Art Theory, Criticism, and Historiography

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Questions that remain relevant and disputed today in art history and theory were first explored at length during the early modern period: What is art? How do images communicate differently from words? What is artistic genius? How does art originate in and reveal an artist's character? How does art change with time and place? How does art reflect society and construct its collective identity? How does one date and attribute paintings?


In 1924 Julius von Schlosser published the bibliographic bible on the literature of art from antiquity to the nineteenth century: Die Kunstliteratur. It was not the first free-standing bibliographythat honor goes to Angelo Comolli (17881792)nor was it the oldest published bibliography (Antonio Possevino, 1593). (Full references to source material in this entry can be found in Schlosser.) But it became the definitive one, especially after its updating by Otto Kurz for the third Italian edition in 1964, La letteratura artistica. Since then, many early modern manuscripts and pamphlets on art have been discovered and published; many fewer books devoted to art have been rediscovered. However, none have the canonical status of the books listed by Schlosser. Schlosser was more than a diligent bibliographer; his greatest contribution was a judicious analysis of the content of individual works and the historical development of the genre generally.

New approaches require some revision of Schlosser's ideas. Reader-response theory encouraged the study of marginalia, where the reader objects to the text with telegraphic comments, as did the Carracci, Federico Zuccaro, and Sebastiano Resta in their copies of Giorgio Vasari's Vite (Perini). Focused reception histories of individual texts have been analyzed (Sohm; Grassman), as has the literary reception of individual paintings (Colantuono). Studies on language have been particularly fruitful: on rhetoric, poetics, and art theory (Lee; Baxandall; Summers; Sohm), and on biography as art criticism (Barolsky). Older histories of ideas (Panofsky) have been revised by important studies on the social contexts of art literature (Crow; Cropper; Goldberg; Wrigley; Ames-Lewis) and the production of theory in the academies (Montagu; Goldstein; Barzman). Still the most essential category of scholarship is the author-based monograph, and here the advances are particularly impressive even when limited to the English language (Brusati; Cropper; Gibson-Wood; Melion; Muller; Puttfarken; Summerscale; Vries; Warwick).

Schlosser's categories of art literature are: (1) historical and biographical, (2) theoretical and technical, and (3) topographic. Because he established these on the basis of Renaissance art literature, new early modern forms and topics of art writing are often submerged in inappropriate categories, having no other place. The connoisseur's manual, for example, is a mix of the historical, technical, and theoretical. It was first essayed by Giulio Mancini (c. 16171621), a physician who autopsied painting surfaces (craquelure, varnish, brushwork) much as he did bodies in his medical practice. Although not published until 1956, the manuscript was widely circulated in the seventeenth century as an indispensable guide for art collectors and led eventually to Jonathan Richardson's famous Connoisseur (1719). Another new genre was the institutional history of art academies, starting with Romano Alberti's history and lecture synopses from the Accademia di San Luca (1599) and continued by Henri Testelin (16481664, Académie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture) and Giampietro Zanotti (1739, Accademia Clementina). The art dictionary originated with Filippo Baldinucci, whose Vocabolario Toscano dell'arte del disegno (1681) responded to an expanding, nonprofessional readership of art books. Baldinucci's served as the model for later dictionaries by Roger de Piles (in Charles-Alphonse Dufresnoy, 1667), Jacques Lacombe (1752), A. Pernety (1757), Claude Henri de Watelet (1792), and Francesco Milizia (1797). The biographical dictionary started by Pellegrino Antonio Orlandi in 1704, Abecedario pittorico (Pictorial primer), saw many editions and proved in its brevity and alphabetic order to be a format that survives today.


Using Schlosser's categories and bibliography (but excluding books not devoted entirely or mostly to art), it is interesting to delineate the changing contours of published art literature between 1550, when Vasari first published his Vite de' pittori,scultori ed architetti (Lives of the painters, sculptors and architects), and 1752, when Johann Joachim Winckelmann's new nonbiographical historiography was published as Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke (Reflections on the imitation of Greek works in painting and sculpture).

Italian writers dominated art literature of all kinds and at all times. In terms of artistic practice, Italy's hegemony in Europe began to erode in the mid-seventeenth century; and by the eighteenth century, it was on its way to becoming a cultural backwater, renowned more for its illustrious past than its modern production. In terms of art literature, however, Italy held its ground between 1650 and 1750 because it remained Europe's art center by virtue of its antiquities and Renaissance Old Masters. European artists and amateurs generally made pilgrimages to Italy and even learned Italian.

