Adam Elsheimer in Rom is the first volume in a series titled Rom und der Norden — Wege und Formen des künstlerischen Austausches, edited by Sybille Ebert-Schifferer. As she explains in her preface, this series aims to elucidate the artistic exchange between Rome and its many Northern expatriates. Put differently, this series explores how these artists not only came to see and learn, but also contributed to the eternal city’s cultural fabric, even shaping aspects of it. Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610), it would seem, offered the perfect opportunity to inaugurate such a scholarly project, yet, as Ebert-Schifferer concedes, the conference in 2004 and the resulting book now did not bring about the desired analogous exchange between Italian and Northern European, British and American scholars. Here, as in the past, Adam Elsheimer in Rome remains the Northerners’ concern.
Nevertheless, this volume lays the indispensable foundation for future work. It comprises ten rather long articles, based on their authors’ conference lectures, which all focused on an aspect of Elsheimer’s ten-year career in Rome, between 1600 and 1610, and on the relatively small oeuvre of paintings and drawings he produced there.
Rather different Elsheimers emerge from this intensive engagement with his work, context and reception. Consensus reigns as all nine authors (Thielemann contributed two articles) build on Keith Andrews’s scholarship, use Karel van Mander’s and Joachim von Sandrart’s biographies, agree on the basis of style and iconography that Elsheimer stayed in Venice prior to Rome, and refer to Elsheimer’s friendship with the scientist Johannes Faber and the Rubens brothers as well as to the artist’s shadow, printmaker Hendrick Goudt. Whatever his motivation, Goudt’s engravings after several of Elsheimer’s Roman paintings, seven of which he owned and took with him to Utrecht, spread recognition in every sense of the word of the artist’s unusually keen sensitivity to artistic, cultural, and intellectual developments of his day. Elsheimer’s artistic engagement in his paintings created distinctive effects often characterized as intimacy, interiority, poetic mood, and faithfulness to nature. The Goudt prints also facilitated the immense influence Elsheimer’s work had on subsequent Netherlandish and German and, as is argued here, Roman art as well, including Poussin.
Some authors published their articles in the 2004 lecture form, followed by a 2008 postscript; others incorporated scholarship postdating the conference, especially the two major Elsheimer exhibitions (Frankfurt 2006; Munich 2005). In their introduction, editors Thielemann and Gronert emphasize the meaning of “artistic exchange” with regard to Elsheimer, specifically attention to Elsheimer as a thinker and conceptual – rather than feeling – artist. In other words, this approach means a shift away from a traditional characterization of Elsheimer as a naturally gifted, intuitive painter and a melancholy poet or as a later exemplar of the art of Renaissance-era “Kleinmeister.” Such emphasis nevertheless recalls how the most feeling and romantic of German painters, Philipp Otto Runge, once asked in exasperation whether there ever had been any good un-thinking artists.
Two articles by Thielemann – one on three Elsheimer drawings reflecting the ambitions and plight of the artist of genius held back by poverty and adverse circumstance, the other on Elsheimer’s scientific interest – strongly advocate an iconological interpretation and present Elsheimer as an intellectual artist. His high moral philosophical standards were immersed in the philosophical and scientific discourses of his day, including the Neo-Stoic circle of Faber and the Rubens brothers and an indirect connection to the newly founded Accademia dei Lincei. An iconological approach is also practiced in Arnold Witte’s interpretation of Elsheimer’s “Il Contento” as possibly commissioned by Cardinal Odoardo Farnese and participating in the Counter Reformation practice of didactic instruction “ex contrario.” Taking its subject from Matteo Aléman’s picaresque novel, Guzmán de Alfarache, it also engaged Rome’s ecclesiastic cultural politics, which combined public spectacle, Counter-Reformation theology and archaistic reference to antiquity.
Louisa Wood Ruby, Mirjam Neumeister and Christian Tico Seifert examine Elsheimer’s Netherlandish contexts in Rome. Ruby argues for mutual influence between Paul Bril’s and Elsheimer’s oeuvres: she first follows Elsheimer’s initial deference and reference to Bril, then his difference from the Flemish landscape painter. Despite Bril’s fame and papal patronage, Elsheimer also led Bril to rethink his concept and practice of landscape painting. Mirjam Neumeister analyzes Elsheimer’s nocturnes with multiple internal light sources as based on fifteenth-century Netherlandish models, the interiors of Nativity scenes and the exterior fire landscapes. She shows that Elsheimer’s interiors, such as his Jupiter and Mercury at the House of Philemon and Baucis, and his exteriors, principally his Flight into Egypt, fuse both branches of this tradition and transform both divine illumination and demonic punishment into seemingly natural yet deeply poetic nocturnes. In this way, and in explicit contradistinction to Caravaggio and Caravaggism – especially in Elsheimer’s own Judith and Holofernes – Elsheimer influenced Rubens, Rembrandt and other successors. Focusing on the example of two subjects, both from the book of Tobit, which Pieter Lastman newly brought to Dutch history painting, Seifert carefully lays out Lastman’s indebtedness to Elsheimer, which began in Rome. Harking back to sixteenth-century Netherlandish bible illustration, Lastman replaced Elsheimer’s quiet narration and silent figures with his own highly dramatic, much larger figures. Thus Elsheimer served as a Roman paradigm for Lastman, who in turn, Seifert argues, gained new prominence and deserves recognition other than being lumped amidst “Pre-Rembrandtists.”
Elsheimer’s integration of figures and landscape praised by contemporaries, forms the subject of Stefan Gronert’s interpretation of Elsheimer as a great narrator, using comparison with Annibale Carracci’s Ludovisi landscapes. Nina Eugenia Serebrennikov examines this integration of nature with history in terms of spatial concepts and the representation of light. She shows how Venetian drawing and painting techniques enabled Elsheimer to represent direct or filtered sunlight and different times of day, and to replace the conventions of either Aristotelian Schichtenraum, or framed and spot-lit stage space, with an open yet harmonious spatial whole. She demonstrates the crucial importance of Elsheimer’s grounds as the middle tone, used for both space and illumination.
Rüdiger Klessmann addresses the reception of Elsheimer’s works with particular attention to their collection, migration, and copies. He insists on Elsheimer’s indebtedness to sixteenth-century German painting and explicitly excludes Netherlandish paradigms; he also notes a striking lack of immediate followers in seventeenth-century German art.
Anna Scheurs’s interpretation of Sandrart’s Nocturnal Landscape with Amor and Venus Pudica concludes this volume. She elucidates this painting as Sandrart’s private homage to Elsheimer, but also as an allegorical vision of national cultural renewal, a utopian vision fortified by Sandrart’s own Neo-Stoic worldview, burdened by the brutality of the Thirty Years War, by the spoiled artistic legacy of Dürer and Elsheimer (both equally great to Sandrart), and by his exile to the Netherlands.
Some of these various Elsheimers in this book are still compatible, but others are clearly not. Perhaps the discord among articles is, at least in part, historical, suggesting that the artist was conflicted in his wide-ranging interests and ambitions.
The book is generously illustrated, with fourteen to thirty images per article and color plates inserted at the end. However, several black-and-white images are repeated in varying sizes and quality, especially The Flight into Egypt and the Little Tobias, let alone all the Goudts. More color plates of cited Elsheimers would have made useful illustrations for those readers coming to this volume not from a monographic interest in Elsheimer but from any of the fields of art historical inquiry with which this collection of articles hopes to inaugurate scholarly exchange.
Bryn Mawr College