As an experienced and distinguished scholar who has spent a substantial part of his career studying Karel van Mander, Walter Melion certainly knew what he was getting into when he took up the daunting challenge to translate De grondt der edel vry schilderkonst, the famous introduction to Karel van Mander’s Schilder-boeck, into English. De Grondt as it is commonly referred to is arguably the most important early modern Dutch text on art. Only one person has thus far dared to translate the text, Rudolph Hoecker. He published the Grondt in German under the title: Das Lehrgedicht des Karel van Mander: Text, Übersetzung und Kommentar nebst Anhang über Manders Geschichtskonstruktion und Kunsttheorie. Hoecker’s translation appeared in 1916. In 1973 the late Hessel Miedema published a modern Dutch edition of the Grondt, which served as a prelude to his even grander undertaking, the six-volume translation and edition of the Lives, that is the second part of the same Schilder-boeck.
The problem with any translation of the Grondt, and the reason why it is so hard to translate, can easily be demonstrated by merely analyzing the title. The challenge of interpreting and consequently translating something as simple as these six words, is uncommonly complex. Let me briefly illustrate why, since it is of crucial importance to appreciate both the qualities of this new translation into English and at the same time understand its natural limitations. The word grondt, although commonly used to refer to the text, did not draw much attention in art history. However, according to famous mathematician Simon Stevin Grondt is “daer yet aen cleeft,” “as in een stick schilderie,” “tBart is den Grondt der Verwen, ende die Verwe is den Barts Anclevende” (“grondt” is “something to which something sticks, as in a painting, the panel is the “grondt” of the paint, the paint is what sticks to the panel”). Stevin – no unimportant scholar in Van Mander’s time and of the same background – spent two and a half pages defining the word grondt in his treatise on Dialectic of 1585 (Dialectike ofte Bevvysconst) whilst using the metaphor of painting. Without getting into detail here, it is fair to state that grondt – literally meaning ground but also soil in Dutch – was not just any other word, but one with a strong connotation rooted in dialectic theories. Stevin, after all, equates Grondt with Substantia – Ousia (οὐσία) in Greek – and thus links it to the substance-attribute theory, first developed by Aristotle in his Categories. Stevin briefly rephrases the principal aspects of it, distinguishing between “grondt” (substance) and “anclevende” (“attributes” or “properties”), using painting as a metaphor indeed. Given Stevin’s extensive definition of the word, based on its Aristotelian origin, it would seem fair to translate grondt with “substance,” or “substantie” in Dutch. I’ll come back to this.
A second word in the title is “Vry.” In the title, vry refers to const, and thus to the “vrye consten,” as Miedema argued. As such it should be translated as “liberal art” – the common English terminology already used in Van Mander’s own time for the Artes Liberales, as opposed to mechanical arts. Since Van Mander stresses the intellectual features of the schilder conste in his introduction to the Schilder-boeck, of which the Grondt forms part, it seems important to take this into account too. Moreover, “consten” were some sort of philosophical culture among rhetoricians, as argued convincingly by Arjan van Dixhoorn and others recently. Grondt and Vry Conste thus had many more connotations than one would assume at first sight. Taking these remarks on “Grondt” and “Vry,” the title of the De grondt der edel vry schilderkonst could be translated along the lines of ‘The substance of the noble liberal art of painting’ while referencing the fact that within rhetorician culture, liberal arts were interdisciplinary topics of conversation based on ‘questies’, a common dialectic/rhetorical device at the time.
However, things are not as simple as that. Since Miedema published his positivist analyses of first the Grondt and later the Lives, in which he does exactly what I demonstrated above, a discussion about the specific meaning of words arose in Netherlandish art history. It even ignited a specific genre of art historical papers. Martha Hollander published on the meaning of “doorsien,” Boudewijn Bakker on “schilderachtig,” Paul Taylor on “gloeyend,” etc. While most of these learned examinations are more than worthwhile, the idea that all words had very specific meaning also led to some absurd quibbles, which have much to do with Van Mander’s background. Meulebeke, where Karel van Mander was born and raised is a small town in what is now West-Vlaanderen. The unique dialect spoken there now and in Van Mander’s time is called continentaal West-Vlaams. Unlike standard Dutch and other Dutch dialects, West-Vlaams did not evolve much from its medieval roots. Moreover, of all Dutch dialects, it has the least overlap with standard Dutch, a language that, for a good part was only standardized in the seventeenth century (estimated at some 50% overlap). When the meaning of ‘aerdig’ or ‘curieus’ were discussed in the wake of Miedema’s work, this obvious fact was completely dismissed. “Aerdig” in West-Vlaams, as in “den aerdighen brueghel” (Grondt, VI 54a), means strange, peculiar (in a positive sense), an adjective well suited to describe the master. Hessel Miedema’s “doordringend” was off track, of course. Likewise, “Curieus” in West-Vlaams means interesting, intriguing, not curious or “nieuwsgierig” (in Dutch). However, confusingly, Van Mander seems to switch quite often between West-Vlaams – for which there are no contemporary dictionaries – and standard Dutch, making it all even more confusing.
