In a recent discussion of Flemish art dealers and agents who were active in seventeenth-century Italy, Isabella Cecchini claimed that scholars have paid far more attention to the presence of these foreign traders in Venice than in Milan or Genoa. Be that as it may, Cecchini’s claim now looks a great deal less convincing following the publication of Alison Stoesser’s comprehensive and original study of the careers of Lucas and Cornelis de Wael, two brothers from Antwerp whose activities were largely routed through Genoa during the first half of this period.
The commercial interests of these two men ranged from painting pictures for a range of collectors in Italy (and further afield) to the import and export of religious books, devotional prints, lace, animal hides, parmesan cheese, candied fruits, second-hand clothes, furniture, glass, pigments (particularly ultramarine), picture frames, and even lutestrings. Indeed, they were the men to go to if you wanted such splendid luxury items as “stucci di fiandra” (also called astucci) which were boxes made of tortoiseshell or leather with silver mounts. Not least they arranged letters of credit for friends, family and business associates who were traveling abroad, such as members of the St. Andrieskerk in Antwerp to which Lucas was affiliated. It follows that the brothers had fingers in many pies and knew all and sundry. But, to return to Cecchini’s point, this activity was essentially a tale of three cities: Antwerp, Genoa and Rome, and – though the interconnections between these trading centers will come as no surprise – Venice plays no part in Stoesser’s narrative.
The main title of the book, however, is a little misleading, though the sub-title is more true to the range of materials it contains. It is ironic that the De Waels may be best known today (in some circles at least) as friends of Anthony van Dyck and his occasional hosts in Genoa. For example, Cornelis de Wael is only mentioned twice, briefly, in Hans Vlieghe’s magisterial Flemish Art and Architecture 1585-1700, and both times in the same breath as Van Dyck (nor, to add insult to injury, did Vlieghe illustrate a single work by De Wael). Stoesser’s book certainly offers insights into the social and economic world in which Van Dyck operated, specifically the network of artists and agents that connected Flanders and Italy like a spider’s web, but it turns out that he played a relatively small role in the brothers’ achievements. The De Waels did a great deal to facilitate the careers of many more artists than Van Dyck who passed through the doors of their casa aperta, and who included such intriguing and little-known figures as Andries van Eertvelt and Vincent Malò – little-known, that is, until Stoesser set to work.
Lucas returned to Antwerp in 1627 in what was clearly a business decision to control the two ends of their operations. He then more or less gave up painting, and it is hard to supress a smile on discovering that a key work attributed to him in a pioneering essay by Wilhelm Suida of 1958, is, according to Stoesser, more plausibly by Johannes Lingelbach. Lucas turns out to be more significant as a merchant, though Stoesser assembles evidence that he remained in close contact with other Flemish artists during his later years, among them Jan Brueghel I, but more as a dealer than collaborator. Lucas’s return to Antwerp led to the brothers becoming deeply involved in the export of devotional engravings and, in particular, books from the Officina Plantiniana, working in close partnership with Baltasar Moretus II. By 1634 Lucas was ordering no less than 50 breviaries, 70 diurnals and 100 books of hours for the Italian market – a trade that clearly gained momentum. The choice of editions and the likely readership throws a great deal of light on the international reach of religious publishing in Antwerp.
Stoesser’s focus on the brothers as artists therefore falls on the more productive of the two, Cornelis, who left Genoa in 1656 for Rome where he remained intermittently and where he died in 1667, securely established as an artist of repute in his adopted country. Stoesser shows that his body of work was part of an international taste for picturesque scenes of everyday life, often depicting the lives of sailors and slaves, naval battles, military skirmishes, and the vicissitudes of travellers who were sometimes represented as destitute and poor. He seems to have generally avoided religious subjects, although his images of the blind and of beggars – in particular the print series dedicated to Hendrik Muilman, consul for the Dutch and Flemish nation in Genoa – may have been intended to inspire charity, as the dedication for the series makes clear. Such subjects could be morally instructive but they also provided visual entertainment, a mix that can also be found in Cornelis’s painted series devoted to the Seven Acts of Mercy, and, in a slightly different way, in his treatments of the parable of the Prodigal Son – both painted and etched – as a series of separate episodes. In this respect there are parallels with the taste for charitable subjects in Seville, a city that had close trading links with Genoa, but Stoesser considers any links with Sevillian artists, notably Murillo, as more to do with the influence of Cornelis’s prints than part of a similar – and connected – social and trade milieu.
