This first volume in the new Brepols Early Modern Cultural Studies series centers on the extraterritorial career of an individual Netherlandish artist, Willem van den Blocke, in order to offer larger insights into patterns of artistic mobility and cultural transfer in the Baltic Sea region. Primarily working in Danzig (Gdansk) from 1582–1620, Van den Blocke executed a series of sculpted sepulchral effigies for royal patrons in Prussia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Skibiński situates Van den Blocke’s sculpted works as part of the second generation of Netherlandish itinerant artists that brought classical ‘idioms’ from the Low Countries, to the eastern Baltic.
While the scope of the monograph focuses on a single artist as agent, the book’s wider contribution examines the institutional mechanisms that facilitated cultural transfer across northern Europe. Wielding archival evidence and close visual analysis, Skibiński unveils the economic and cultural networks of artists and patrons, including: familial and workshop training; the collaborative labor of large-scale sculptural commissions within the guild system; and the logistics of stone trade from Baltic islands to the workshop. Skibiński strives to present the mobility of Van den Blocke in active terms, repeatedly employing nouns that signal the dynamic processes of mobility and exchange, such as ‘adaptation’, ‘assimilation’, ‘dissemination’, ‘interaction’, ‘migration’, ‘networking’, ‘profusion’, and ‘transformation’. In so doing, the author avoids the passive, one-directional models of a periphery’s reception, influence, and importation of Netherlandish art, to position the Baltic instead as an early modern European center.
The monograph unfolds over seven chapters, weaving together artistic biography, local eastern Baltic histories, and transcultural mobility. The first chapter frames the Baltic arena as a network comprised of Netherlandish artists and elite patrons. This introductory chapter lays the groundwork for the book’s approach to network and mobility of artists, both in the short and long terms, further dispersed with specific examples of network connections between Van den Blocke and established artists from the Low Countries in the region.
The second chapter centers on the artistic biography of Van den Blocke, accompanied by several full-page illustrations, referenced in later parts of the book. Skibiński traces the artist’s training in Antwerp, service to the Dukes of Prussia, commission for the King of Poland, and establishment of his workshop in Danzig until 1619. The chapter lists multiple artists, patrons, and geographic places to delineate geographic relocation and social relationships that define a network. The text can bog down beneath the major names and places of the early modern eastern Baltic, yet here the scrupulously presented research from archival documentation builds up the book’s larger argument about the complex web of cultural connections between the Low Countries and eastern Baltic in subsequent chapters.
Chapter Three turns its attention to elite patrons as ‘agents’ of artistic change. Reconstructing Van den Blocke’s commissions links the artist to the Polish, Swedish, Prussian, and Hungarian nobility. Skibiński attends to local regions to draw distinct patterns within Baltic patronage. For instance, the author argues that Van den Blocke, as the first non-Italian artist employed by the Polish court, introduced the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to new artistic impulses from the Low Country.
The fourth chapter examines the Van den Blocke’s workshop in Danzig, which specialized in tombs, comprised of architectural, figural, and ornamental carvings. This chapter’s coverage of sourcing Gotland stone and collaborative workshop labor draws upon the book’s larger approach to networks. Skibiński also confronts attribution studies in order to break down the workshop organization of multiple hands involved in large-scale commissions.
The following chapters closely analyze the ‘Corpus’ of Van den Blocke, first on architecture and ornament (Chapter Five), then on figural sculpture (Chapter Six). Skibiński sketches a formula for cultural translation: Van den Blocke transformed the classical artistic language from the Low Countries, especially his presumed training in the Cornelis Floris workshop, in combination with the artist’s familiarity with local sculpture, made by Italian artists working in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He could thus cater his commissions to a culturally diverse Baltic clientele. Focusing on different elements of the artist’s sepulchral effigies across two chapters, Skibiński provides detailed analyses of Van den Blocke’s image sources and his inspiration from varied media, ranging across prints, painting, and sculpture.
The final chapter departs from Van den Blocke to address the lasting influence of Netherlandish artists on the wider Baltic artistic landscape, including the artist’s immediate successor, his son, Abraham van den Blocke. Skibiński ultimately concludes by claiming that the Baltic region served as a “laboratory” between the Low Countries and other parts of the continent (p. 266).
Van den Blocke’s itinerant career from Antwerp to Danzig certainly lends itself to consideration of the geographic reach of Netherlandish sculpture and sculptors. In making swaths of archival material and historical analysis available to English-speaking audiences, the book suggests possible larger conclusions about sea-trade networks and the status of art in the Baltic after the Reformation. Skibiński’s focus on nobility opens up further questions about the patronage of Netherlandish art by the mercantile class, beyond his limited references to the “civic elites” of Danzig, Elbag, and Toruń. Another avenue that Skibiński gestures to, but does not explore fully, is the exchange between workshops in the Baltic region, such as Gert van Egen in Denmark and Van den Blocke in Danzig (p. 208). Along with the recently published book by Kristoffer Neville, The Art and Culture of Scandinavian Central Europe, 1550–1720 (Penn State Press, 2019), Skibiński’s monograph emphasizes a more vast artistic geography of early modern Europe. Willem van den Blocke will undoubtedly fuel future research on shared artistic exchange in the Baltic Sea region.
Norwegian University of Science and Technology