Students of visual culture in the cities of the Netherlands have learned to attend to a variety of imagery that formerly were omitted from consideration as “art,” especially printed images that also included civic pageants and triumphal entries as well as maps. In similar fashion, those of us who regularly depend on Brepols for serious scholarship about the early modern Netherlands also turn now to their series on European urban history, in which this new volume on Antwerp complements an earlier anthology in the same series (no. 41), edited by Matt Kavaler and Anne-Laure Van Bruaene, Netherlandish Culture of the Sixteenth Century. Urban Perspectives (2017). So despite their relative paucity of standard art images, the essays gathered by Blondé and Puttevils contribute greatly to assessing the market metropolis of the sixteenth century, the first such volume since the 1993 exhibition, organized by Jan Van der Stock, Antwerp, Story of a Metropolis.
After a wide-ranging introduction, rich in references, about the “community of commerce” by the editors (9–28), the volume is loosely organized around paired essays, which survey the sixteenth-century city at its apogee from a series of disciplines. First: economics (Puttevils on “The Case of Low Countries Merchants,” 29–54; Dave De Ruysscher on “The Legal Facilitating, Appropriating and Improving of Mercantile Practices, 55–88). Next social organizations, beginning with “The Brotherhood of Artisans” (Bert De Munck, 89–106), followed by religious confraternities (Hadewijch Masure, 107–130). Somewhat separate is the individual study of Antwerp’s urban militia and the early modern “military Renaissance” (Erik Swart, 131–52). Cultural historians will rejoice at the outstanding essays by Anne-Laure Van Bruaene (“Rederijkers, Festive Culture and Print in Renaissance Antwerp,” 153–72) and Herman Pleij (“Literary Renaissance in Sixteenth-Century Antwerp?). After these foundational studies follow the investigations of material culture in all forms.
Art historians will turn first to the brief but expansive essay by Koenraad Jonckheere, the current dean of Antwerp painting research. His “Trial and Error” essay about art (263–96) begins with Michael Coxcie, a case study whose career productively spans the entire century, including losses during the 1566 beeldenstorm, which he then helped to replace along with younger Antwerp artists. Jonckheere strives to avoid the usual art-historical interpretations of Antwerp art, whether in relation to Italian models and visits or else to socio-economic contexts, especially of the art market, or even his own recent analysis of a complicated religious tightrope for painters as the Dutch Revolt intensified. His intelligent survey would make a valuable book if expanded, and he provides essential references.
Jonckheere sees three major phases of Antwerp art, broken by major caesurae, beginning first with a founders’ generation of Massys and Patinir and a next generation of Pieter Coecke and Joos van Cleve. Theirs was an era of flagship retables as well as large workshops, often of anonymous artists. The second phase featured an increasing attention to the lingua franca of Italian Renaissance forms, which increasingly dominated architecture, sculpture, and ornament, especially during the second third of the century, which featured such artists as Coxie and both Frans and Cornelis Floris. Jonckheere acknowledges the major print output and influence (including major works by Haarlem artist Maarten van Heemskerck) of Aux Quatre Vents and Hieronymus Cock, so beautifully surveyed in the 2013 Brussels exhibition by Joris van Grieken, Ger Luijten, and Jan van der Stock. Bruegel, as usual, does not easily fit into this general overview, though his more positive peasant scenes did participate in some of the newer genres in the intensified art market of the Antwerp Schilderspand, and increasingly his religious pictures are interpreted in light of an intensified debate about images as well as kingship. Jonckheere gives closer attention to leading artists after midcentury; Bruegel, Floris, Aertsen, and his own Willem Key, plus sculptors, still unjustly understudied. Obviously, after iconoclasm, all previous bets were off for the remainder of the sixteenth century, the third phase, where Jonckheere finds his fascination sparked, while also noting the important rise of art theory, charted by Melion and Miedema, and a reassertion of signature styles within what he calls a “stylistic Babylon.” Between iconoclasm and the return of Rubens from Italy in 1608, and following the deaths of most major artists during the 1560s, Antwerp art did not actually experience the “black hole,” still characterized by omission in standard surveys. As in his book, Antwerp Art after Iconoclasm (New Haven, 2012), Jonckheere highlights Adriaen Thomasz. Key and Frans Pourbus, both Calvinists, and the heightened importance of portraiture and other specializations.
Between Bruegel and Rubens and after the 1585 restoration of Catholicism, religious subjects revived together with allegories and emblems (Otto van Veen), often on canvases. Maarten de Vos as well as Frans and Ambrosius Francken stayed home, while other Antwerp-trained artists migrated out to the major courts of Europe. There they interacted with the heritage of the “Renaissance,” while back in Antwerp other issues, such as “economic peculiarities, image theoretical debates, iconoclasm, persisting traditions and traditionalistic reflexes” (p. 296) inflected local art production and made it truly innovative and experimental.
About Antwerp architecture and the changing face of the city, two essays offer standard points of reference. First Krista de Jonge, Piet Lombaerde, and Petra Maclot, “Building the Metropolis” (195-236) portray the major public building projects as well as the altered shape of the city across the sixteenth century, beginning with the major additions of fortifications but also including social organization of builders and thoughtful considerations of style, as well as unusual attention to the rebuilding efforts after 1585. Much of this material is difficult to find elsewhere, and its discussion of Antwerp city maps is complemented by the next essay in the volume, Jelle De Rock, “The City Portrayed: Patterns of Continuity and Change in the Antwerp Renaissance City View” (237–62), which provides a wider European context for city maps and skylines and also builds on the same author’s essay in the volume of Kavaler and Van Bruaene (3–30), “From Generic Image to Individualized Portrait. The Pictorial City View in the Sixteenth-Century Low Countries.”
A final essay takes up the lingering prominence of Antwerp in luxury goods, even after the 1585 watershed separation of the North Netherlands from the Catholic South. A joint effort by Bruno Blondé, Puttevils, and Isis Sturtewagen considers “Silks and the ‘Golden Age’ of Antwerp” (297–315). Interested students should also be aware of a magisterial 1988 exhibition at Antwerp’s Rockoxhuis: Zilver uit de Gouden Eeuw van Antwerpen, complemented by a Rubenshuis exhibition on 17th-18th-century Antwerp “house silver.” Still very useful for social status of artists is Zirka Zaremba Filipczak, Picturing Art in Antwerp, 1550–1700 (Princeton, 1987) and for art in relation to economic thinking, Elizabeth Honig, Painting and the Market in Early Modern Antwerp (New Haven, 1998).
If printmaking and sculpture still remain somewhat invisible here, Antwerp’s rich economic, social, and cultural contexts for all artworks and their consumers is authoritatively laid out in this important volume, so it will be a rich resource for any scholarship that seeks to go beyond forensics. And the treatment of buildings, maps and city views, and even of silks adds further to our understanding of the urban environment in which such a shifting artistic Babel found its appropriate audiences.
University of Pennsylvania