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Caroline van Eck

Guest researcher

Prof.dr. C.A. van Eck
+31 71 527 2727

Caroline van Eck is a professor of Art and Architecture before 1800 at the Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society.

More information about Caroline van Eck

Fields of interest

  • Art, agency and living presence
  • The interactions between rhetoric and the visual arts, in particular the sublime
  • Architectural theory from Vitruvius to the end of the 19th century
  • Aby Warburg: cultural historian of the 21st century and pioneer of the integration of art history, archaeology and anthropology


‘Art, Agency and Living Presence Response in Early Modern Italy (NWO/VICI, 2006-2011)’ 

Statements that works of art or buildings are so lifelike that they seem alive; that they look at the beholder, move, speak or weep are a constant and world-wide theme in reactions to the visual arts and architecture. Such responses are clearly wrong: images are not alive, and if they move, speak or bleed it is because there is a hidden mechanism at work. Yet the frequence and persistence of such statements suggest that they are not simply a matter of cognitive or psychopathological confusion, a primitive way of reacting to art or critical cliché or hyperbole. 

In early modern Italy a paradoxical variety of such response is very widespread: works of art are considered to be so lifelike that they become alive in the viewers’experience. Viewers react as if they are in the presence of a living and acting person. What has rarely been noticed however is that such statements (and the corresponding instructions to artists to aim for the illusion of living presence) lead to the paradox that art, in order to be of the highest quality and at its most persuasive, must cease to look like art. The representation dissolves into what it represents. Nor have existing studies considered the role of rhetoric, which played an important role in early modern thought about the arts, in shaping such response, whereas vividness and living presence play a central role in rhetorical thought about persuasion. 

Unlike existing approaches to such responses, which consider them in terms of representation, this programme adopts a new approach based on the paradoxical nature of these responses in early modern Italy: it draws on rhetorical discussions of lifelikeness and living presence, and it uses the anthropological theory of art as agency developed by Alfred Gell. Whereas rhetoric is important as an historical source, Gell's theory of art as agency is an important heuristic instrument, and helps to articulate these responses. 

The five monographs resulting from the project will be published in a series called ‘Art and Agency/Kunst und Wirkmacht’, edited jointly with prof. dr Uwe Fleckner, Director of the Warburg-Haus in Hamburg, and published by Leiden University Press and Akademie-Verlag, Berlin. 

After its official end in 2011, the research interests of the program are continued in the Art & Agency Forum, in collaboration with a.o. Patricia Falguières (EHESS, Paris), Chris Wood (Yale), Alexander Nagel (Institute of Fine Art, New York), Uwe Fleckner (Warburg-Haus, Hamburg), Pascal Griener (Neuchâtel). 

‘From Idols to Museum Pieces: Alternative Histories of Sculpture, 1660-1815’ (NWO/Internationalization program; 2011 - 2014) 

The publication of Winckelmann’s  Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums in 1764 is generally considered as the defining moment in the genesis of the modern, scholarly study of sculpture. Its immediate success and recognition as a new departure in the study of classical art however has obscured from view other ways of studying the history of sculpture and thinking about the meaning and importance of that art: from the history of idolatry by Borboni and Lemée to the anthropological and ethnographical approaches to the origins, religious role and cultural meaning of sculpture by De Brosses, Guasco, Dulaure and Quatremère de Quincy. The aim of this program is to bring together European and American experts from art history and major European sculpture departments to reconstruct these alternative histories, which have regained their relevance now that the assumptions on which Winckelmann’s  Geschichte was based have been submitted to a radical critique; to publish their major texts in critical editions and to present the results of this program as well in museum contexts. 

‘Le tableau vivant, ou l’image performée’ (Van Gogh program/Académie Franco-Néerlandaise; in collaboration with the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art; 2011-2013) 

In the last two decades there has been a change in the evaluation of the French Revolution. Previously studied as the decisive moment in our Western modernity and rationality, the Revolution is now often described in terms of loss, trauma, and melancholy. The focus of this program is then the period 1789-1815, which was experienced by contemporaries as a fundamental rupture that created an irreparable gap between te past of the Ancien Régime and the present times. Because of this irreparable gap between past and present, the desire to ‘experience’ this lost past or make it ‘present’ again was of central importance for those who lived through the events of 1789-1815.  The idea that works of art have presence is particularly at stake in the intimate, but hardly studied relation between the acclaimed genres of high art on the one hand and new spectacular media or new public institutions such as the museum on the other hand. Museums such as the Musée des Monuments français used spectacular mise-en-scene to present monuments as tableaux vivants, and living witnesses of the past. In the pantomimes of Lady Hamilton paintings and sculptures came literally alive. Robertson’s phantasmagorical shows infused the viewers with fear and terror in creating the illusion he could wake the dead. These new genres all built on the older art form of the tableau vivant. By closely looking at the intersection of high art, popular culture and new public institutions, this program seeks to nuance the general belief that with the advent of aesthetics and art history at this particular time, the work of art is distanced, silenced, and historicized. Instead we will unravel a rich culture in which the tradition of the artwork as having ‘presence’ continued to be alive and not seldomly functioned as a means to come to terms with the disenchantment of the modern world. 

