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What is art criticism?

What is art criticism? This is one of the first questions that arise spontaneously for art lovers. For all those who are immersed in the world of art both for passion and for work. And it’s always been the same. Then linked to the slightly more subtle question. Who is the art critic? And what exactly does he do in life?

In this very brief history of art criticism I will try to give a general idea that has naturally changed over time and with evolution. The topic is not simple. One enters fields such asaesthetics, philosophy, the phenomenology of the arts.


What is art criticism? From the dictionary it reads under the heading Art criticism.Discipline which has as its object the formulation of judgments on artistic products of the past and contemporary”. In a broad sense, art criticism also includes those literary genres that deal with artistic phenomena and their greatest representatives.

The art critic, therefore, would seem to be the one who formulates judgments in relation to his knowledge, his taste and his own time.

Pt.1 Ancient Greece. Plato

But let’s try to retrace history backwards, focusing today on the first writings of art that appear in Ancient Greece.

Plato was the first to formulate the principle of art as an imitation of nature. Giving it, therefore, a substantially negative meaning. Referring to the doctrine of ideas , he affirms that a beautiful flower, for example, constitutes the copy or imitation of the universal ideas of flower and beauty. Since the visible flower is one degree lower than the reality of ideas, the picture representing the flower is then two degrees lower than the reality of ideas. The work is therefore an imitation of the imitation. Artistic creation therefore sees every value denied in Plato’s philosophical system which relegates it to the role of mìmesis fùsis (imitation of nature).

Pt.1 Ancient Greece. Aristotle

Together with Plato, the other great Greek philosopher Aristotle formulates the first principles of art. And it sets the standards for the birth of a new figure of artist.

Plato’s philosophical position implied that the artist was not the holder of knowledge. Therefore, that he was not fully aware of what he was producing. In his writings Aristotle identifies in theartist the figure of the one who had the responsibility of the artistic creation. Freed from the simple imitation of ideas, it makes it the conscious protagonist of the representation itself.

It was in the perfect synthesis between matter and forms, in the quality and proportions of the individual works that Aristotle. Andhe shifts the lens from the abstract of the idea to the concreteness of the forms and the artist finds himself the conscious protagonist of the aesthetic representation.  

Pt.1 Ancient Greece. The others

What is art criticism in ancient Greece, then? Art criticism, understood in the modern meaning of a specific literary genre, did not exist in classical antiquity. Also because the artistic activity, as manual work, was in fact assimilated to the artisanal, humble, anonymous, little worthy of consideration. The same Greek term téchne and the Latin equivalent ars indicated the manual ability to produce objects rather than the inspiring creativity. This did not mean that artists and works were completely absent in classical literature. However, it should be noted that they appeared only in the biographical genre, attentive to curiosities. Or in the brief treatises dedicated to the contents, but almost always free from aesthetic judgements.

Durides of Samos and the first biographies of artists

Among the most important Greek sources of the fourth century we find Durides of Samos, who wrote the first biographies of artists. And in addition to interesting curiosities about their lives, there are also treatises on the importance of the perfection of the work of art. The work had to be directly proportional to the verisimilitude achieved and worthy of admiration when it did not denounce the artifices adopted to obtain the effect of the optical illusion.

Xenocrates of Samos. Sculptor and historian

The sculptor Xenocrates of Samos in third century narrates the evolution of art through the stories of the authors and in addition to becoming one of the first art historians he also identifies four more precise categories of judgment: the symmetry of the composition, the , the accuracy of execution and the overall visual effect.

The Anonymous of the Sublime

The work of the first and greatest critic in ancient history theAnonymous of the Sublime is complex but well articulated. The treatise is defined anonymous as the hypothesis that it can be attributed to some Greek literates of the first century has not yet been approved. It is important in the history of literary and art criticism. Inside there are displayed in an orderly and analytical way all those that should be the ancient canons of perfection of an oratorical text. These are the aptitude for great conceptions, deep and inspiring passion, special shape of the figures, nobility of expression and composition. Perfectly attributable to a visual work.

Pt.2 Rome

What is art criticism in Ancient Rome? InAncient Rome, the history of art and research were born from the scarce art criticism as a formulation by intellectuals and philosophers of real aesthetic canons. The first artistic guide was in fact compiled in the 2nd century AD by Pausanias the Periegeta who devoted his studies to Greek and Roman monuments and sculptures.

