Ever since Homer told the tale of the shield made by Hephaistos for Achilles nearly three millennia ago, writers and artists have been telling stories or writing fables about art. Sometimes such fables are passed on as matters of fact, as when Picasso, born at 11:15 p.m. on Oct. 25, 1881, according to birth records, told the charming tale of his nativity at midnight. This seemingly casual alteration of the facts, a mere rounding off of numbers, is not so innocent and not without poetic significance, since, according to legend, midnight was the very hour of Christ's birth. We cannot forget here that when Vasari described the nativity of Michelangelo, he pictured the advent of the messiah of art. "Seldom a splendid story," Dr. Johnson once said, "is wholly true." Or, if it is wholly true, we might add, its "truth" rises above the condition of mere "fact."
Sometimes the fable of art has been carried to the pitch of high farce and fantasy, as in William Beckford's largely forgotten, late 18th-century Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters, the mock-heroic "lives" of imaginary artists. Of all these artists, the greatest was Aldovrandus Magnus, the epic painter whose labors on a heroic cycle of painting were tragically terminated when his supply of canvas vanished in a great conflagration, which, singeing the beards of his disciples, caused the painter to die of grief. His epitaph, written by Professor Clod Lumpewitz or "Dim Wit" and rendered in English by John Ogilby, who was immortalized in Pope's Dunciad, likened Aldovrandus to Alexander the Great: the one who died for want of worlds to conquer, the other "for lack of canvas." Here in a peak of parody, a summit of satire, the whole Renaissance tradition of the heroic artist goes up, you might say, in smoke.
That tradition is epitomized in the monumental 16th-century Lives of the artists by Giorgio Vasari, unarguably the single greatest writer about art in the entire history of literature, one of the great novelistic authors of the modern period, whose accomplishment has sometimes been trivialized by those who call him the "father" of the modern art history. For art history as a modern academic discipline, modeled on a fragile comparison to science, turned away from poetic fable to the more abstract and astringent analysis of art as a problem, written in a decidedly anti-poetic fashion, in a voice alien to the very art it aspires to explain.
As Ovid's myth of Pygmalion and Pliny's fables of Apelles became legendary, so eventually did Vasari's fables, those of Giotto, who drew a perfect O with a single flourish, of Fra Filippo Lippi, who fled the Medici palace to pursue his carnal urges, of Paolo Uccello, so enamored of his "sweet perspective" that he refused to come to bed when called by his wife. Such stories entered into the global imagination of literature, where they merged with the tale of Don Quixote, the greatest illusionist of them all, tilting at windmills. As his niece observed and as he himself later said, Quixote was himself a poet. In other words, Quixote was himself an artist, whose romantic "picture" of the world is one of the masterpieces of art history. Although Vasari's artists were real people, not imaginary characters like Quixote, our sense of their reality is vivified, indeed magnified, by his fables in much the same way that Quixote is made "real" to us, comes to life, thanks to Cervantes' fictive powers.
The story-telling impulse in Vasari is nowhere finer than in his biography of Leonardo, where he tells us unforgettably that as a boy the young artist was called upon by his father to paint a shield, which he did with astonishing results, for he depicted a marvelous Medusalike monster based on the close study of bats, crickets, lizards, butterflies, and serpents. Although there is no persuasive reason to believe Leonardo ever made this painting, which is part of what Walter Pater called Leonardo's "legend," the …