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Rules of Engagement: Art, Commerce, and Diplomacy in Golden Age Antwerp, 1500–1576

Jessica Stevenson Stewart [University of California, Berkeley]
Robert H. and Clarice Smith Fellow, 2013–2014

An epigraph reproduced in an engraving of 1567 depicting the Antwerp Stock Exchange was originally displayed near the building’s entryway. The dedicatory inscription proclaimed that Antwerpeners “erected this structure . . . for the use of merchants of all nations and languages.” In championing the structure as an achievement of civic patronage and as the hearth of the city’s commercial cosmopolitanism, the text refers to the exchange’s incorporative function. Commissioned as an illustration for Lodovico Guicciardini’s Descrittione di tutti i Paesi Bassi (Antwerp, 1567), the propagandistic value of which had also compelled the benefaction of the Antwerp city council, the engraving promoted the exchange to foreign audiences as an architectural and a financial innovation.


Pieter van der Borcht, The New Exchange in Antwerp, 1567. Foto Marburg / Art Resource, NY

The establishment of the exchange and the city’s sponsorship of Guicciardini’s text stand as important moments in the evolution of Antwerp’s self-fashioning as a worldly metropolis, a theme that is more fully explored in the first chapter of my dissertation. Antwerp’s success as an international hub during its so-called golden age depended not only on sustaining the diversity of its trading partners, but also on the city’s manifold efforts to forge an inclusive, outward-looking civic culture. The first chapter offers an interpretation of how the city and its residents developed strategies for containing the heterogeneity of the very merchants who contributed to the vitality and commercial prosperity of the city. Providing a cultural analysis of two different types of civic ritual, the chapter considers the exceptional involvement of foreign merchants in the production of urban ceremonies. As these were occasions when merchants acted as corporate entities, this analysis illuminates certain communal contexts of patronage that informed civic identity in Antwerp, setting the stage for later chapters that focus on individual foreign merchants.

The journal and the paintings collection of Lucas Rem (1481–1541), a south German financier, is the subject of the second chapter, “Portals.” Between 1508 and 1532 Rem resided for various lengths of time in Antwerp, where he purchased at least four landscapes by Joachim Patinir (c. 1485–1524) and an altarpiece from Quentin Massys (1466–1529). As a merchant and agent for the Welser family, Rem principally traveled the overland routes that connected regional mining operations to port cities, but he also completed several pilgrimages during his lifetime. Physically weakened by his travels, Rem frequented thermal spas to convalesce. In distinguishing qualitatively between these different journeys, my chapter ascribes visual and intellectual value to Rem’s commercial, religious, and therapeutic experiences of landscapes. Having discovered that Rem inherited an operational mine, I attempt to make both the religious folklore of mining regions and the methods of reading and assessing the significance of landscapes expressed in mining, alchemical, and balneological texts important to Rem’s reception of paintings by Antwerp artists.

The third chapter, “Orbs,” presents an analysis of the collecting practices of Portuguese merchants in Antwerp, focusing on the art collection and writings of Damião de Góis (1502–1574). While serving as treasurer of the Portuguese factory in Antwerp (1523–1545), Góis oversaw several iconologically unique commissions, including an illuminated royal genealogy and the cosmographically complex tapestry series The Spheres. Góis amassed an important personal collection, which included works by Bosch, Massys, and Simon Bening (c. 1493–1561). Because Góis was deeply engaged in theorizing overseas expansion, discoveries, and cross-cultural contacts, the chapter situates his personal collection and his activities as an art agent within broader networks of exchange, considering how the art of Antwerp factored into the material practices of diplomatic gifting and missiological pedagogy.

“Movable Walls,” the fourth chapter, treats the textile export business of English merchants, the Gresham family. In addition to commissioning portraits and other luxuries in Antwerp, the Greshams devised a London exchange after the Antwerp model, importing Flemish materials and laborers across the Channel for the project. Constructed in 1566, the Royal Exchange represented an important moment in the transmission of architectural and financial knowledge from the Low Countries to England. Drawing parallels between the trade in textiles and that in tapestries, the chapter argues that the rationalization of the financial transactional space of the Royal Exchange according to proportional harmonies meaningfully corresponded to the function of the building and to the quantitative business of the merchants who used it. This chapter thus considers how material connoisseurship and the marketing of cloth fostered specific kinds of spatial and mathematical knowledge, and how architectural and decorative ideas migrated with printed texts and monumental textiles.

Underlying the inquiry that draws my dissertation together is an interest in exploring the incipient topologies of mobility that shaped representations of Antwerp as a city of commerce. From the experience of travel as a form of sociospatial connectivity to the transcultural communicativeness of works of art produced in Antwerp, the topologies investigated are not mathematical or geometrical, but cultural. The topological aspects of travel are not fully developed in the writings of the early modern merchant protagonists of my dissertation, but Antwerp artists gave discernible visual form to various emerging world pictures as well as to the commercial and cultural mobility that was reshaping their city. Thus one of my overarching theses is that the responsiveness of Antwerp artists to the transformational dynamics of global trade engaged foreign merchants as patrons, offering the merchants alternative ways of imagining or perceiving their experiences of both spaces and places.