Pt.2 The Middle Ages

The period following the fall of the Roman Empire is certainly a somewhat “dead” period. In theEarly Middle Ages a noble value was not recognized for artistic activity, subordinated like all other disciplines to theology. The works were judged taking into account only the materials used (more or less precious) and the number of painted or sculpted figures. However, no works were contemplated that did not concern the earthly or otherworldly reality. The only writings on art from this period were practical manuals on art techniques, such as the work of the German monk Theophilus Diversarum artium Schedala.

The first true medieval aesthetic judgments regarding contemporary works of art that have come down to us refer to Giotto and are expressed by writers such as Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch. We know that the latter also owned works by the Florentine master, whom he judged an “excellent painter” and who was a close friend of Simone Martini.

Pt.2 Humanism. Leon Battista Alberti and Lorenzo Ghiberti

Only withHumanism the social role of the artist begin to be recognised, indeed to enjoy great consideration. The revaluation of ancient and contemporary art, accompanied by the rebirth of collecting, determined the flourishing of art literature. Many artists write theoretical treatises on painting, sculpture and architecture and even on the history of the arts. Worth mentioning in this context are the works of great artists such as Leon Battista Alberti and Lorenzo Ghiberti, who dedicate themselves to the writing of their own works with the ultimate aim of suggesting to their colleagues a complete preparation, through which to forge a different figure of artist.

Pt.2 Renaissance. Giorgio Vasari

What is art criticism in the Renaissance? Once the esteem for art and for artists has been renewed, the trend of biographies considered most important for the development of art is privileged and history is conceived according to an evolutionary criterion and divided by age.

The most organic and coherent text of the time is that of Giorgio Vasari Lives of the most excellent Italian architects, sculptors and painters of 1550: in each biography the author expressed judgments on the activity and individual works of past and contemporary masters, also dividing the history of Italian art into periods and schools and identifying the different styles.

In the wake of the success of Vasari’s text, biographies of artists and treatises on art multiplied, both in Italy and in other European countries.


Pt. 3 Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. The birth of the art critic

What is art criticism in the 17th and 18th centuries? In seventeenth and eighteenth centuries art criticism and history became autonomous disciplines, practiced by men of letters and intellectuals more than by artists. Thus a specific terminology, art theories and precise judgment criteria.

The classicist theory prevails over the others for a long time. With the birth of art academies, a conformist critique asserted itself, which judged works on the basis of comparison with ancient models, mainly with masterpieces by Raphael, the Carracci and Poussin.


Soon, however, a criticism opposed to the official one was born in Italy:anti-academicism. In fact, it finds valid voices in writers such as Marco Boschini and Roger De Piles. They draw attention to other values ​​proper to painting, in addition to the traditionally recognized ones of the “drawing” and the “idea”. For example the color, the expression, the composition. The French critic De Piles, in particular, applies himself to in-depth studies. Try to define the essential elements that make imitation life painting great. The invention, the composition, the chiaroscuro and the landscape. De Piles acts in a broad European vision.

Diderot’s Salons

It was however in France, with the reviews of periodical art exhibitions (The Salons) that modern art criticism and the figure of the critic took hold.’s Salons from Denis Diderot1737, represent the first example of this: the art critic took a stand and tried to influence the artistic orientations and taste of the public.

Pt. 3 Nineteenth century. Militant criticism

What is art criticism in the 19th century? In the19th century, with Charles Baudelaire, real militant criticism, practiced by poets and men of letters, and above all by professional critics. The great diffusion of collecting, theexpansion of the art market, the multiplication of contemporary artistic currents , the echo of public painting and sculpture competitions brought art criticism to the fore as an autonomous literary genre.

Critics now have spaces and venues available to express themselves: they publish articles in the periodical press, participate in conferences and prepare exhibition presentations.

Pt. 3 Twentieth century. The distinction between art critic and art historian

What is art criticism in the twentieth century? In twentieth century they could even make their voice heard through the radio and then television. The recognition and understanding by the general public of the artistic avant-gardes in the 20th century is largely due to the writings of militant criticism: let’s just think of the resonance that the interventions of personalities such as Guillame Apollinaire and Andrè Breton, supporters of Cubism and the surrealism or the role of Germano Celant for Arte Povera and Achille Bonito Oliva for the Italian Transavantgarde. 

Finally, it must be considered that militant criticism, always dealing with contemporary art, presupposes adherence to certain poetics and artistic currents.

Thus was finally born the distinction between art critic and art historian, the latter concentrated on the rediscovery of past events. A division of labor that is complex and necessary but at the same time non-existent in some cases of our contemporary history.

Raphael, School of Athens, fresco, 5×7.7 m, Vatican Museums, Vatican City

My advice on art criticism and the Renaissance can only be The Lives of Vasari. A fun must read on all occasions, in winter with a cup of tea but also in summer under an umbrella.

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