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Inventing Newness: Local History and Global Ambitions in the Art and Visual Culture of Early Modern Antwerp, c. 1560–1530

Christine Göttler
, Universität Bern
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow, June 15–August 14, 2013


Jan Brueghel the Elder, Fire, c. 1621. Musée du Louvre / The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY (Alfredo Dagli Orti)

Thanks to its dominant position in Portugal’s sea trade, at the beginning of the sixteenth century Antwerp developed into an international hub of knowledge and commerce. Using the rhetoric of novelty, encomia of the city underscored Antwerp’s interconnectedness with the world (mundus). In his Descrittione di tutti i Paesi Bassi of 1567, the Florentine merchant and humanist Lodovico Guicciardini (1521–1589) described Antwerp as a “world city” where merchants, traders, and highly skilled craftsmen across the arts set the tone and where information and new kinds of mercantile, technological, and craft knowledge were circulated and exchanged. Among the master craftsmen, Guicciardini singled out the painters, commending them as masters of innovation and imitation who epitomized the new virtues and values of the city’s achievements. Similarly, in 1577 the Calvinist city fathers defined Antwerp as “not only the first and principal commercial city of all Europe, but also the source, origin, and storehouse of all goods, riches, and merchandise, and a refuge and nurse of all arts, sciences, nations and virtues.”

Using such eulogies as a point of departure, my book addresses two interrelated sets of questions. First, I investigate imagery that made reference to the idea of Antwerp as a storehouse where goods from all parts of the world were accumulated, traded, and collected. Circulated in European centers of art and exported to overseas markets, these images presented the city as the site of a new collecting culture that embraced old and new worlds and embodied both intellectual curiosity and commercial interests—the new virtues of a globalizing world. Second, I explore how the collecting activities of artists, merchants, and members of the learned elite linked urban spaces with the new maritime and world spaces that Portuguese merchants had helped create and shape. Third, I consider the ways in which Antwerp’s visual arts positioned themselves in relation to other arts and fields of knowledge, both poetry (painting’s traditional sister art) and the newer arts grounded in geometry and mathematics, on the one hand, and medicine and alchemy, on the other.

I am particularly interested in visual representations of spatial environments and physical settings that make reference to the accumulation both of learning and knowledge and of riches and material goods. Among other topics, my project focuses on the following three iconographies and themes.

First, linked with alchemy, the theme of Vulcan’s forge provided an arena where the space of production and the space of display were combined. In the widely disseminated Le imagini degli dei antichi, by Vincenzo Cartari (c. 1531–1569), Vulcan was further identified with “natural and generative warmth” as the necessary foundation of all arts. Remarkably, in Antwerp the first depictions of Vulcan’s forge coincided with the first writings about northern art, thus helping to fashion a northern art and visual culture that intersected with craftsmanship and virtuoso skills. In the early seventeenth century, in several paintings that Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625) executed predominantly for Italian patrons, Vulcan’s forge serves as a site both for the display of artifacts wrought by heat and fire (as they were produced, traded, and collected in Antwerp at the time) and for invention and creation featuring stoves, ovens, and various tools.

Second, most scholarly literature has overlooked the fact that depictions of the five senses in northern art frequently include instruments and mechanisms for the artificial stimulation of the senses—thus in fact evidencing effects on the senses produced by the images themselves. Perhaps the most prominent (but by no means the sole) example is the series The Five Senses (Museo Nacional del Prado) by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), which shows, among other things, the distilling of fragrances and perfumes, the cooking of food, the forging of armor and weapons, and the performance of music.

Finally, as suggested by the earliest responses from both artists and writers to the art of Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450–1516), the images of a continuously metamorphosing nature created by Bosch and his numerous followers may also represent the interior spaces of the artist’s mind. The unprecedented response to Bosch’s art in the decades after his death thus also resonate with period ideas of laboratories of the mind. It is on the basis of these examples and considerations that I hope to shed new light on representations of spaces in which the transformative powers of nature, of various “sciences” and arts, and of the artist’s imagination merge.