history by a scholar who used the written word to immortalise artists and used art to immortalise poets.

- Adrastos Omissi

Junior Research Fellow

Oriel College, Oxford

[1] The identities of these figures is actually somewhat controversial, and some critics argue that these two figures are the fifteenth-century humanists Cristoforo Landino and Marsilio Ficino; cf. E. P. Bowron, ‘Giorgio Vasari’s Portrait of Six Tuscan Poets’, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin 60 (1971–1973), 45-7, P. L. Rubin, Giorgio Vasari: Art and History, (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995), 290, n. 19, and D. Parker, ‘Vasari’s Ritratto di sei poeti toscani: A Visible Literary History,’ Modern Languages Notes 127:1 (2012), 209-10.

[2] E. P. Bowron, ‘Giorgio Vasari’s Portrait of Six Tuscan Poets’, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin 60 (1971–1973), 47.

[3] Vasari, Lives, VII: Michelangelo Buonarroti.

[4] Bembo, Prose della volgar lingua, 345.

[5] D. Parker, ‘Vasari’s Ritratto di sei poeti toscani: A Visible Literary History,’ Modern Languages Notes 127:1 (2012), 204-15.

[6] M. Eisner, Boccaccio and the Invention of Italian Literature: Dante, Petrarch, Cavalcanti, and the Authority of the Vernacular (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[7] N. Macola, ‘Dotte conversazioni davanti ai Sei poeti toscani di Vasari,’ Rivista I Castelli di Yale 12 (2012), 57 n. 2.

[8] R. T. Holbrook, Portraits of Dante from Giotto to Raffael: a critical study, with a concise iconography (London: P. L. Warner, 1911), 157-8.

[9] J. Dallaway, Anecdotes on the Arts in England Or Comparative Remarks on Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting chiefly illustrated by specimens at Oxford (London: Cadwell and Davies, 1800), 495; A. Chalmers, A history of the colleges, halls, and public buildings attached to the University of Oxford including the Lives of the Founders (Oxford: Collingwood and Co., 1810), 84; Leigh’s new picture of England and Wales (London: Samuel Leigh, 1820), 393-4; T. Joy, Oxford delineated; or A sketch of the history and antiquities, and a general topographical description, of that celebrated university and city. Illustrated by a series of views (Oxford: Whessell and Bartlett, 1831), 69; etc.