Archaeology PhDs at Portuguese Universities: History of Art Doctoral Research, 2010-20181

Nuno Senos2


This article traces a global picture of the research trends in art history in Portugal in the past decade. It surveys the institutional conditions for the production of knowledge, including the forms of funding available. It also presents statistical analysis of the data available on the PhD theses defended in the country according to their geographic and chronologic distribution as well as their content.


Art history in Portugal; Art history in Portuguese academia; PhD theses in art history


Neste artigo disponibiliza-se uma visão global das tendências de pesquisa em História da Arte em Portugal na última década. Sintetizam-se as condições institucionais de produção de conhecimento, incluindo as formas de financiamento disponíveis. Produz-se também uma análise estatística dos dados disponíveis sobre as teses de doutoramento defendidas no país de acordo com a sua distribuição geográfica e cronológica, assim como com o seu conteúdo.


História da arte em Portugal; História da arte na academia portuguesa; Teses de doutoramento em história da arte

Conditions for the Production of Knowledge

There have been researchers writing on the arts and architecture in Portugal since the late eighteenth century. Some of these became professionals in their field of study, working in museums and universities, where they taught specialized courses in departments of History or Archaeology. Art History did not gain academic autonomy in the form of an organized department with its own independent degree programs until the 1970s. In that decade, a master’s degree program in Art History was afforded its own autonomous status at Universidade Nova de Lisboa. The study of this discipline in Portuguese universities has been increasing ever since, with departments operating in several public universities and, since the introduction of the Bologna process, programs awarding BA, MA, and PhD degrees all across the country. Over this broad time span, the number of students has globally grown, even if not always at a steady rate.

Another important factor creating a major impact in the last two decades has been the consolidation of research centers and the subsequent changes in the forms of their financing. Information about the origins of this funding, which may well have subsidized some of the academic work under analysis here, is not available. In some cases, however, the nature and organization of the funding is clearly evident and I shall refer to this briefly.

The creation of national funding agencies (FCT, for Portugal) has substantially increased the resources available for research. Recent changes in their policies have affected the field of Art History, and some of these changes are worth underlining as their effects are visible in the data analyzed. On the one hand, there has been a tendency to transfer funds from doctoral to post-doctoral training. This means that in the past few years, there has been less money available for the creation of PhD fellowships, with an impact that is clearly visible in the data. At the same time, the way these funds are distributed has also been changing from the use of general competitions organized on a national basis to calls for applications that are specifically organized by research centers and formal research projects. This means that fellowships are increasingly being created with their analytical contents already pre-determined, in narrower or broader terms. While this procedure allows for greater effectiveness, it also makes it less likely that fresh approaches will be adopted, hindering the appearance of new ideas and topics.

It is also important to stress the great dynamics that European funding agencies and programs have brought to the field in the past decade. Again, the available data does not allow for conclusions in this respect and I shall draw on my own (admittedly incomplete) knowledge of the field to make a few personal remarks in this respect. It is undeniable that European funds are clearly available, and the mechanisms built into most calls in order to promote the formation of international teams and encourage the mobility of researchers are also profoundly changing the way in which we work. In the last decade, however, European institutions have shifted from a model providing small amounts of funding to many projects to one that prefers to award larger sums to fewer projects. This is particularly visible in the humanities, whose research tends to require smaller funds. It seems significant that such projects (funded by the European Council or ERC, for instance) are virtually invisible in the data that I am analyzing here. It has also been my experience that there is considerable frustration being felt regarding the complexity, low success rates, and cost-benefit ratio of the application processes.

Finally, it is even riskier to look at the job market, since no statistics are available. The following comments are therefore based on personal impressions. In any case, the number of institutions at which art history graduates typically search for jobs (such as museums, galleries, antiquarians, auction houses, and regional and local cultural administrations) has also risen considerably. In the 1990s and early 2000s, a number of local museums were either created or revitalized, while regional and local political institutions (especially city councils) also invested in their cultural departments. Many art history graduates were recruited in both of these ways. In the last decade however, the 2008 crisis hit public budgets hard and this dynamic was dramatically halted; since the vast majority of Portuguese museums are state-owned, the budgets for the cultural sector were cut and have yet to recover. More recently, the art market (especially auction houses) seems to be generating a greater buzz. In any case, it seems fair to say that Art History currently trains and employs more people than ever before in Portugal.