There was a steady rise in the number of publications between 1550 and 1650, and a sustained explosion thereafter. Art books published outside of Italy before 1650 were, by comparison, few. In France the watershed year, especially in the category of theory, was 1648 when the Académie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture was founded. Germany and England did not become publishing centers until the eighteenth century; Spain produced few art books throughout the early modern period.

Distribution patterns within the categories can also be observed. Whereas the Italians produced roughly the same number of books on theory and history/biography, in France theory overwhelmed history by more than 3:1. This is not simply the result of having fewer historical works of international importance to write about since the ratio in England was 2:1, and for Germany and England it was even less (3:2). Instead, it is a true measure of French interests and achievements in theory (Dufresnoy; Chambray; De Piles). It is not until the eighteenth century that German and English books with a comparable international audience were published. In only one area, not separated by Schlosser as a separate category, were the French, Germans, and English at a par with or even more productive than the Italians: books on artistic techniques, either instructional manuals, drawing pattern books, or historical accounts (Italy: 8; Germany: 7; France: 5; England: 12).

Italy was the greatest exporter of texts by virtue of its famous Renaissance backlist. Leonardo's notebooks appeared in translation in Paris (1651), Nuremberg (1724 and 1747), and Leipzig (1751). Pomponio Gaurico's treatise on sculpture appeared in Antwerp (1609), Leiden (1701), and Strasbourg (1622). Ludovico Dolce's treatise on painting appeared in Amsterdam (1756), Berlin (1757), and London (1770). Books by Benedetto Varchi, Vasari, Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, Gabriele Paleotti, Resta, and Giovanni Michele Silos each received one or two translations. Just as Italy provided European artists with the "great works" from antiquity to the Renaissance masters, so too did Italian become the lingua franca of the art community. Italian art terminology survives even today in many languages: sfumato, chiaroscuro, fresco, contrapposto. The dominant form of art history (biography and periodized chronology) can also be traced back to Vasari's seminal Lives.

By comparison, the Italians were late and seemingly reluctant importers of foreign texts in translation: Dufresnoy (1713 and 1776), Charles Le Brun (1753), AndréFélibien (1755), De Piles (1769 and 1771), William Hogarth (1771), Sir Joshua Reynolds (1778), and Watelet (1777). The fact that virtually all these translations appeared after 1750 and frequently included seventeenth-century texts as part of a catch-up phase suggests how late it was when Italy reached parity with other European countries in terms of receptivity to international literary culture. A related measure revealing national taste concerns the frequency of reprinted or translated texts compared to original editions. In Italy the ratio was 5:1 (two hundred original texts; forty reprints or translations). In France it was 3:2. The reverse held true for Germany and England where reprints and translations outnumbered original texts by 4:3. Many Italian reprints cluster in the 1730sLeonardo, 1733; Rafaelle Borghini, 1730; Benvenuto Cellini, 1728 and 1731; Dolce, 1735; Giovanni Baglione, 1733, 1739, and 1743; Giovanni Pietro Bellori, 1728 and 1732and mark an important moment of historicizing consciousness that also resulted in the reevaluations of Gothic and quattrocento art. The first book of artists' letters was published shortly thereafter by Giovanni Gaetano Bottari (1754) as a source primer for art history.

There is one final epidemiological curiosity: The most frequently translated text was Dufresnoy's De arte graphica (The art of painting; 1667, Paris), with translations into French (1673, 1684, 1688, 1751, and 1760), English (1695, 1716, 1728, 1750, and 1754), German (1699 and 1731), Italian (1713 and 1776), and Dutch (1733). No single explanation can account for this. Most art books, when not written by or for theologians, tended to be in the vernacular, and by the late seventeenth century art literature in Latin had become a rarity. Despite its secular content, a powerful mix of literary and artistic theories, De arte graphica was written in Latin as part of Dufresnoy's homage to Horace's Ars poetica (Art of poetry).


