Following the 2004 CAA session “Cultural Exchange Between the Netherlands and Italy, 1400-1530”, Ingrid Alexander-Skipnes, broadening the scope of the subject, edited a fine selection of contributions dealing with Netherlandish-Italian artistic relations in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Notwithstanding the clearly defined range and surveyable time span of two centuries, the topics and scopes of the contributions in this volume are rather diverse, ranging from iconography (Wolfthal, Rohlmann) to painting technique (Ames-Lewis, Galassi), from style and function (Alexander-Skipnes, Gelfand) to critical reception (Scholten). Some perceptive, but otherwise highly speculative contributions complete the volume.
The disparity in scope, in my opinion, constitutes the strength as well as the weakness of the volume. The overall topic is hard to grasp (a factor which accounts for the two year time span between its appearance and the current review). Otherwise, the book offers a comprehensive overview of the diversity in approach and methodology in the field of Netherlandish-Italian artistic relations in early modern history. Several methods, materials and even generations are represented in the volume, making it an elucidating part of the historiography of the topic itself.
The volume is attractive visually. Pages are divided into two columns, and most black and white illustrations are strictly bound to one or both columns of the page. The full page color reproductions of the most important art works under consideration are at the back of the volume. Unfortunately, in quite a few cases the resolution of the black and white illustrations was not high enough, leaving the individual pixel rather clearly visible.
Probably because of the very different nature of the contributions, Alexander-Skipnes has chosen to arrange them more or less chronologically, commencing with Portinari-patronage in the second half of the fifteenth century. Diane Wolfthal discusses Tommaso Portinari’s motivations for ordering paintings, particularly the Portinari Altarpiece (Florence, Uffizi). She argues that, following Cosimo de’ Medici, Portinari felt the need to compensate for the usuary that he, as a banker, was involved in. This intriguing statement is supported by first and foremost an extensive overview of bankers’ patronage from the early 1300s, as well as by a detailed discussion of the patronage of Cosimo, Portinari and Isabella of Portugal. Wolfthal concludes that for some of his commissions, Portinari had a pure and honest concern for his spiritual well being, without any business interest. Although firmly supported by visual and written evidence, some references cited to strengthen the case unfortunately are not convincing. The apparent pregnancy of Giovanni Arnolfini’s wife in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Double Portrait (London, National Gallery) is far from being unanimously accepted. Furthermore, St. Margaret on the right wing of the Portinary Triptych, whose presence is interpreted as referring to her role as patron saint of childbirth, should primarily be seen here as the saint bearing the same name as Portinari’s daughter.
A second case study is offered by Elisabeth Ross who discusses the Peregrinatio in terram sanctam by Erhard Reuwich (Latin and German, 1486; Dutch, 1488). She describes how the artist used Venetian as well as northern motifs, and moreover, how he pushed the possibilities of the woodblock print – in the Peregrinatio and other printings – to its limits. The highly interesting issue of the assimilation of Venetian motifs is discussed at length. Ross raises the question whether Reuwich only adopts Venetian motifs, or whether he invests these motifs with their meanings. Her final and well argued statement is that Reuwich, through the deliberate choice of his pictorial language, advertizes Venice as the pre-eminent Christian stronghold against Muslim influence.
A third, equally well documented case study by Michael Rohlmann discusses the means by which Joos Ammann, a painter from Ravensburg in southern Germany ended up in Genoa in the mid-fifteenth century where he painted an Annunciation in the loggia of Sta. Maria di Castello that merges northern elements with Italian ones. Rohlmann not only explores artistic and business contacts between the north and Ammann’s artistic environment, but ultimately arrives at the statement that Ammann’s wall painting is as much a demonstration of self-awareness as it is probably the first real Flemish (as opposed to Italian) painting made south of the Alps.
Besides case studies, parts of the book are devoted to technical studies. Francis Ames-Lewis offers a systematic overview of the reception and appreciation of the technique of oil paint in (first) Northern Italy, immediately followed by Florence. He concludes that “the great importance of the adoption of Netherlandish oil-painting techniques […] has not been adequately acknowledged” (p. 58). It is exactly this kind of analytical contribution that gradually refines our understanding of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artistic production in Italy and the Netherlands.
