Celebrity bios, the early days

Michelangelo (or is it?) by Daniele da Volterra, c. 1545.

Regular readers of this irregular blog will know that I have a passing interest in the way celebrities or people in positions of power seek to manage and control their image or “narrative,” both in their dealings with the media and with biographers. For earlier takes, see here and here. It really is a fascinating subject.

Giorgio Vasari may have invented the biography of the artist with the publication in 1550 of The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, English translations of which are still in print. This is a collection of biographies or biographical sketches of famous artists of the Italian Renaissance, many of whom Vasari knew. Vasari thought of the arts as progressing, mainly through the technical achievements, and as the culminating figure of the story of Renaissance art he placed Michelangelo, someone who he considered to be sent by God, if not divine himself.

That wasn’t good enough. It never is.

I was reading The Lost Battles by Jonathan Jones recently and had to smile at this:

Michelangelo read this [Vasari’s book] and was ambivalent. Having sent Vasari a poem praising him for bringing so many dead artists back to life, he got his own pupil Ascanio Condivi to take a break from making paintings based on Michelangelo’s drawings in order to write an official life of his master.

Condivi’s Life of Michelangelo, published in 1553, set out to correct errors in Vasari – and to overturn facts Michelangelo didn’t like, such as Vasari’s entirely accurate claim that he had been Ghirlandaio’s apprentice.

I love it! Imagine being so upset at a hagiographical life that you assign a subordinate to “correct” it by falsifying the record.

As I’ve said before, if you’re reading the bio of a living celeb (meaning one who still has the ability to have any influence over what someone is writing about them) you have to assume that it’s going to be, at best, only the loosest facsimile of the truth. It has always been thus.


4 thoughts on “Celebrity bios, the early days

    • At least with the autobiographies you know they’re not being objective. It’s the bios written by supposedly objective sources — reporters or academics — that are actually totally controlled by the subject that bug me.

      Liked by 2 people

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