§91 Vasari’s definition of ‘Disegno’

This note continues our examination of design (see n§89), by exploring aspects of its historical definition. It focuses on Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), a ‘great Florentine critic and biographer’ (Gombrich 1951, 272) whose Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550/1568) is considered a founding work in art history. As pointed out by his English translator:

‘Although Vasari could not rely upon a pre-existing and systematic technical vocabulary…his terminology is, nevertheless, remarkably consistent.’ (Bondanella 1991, xi)

One term that Vasari used with such consistency was disegno. By the mid-sixteenth century disegno could mean ‘’design’, ‘drawing’, or ‘draughtsmanship’ depending on its context’. (ibid). It could refer to ‘the actual line which traced the edges of a form’ or ‘the underlying order of a composition or a piece of statuary’ (Jack 1976, 4 n.4.).

Vasari regarded disegno as ‘the basis of all good art’, a skill required by ‘artists, sculptors, and architects …to succeed in achieving art’s fundamental goal, that of imitating the natural and the human worlds.’. Disegno reflected Vasari’s ‘philosophical belief that an artist should possess a clear conception of the idea underlying whatever he was depicting.’ (Bondanella 1991, xi).

Vasari puts it thus:

“The idea that forms itself in the intellect, and which then expresses itself through the hands, is called disegno; it is possible to conclude that this disegno is nothing more than an apparent expression and declaration of the concept that one has in the mind, which is imagined and created in the intellect by the [perception of] the idea.” (Jack 1976, 4).*

As an early theorist of ‘design’ (disegno), Vasari has, through his influence as historian and founder of The Accademia del Disegno in Florence, established in 1562, perhaps something to remind our present ‘zeitgeist of design thinking’ (Rodgers and Bremner 2016, 5–6). One lesson we might observe is the implication of his definition of design (disegno). It constitutes the theoretical concept that link the underlying creative idea inspiring the artist (painter, sculptor, or architect) with its expression (paraphrasing Jack 1976, 4).

As such disegnio is the prerequisite of the artwork’, but not  ‘its final, historical product.’ (Keizer and Richardson 2012, 19, emphasis added).

/Fred Weibull

* The original definition reads as follows:
‘Perchè il disegno, padre delle tre arti nostre, Architettura, Scultura e Pittura, procedendo dall’intelletto cava di molte cose un giudizio universale; simile a una forma ovvero idea di tutte le cose dalla natura, la quale e singolarissima nelle sue misure; di qui è che non solo nei corpi umani e degli animali, ma nelle piante ancora e nelle fabbriche e sculture e pitture, conosce la proporzione che ha il tutto con le parti, e che hanno le parti fra loro e col tutto insieme. E perchè da questa congnizione nasce un certo concetto e giudizio, che si forma nella mente quella tal cosa che poi espresso con le mani si chiama disegno; si può conchiudere che esso disegno alto non sia che una apparent espressione e dichi- arazione del concetto che si ha nell’animo, e di quello che altri si è nato nella mente immaginato e fabbricato nell’idea’. (Vasari 1906 I: 168-169).


Bondanella, Peter. 1991. “Introduction.” In The Lives of the Artists, by Giorgio Vasari, vii–xiv. Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press.

Gombrich, E.H. 1951. “A Crisis of Art [Ch 18].” In The Story of Art, 265–286. New York: Phaidon Press.

Jack, Mary Ann. 1976. “The Accademia Del Disegno in Late Renaissance Florence.” The Sixteenth Century Journal, 3–20.

Keizer, Joost, and Todd M. Richardson. 2012. The Transformation of Vernacular Expression in Early Modern Arts. Leiden: Brill.

Rodgers, Paul, and Craig Bremner. 2016. “An A to Z of Contemporary Design.” The Design Journal 19 (1): 5–23.

Vasari, Giorgio. 1906. Le Vite de’ Più Eccellenti Pittori Scultori Ed Architettori [9 Vols.]. Edited by G. Milanesi. Florence.

Further Reading

Campbell, C. Jean. “Petrarch’s Italy, Sovereign Poetry and the Hand of Simone Martini.” In The Transformation of Vernacular Expression in Early Modern Arts, edited by Joost Keizer and Todd M. Richardson, 27–58. Leiden: Brill, 2012.

Williams, Robert. Art, Theory, and Culture in Sixteenth-Century Italy: From Techne to Metatechne. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.