Ames-Lewis’s essay is immediately followed by a technical analysis of one of the painters who was most obviously influenced by fifteenth-century Netherlandish painting: Antonello da Messina. Although Maria Galassi writes that the knowledge of Antonello’s techniques is still in its infancy, she concludes with interesting observations. She demonstrates that Antonello adopted specific materials and techniques such as underdrawing and glazing, not by slavishly following, but by adapting these methods to suit his own technique.
Ingrid Alexander-Skipnes, whose subject too is situated at the crossroads of north and south, discusses the Certosa of Pavia and Ambrogio Bergognone’s Christ Carrying the Cross, originally contained there. She demonstrates (and lavishly annotates) how the deliberate choice of northern as well as southern elements by the artist contributes to Carthusian devotion. For instance, she describes the depiction of the four steps of monastic life (Guigo II, before 1188) in the painting by Bergognone.
Even though one might think so far that the present volume deals solely with painting – the subject usually given preference in discussions of fifteenth-century art – this does not do justice to the book, which includes contributions on a variety of media. Thus Colin Eisler, who at the beginning of his article strongly challenges the importance traditionally placed upon panel painting and “the way in which Netherlandish art, in particular […] impacted upon pictorial production of [Italy]” (pp. 87-88), writes about tapestries, a subject also dealt with by Nello Forti Grazzini and Marina Belozerskaya who treats them together with other luxury products.
Continuing the discussion of other media is Laura Gelfand who underlines the importance of Brabantine architecture as a carrier of Burgundian iconography. Her compact contribution describes the background of Margaret of Austria’s deliberate choice of Brabantine Gothic for her funeral church in Brou. Continuing the discussion of other media is Frits Scholten who provides the reader with a sometimes anecdotic overview of Netherlandish sculptors working abroad, mainly in Italy or for the Habsburg court, and mainly working in bronze – a material that refers directly to classical antiquity. His statement that more Netherlandish sculptors worked outside their own country than those of other nationalities is not so much supported by the percentage of itinerant sculptors as such, but by the percentage of internationallyitinerant sculptors. No less than 28% of the sculptors working abroad anywhere in Europe in the period 1400-1800 originated from the Low Countries. In the period under consideration in this essay (c. 1550-1600), some 200 Netherlandish artists were working abroad. It is not known how many of them were sculptors. A most intriguing part of the explanation of this phenomenon follows in the discussion of the careers of Giambologna, Cornelis Floris, Jaques DuBroeqc, and somewhat lengthier of those of Johan Gregor van der Schard, Adriaen de Vries and Willem van Tetrode. Scholten agues that, added to the high degree of urbanization, it was their backgrounds as either goldsmiths or stone carvers, that made Netherlandish sculptors so equipped at designing and casting bronze. Scholten rightly signals the low regard for mannerist sculptors after c. 1600, leading to a collective loss of art historical memory for some three and a half centuries. Thus, Adriaen de Vries’s most important work, the Hercules Fountain for Christian IV of Denmark, was considered to be from Greece, judging by an account of 1688. At least the patron succeeded in associating himself with antiquity in the choice of the material.
The current review is not the place to discuss every contribution at length, especially since a few of them are only distantly related to the topic of the book. Ingrid Rowland’s extensively documented contribution on Agostino Chigi for instance, as ably written as it is eloquent, barely touches on the subject of the present volume. Notwithstanding the complementary character of some of the essays, some obvious cross-references have not been made. For instance, Barbara Lane states that Raphael was particularly attracted to Memling because of the medium of oil paint but does not refer to Ames-Lewis’s contribution. Furthermore, the colours red and blue of the mantle of the Madonna can, as she states, never count as proof – positive or negative – that there is any relation to any other woman dressed in red and blue, nor can the occurrence of plants or a cityscape, as long as there is no evident visual likeness.
The minor disadvantages discussed above do in no way invalidate Cultural Exchange Between the Low Countries and Italy (1400-1600). The volume is a valuable contribution to the study of Netherlandish-Italian relations in all its diversity. Because of this, an index and cross references would have been most helpful. But even without this, the volume belongs on the shelf of every scholar involved in the subject.