In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Art Literature and Theory of Art

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Collections
  • Themes and Subjects

Renaissance and Reformation Art Literature and Theory of Art
Thijs Weststeijn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 June 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0035


In contrast to theories of poetry or rhetoric, no complete ancient theory of the figurative arts survives. Renaissance authors wishing to underpin the “rebirth” of painting therefore had to resort to a variety of strategies to invent a new genre. Literary metaphors and fragments from artists’ biographies (mainly from Pliny) were joined with scientific discoveries such as the theory of perspective and the proportions of human anatomy. Leon Battista Alberti’s On Painting of 1435 was the first text to merge ancient conceptions and newfangled geometric insights into a coherent whole that professed to revive classical art theory. His efforts sparked the development of a sizeable genre in Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries. In 17th-century France, the Netherlands and (to a lesser extent) Spain and Britain developed their own traditions. These texts shared a prescriptive approach in combination with biographical information about artists. As a central tenet from Alberti onward, humanistic knowledge was tied to basic acquaintance with the artist’s studio. Only at the end of the 16th century did art theory become a topic for courtiers stylizing their texts in a literary fashion. In the 17th century, the role of learned art lovers and their symbiotic relationship to the painters became increasingly important. By comparing the figurative arts to respectable activities such as poetry, rhetoric, and antiquarianism, and by drawing humanistic interest to the painter’s workshop, these texts served an essential role in facilitating the communication between craftsmen and the lettered. Developing the ideal of the “learned painter,” the textual tradition thus developed synchronously to the artist’s changing social status. Whereas in the 16th century most authors were artists or had some link to studio practice, in the 17th century amateur-connoisseurs began to replace them; simultaneously, visual art and its theory were institutionalized in the first academies of art. Implicitly or explicitly, Renaissance treatises on painting have, therefore, as their main argument the inclusion of painting among the liberal arts, the intellectual activities worthy of the universal man. Other written sources relevant for the historical reconstruction of manners of speaking about the visual arts include poems, plays, and diaries. As a topic of analysis, sculpture plays a comparatively minor role.

General Overviews

Von Schlosser 1924 is the first overview work by one of the founding fathers of academic art history and surveys the entire corpus of Western writing on art from Antiquity to modern times. Involving technical treatises, works of criticism, and early historiography it extends to all of the main European traditions and contains extensive bibliographical material. Blunt 1980 is a concise, elegant, and easily accessible overview privileging the Florentine tradition and for that reason now somewhat outdated. Barasch 1985 focuses on the historical development of various theoretical themes rather than individual authors, leaning toward a philosophical approach rather than details on painting technique. In addition, Ames-Lewis 2000 offers a fact-filled account of the literacy and learned surroundings of early modern artists, chiefly in Italy, and Wilde 2002 is a collection of essays that have little in common but cover a broad scope of relevant issues.

  • Ames-Lewis, Francis. The Intellectual Life of the Early Renaissance Artist. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

    Contains accounts of the “paragone” discussion on the merits of painting and sculpture; the comparison between painting and poetry; and “ekphraseis” or image descriptions. Charting the intellectual component of the artist’s training, social world, and reputation, it brings into view the boundaries and conditions for research into the interplay of theory and practice in early modern art.

  • Barasch, Mosche. Theories of Art. Vol. 1, From Plato to Winckelmann. New York: New York University Press, 1985.

    The second half of the book discusses respectively the Early Renaissance (focusing on Alberti, Dürer, and da Vinci), the High Renaissance (focusing on the comparison between painting and sculpture and on Michelangelo), the Late Renaissance (differentiating local trends in Florence, Rome, Venice, and Lombardy), and the 17th century (singling out classicism and the academy, the debate between Rubenistes and Poussinistes, and finally Roger de Piles).

  • Blunt, Anthony. Artistic Theory in Italy, 1450–1600. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

    The presentation (first printed in 1940) follows the chronological development demonstrating how the questions posed and the solutions offered changed in the course of time. Sketching atmosphere and context as least as much as inventorying theoretical concepts, the book is exceptional in granting the religious reformer Savonarola’s writings and Michelangelo’s poetry a role as fully fledged theories of art.

  • Von Schlosser, Julius. Die Kunstliteratur: Ein Handbuch zur Quellenkunde der neueren Kunstgeschichte. Vienna: Anton Schroll, 1924.

    The author is particularly interested in technical treatises and the writings of artists. Moreover, the book foregrounds travel literature, thus sparking the insight that many early modern texts on painting doubled as travel guides. In spite of his comprehensive outlook, Von Schlosser privileges the Italian tradition, and his opinions on individual authors are in many cases superseded by more recent scholarship.

  • Wilde, P. S. C., ed. A Companion to Art Theory. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002.

    Contains essays on Alberti, Leonardo, Neoplatonism, concepts of tactility in responses to sculpture, academism (especially in relation to rhetorical theory), and the concept of the “picturesque” that thematizes the positive appreciation of irregular design and ugliness.

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