Maria Harnack offers a broad-view examination of sixteenth-century Netherlandish artists in Italy. She begins Chapter One’s first section, travel to the Eternal City, by citing a few key contributors on the topic: Helen Nöe (1954), Nils Büttner (2000), and Volker Plagemann (2002). She then asserts that their work leaves the need for a study like hers “still pending” (13). In light of her book’s sweeping scope, such an opening salvo may seem dubious. After all, it will ultimately find its place alongside Nicole Dacos’s life’s work of pioneering overviews of the field. The first of these, Peintres Belge à Rome, dates back to the mid-1960s. From the 1990s until her death in 2014, Dacos probed the field with sustained vigor. Her Fiamminghi à Roma project produced an exhibition and catalogue in 1995 and conference proceedings two years later. Both books feature essays by leading lights of the field, exploring a range of topics. These include not only analyses of travel to Italy, but also specific aspects of some artists’ oeuvres, for example, the teaching function of Hans Speckaert’s Roman drawings, Rubens’s debt to the Netherlanders who preceded him to Rome, and the importance of North-South exchange for other major artistic centers, Fontainebleau and Umbria. With Roma Quanta Fuit (1997, French; 2004, Italian) Dacos updated her thinking by compiling findings she had published in articles during the 1990s. Her final contribution, 2012’s Voyage à Rome, identified the hands of Netherlanders in works overseen by Italian masters, explored artists whose Roman sojourns have traditionally been in doubt (e.g., Pieter Aertsen), and charted productions by French and Spanish artists in the Eternal City.
The problem with Dacos’s books – and the one under review here – is inherent in their generalist framework, which awkwardly oscillates between the universal and the particular. Surveying the artistic pilgrimage to Rome, North-South exchange, Roman “influence,” and Netherlandish antiquarianism as interrelated phenomena with a multitude of actors engaged in a long century’s worth of production remains an organizational endeavor serving a grand narrative. Such broad scope allows for little more than superficial skipping across any single artist’s oeuvre. Even though Peintres Belge and Roma Quanta Fuit assess one artist per chapter, neither analyzes more than around ten works each. Accordingly, such overviews tend to falsely reify an established “North-South canon.” These studies also inadvertently present Rome myopically, as an art academy serving its visitors’ antiquarian ambitions. Reform, Counter-Reform, and other turbulent political machinations receive insufficient elaboration as important contexts that evolved antiquity’s status and the parameters within which artists worked. In privileging Rome, significant Netherlanders who labored elsewhere in Italy are also undersold or ignored. Likewise, the Netherlander’s critical revisions of antiquity receive anemic consideration. Thus, arguments and conclusions are either safe, disingenuous, or tenuous.
Nevertheless, we need to periodically reassess the broad view on this sea-changing artistic phenomenon. A veritable deluge of articles has led to monographs on Netherlanders drawn into the Roman ambient, so the time is ripe for revisiting the topic writ large. Books on Jan Gossart by Maryan Ainsworth and Marisa Bass (2010 and 2016, respectively), Koenraad Jonckheere’s book on Michiel Coxcie (2013), books on Bruegel and antiquity by Gerald Volker Grimm (2009), Margaret Sullivan (2010), Todd Richardson (2011), Claudia Goldstein (2013), and Stephanie Porras (2016), an exhibition catalogue on Hieronymus Cock by Joris van Grieken, an extensive exploration of Frans Floris by Ed Wouk (2018), and two books about Maarten van Heemskerck – on his Roman ruinscapes by the present reviewer (2019) and more holistically by Tatjana Bartsch (2019) – are just some of the recent contributions by a cohort that doubtless has more to say. Harnack incorporates many of these works into hers, but not all. Others postdate her publication.
While Harnack brings some fresh insights to her topic, she cannot avoid some of the pitfalls inherent in her wide-angle approach. Chapter divisions mimic the stages of the Roman sojourn. After exploring the impetus for artistic travel, Harnack elaborates the Netherlander’s Roman experience, including drawings as memory devices, prints all’antica, the importation northward of knowledge gained in Italy, and Northern antiquarianism. Chapter One’s argument carries forward to subsequent chapters; the Netherlandish artist’s Roman sojourn was never really without some patronal impetus. Although this assumption is questionable in particular cases, Harnack is right to foreground patronage. With a few notable exceptions, patronal desire remains a spotty aspect of North-South studies. Her lengthy excursus on the functions of Roman drawings is the first to highlight inscriptions as evidence for their use as display pieces aggrandizing patronal taste before audiences of peers and rivals. A short section on Rome’s “personal networks” does not cite Kathleen Christian’s (2012) elaboration of Heemskerck’s collection drawings as the product of a friendship network. However, other small sections address the religious climate for Netherlanders in Rome and the art collections they amassed there; such topics tantalize with suggestions inviting future elaborations. Although Harnack occasionally mentions a non-Netherlandish, non-Roman situation to support a point – for example, Jean Perreal de Paris’s time in Milan at Louis XII’s behest – the Roman experience receives portrayals that are perhaps too insular. This is especially true for an artist such as Jan van Scorel, whose extensive travels elsewhere doubtless influenced his artistry and career trajectory. Harnack’s thematic structure and her determination to engage previous scholarship dictates her use of the usual hallmark artworks we are accustomed to seeing in North-South discussions. However, she does expand the canon with extended analyses of rarely discussed prints by Cornelis Cort and Cornelis Bos, and paintings by Hendrick van Cleve.
De Gruyter’s production values are somewhat lacking; images are too few and most appear in black and white. The book’s seven color plates, however, are well chosen. Harnack’s writing is clear, direct, and jargon free. Her arguments are carefully researched, succinct, and well organized. We should applaud her for tackling a complex topic and for crafting a book that will serve as a quality introduction for anyone looking to familiarize themselves with its key players and fundamental questions.
Arthur J. DiFuria
Savannah College of Art and Design