This book comes as a surprise, as it is an unusual book, both in terms of its subject matter and in terms of its method. The Italian art historian Federica Veratelli undertook several years of research in the richarchives in Lille (Archives départementales du Nord) in order to identify all such records that document the prominent role played by Italian merchants in the Low Countries at the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth centuries. This book supplies us with a surprisingly rich harvest of documents that went almost unnoticed to date – a stroke of luck for all those interested in early modern court culture. Even more astonishing are the new insights into the close relationship between the Italian merchants, the courts and the courtiers that are presented in the introductory essay. In earlier compilations of archival material, this historical period was not of paramount interest to historians and archivists, as it covers the timespan between the death of Duke Charles the Bold and of Archduchess Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands. Since more light has been shed on the significance of this transitional phase, in which Mary of Burgundy, Maximilian I, Philip the Handsome and Margaret of Austria determined the fate of this highly urbanized and prosperous region, such archival sources deserve to take center stage.
Art historians like Birgit Franke and Marina Belozerskaya have long stressed the magnificence of courtly life in Brussels, Ghent, Mechelen and Bruges, as exemplified by the precious objects themselves or as reported in chronicles and eyewitness reports. The history of collections has equally yielded many insights into the artistic and material value of objects in princely collections that abounded with Italian gold- and silverware, artifacts, exotic objects, precious clothing and jewelry. The important collection of documents preserved in Lille – letters, orders, register, receipts, payments, inventories, etc. – now allows for a much better understanding of what exactly was imported from abroad and in what quantities. The documents selected by Veratelli show that merchants such as Girolamo Frescobaldi or Tommaso Bombelli not only delivered goods, but could also act as brokers, agents, mediators or financiers.
In part II (133-367: Corpus), Veratelli has compiled 189 entries – several of them containing more than one document. Apart from being meticulously transcribed and annotated, the author provides explanations on technical terms and references to older literature. The records are arranged chronologically by date. The reader can search the corpus via different indexes that is by numeric code, by object (399-406: répertoire thématique) or by the name of the person involved (371- 397: répertoire des Italiens).
The list of objects reveals the breadth of articles in demand: animals, costly fabrics, clothing, furniture, armor, metalwork and precious stones, sculptures, paintings, books and manuscripts as well as raw materials (e.g. alum). The catalogue of fabrics alone is most impressive and reflects the availability of a wide range of textiles of different quality that bear upon the status and the social standing of individuals such as Maximilian I and Mary of Burgundy.
The index of names lists sixty-seven Italian families that were involved in trading luxury goods as merchants or that served the ruling dynasty as secretary, court painter, argentier or maître d’hotel. The most important places of origin were Florence, Venice, Geneva and Lucca, as is to be expected; in addition, the index lists individuals from Naples, Milan and Siena. In several cases, entire dynasties were involved and complex family networks start to resurge from the documents. The Lomellinis, for instance, are represented by eleven male family members, the Portinari family features with eight. Top of the list in terms of frequency are the Florentine merchant Girolamo Frescobaldi and Pierantonio Bandini Baroncelli, merchant and governor of the Pazzi Bank. Certain individuals such as Tommaso Bombelli, merchant and argentier of Margaret of Austria, can be traced in the archival records over twenty years – from 1507 to 1527. This allows the author to reconstruct biographies and spheres of influence to a much better degree as was the case before. In these indexes alone, several new fields for historical and art-historical research emerge. The author has to be congratulated upon having made these hidden resources available to the wider scholarly community.
One could perhaps argue that the selection of documents preserved in just one archive is rather arbitrary and does not offer itself to provide a good picture of what happened at the time. It was, however, the first and foremost intention of this project to unearth material that is otherwise difficult to track. In part I of the book, Veratelli exemplifies how the material that has been preserved in the Lille archives can be contextualized, by also drawing on material that is available elsewhere. The stimulating ‘Introduction’ (31-130) starts off as an almost sociological study, analyzing the different roles played by the Italians that lived and worked north of the Alps. Among other things, questions of diplomacy, of networking, of the transmission of knowledge, and of the rising taste for Italian lifestyle products (a la mode italienne) are addressed. The section in which Veratelli discusses Flemish portraits of Italian migrants, such as members of the Arnolfini, Portinari or Baroncelli families, opens up new questions and shows in which ways these families adjusted to local customs. The range of portraits of the Portinari family is a rich resource and an excellent case in point.
In the following section, Veratelli investigates the significance of Italian businessmen at the court of Margaret of Austria (65-86), pointing for example to Tommaso Bombelli and family, to Stefano Capelli, Girolamo Frescobaldi and others. She demonstrates that these merchants were not only influential as courtiers and/or providers of precious materials, but that they were equally valued for their wide-ranging networks that reached well beyond the Netherlands to England and France, allowing them to act as mediators or even ambassadors. In this context, the case of four portraits of the Habsburg family that were acquired in Paris via an Italian merchant is described as being symptomatic. Veratelli reminds us of the fact that commercial networks of Italian families were as important as dynastic networks and thus allowed some Italians like Girolamo Frescobaldi to gain close access to the political leader in the Netherlands. His position at the court was strengthened because he also had contacts to France and Spain. Veratelli’s analysis thus confirms the findings of Mark Meadow and others on the European-wide network of the Fugger family.
The final section closely investigates the role of material culture à la mode d’Italie, may that be jewelry, sculpture, decorative art objects or costly fabrics, as has also been discussed in nuce by Jozef Duverger and this reviewer. Of equal importance for understanding the impact of Italian merchants on Netherlandish court culture is the existence of inventories that document art objects and valuables in the possession of the Italians themselves. These artifacts did not go unnoticed and were desired by all those who were interested in enlarging or improving their collections.
This new book by Federica Veratelli is an essential resource for all those working on art collections and on the reception of Italian culture in countries north of the Alps. Its strength lies in combining archival sources with thought-provoking interpretations that will stimulate further research. As far as the field of cultural transfer is concerned, the book provides valuable stimuli for understanding the seminal role of commercial networks in Europe.
University of Trier & University of Heidelberg