In an interesting footnote (p. 260, note 55) – one of many that contain valuable supplementary material and food for thought – Stoesser discusses the now conventional idea that subject matter of military encampments and the life of soldiers was transmitted from the Northern to the Southern Netherlands and she questions whether this idea still holds good. At any rate, Cornelis’s choice of subject matter is illuminated by relating it to the Italian context than his country of origin, and Stoesser connects his work to that of a very diverse range of non-Flemish artists such as Michelangelo Cerquozzi, Stefano della Bella, and Jacques Courtois, among others. Not least, she establishes links – particularly through Cornelis’s activities as an art dealer – with Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa. Stoesser shows that Cornelis sent works by Claude and Courtois to the dealer Matthijs Musson and the Dean of Antwerp Cathedral, Hendik van Halmale. Interestingly, she discovers that after moving to Rome Cornelis collaborated with Angeluccio, Claude’s pupil, and with the Roman landscape painter Crescenzio Onofrio in works recorded in the possession of Cardinals Azzolino and Sacchetti no less. From this very thorough exploration of Cornelis’s myriad activities he emerges as far from the marginal figure that some might have supposed and very much at the center of things, even if he never trod on the toes of Italian artists who pursued the lucrative altarpiece business.
Stoesser’s work is based on a fundamental and wide-reaching archival research. About a third of the first volume (of two) is taken up by source material published in a series of appendices containing the earliest biographies, transcriptions of documents, many from the Archivio di Stato di Genova and the Archivio di Stato di Roma (though she has in fact searched far more widely than this), and extensive material from the Moretus archives that underpins her account of the brothers’ involvement in the book trade, already mentioned. Among other things, Stoesser has gone back to a ledger of transactions between Cornelis and Musson dating from 1661–67, previously published incompletely by Denucé, and has filled in significant sections that he omitted. This is barely to scratch the surface of her very productive work in the archives.
In itself this book is not a thing of beauty, but it does compress a long and complex text into a surprisingly readable format. I would have preferred, though, not to have put the lists of abbreviations, currencies and units of measurement at the end of the documentary section in Appendix F. This material would be more useful for the reader earlier, perhaps after the preface, since it feeds into the text very broadly. It would also have been better not to present the endnotes as one solid and very dense block, rather than following the sections to which they relate, and without any headers to guide the reader to (and from) the corresponding pages in the main text. It is also open to debate whether a print vehicle for a complete catalogue of works of art is justifiable in the digital age. Publication online would certainly have allowed better, high resolution illustrations, and the flexibility to revise and enlarge the entries when new discoveries are made. But, to my surprise, I was converted by the compact format which is far more user-friendly than might be expected, largely due to Stoesser’s tight editing, clear structure, and the precision and coherence of her thought.
In some ways Stoesser’s book looks like a traditional art history monograph, containing the life and times of its protagonists and the reconstruction of a corpus of their works, securely based on archival material and rigorous connoisseurship. But, though it is all these things, the book offers much more. It is a major contribution to understanding the visual and material cultures of Early Modern Europe. Not only historians of art, but economic and even social historians are going to find much food for thought in this tenacious investigation. It is, without question, one of the most distinguished contributions to the Pictura Nova series to date, a series that in recent years has published a number of books with limited commercial appeal but disproportionate impact for our knowledge of Northern European art.
Emeritus Professor of History of Art
University of Nottingham
 Isabella Cecchini, “Going South. The space for Flemish art dealers in seventeenth-century Northern Italy,” in: Moving Pictures. Intra-European Trade in Images, 16th-18th Centuries (Studies in European Urban History, 34), ed. Sophie Raux and Neil De Marchi, Turnhout: Brepols, 2014, p. 205