Portraits of Johann Joachim Winckelmann (left) and Giorgio Vasari (right).
As an almost 10-year-long devotee of the visual arts, I take it for granted that they are worthy of study. The Western art world as a whole (and art historians in particular) owe a debt of gratitude to those who paved the way for arts scholarship. In the 1500s, Giorgio Vasari, and in the 1700s, Johann Joachim Winckelmann both initiated their own types of study for the visual arts. Their respective outputs are exhaustive and include both archaeology (Winckelmann) and connoisseurship (Vasari) in addition to formalist art critique.
In general, how did art historical study begin? Well, with Vasari, it began with an interest in promoting his own populace, the Florentines. Yes, Vasari was very patriotic and one of his primary aims was to establish Florence as superior to other cities in terms of art. Although Florence was no slouch when it came to churning out master artists in the 16th century, Vasariís interest in promoting primarily Florence is one of the drawbacks to his scholarship. The ability to know and work around this bias is one of the duties of the modern-day art historian. Besides just doing the research to get the facts from the past, we also need to be aware of distinctive cultural biases as well as any other factors that may color the interpretation of an event.
One of the most important things about Vasariís research is his focus on connoisseurship. For instance, he focused very intently on tiny details. Like, tiny details. He claimed to be able to identify the hand of the same artist in two artworks because the thumbnails were painted in the same manner. An anecdote to be sure, but reflective of Vasariís emphasis on empirical evidence just the same.
Venus de Milo, circa 130-100 B.C., Parisian marble, height 80 inches, photograph by Johann H. Addicks, Cc.
Winckelmann, on the other hand, loved Antiquity. Loved it. He preferred the ďnoble simplicity and quiet grandeurĒ of the Greeks to any other type of art, most especially the art of his own time, Baroque. He covered Roman and Greco-Roman art in his writings, too, but Greece had his heart. He believed we should measure ourselves against the Ancients because they stressed proportion and perfection. Idealized art. Beautiful bodies. He felt nature is too varied, too prone to chance and deviation to model fine art after.
In sum, both Vasari and Winckelmann were interested in the look of things, the aesthetics of a work of art. They did not dabble in philosophical debate. They did not despair over the conceptual precursors of a physical piece of art. So, the beginnings of art history were written. These were some progressive men. Not to confuse progressive with experimental or avant-garde. Winckelmann and Vasari simply began something which we are continually redefining to this day Ė the discipline of art history.