Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 28, 2016
Christina M. Anderson The Flemish Merchant of Venice: Daniel Nijs and the Sale of the Gonzaga Art Collection New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. 256 pp.; 40 color ills.; 15 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300209686)
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Art historians have long known Daniel Nijs (or Nys) as the merchant who arranged the sale of a large part of the collection of the dukes of Mantua to Charles I of England in the single “greatest art deal of the seventeenth century” (1). Although documents relating to the transaction were published long ago by Noel Sainsbury and Alessandro Luzio, Nijs himself has remained a fairly obscure figure. Based on a fresh examination of manuscript sources, Christina M. Anderson’s The Flemish Merchant of Venice: Daniel Nijs and the Sale of the Gonzaga Art Collection is the first to examine his entire career and its immediate contexts. In addition to providing a rounded portrait of its protagonist, it largely succeeds in its goal of shedding light on “diplomacy, travel, communication, collecting, sociability and the background of warfare during” the early seventeenth century (1), and more especially on relationships between diplomacy, luxury trade, and the arts.

The survival of a remarkable family chronicle allows Anderson to begin her account with the story of Nijs’s ancestors, who had migrated from Silesia to France in the fourteenth century before settling in the Netherlands. After converting to Calvinism, Nijs’s father, Philip, had to leave his residence in Antwerp for exile in Wesel, although he later returned to the Habsburg Netherlands, practicing religion secretly and suffering a spell of imprisonment after being discovered. In 1596, Nijs moved to Venice to begin his career in trade. He retained his father’s Calvinism and had numerous ties to other Calvinist exiles, as well as to a branch of the family that had remained in Antwerp as successful merchants. In Venice, Nijs originally worked for another family of Flemish exiles, the Gabry, whose business extended from the Mediterranean through Germany to the Baltic. This allowed him to establish an additional set of business contacts, which he further extended by marrying Cecile Muysson of Amsterdam in 1612. By this date he had begun trading on his own in luxury textiles, spices, dies, pigments, and other luxury commodities, while also acting as a banker. He grew wealthy enough to contribute the equivalent of £40,000 sterling to the Venetian war against Friuli in 1615; ten years later he purchased and began to develop the island of Cavallino, in the northeast corner of the lagoon. Through his trade in luxury items and money lending, he began to establish relations with patrician families in Venice and elsewhere.

As he prospered, Nijs acquired a fine collection of antiquities, gems, and paintings, praised by the architect Vincenzo Scamozzi (who had recently borrowed money from him) in L’idea dell’architettura universale (1615) and by the poet Giulio Cesare Gigli. Like many other Venetian collections, Nijs’s was open to artists and cognoscenti; its visitors included the Dutch ambassador to Venice, François van Aerssen, Constantijn Huygens, and Anthony van Dyck. Nijs became a friend and patron of several writers and artists, including Paolo Sarpi, who according to one report led an academy that met at the merchant’s house. Nijs also developed relationships with prominent English visitors, including the diplomats Henry Wotton, Dudley Carleton, and Isaac Wake, who sometimes acted as purchasing agents for their patrons in London. He helped Carleton acquire a number of paintings and ancient statues for James I’s favorite, Robert Carr earl of Somerset. As Anderson comments, Nijs was evidently adept at cultivating ties to people of wealth and influence, to whom he not only lent money and sold goods, but supplied news and offered other services, including assistance in purchasing art. Since a number of Venetian collections were coming onto the market in the period, he was well-positioned to act as a broker for English collectors.

Anderson’s review of Nijs’s multifaceted career provides the foundation for her central chapter on the Mantuan sale. She argues that he was “not only the likely instigator of the transaction but also its executor and financier, providing an example of the broker playing a principle role in this important episode in the history of collecting” (116). The Gonzaga dynasty of Mantua had gradually acquired an exceptionally fine collection from the late fifteenth century, although the crucial reigns were those of Guglielmo, who acquired a number of ancient statues and Venetian paintings, and even more his successors, Vincenzo I and Ferdinando. Vincenzo traveled throughout Europe acquiring art, while patronizing Frans Pourbus and Peter Paul Rubens. Although a less active collector, Ferdinando “had a passion for categorizing and cataloging and may be described as more systematic in his acquisitions” (118). He displayed only what he considered his best works, putting a number of paintings into storage.

