- Art Literature and Theory of Art
- Oxford Bibliographies Online
- Renaissance and Reformation
- Number of pages
- Document type
- Faculty of Humanities (FGw)
- Amsterdam Institute for Humanities Research (AIHR)
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.
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