Giorgio Vasari, the father of art history, wrote the first universal history of art from Egypt to his own time. It skimmed over the Middle Ages and mentioned non-Italian artists only if they visited Italy, but it remained the definitive work until Baldinucci expanded it (16811728) into a pan-European version. By the late sixteenth century when updates to Vasari began to be published (Borghini, 1584; Mancini, c. 1617; Baglione, 1642; Giovanni Battista Passeri, c. 1673), Vasari became a "modern Pliny." He achieved canonical status for art writers in much the same way that his heroes, Michelangelo and Raphael, became the new ancients. Of the Italian Renaissance artists heroized by Vasari, only Correggio was "rediscovered" between 1550 and 1800. Many Italian art writers expressed irritation at Vasari's pro-Florentine stance, part of a Medicean strategy of cultural hegemony; after the next edition of Vasari appeared in print in 1647, many responded by writing alternative regional histories (Carlo Ridolfi, 1648; Marco Boschini, 1660; Carlo Cesare Malvasia, 1678; Raffaele Soprani, 1674). Outside of Italy, biographers like Karel van Mander (1604), Félibien (16661688), Joachim von Sandrart (1675), and Aglionby (1685) adapted Vasari's narratives and critical language in discussing the work of their native artists. Like their Italian counterparts, they remained ambivalent toward Vasari, poised between emulation and antagonism. Van Mander became the Vasari of the Netherlands, not just because he translated parts of Vasari into Dutch and used Vasari's template of artists' lives to write about Dutch and Flemish artists, but also because his Schilder-Boeck (1604) became the seminal text for most later art literature in the Netherlands from Philip Angel (1642) to Arnold Houbraken (1718).

Art history originated as biography and dominated its practice for two centuries, a fact traditionally lamented by modernists, but as a historiographic genre, biography helped explain why painters painted the way they did by rendering an account of training, character, and circles of influence. Modernists have also overlooked the powerful developmental model that Vasari included in his three prefaces, each explaining the artistic characteristics and causes of the three ages of modern art (trecento, quattrocento, cinquecento). For Vasari, Mancini, and others, the stages of human life provided the pattern of the "birth, growth and death" of art. Early modern art literature is full of repeated patterns explained by metempsychosis, ontology, and human psychology. Historical recurrence gave history a structure and tied the past and present together in meaningful ways. The Renaissance was a new Antiquity, mannerism a new Gothic, baroque a new mannerism. Similarly, artists were often reborn masters: Michelangelo was a new Parrhasios, Bernini a new Michelangelo, Raphael a new Apelles, Guido Reni a new Raphael, Tiepolo a new Veronese.

Ancient art and its historical development shadowed discussions of early modern art. Just as artists advocated the study of antiquity as a means to achieve artistic excellence, so too did art writers develop their aesthetic, linguistic, and historical ideas from ancient literature, notably Pliny, Vitruvius, Lucian, Cicero, Quintilian, and various other rhetoricians. Vasari appended Giambattista Adriani's history of ancient art to his Lives as an orienting preface. All later histories of ancient art made reference to modern art: Felipe de Guevara (late sixteenth century), Franciscus Junius (1637), Carlo Dati (1667), and Winckelmann (1764). Winckelmann's seminal The History of Ancient Art, commonly described as the first nonbiographical book on art history, can also be read as a critique of baroque art.


The Accademia della Crusca, a Florentine literary academy that published the first standard Italian dictionary in 1612, defined theory as "the speculative science that gives rules to practice and restores reason to working." The priority of theory over practice, or, as Leonardo da Vinci had put it, of "mental discourse" over "manual operation," helped artists redefine their activities as a noble endeavor, thus taking art out of the workshop and into the academy, transforming it from a mechanical trade into a liberal art. It is no coincidence that Vasari wrote the first art historical account and at the same time helped found the first art academy (the Accademia del Disegno), both under the sponsorship of Cosimo I de' Medici. Although Leon Battista Alberti (1432) first set the agenda of painting as a liberal art requiring knowledge of geometry, optics, history, and poetry, there was still some resistance to this idea when Vasari tried to institutionalize such a curriculum for artists in 1563. Vincenzio Borghini, a philologist and Cosimo's representative at the Accademia, wanted it to be "an academy of making things not thinking about them." He was on the losing side. Academies were founded in Rome (1577), Paris (1648), Berlin (1697), Bologna (1709), Madrid (1744), Copenhagen (1754), St. Petersburg (1757), and London (1768). Despite the Accademia della Crusca definition, practice did not passively receive its rules from theory. Michelangelo, who was often taken as the embodiment of theory in practice, rejected literary discourse in favor of practice. Theory is contained in practice.

