Erudite Eyes considers a range of objects – prints, maps, drawings, poems and paintings – produced by a network of artists, merchants, and humanists around geographer Abraham Ortelius. Foregrounding the collaborative nature of early modern antiquarian research, the seven chapters of Meganck’s wide-ranging study each focus on a set of relationships, shared interests, and/or artistic projects, involved which Ortelius in some capacity. The result is a text that usefully illuminates the links between artists, cartographers, antiquarians, humanists, poets, and publishers in the sixteenth-century Low Countries, comprising a book that will be a necessary point of reference for scholars and students of the period.
In the opening chapter, Meganck describes Ortelius’s social network as a trading zone, a space in which ideas and objects were produced by social interaction. Yet a trading zone is a fixed locality in time and space, despite its invocation of distances traversed. One is struck in reading Meganck’s account at her subjects’ high degree of mobility – setting off on exploratory missions to view antique ruins, fleeing religious or political persecution, or seeking commercial opportunities. Movement, voluntary and involuntary, defined this social network. Meganck describes her chapters as evocative of the many journeys of Ortelius’s life, and on her figures 6 and 7, maps of Europe and the Low Countries from the Theatrum orbis terrarium, she has plotted dots corresponding to Ortelius’s known correspondents in order to suggest the wide-ranging geography of this social network.
Chapter 2 focuses on two expeditions headed by Ortelius, approximately a decade apart, aimed at investigating ancient Batavia and Gallia Belgica. Meganck unpacks the publications (visual and textual) that emerged from these trips: first, describing the historical map of the Arx Brittanica and the scholarly conversation between Ortelius, Hubertus Goltzius and Marcus Laurinus; and second, the 1575 trip taken by Ortelius with Johannes Vivianus, Hieronymus Scholiers, and Hans van Schille with the resulting 1584 publication by Christopher Plantin of the Itinerarium per nonnullas Galliae Belgicae partes. This chapter introduces many of the leitmotifs of Meganck’s volume: the mobilization of different kinds of evidence – archaeological, artistic, textual – and the role of letter-writing and publishing as modes of communication and scholarly verification. Meganck distinguishes between what she describes as Ortelius’s and Vivianus’s study of material remains as “cultural artefacts” versus Lombard’s use of local antiquities as models for contemporary artistic production. Similarly, in Chapter 3, she describes how Ortelius and Justus Lipsius assessed the role of visual materials as historical evidence. While drawing together an impressive range of objects and images, the trajectory of Meganck’s argument appears more concerned with how new methods of visual observation effected the writing of history, rather than with the innovative nature of these images themselves.
This emphasis is particularly clear in the fourth chapter, “Comparing Cultures” which considers the landscapes of Joris Hoefnagel and the costume studies of Lucas de Heere. Hoefnagel, in a rather remarkable turn of phrase, dedicated his View of Campania to Ortelius, his “companion in looking” (100). The visual was not just evidentiary for Ortelius and his colleagues, but also a source of pleasure and debate. So many of these men turned to image-making as a form of geographic and historical inquiry, but also of social bonding via alba amicorum. Additionally, their imagery financially supported them. Hoefnagel’s landscapes and de Heere’s costumes studies condense time, recalling trips taken a decade earlier, recreating monuments of antiquity or even the more recent past, captured in fifteenth-century artworks.
According to Meganck, the costume studies, many of which are based on other works of art, reveal “just how acutely these artists were aware that they contributed actively to the pursuit of knowledge, and how fully they realized its dangers and potential “(126). But left unexplored is just how much of this awareness was born in the very real experience of iconoclasm and war – not just as “history in the making” (143), but also as a trauma, simultaneously exposing the power of artworks to incite action and the fragility of artworks as historical objects and witnesses to the past. Artists in this moment did not just document historical events but also argued for the preservation of more recent works of art – as when Maerten de Vos acted as the principal negotiator between the painters’ guild and the newly Calvinist city council, persuading them not to sell Quinten Massys’s St. John Altarpiece to Queen Elizabeth of England.[i]
Chapter 5 focuses on the very real commercial challenges to publishing richly illustrated works of history, cartography, and chorography, exposing the importance of social networks in fostering contacts and passing on practical advice. Commercial competition could also trump intellectual and social kinship, as Meganck traces the evidence for a supposed rift between Ortelius and Georg Braun over the marketing of the Civatates orbis terrarium as an unofficial companion to Ortelius’s phenomenally successful Theatrum.
The idea of artistic rivals is also key to Meganck’s final two chapters. First, in chapter 6, she focuses on the response to Pieter Bruegel’s Death of the Virgin within Ortelius’s circle. Meganck masterfully dissects how rivalry functioned as a rhetorical device in a circle with diverse artistic tastes, although Bruegel’s own agency is somewhat lost in her reading of the grisaille. The book’s final chapter ruminates on the messy nature of friendships in an age of political and religious discord, suggested by the crossing out of Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert’s entry in Ortelius’s Album amicorum. The album amicorum as both a monument “more durable than bronze”(207), but also as a medium subject to revision, improvisation and response, deserves further consideration. How does the repetition of forms, framing devices and other visual motifs function within and across these alba ? The album amicorum is perhaps the most paradigmatic object of this study: a dialogic entity, carried from place to place, compiled over years by a social network of diverse agents. Meganck’s book successfully reanimates many of these connections, peregrinations, and conversations.
[i] Zweite 1980, 24-6. Antwerp Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Nr. 245-9. Instead the painting was moved into the States Room in City Hall; when Catholic forces regained the city, Massys’s triptych was returned to the Cathedral, serving as the altarpiece for the Magistrates’ Chapel