To tackle these problems Melion devised a solid solution. His translation is preceded by an impressive introduction of some 160 pages in which he first examined the dedicatory epistles and then the scope of the Grondt and some key critical categories. Subsequently, Van Mander’s idiosyncratic use of ekphrasis and his ideas on landscape and history are scrutinized. The introduction ends with an elaborate and illuminating resumé of the very essence of Van Mander’s fourteen chapters. Each section of Melion’s introduction could stand as an important article in the ‘genre’ described above. His views on uyt den gheest and naer het leven, to give but one example, are excellent analyses of these often-used phrases. Sure, there’s always more to say, for instance on the connections between uyt den gheest and the mediaeval and early modern notions of the inner senses, but that’s beside the point. All chapters illustrate the monstrous complexity of the source, while at the same time illuminating the often hermetic content.
The actual translation, which constitutes the second part of the book, is straightforward. Melion opted not to include Van Mander’s original Dutch text and to address all particulars in elaborate footnotes. As a result, the translation is very readable (unlike the original, even for those well-familiar with early modern Dutch). Plain as these two choices might seem, the consequences are significant. Melion’s translation will help scholars to read the entire text and to contemplate on the complexity of the Grondt as a whole instead of cherry-picking nice quotes to illustrate foregone conclusions. This long overdue translation, in other words, finally makes it possible for many scholars of art to understand much more of the “gheest” (“spirit”) of Van Mander’s text, rather than merely the “letter” – to paraphrase Saint Augustine. For any translation is, as Simon Stevin also remarked in the introduction to his Dutch textbook on Dialectic a “Strijt met woorden, door de welcke men tracht, naer de waerheyt eenigher twijfelachtigher saecken” (“a battle with words in which one tries to find truth in uncertain matter”). Even for scholars familiar with Dutch, this will bring new insights as it confronts them with the less than obvious meaning of words and contemplate them as part of a complicated attempt, to indeed add substance to the noble art of painting. No praise can suffice to express how important that is. Especially when used in combination with Miedema’s older attempt to retranslate Van Mander, art history can achieve an even more balanced understanding of Netherlandish painting at the dawn of the Baroque.
There is however one important remark to make – it has little and everything to do with the quality of this book. As Hessel Miedema’s translation of the Grondt into Modern Dutch and Lives into English caused a flood of interest in Van Mander, the chances are that this translation will give the Flemish-Dutch rhetorician central stage again in the study of Netherlandish art. Readily available texts are used more often and more intensely than rare books in Middelnederlands. Walter Melion’s impressive effort will probably reinforce this phenomenon. The chances are that even in Dutch universities, where English is rapidly taking over from Dutch as the primary language of instruction, this translation will become the primary point of access even for students of early modern Netherlandish art in the Low Countries. It would be a pity were this translation, excellent as it is, to become the final word. As my brief remarks on the word grondt hopefully show, there is plenty more grondt to explore. This unique piece of scholarship and diligence should first and foremost be an invitation to study the Grondt and other contemporary writing time and again – as Melion himself has done and still does. For if Melion’s translation shows anything, it is that the Grondt still is fertile soil for further inquiry.
 Walter S. Melion, Shaping the Netherlandish Canon: Karel van Mander’s Schilder-boeck, Chicago-London: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
 Antwerp: Plantin, 1585, pp. 20-22.
 E.g. Arjan van Dixhoorn, ‘Consten-Culture: Beeckman, the Rhetoricians, and a New Style of Philosophizing’, in: K. Van Berkel, A. Clement, & A. Van Dixhoorn (Eds.), Knowledge and Culture in the Early Dutch Republic: Isaac Beeckman in Context (Studies in the History of Knowledge), Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2022, pp. 339-68.
 E.g. Martha Hollander, An Entrance for the Eyes: Space and Meaning in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002; Boudewijn Bakker, ‘Schilderachtig: Discussions of a Seventeenth-Century Term and Concept’, in: Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, Vol. 23, no. 2/3 (1995), pp. 147-62; Paul Taylor, ‘The Glow in late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Dutch paintings’, in: Leids Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 11: Looking through paintings: the study of painting techniques and materials in support of art historical research (1998), pp. 159-75.
 E.g. E. K. Grootes, ‘Aandacht voor. Van Mander’, in: Oud Holland, 89, no. 2 (1975), pp. 98-102; E.K.J. Reznicek, ‘Het leerdicht van Karel van Mander en de acribie van Hessel Miedema’, Oud Holland, 89, no. 2 (1975), pp. 102-28; Paul Taylor, “Review of: Karel van Mander, The Lives of the Illustrious Netherlandish and German Painters, edited by Hessel Miedema, 6 volumes, Doornspijk, 1994-1999’’, In: Oud Holland, 115 (2002), pp. 131-54.