Data Analysis

The data gathered for this issue of the e-JPH on academic production in the form of completed PhD theses can be analyzed according to various parameters, not all of which can be interpreted in the same way. It should be noted from the outset that the PhD degrees completed in departments of architecture or conservation, and in some departments of fine arts, have not been included in this list. While it would be preferable to have as complete a list as possible for the sake of accuracy, I do not believe that the main conclusions noted below would be very different even if we had more data. As previously stated, I shall make some statistical observations and use my own experience to describe some others.


In the last decade, PhD theses have been completed across the whole country, from the Universidade do Porto to the Universidade do Algarve, including the archipelago of Madeira (the Azores do not have an Art History PhD program or anything similar, although they do train undergraduates that then move on to do PhDs elsewhere). Not included in this list are those theses that were obtained in the History of Architecture, in departments of architecture. If they were included, then the Universidade do Minho would join the list and further extend our spatial scope to the country’s northernmost reaches. Thus, attention is being paid to Art History across the country.

Table 1: Geographic distribution

It comes as no surprise to discover that there is a greater concentration of schools in Porto (two, including a private one) and Lisbon (seven, including three private schools and the e-learning-based Universidade Aberta), which has necessarily led to a concentration of PhD production in those two cities: Lisbon, with 79 theses, is responsible for more than half the total, followed-at some distance-by Porto with 37. Of the remaining national totals, it is worth mentioning the Universidade de Coimbra, where 11 theses were completed. There are no independent departments of Art History outside these three cities, which necessarily affects the final numbers.

The analysis of the numbers for the two leading cities shows that, in Porto, the Universidade Católica has maintained a small but steady rhythm of production since 2012, while the Universidade do Porto, with an older, well-established department, is responsible for the majority of the theses (29). The scenario is more varied in Lisbon. In the private sector, the Universidade Lusíada stands out, with five theses produced. The Universidade de Lisboa offers three different programs in two different schools for a total of 24 theses (nine in the School of Fine Arts, 15 in the School of Arts and Humanities). In any case, the panorama is largely dominated by the oldest department in the country, that of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, where 46 theses were defended. Outside these two centers, the production is residual.

Table 2: Diachronic distribution

Once we move from spatial to chronological distribution, a perhaps more surprising and certainly important phenomenon becomes evident. In the last nine years, a total of 134 theses were completed, which makes for an average of nearly fifteen per year. It is virtually impossible to determine whether this is a large or a small number, but the important observation to bear in mind is that the number of theses produced each year grew consistently until 2016 (with an average of seventeen per year), and that this figure decreased dramatically thereafter (with only six theses completed in 2017, and eight the following year). This is a nationwide phenomenon: it is not specific to any one school or even any particular region. Of course, we may simply be witnessing a statistical knot that will be countered in coming years, and therefore it may have no special significance. But if any significance is to be attributed to this result, it must have something to do with the decrease in the number of available fellowships, as mentioned above. In fact, it is my experience that the students in my PhD classrooms are generally older than they used to be and tend to have already started a professional life. These students pursue PhD programs not as a springboard for starting a new career, but in order to advance the ones they already have. Conversely, students who progress directly from their MA degree to a PhD program are becoming something of a unicorn. This also means that, at least to some extent, senior professors are no longer training the art historians of the future, but rather those of the present.

Table 2: Distribution per periods

The analysis of the titles of the theses shows that, by and large, Art History students continue to focus their attention on specific periods. Topics that not only span several centuries, but also cross the divides between the traditionally established periods, are rare. It is generally recognized worldwide that Antiquity is the period that has been losing most ground as far as students’ preferences are concerned. In Portugal, only five theses dealt with this period. There are two important aspects to be noted about these works, all of which were defended at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa. The first is that four of them deal with mosaics, a traditional field at Nova, cultivated by two consecutive generations of researchers who managed to establish a working dynamic that bore fruit. The second crucial aspect is that these theses were all completed under the supervision of the same professor, who retired a few years ago (the last of these theses was defended in 2012) and was not replaced. Ten years from now, an article similar to this one will probably not include Antiquity at all.

