Painting Illustrated in Three Diallogues


Painting Illustrated in Three Diallogues : Containing Some Choice Observations Upon the Art : Together With the Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, From Cimabue, to the Time of Raphael and Michael Angelo : With An Explanation of the Difficult Terms

London, December 8, 1685

Author: William Aglionby

Printed by John Gain, for the author, and are to be sold by Walter Kettilby, at the Bishop's Head, in St. Paul's Church-Yard, 1685.

Ink printed on paper

height: 24cm

Multnomah County Library, John Wilson Special Collections, 759.A26


Thomas Goodwin, Medieval Portland Capstone Student, Spring 2015

William Aglionby’s “Painting Illustrated in Three Dialogues Containing Some Choice Observations upon the Art, Together with the Lives of the Most Eminent Painters” is the first English systematic treatise on the history and criticism of painting (Borenius 188). Published in London in 1685, the book defines 27 art-related terms and provides the biographies, taken from Giorgio Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists,” of 11 Italian painters. Functioning as both a compendium of art history and a tool of criticism aimed at English art, Aglionby’s work serves as an index of the state of 17th-century art both in England and abroad.

There is little information available on the life and achievements of William Aglionby. His date of birth ranges from the late 1630s to the mid-1640s where he worked as a diplomat, translator, and licensed physician (Hanson 97). “Painting Illustrated in Three Dialogues” was his most well-known book, though even it has received little critical analysis over the years. It is bound in a plain, 20th-century binding, likely added by the library itself. There is a slight yellowing to the pages with minor rips and wear at their edges. The paper of the printed pages is thin and stiff but suffers from no severe bio predation. A hand-written signature of a former owner amends the title page.

A widely educated individual, Aglionby’s diverse set of interests is apparent in his writing. His background in science is apparent, being organized with almost clinical sterility. Despite the content concerning itself largely with visual art, there is a notable absence of illustration. Color has been fully omitted, with the exception of the limited use of red lettering that appears on the title page. The only visual elements that he grants his work are two distinct prints, which adorn four of the book’s pages. One is the insignia of the Royalty to whom the book is dedicated, “the right honorable William Earl of Devon.” This is positioned atop Aglionby’s first two dedicatory pages. The other is a decorative emblem that heads the preface and the first page of the artist biography section. The Latin phrase “mens agitat molem” can be read in the top register of this design. This phrase, taken from Virgil’s “Aeneid,” translates roughly to the effect of “mind motivates the whole mass” (Lord 6). Its inclusion, a clear reference to antiquity, reiterates Aglionby’s overarching theme of reflecting on the achievements of the past.

This Latin inscription highlights, though perhaps unwittingly, another significant issue that Aglionby is forced to tackle. That is the dilemma of introducing an intellectual and foreign topic to an audience largely uneducated in the methods and language of the visual arts. The historian Patrick Doorly suggests that a resolution is sought through the inclusion of what Aglionby titles his “Dialogues.” In these sections, a Traveler is found discussing the nature of art with a Friend. Here the reader is guided through three conversations in which the two characters deliberate on the art of painting, the ancient and modern history of art, and how to recognize “good pictures.” 
This discourse lends itself to Aglionby’s introduction of the fine arts into contemporary vernacular. An included glossary of terms precedes these dialogues and offers a reference for unfamiliar words. Aglionby reconciled the competing values of clarity and simplicity through education. Since precise Italian terminology already existed to describe specific artistic ideas, he aimed to familiarize his English audience with a calculated selection of terms (Hanson 60). 

Aglionby’s general use of language is noteworthy in that his adoption of the word ‘artist’ to refer to a painter was a novelty for the English language. This entry predates by about 60 years the first citations for modern usage in the Oxford English Dictionary (Doorly 44). The same can be said about his use of the term ‘genius’ to describe a person’s character. The inventive liberties that Aglionby takes with language, particularly in the direction of glorifying the individual, suggests the intensity with which he meditated on this subject. He furthers his elevation of the artist through his appropriation of Vasari. Published in Florence in 1550, Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists is one of the most influential texts on the visual arts that was ever written (Doorly 43). To translate Vasari’s words and include them in his own publication is to unabashedly link his work, not only to a long line of celebrated Italian artists but also to the established precedent of their historical account. Making this connection explicit would have been instrumental in drawing sympathy for Aglionby’s cause.

17th-century English art suffered from a severe deficit of prolific English artists. Court painters and portraitists accounted for the bulk of artistic activity in England at the time. Dutch and Flemish artists, such as Marcus Gheeraerts, took advantage of the demand for talent and readily found work in English courts. The profound lack of artistic culture was something increasingly felt by intellectuals such as Aglionby and as a result, we witness a strong resurgence of Italian art commissions at the end of the 17th through the 18th century (Haskell 53). Consequently, England was in large part responsible for revitalizing the floundering Italian art market. The desire for heightened artistic activity was experienced on a cultural level which is made clear by the efforts of artists like Antonio Verrio, who worked to introduce the style of Baroque mural painting to England in the late 17th century. We can conclude that Aglionby was attuned to the contemporary issues of his day. Painting Illustrated in Three Dialogues draws attention to a problem at hand and offers a solution. This solution is characterized by education achieved through discourse and historical examples. By synthesizing the biographical information originally offered by Vasari, Aglionby effectively allegorizes the lives of 11 artists as remedies to England’s artistic stagnation/atrophy. 

Beyond his manipulation of language, Aglionby also grounds his work in popular bookmaking and authorship practices of the time. Repeating a general case to represent a complete idea, known as case thinking, was a well-practiced trope of early book production. Though he does not draw on a specific case in this publication, his biographies serve as examples of influential artists whose actions should be mimicked. It could be argued then, that the repeated “case” here are the lives of successful artists and the comprehensive idea that they represent is the perceived superiority of their talent compared to their English contemporaries. In this sense, Aglionby is also grappling with temporal dimensions of thought, imploring the reader to consider both the past and present. Readers could draw the conclusion that if the successes of the past are reproduced in the present-day then English artistic culture could be propelled to new heights. It is because of Aglionby’s apparent consciousness of artistic concerns that it may be hypothesized that he intended for this book to serve as both a collection of the histories and criticisms of painting as well as a call to action for English artists to follow in the footsteps of the Italian masters. 

Painting Illustrated in Three Dialogues maintains its value as both a historical record and work of literature. It stands as what is likely the first English history and criticism of painting. Aglionby uses the book as a tool for education as well as a personal commentary reflecting cultural notions of art. By introducing artistic terminology into the vernacular of the time and translating the well-respected words of Vasari, Aglionby strategically adapts his subject matter to better suit his English audience. This book is a product born from the artistic crisis of 17th-century England and catalogs the concerns of the period.


Borenius, Tancred. "An Early English Writer on Art." The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs Vol. 39, No. 223 (1921): 188-95. Web.

Doorly, Patrick. "3.2 Genius with a Capital G." In The Truth about Art: Reclaiming Quality. Winchester, U.K.: Zero Books, 2013. Print.

Hanson, Craig Ashley. The English Virtuoso: Art, Medicine, and Antiquarianism in the Age of Empiricism. Chicago Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2009. Print.

Haskell, Francis. "The Market for Italian Art in the 17th Century." Past & Present, no. 15 (1959): 48-59. Web.

Lord, Mary Louise. "The Use of Macrobius and Boethius in Some Fourteenth-Century Commentaries on Virgil." International Journal of the Classical Tradition, no 3 (1996): 3-22. Web.