‘Knowledge and Culture’ (NWO/Horizon; principal applicant: prof. dr Johan Rooryck; 2012-2016) 

In various domains of cognitive science – psychology, mathematics, cognitive neuroscience, linguistics, music cognition, and biology – a new paradigm is being developed that will profoundly affect research in the humanities. This emergent view holds that humans and non- human animals are born with core knowledge systems: a small set of hard-wired cognitive abilities that are task-specific, language-independent, and non-species-specific. These innate cognitive skills have the capacity for building mental representations of objects, persons, spatial relationships, numerosity, and social interaction. In addition to core knowledge systems, humans possess species-specific, uniquely human, cognitive abilities such as language and music. Spelke (2003) has suggested that the language faculty allows core knowledge systems to expand their limits, laying the foundation for the development of more complex cognitive abilities through experience. 

This view on human cognitive abilities throws a new light on problems that were long thought to exclusively belong to the realm of the humanities. Indeed, morality, mathematics, geometry, music, navigation, reasoning, and language are traditionally viewed as cultural achievements. The study of their development and variation is seen as part of the humanities and the social sciences. Hitherto, the humanities have mainly studied these human properties as unbounded properties of culture and nurture, not as the result of the interaction between core knowledge systems and language. 

The ‘core knowledge’ paradigm challenges scholars in the humanities to ask the question which parts of culture belong to nature, and how nurture and culture build on nature. In this research program, four domains of the humanities will be investigated from the point of view of core knowledge: music cognition; language and the core knowledge of number; visual arts and geometry; and poetry, rhythm, and meter. In this program, I supervise together with dr Maarten Delbeke the subproject dealing with architecture and the visual arts.

Curriculum Vitae

Caroline van Eck studied art history at the Ecole du Louvre in Paris, and philosophy and classics at Leiden University. In 1994, she received her PhD (cum laude) at the Department of Philosophy of the University of Amsterdam. From 1995 to 2003 she worked as a post-doc in the Department of Art History of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, first on a project studying word-image relations in Italian Renaissance architectural theory, subsequently directing a research programme on the relations between rhetoric and the arts in early modern Italy and Britain. Both projects were funded by NWO. From 2003 to 2006 she taught architectural history and theory at Groningen University. In 2005, she was awarded a VICI programme by NWO on art, agency and living presence in early modern Italy. In January 2006, she was appointed Professor of Architectural History and Theory at Leiden University. 
A recipient of grants by the British Council, the Kress Foundation and the Yale Centre for British Art, she has also been a visiting professor at the Universities of Yale (2000), York (2003) and Ghent (2003-5). Since her appointment in Leiden she has edited two series in architectural history, for Ashgate and Routledge. At present she is a member of the editorial board of  Studiolo, the journal of the Académie de France in Rome, and a member of the academic council of the Research Consortium uniting the EHESS, Ecole du Louvre, Sorbonne-Paris I and the Ecole des Chartes.

Teaching activities

  • Introduction to architectural history (BA1) 
  • Research Methods (BA 3) 
  • Research seminar: Paris c. 1750: the birth of the modern art world (MA) 
  • Thesis seminar (ResMa)


with Elsje van Kessel and Joris van Gastel (eds.),  The Secret Lives of Art Works (Leiden : Leiden University Press 2012). 

with Stijn Bussels, Maarten Delbeke and Jürgen Pieters (eds.),  Translations of the Sublime (Leiden : Brill, 2012 ; Intersections). 

François Lemée et la statue de Louis XIV sur la Place des Victoires :les débuts d’une réflexion ethnographique et esthétique sur le fétichisme (Paris : Centre Allemand d’histoire de l’art/Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, 2012). 

With Stijn Bussels (eds.),  Kunst Werken Kijken (Leiden: Leiden University Press 2011). 

With Stijn Bussels (eds.),  The Arts, the Theatre and Theatricality in Early Modern Europe, special issue of  Art History 32/2 (Spring 2010). 

Idem, published as a separate book (Oxford: Wiley/Blackwell 2011). 

Inigo Jones Reconstructs Stonehenge: Architectural History between Memory and Narration (Amsterdam: Architectura & Natura Press 2009). 

Classical Rhetoric and the Arts in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge en New York: Cambridge University Press 2007) 

With Ed Winters (ed.),  Dealing with the Visual. Art History, Aesthetics and Visual Culture.Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2004. (a Chinese translation is forthcoming)  

British Architectural Theory. An Anthology of Texts 1550-1750 (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2003). 

G. Boffrand,  Book of Architecture. Translated by David Britt, introduced and edited by C.A. van Eck (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2002). 

With J.W. McAllister, R. van de Vall (eds.), The  Question of Style in Philosophy and the Arts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). 