The medieval period, with thirteen theses, is faring a little better. Again, two research clusters stand out, both largely to be found at the Universidade Nova: one on illuminated manuscripts (with three theses from Nova and another one from Coimbra); and another on funerary monuments (three theses from Nova, one from Porto). In both cases, their supporting research centers have long invested in these topics and have hosted several projects funded by FCT and, more recently, by European agencies. Moreover, working in collaboration with conservation laboratories, both teams have long involved the hard sciences in their work. Even though the Middle Ages no longer enjoy the power of attraction that they once exerted, their survival is not in question.

The most surprising conclusion to be drawn from this type of analysis relates to the excellent health enjoyed by the study of the Early Modern period: with 55 theses defended, it stands shoulder to shoulder with modern and contemporary Art History (with 57). The largest producers for this period were the universities of Porto (fourteen theses) and Lisbon (eleven). The Universidade do Porto seems to have created a dynamic that is firmly grounded in its region, with a predominance of architectural studies (eight theses) but with attention also being paid to the decorative arts (four theses). In most cases, these theses dealt with local artistic and architectural production. Studies on early modern painting (five theses) remain a specialty at the Universidade de Lisboa, although the presence of an active cluster devoted to the study of tiles (two theses) is also to be noted, admittedly only appearing somewhat timidly at this moment. An interesting group has been working at the Universidade Católica do Porto where laboratory analysis goes hand-in-hand with the study of painting, producing a significant number of theses (seven).

Modern and contemporary art (19th-21st century) are the students’ leading preferences, although not by a great deal, as mentioned above. The nineteenth century remains fairly popular, with Porto (five theses, three of which were on local topics) and Nova (four theses) leading the way. A new research avenue has recently been opened at Nova involving the study of collecting and museums, which is beginning to produce results, with three theses being devoted to the topic. The vast majority of students (42), however, focused their attention on the twentieth and even the twenty-first centuries. With six theses defended in Porto and four in Coimbra, contemporary art can be considered the special domain of the Universidade Nova, where 23 theses were defended.

Table 4: Distribution per topics

Vasari would have been reassured to realize that more than half (77) of the theses can still be safely classified as pertaining to the classic fields of architecture (26), painting (36, with frescoes-two theses-attracting very little attention), and sculpture (15), the latter occupying a traditionally weaker position. Nevertheless, this also means that a large number of students are looking at new (or newer) categories. In the domains of modern and contemporary art, these are illustrated by studies in such topics as cinema, photography, fashion, dance, or the performative arts. If anything, what is surprising is that so few theses (eight) are being completed in these fields. Not surprising, but nevertheless worrying, is that so little is being studied in the domains of the so-called “decorative arts.” Whatever is being looked at in this domain pertains to medieval and early modern times (eighteen theses) and almost nothing is related to our own age (with one depressingly single exception for the twentieth century). The importance of the “decorative arts” in these periods is becoming ever more apparent to all those who study them, which makes it all the more worrisome that more work is not being done on them. Just one single thesis was defended on ceramics, one on metalwork, and one on textiles. Tiles, an evident national specialty, were the subject of four theses, which is not nothing, but neither is it tremendously impressive. Gilded woodcarving, another trademark of the country’s artistic heritage, was only studied by two people. This is not a strictly Portuguese situation and it surely reflects what is happening in many (most?) other countries. It is surely a problem stemming from the way in which our academic programs are organized, giving privilege to the traditional Vasarian fields, rather than anything else. Professors (myself included) should ponder carefully on these results.

Also worth considering is the fact that, although Portugal has 600 years of colonial history, no more than eight theses looked into its artistic relationships with extra-European countries. However, this is probably the issue that suffers the most from the limitations of the data collected. Theses were not included from Coimbra’s School of Architecture, ISCTE, or Técnico (both in Lisbon), all of which have programs in which substantial work has been done on the Portuguese artistic presence overseas in the early modern, modern, and contemporary ages. As far as this specific topic is concerned, no conclusions can be drawn from this study.

It is also worth noting that gender studies remain fairly popular among Portuguese art historians-in-the-making, with no less than eight theses looking at the role of women in the arts, as producers as well as consumers, from the Middle Ages to contemporary times. In spite of all the work that has been done in this field, there is a general consensus, I think (and hope), that more needs to be done.

