Daniel Nijs, the Flemish merchant and entrepreneur, the subject of this excellent in-depth study by Christina Anderson, is best known for his part in the sale of the Gonzaga collection to Charles I. Although the sub-title rightly alludes to this activity, the book reveals that he was a very much more widely based merchant and entrepreneur than is generally recognised.
Eschewing a straightforward biography, Anderson has written a series of dedicated chapters to describe the full range of Nijs’s activities, which in effect largely follow the chronology of his life. After a preliminary chapter which covers his move from Antwerp to Venice, ‘The Merchant’ gives an account of his activities in the trading of textiles and a wide range of other commodities. He established himself as a notable member of the community, lending money, and even going so far as to buy an island in the lagoon. ‘The Connoisseur’ is concerned with his large and wide-ranging personal collection, sadly today no more than a list of items. ‘The Dealer’ describes his buying and selling of works of art, in which his activities on behalf of the ill-fated Earl of Somerset are the highlight. He was nothing if not ambitious; he even had the chutzpah to try and buy Titian’s great altarpiece of St Peter Martyr. (Would that he had been successful, and the chances are that the picture would have been saved for posterity.) .’The Agent’ covers his various activities on behalf of the rich and powerful in Venice, into whose company he successfully insinuated himself. ‘The Broker’ discusses the highlight of his career, the Gonzaga sales and, as Anderson unequivocally establishes, Nijs’s prime role in the whole operation, in which he even went as far as buying the second part without having obtained Charles I’s approval.’The Bankrupt’ naturally follows on from his dealings with the English king, although the latter’s tardiness in paying was not the only nail in Nijs’s coffin.
And finally, ‘The Projector’, when in desperation over his financial position he dreamt, in a Walter Mitty-like state, of unrealistic schemes to recover his financial fortunes. To the Venetian authorities he put forward a plan to construct a canal linking the Piave river to the lagoon. He proposed to the Spanish ambassador a plan to overthrow the Venetian republic. Having moved to England, leaving behind his long suffering wife in Venice, who ‘always speaks with tears in her eyes since the disgrace of her husband’, he solicited Charles I with a scheme to effect a major transformation of the appearance of the city of London. And, in a separate venture put to the king, he devised a scheme to stop customs fraud. Unsurprisingly none of these projects took wing.
The book is very well researched and rich in background detail pertaining to whatever relates to Nijs’s interests or activities. Archives with documents and letters have been carefully examined and liberally quoted in the text. In certain areas the book becomes as much ‘a life and times’ as the study of an individual. The author, for example, gives good descriptions of trading practises, such as the export from Venice to Antwerp of silk, and vice versa of cloth and wool, the collecting of antique statuary and its social implications of such collections and the making of cabinets.
What is tantalizing is the number of works of art mentioned throughout the book only by the name of the artist and sometimes the subject. Thus we have no idea of whether they are originals or copies or works in the style of. In the description of Nijs’s collection, by Vincenzo Scamozzi, what is one to make of ‘all the drawings by Albrecht Dürer and Lucas van Leyden’, which sounds like a drawings curator’s dream. In the case of the Gonzaga collection sold to Charles I, the author rightly says that from Nijs’s letters it is impossible to know what precisely was involved. Yet a good many can be identified from other sources, largely through Van der Doort’s inventory, but only a few are mentioned here. Since the sale is at the heart of the book, it would, despite the author’s disclaimer, have been desirable to provide a list of the identifiable paintings, if only to maximize the scale of what was being negotiated by Nijs, as well as giving more color to a dry recitation of facts.
Most mysterious of the works mentioned is the Nijs ebony cabinet, that Aladdin’s cave of treasures, containing ‘drawings, pictures, medals, cameos, agate intaglios … crystal intaglios, jewels and many other rare curiosities’, which runs like a leitmotiv throughout the book. Much of the time it was sealed up and hidden from prying eyes. (For varying reasons, Nijs was prone to hide his possessions, which sometimes caused trouble to his reputation, as in the case of the last instalment of the Gonzaga pictures.) Nijs clung to the cabinet all his life as his ‘nest egg’, in the hopes that it would solve his financial problems, but in the end he was forced to sell it at a greatly reduced sum compared with his own estimate of its value to the Earl of Arundel. It disappears on the Continent when the latter goes into exile.
With unsparing honesty the Nijs family chronicle summed up Daniel’s life; he ‘climbed to a magnificent peak through good fortune and through adversity slowly descended again until the day of his death’. But in conclusion one can say that from this meticulously researched study, Nijs escapes Luzio’s charge of ‘low cunning’ and other derogatory estimates of his character, and emerges as a decent and straightforward, if shrewd, merchant and entrepreneur, ‘an honest, plain creature’ as Balthasar Gerbier called him. He has been fortunate in his apologist.