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When Theory Fails? Artistic Practices in the Early Modern Period

Posted By Ivana Vranic, Thursday, May 12, 2016

Despite recent critiques, art historians have maintained the assumption embedded in Giorgio Vasari’s Vite that art theory preceded and hence defined art practice in the early modern period. Arguably, Vasari’s preference arose from his inability to fully define artistic practice; if an artist or an artwork did not fit Vasari’s theoretical construct, he pointed to flaws in artists’ character or biography, dismissed them, and so undermined their contemporary reputation and subsequent recognition. The ramifications of this approach can be observed in the modern preference given to written rather than visual evidence; the text before the object. 

And yet because art objects often failed to illustrate art texts art historians have often overlooked the ways in which early modern artists led and participated in the dialogic (and not dichotomous) relationship of theory and practice by producing objects that challenged and disturbed theoretical discourses. What precisely was this relationship? In what discursive ways did the artists contribute to or evade art theory in their art practice? How did working artists push against or place themselves within a discourse that became ever more the purview of writing artists?

We invite papers that consider such questions in order to illuminate the relationship between art theory and art practice in the early modern period. Potential topics might include, but are not limited to:

  • works that blur the distinctions between mediums, materials, and subjects;
  • artists who borrowed from practices and techniques of making in other materials or mediums;
  • the contributions or responses to prevailing art practices and art theory by foreign artists, materials, and forms;
  • the relationship(s) of the so-called ‘high’ arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture to the ‘low’ arts;
  • the place of the workshop, apprenticeship system, or the consequence of multiple hands in the completion of a work.

Please send your abstract of up to 150 words, along with a title, keywords, and a short CV to Bradley J. Cavallo ( and Ivana Vranic ( by June 3. 


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