It is not clear how the famous sale originated, but Anderson concludes that it probably resulted from “a confluence of factors” that began playing out in June 1625, when the newly crowned Charles I sent an agent, Nicholas Lanier, to Italy to acquire art. Lanier’s purpose was kept secret, to avoid inflating prices by tipping off sellers that a king had entered the market. There is no evidence that Lanier had any specific targets in mind but somebody—probably the English ambassador to Venice, Isaac Wake—directed him to contact Nijs, who promptly agreed to lodge the Englishman in his house. Anderson suggests that Lanier now saw an opportunity. His role in supplying the Gonzaga with jewels and other luxuries over the years gave him an entrée and may also have made him aware that the dynasty was heavily indebted and so potentially receptive to an offer to sell paintings and sculpture. He provided Lanier with a letter of introduction to Ferdinando, and Lanier returned from Mantua brimming with enthusiasm.

At this point, Anderson believes, Nijs, perhaps in consultation with Lanier, probably devised a plan to purchase a large number of Mantuan paintings on Charles’s behalf. In January 1627, the painter Filippo Esengren was dispatched to inspect the Mantuan collection and commence detailed negotiations. Esengren returned with a list of paintings the Gonzaga were prepared to sell and a second list of additional works for which Nijs might want to put in a bid. Several rounds of hard bargaining ensued with the Mantuan Chancellor, Alessandro Striggio, over prices and the contents of the sale, before Nijs finally consummated the deal in late August by agreeing to pay Ferdinando’s successor, Vicenzo II, 68,000 scudi or about £17,900, for a substantial number of paintings by Renaissance masters. There is no evidence that Charles was consulted during the negotiations or that he approved the sale in advance; Nijs seems to have proceeded on the assumption that the king would approve his bargain.

In fact, he was so confident that he immediately entered into further negotiations to purchase ancient statues and Andrea Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar (1484–92) that had not been included in the original sale for an additional £10,500. Unfortunately Charles had contracted heavy debts fighting wars against France and Spain, and Wake refused to authorize payment for the second purchase without explicit approval from London. Although the English king did ultimately agree to the entire purchase, payments were repeatedly delayed, compounding serious cash-flow problems for Nijs that were probably also caused by his investments in Cavallino and a disruption of trade due to an outbreak of plague. These led to his bankruptcy and the sale of his own collection to satisfy his creditors. Although he eventually managed to clear his debts and resume trading on a reduced scale after moving to London, he never fully recovered. During the last years of his life he attempted to promote a number of projects—for a canal linking a river to the Venetian lagoon; a Spanish-backed coup in Venice; a league between Venice and the Grisons; the agricultural improvement of Istria; and the straightening and beautification of London streets—none of which came to fruition. He died in 1647.

In framing her study Anderson takes issue with a recent emphasis in art-historical scholarship on the role of agents, claiming that the term underestimates the degree of independence a figure like Nijs exhibited. It is not clear that this must be the case, but she certainly does show that in considering the role of agency in the international art market we need to allow for the possibility that agents, intermediaries, or “brokers” (the term she prefers) might sometimes act with considerable freedom and initiative. Even when kings were involved, the key decisions did not necessarily originate at the highest levels of royal courts. Although on occasion Anderson allows the mass of detailed information she has uncovered to obscure the main lines of her argument, on the whole this is a well-written, original, and highly informative study. Its principle audience will probably be art historians interested in seventeenth-century collecting, but it also has implications for studies of luxury trade and consumption and the new history of diplomacy.

R. Malcolm Smuts
Professor Emeritus Department of History, University of Massachusetts Boston

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