To finish on an optimistic note, the current generation of Portuguese art historians are clearly making a long overdue effort to bridge the gap that for too long has kept their trade removed from the conservation laboratory. The benefits of collaborative work are self-evident, but putting this into practice often proves difficult. A considerable number of programs and their resulting theses (ten) show that an effort is being made; we can only hope that it thrives.

Provisional Conclusions

Had I been asked to write these few pages five years ago, I would probably have painted a bleaker picture. At the peak of the most recent economic crisis, the few art history departments that existed across the country were populated by a generation of aging professors who were already in their late 60s and there was no hope of any form of renewal; the seeds of what might have become new departments withered and would clearly not bear fruit and the number of students had fallen to an unprecedented low. In many (most?) museums, the problem of an aging staff that would not be replaced also seemed insurmountable, while the National Conservation Institute was pronounced as doomed to close its doors soon.

In 2012, in this grim scenario, the also moribund Portuguese Association for Art Historians (APHA) launched what seemed to me to be an over-ambitious, all-encompassing national conference. I could not have been more surprised when I crossed the doors of the Gulbenkian Foundation to walk along corridors filled with people who were rushing to plenary talks that filled auditoria to the brim, or to the multiple simultaneous sessions that occupied the better part of three days. Contrary to my worst expectations, Art History was alive in Portugal.

The resilience displayed at that conference must have been what kept Art History alive during those difficult years. Ever since, some (if all too discreet) recruitments have been made both at universities and museums; national and international research projects have been launched and some of the once moribund departments now seem to breathe more easily. Much still needs to be done, of course, and perhaps PhD programs need to change the most. Nevertheless, it is only fair to acknowledge that art historians are now working more closely with laboratories and with scientists at large, as well as with museums and archaeologists, even if we still need to work on our relationship with the art market. Programs are changing and adapting-though slowly, all too slowly-to current learning and teaching conditions. The consequent academic production, in the form of theses, shows that some of these strategies are working.

Difficult though it may be to change anything at a Portuguese university, art history departments have made an effort to adjust their programs to new student and job market expectations-for example, through the creation of programs on conservation, heritage preservation and management, and tourism. There is a considerable risk in these strategies that the production of pure, old-fashioned knowledge in Art History may be dissolved (i.e. sink into oblivion) into the opportunities offered by the job market. This is all the more evident when tourism is the fastest growing industry in the country. Care must be taken, but it cannot hurt to try.

The lack of fellowships limits the kind of students that are on the lookout for PhD programs. In any case, the data analyzed here shows that there are students who are interested and that their interests are rich and varied, sometimes being geared towards local preoccupations and sometimes more in line with international research agendas. Everyday life in the field of Art History shows that the current generation of Portuguese art historians fresh out of their PhD programs are more cosmopolitan than their predecessors and are much more engaged with their international peers than the majority of their predecessors ever were. Schools have also often been sensible in the way that they position themselves to raise funds and to better place those funds at the service of the research strategies outlined. As a new generation of scholars, sometimes trained abroad, arrives at Portugal’s Art History departments with new ideas, and, most of all, renewed stamina, things are beginning to change. I hope I am not too optimistic in feeling that Art History is becoming sexy again.


Please see the (Accompanying Annex)




Gonçalves, António Manuel. (1960). “Historiografia de Arte em Portugal,” separata, Boletim da Biblioteca da Universidade de Coimbra XXV.

França, José-Augusto. [1979/1981] (1997). “Sobre História (Sociológica) da Arte,” in (In)definições de Cultura. Lisboa: Editorial Presença

Guimarães, Fernando et al. (2009). Em torno da história da Arte. vol. 20 de Dalila Rodrigues, ed. Arte portuguesa da pré-história ao século XX. s.l.: Fubu.




1 With an accompanying annex prepared by the editors of e-JPH with the assistance of Elsa Lorga Vila (Graduate of University of Evora; Master’s Degree in History-Nova University of Lisbon).
2 Faculty of Human and Social Sciences - New University of Lisbon. Department of Art History and Institute of Art History, Lisbon, Portugal. E-Mail: [email protected]



Received for publication: 9 September 2019
Accepted in revised form: 20 October 2019
Recebido para publicação: 9 de Setembro de 2019
Aceite após revisão: 20 de Outubro de 2019

Copyright 2020, ISSN 1645-6432
e-JPH, Vol. 17, number 2, December 2019




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