L.B. Alberti, Over de schilderkunst [ De Pictura]. Vertaling Lex Hermans, inleiding en commentaar C.A. van Eck and R. Zwijnenberg (Amsterdam: Boom, 1996). 

Organicism in Nineteenth-Century Architecture: an inquiry into its theoretical and philosophical background, Amsterdam: Architectura & Natura Press 1994. 

With W. van Leeuwen and J. Voorthuis (eds.),  Het Schilderachtige (Amsterdam, Architectura & Natura Press, 1994). 

Articles and chapters in books:  

‘Rhetoric and the Visual Arts in the Renaissance’, in: M. MacDonald (ed.),  The Oxford Handbook to Rhetoric (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2013). 

Enargeia ou fétichisme: Le rejet de l’image vivante dans les discours sur l’art des années1750’, in: C. Michel et J. Lichtenstein (eds.),  De la Quête des règles au discours sur les fins. Les mutations des discours sur l’art en France dans la seconde moitié du XVIIIe siècle, Rome: Académie de France à Rome, 2012. 

‘Aby Warburg’s  Mnemosyne and the Life of Art’, in U. Fleckner, I. Wenderholm and H. Ziegler (eds.),  Bildmagie (Hamburg: Warburghaus 2012). 

‘Note from the Field: Anthropomorphism’,  Art Bulletin vol. XCIV/1 (2012), pp. 16-18. 

‘The Warburg Institute and Architectural History’,  Common Knowledge vol. 18/1 (2012), pp. 134-49. 

'1990-2010: Vingt ans d’historiographie néerlandaise’,  Perspective 2010-11/4: Les Pays-Bas, pp. 671-687. 

‘Living Statues: Living Presence Response, Agency and the Sublime’,  Art History 33/4 (September 2010), pp. 642-660. 

‘Figuration, Tectonics and Animism in Semper’s  Der StilJournal of Architecture 14/3 (2010), pp. 153-70. 

‘Longinus’ Essay on the Sublime and the ‘Most Solemn and Awfull Appearance’ of Hawksmoor’s Churches’,  Georgian Group Journal 15 (2006), pp. 1-7. 

‘Artisan Mannerism: 17th-century rhetorical alternatives to Sir John Summerson’s Formalist Approach’, in: Frank Salmon (ed.),  Summerson and Hitchcock: Centenary Essays on Architectural Historiography (New Haven and London: Yale University Press & The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2006), pp. 85-105. 

‘Modernity and the Uses of History: Understanding Classical Architecture from Bötticher to Warburg’, in: H. Christiansen and M. Hvattum (eds.),  Tracing Modernity (London: Routledge, 2004). 

‘Rhetorical Categories in the Academy’, in: P. Smith and C. Wilde (eds.),   A Companion to Art Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), pp. 104-16. 

Review article of: V. Hart and P. Hicks (eds.),  Paper Palaces: the rise of the architectural treatise in the Renaissance; A.A. Payne,  The Architectural Treatise in the Italian Renaissance: architectural invention, ornament, and literary culture; H. Wohl,  The Aesthetics of Italian Renaissance Art: a reconstruction of style. Art Bulletin, 83 (March 2001), pp. 146-50. 

‘The Case for the Internal Spectator: Aesthetics or Art History?’ in: R. van Gerwen (ed.), Essays in Honor of Richard Wollheim (Cambridge etc.: Cambridge University Press 2001), pp. 200-14. 

‘Language, Rhetoric and Architecture in  De re aedificatoria’ in: G. Clarke and P. Crossley (eds.),  The Language of Architecture: Contructing Identity in European Architecture, 1000-1600 (Cambridge etc.: Cambridge University Press, 2000). 

‘The Retrieval of Classical Architecture in the Quattrocento: the Role of Byzantine and Humanist Observers’ in: W. Reinink et al. (red.),  Memory and Oblivion.Acts of the  XXIXth International Congress for the History of Art (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000), pp. 231-39. 

‘"Ons doel is om de dingen te tonen zoals ze zijn, niet om te leren schilderen” Architectuurtheorie tussen wetenschap en ontwerptheorie in Italiaanse architectuurtractaten van de late 16e eeuw’,  Tijdschrift voor Theoretische Geschiedenis, Spring 2000. 

‘Giannozzo Manetti on Architecture: the  Oratio de saecularibus et pontificalibus pompis in consecratione basilicae Florentinae of 1436’Renaissance Studies 12 (1998), pp. 449-75. 

‘The Structure of Alberti’s  De re aedificatoria Reconsidered’,  Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 56 (1998), 280-97. 

With P. Taylor, ‘Piero della Francesca’s Giants’,  Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 60 (1997), 243-47. 

‘"Par le style on atteint au sublime": the Meaning of the Term ‘Style’ in French Architectural Theory of the late Eighteenth Century’ in: Van Eck et al. (eds.),  The Question of Style in Philosophy and the Arts, pp. 89-108.

Guest researcher

  • Faculty of Humanities
  • Centre for the Arts in Society
  • KG Architectuurgeschiedenis



  • No relevant ancillary activities
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