The aspirations and claims of artists to be humanists were not realized in the form of their writing. Theory and other forms of art writing in Italy tended to be the preserve of theologians, physicians, philologists, and other humanists. During the sixteenth century, artists wrote only 30 percent of published books on art. In the seventeenth century this shrank to 24 percent, and in the eighteenth century a mere 11 percent of art books were written by artists. (We have not compiled comparable figures for the rest of Europe.) During the seventeenth century, there arose writers who fit neither category: amateur painters who wrote about art (Malvasia, Baldinucci, De Piles, Resta).


(1) What relation should art have to nature? If art should improve upon natural appearance (the view of the majority), should the changes enhance beauty or expression? Should the changes be based on a scientific method, on the imitation of ancient art and the Old Masters, or on a platonic Christian or personal ideal? These questions permeate most discussions on art, but some writers adopted them as their primary subject. Federico Zuccaro (1607), Giovanni Battista Agucchi (c. 1615), Fréart de Chambray (1664), and Bellori (1672) provided influential answers from the idealist point of view during the seventeenth century.

(2) Can great art be taught, or is it impervious to reason and rules? Academic curricula and writers on theory and technique invested themselves in an epistemology that favored objective standards of art production (Armenini; Le Brun). Creativity as a divine or innate spark was never denied, but being uncontrollable and ineffable, it was less subject to verbal scrutiny. De Piles's tenure as director of the French Académie (1699) initiated a phase that was more attentive to problems of sense perception and subjectivity. Jean-Baptiste Du Bos (1710) made an equally compelling argument for sentiment in painting and poetry to the Académie Royale des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres. This can be seen as a turning point away from Le Brun's emphasis as Académie director on art as instruction. Coloring, traditionally devalued as decorative or as a sensual appeal to the ignorant, was elevated almost to an intellectual par with the concepts of design and drawing.


Ekphrasis originated in ancient rhetoric as a form of description, vividly detailing an event in order to persuade an audience of its truth. Philostratus and Lucian adopted the technique to describe paintings. Art books were not illustrated with reproductive prints until the late seventeenth century (Carla Patin, 1691), despite the earlier practice of illustrating instructional manuals (Giacomo Franco; Odoardo Fialetti), archaeological books (Bellori), and art theories in which visual systems of lighting and composition were diagrammed (Félibien; Giovanni Battista Volpato, c. 1685; Gérard de Lairesse, 1707; Baldassare Orsini, 1784). For analyses of existing paintings, however, verbal descriptions were essential. Vasari's ekphrases tended to be prosopopoeic, that is, he assumed a transparency of representation so that describing what one sees through a picture frame was much the same as describing a scene through a window frame. In the seventeenth century editorial comments about some artifice (impasto or foreshortening, for example) began to appear more often within the description itself. Bellori experimented with new forms of verbal description whose structure and syntax systematically move the reader through a visual grid. Poussin approved of this method because it resembled the visual strategy that he had proposed to Chantelou for "reading" his Fall of the Manna. Also in the seventeenth century, books of ekphrases began to appear describing real and sometimes imaginary paintings and statues (Giambattista Marino, 1619; Georges de Scudéry, 1646; Silos, 1673). The ekphrastic book and the systematic descriptions of Bellori and the French academicians led to a new type of art catalogue, the salon livret.


Art criticism was an early modern invention that originated within the intricacies of the older genres of biography, theory, and ekphrasis. The self-proclaimed objectivity of theory and the historical perspective of biography yielded in art criticism to the immediate, subjective response of an individual viewer in front of a particular painting. Vasari wanted to separate the "good, better and best," and the impulse to rank into hierarchies was deeply embedded in all critical practices. Is French painting superior to Italian? Is Poussin better than Rubens? Is modern art superior to ancient art? These divisive debates, like most forms of combative behavior, signaled political and personal allegiances as often as coherent philosophical positions.

A belief in objective standards dominated most early modern art criticism to the extent that Roger de Piles and Francesco Algarotti could write up report cards assigning numerical grades to the great masters, using the conventional categories of design, composition, coloring, and expression (Table 1). Other fixed hierarchies can be found in Jean Baptiste de Boyer's comparison of French and Italian painters, in the ranking of pictorial genres, and in the prize systems at the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (Paris) and the Accademia di San Luca (Rome). Nevertheless, guardians of artistic beauty during the seventeenth century felt that "each painter introduces precepts according to

Roger de Piles, "La balance des peintres," in    Cours de  
peinture par principes, Paris, 1708.    
Names of  Design and  
Painters Composition Drawing   Coloring Expression
Albrecht Dürer 8 10 10 8
Andrea del Sarto 12 16 9 8
Jacopo Bassano 6 8 17 0
Giovanni Bellini 4 6 14 0
Ch. Le Brun 16 16 8 16
The Carracci 15 17 13 13
Correggio 13 13 15 12
Domenichino 15 17 9 17
Giorgione 8 9 18 4
Guercino 18 10 10 4
Guido Reni  13 9 12
Holbein 9 10 16 13
Luca Giordano 13 12 9 6
Cesare d'Arpino 10 10 6 2
Giulio Romano 15 16 4 14
Lanfranco 14 13 10 5
Leonardo 15 16 4 14
Lucas van Leyden 8 6 6 4
Michelangelo 8 17 4 8
Caravaggio 6 6 16 0
Palma Vecchio 5 6 16 0
Parmigianino 10 15 6 6
Paolo Veronese 15 10 16 3
Perino del Vaga 15 16 7 6
Pietro da Cortona 16 14 12 6
Perugino 4 12 10 4
Poussin 15 14 7 10
Raphael 17 18 12 18
Rembrandt 15 6 17 12
Rubens 18 13 17 17
Franc. Salviati 13 15 8 8
Le Sueur 15 15 4 15
Tintoretto 15 14 16 4
Titian 12 15 18 6
Van Dyck 15 10 17 13
Federico Zuccaro 10 13 8 8

his own genius" (Passeri), thereby "infecting painting . . . with many artistic heresies" (Agucchi).

If one wanted to arbitrarily establish a birthdate for art criticism as an independent literary genre, it would be in the lectures given by artists and amateurs at the Académie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture in the mid-seventeenth century. Individual paintings from the royal collection were brought before an assembly of academicians to be critiqued by a lead interpreter and then challenged by the audience; Félibien and Testelin published accounts of the proceedings in 1668 and 1680. Books and pamphlets on a single work or cycle of paintings predate Le Brun's lecture of 1667 on Poussin's Fall of the Manna: Francesco Bocchi (1584), Genari (1632), and Malvasia (1652). In its prissy presumption of an individual responsethe writer's responseLe Brun's fastidious explanation may seem far removed from Diderot's overtly politicized and moralizing discourse, but they share an academic context (the conferences and salons), a tendency to judge paintings as dramatic performances, and a concentration on individual paintings. As an out-growth of in camera debates, starting in 1737, the Académie's salons were open to public scrutiny and thus initiated a new literary form: exhibition review pamphlets and articles.

Amateurs helped to advance the description of the emotional pleasures of art by writing in an accessible vernacular and relying on intuition. As public access to the art world broadened, the preserve of art authorities began to erode and with it a certain civility. In 1650 art discourse was relatively discreet, even polite; by 1750, especially in Paris, it had become contentious, vindictive in tone, and given to ad hominem attacks. One salon critic regarded art criticism in the 1750s as nothing other than a venting of "malignities." La Font de Saint-Yenne's review of the 1747 salon garnered greater notoriety than any painting in the salon itself and generated more rebuttals than all preceding salon publications (in total, thirty-three articles and pamphlets). In all these aspectsa demotic language of argot, sexual puns, and sensory evocations as well as opinionated attacksthe anomalous barcarole by Boschini (1660) anticipated such later developments.

See also Academies of Art ; Carracci Family ; Diderot, Denis ; Vasari, Giorgio ; Winckelmann, Johann Joachim.


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Bellori, Giovanni Pietro. Lives of Annibale and Agostino Carracci. Translated by Catherine Enggass. University Park, Pa., 1968. Translation of chapter from Le vite de' pittori, scultori et architetti moderni (1672).

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Philip L. Sohm