I’m just back from a couple of days in Leuven. I was in Belgium to see a couple of things, but the main purpose of my trip was to see the new show recently opened at M van Museum Leuven called Hieronymus Cock: The Renaissance in Print.
This exhibition focuses on the activities of Hieronymus Cock and Volcxken Dierix, who, together as man and wife, established the hugely successful print shop “Aux Quatre Vents” (At the Sign of the Four Winds) in Antwerp in 1548. This exhibition is the first in over 25 years to be devoted to their publishing house. Its relevance to me is that although Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1526-69), whose art forms the focus of my PhD, is famous mostly to us because of his paintings, it seems to be the case that the fame Bruegel enjoyed during his own lifetime depended largely on the prints that he designed for the open market. Of these, the lion’s share came out from Aux Quatre Vents.
The show is arranged thematically, with each theme exploring one particular aspect of Cock’s and Volcxken’s broad and far reaching interests. The first three rooms (“Roman Ruins and the Allure of Antiquity”, “Italy on the Banks of the Scheldt”, and “Hieronymus Cock and the Italianists”), however, are dedicated to show’s main aim: to consider how Aux Quatre Vents functioned as a conduit for the spread of the Italian “High Renaissance” into the North.
By the mid-1500s when Aux Quatre Vents opened, it had become quite customary for Netherlandish artists to go off on their own travels to Italy. Artists headed specifically for Rome, to study its plentiful antiquities and modern artistic monuments like Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling. Bruegel is here no exception, since he spent a number of years travelling around Italy between 1552 and ’55. The output of Aux Quatre Vents, however, satisfied the desires of those northerners who couldn’t cross the Alps for themselves, had no obvious need to go, or, indeed, desire, given the well-known dangers posed by such an arduous schlep southwards.
The first three rooms really do testify to the vogue for all things Italian, old and new, in Antwerp at the time. Highlights include the monumental monograph published in 1551 on the Baths of Diocletian, the very first published architectural monograph of its kind, which is staggering for both its physical size and its visual richness. Another is the engraved reproduction of Raphael’s frescoed School of Athens inside the Vatican Palace, which Raphael painted between 1509 and ’11. This engraving was done by the Italian Giogrio Ghisi and was published by Cock and Volcxken in 1550, the very year that they managed to persuade Ghisi to move to Antwerp and work for them, reproducing contemporary Italian art like Raphael’s and revolutionising engraving techniques in Antwerp at the same time.
Ghisi (engraver) and Cock (publisher) after Raphael, School of Athens
This endeavouring to make available notable contemporary Italian art by utilising the skills of the best engravers like Ghisi demonstrates Cock’s and Volxcken’s dedication to both furthering local art according to the Italian example, and their unwavering concern for the supreme quality of their prints. The proliferation of Italian art from the publishing house bears witness to the great interest among Netherlandish artists, critics and patrons alike for innovations happening in art south of the Alps. One manifestation of this was the development of so-called Antwerp Romanism that is the focus of the the room “Hieronymus Cock and the Italianists”. Here, art by northern artists like Frans Floris is showcased, whose art was fundamentally affected by the Italian example, which it emulated, and was likewise disseminated in print from Aux Quatre Vents. Thus it’s clear from the first couple of rooms the extent to which Cock’s and Volxcken’s house functioned as both an agent and a symptom of the vogue for Italy in the Netherlands in mid-century.
The show’s definition of “Renaissance”, however, encompasses more than just the Italian and the Italianate. A particularly successful part of the exhibition is the way it makes clear the extent to which Aux Quatre Vents also played a hugely important role in the development of a native, “Netherlandish Renaissance”. Cock and Volcxken were obviously keen to champion local art from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Aux Quatre Vents published reproductions of many famous pictures by notable Netherlanders, such as Rogier van der Weyden’s hugely-famous Descent from the Cross, of around 1435, which came out as a print in 1565 and is on display in the room “Bosch, Bruegel and the Netherlandish Tradition”. At some point, Cock also dreamed-up his “Book of Painters”: a collection of portraits of famous northern artists including Rogier and Jan van Eyck that were appended with eulogies written by the humanist Domenicus Lampsonius. This project was actually realised and published in 1572 by Volcxken following the death of Cock in 1570 and some of these laudatory pages, including the one on Bruegel, are displayed.
Cornelis Cort and Hieronymus Cock (pub.) (after Rogier van der Weyden), Descent from the Cross, 1565,
Johannes Wiericx (attr. to) and Volcxken Dierckx (pub.), Petro Brvegel, Pictori, engraving from Domenicus Lampsonius, Pictorum aliquot celebrium Germaniae inferioris effigies, 1572
The due prominence that the show gives to Volcxken is commendable. The lives and activities of successful women from this period have too-often remained obscure. In art historical discourse in particular, it’s only over the last couple of decades or so that women artists and entrepreneurs have been recuperated from their gender-based oblivion. This show’s emphasis on Volcxken is a manifestation of this shift, and rightly so – Volcxken did after all continue to oversee Aux Quatre Vents for some 30 successful years following her husband’s death.
Bruegel comes into his own in the previously mentioned room “Bosch, Bruegel and the Netherlandish Tradition” as well as “Vice and Virtue” and “Visualising the World”. In “Vice and Virtue”, Bruegel’s famed Seven Deadly Sins series, published 1558, and the Seven Virtues, of about the same time, are exhibited. Conceived entirely in the idiom of Bosch and intended to provide moral instruction, both these demonstrate how the visual vocabulary used by fifteenth-century artists and its attendant didactic purchase didn’t simply die-out with the onslaught of the Italianate. Some of Bruegel’s preparatory drawings for the Sins and Virtues are also on display, such as the drawing for Gluttony from the Seven Sins. Examination of this in the real shows how Bruegel put every effort into his designs, giving the engraver little or no scope to deviate from his supremely-detailed drawings. The ball, however, was not always in Bruegel’s court. In “Bosch, Bruegel and the Netherlandish Tradition” the famous Big Fish Eat the Little Ones is exhibited, published by Aux Quatre Vents in 1558 and signed ‘Hieronijmus Bos inuentor’, which is to say “Bosch designed this image”. Curiously, however, we know this to be a false claim, since the preparatory drawing for this engraving has survived, which is signed “brueghel” (how Bruegel spelled his name until about 1559 when he dropped the “h“) and is dated 1556. By substituting Bruegel’s name for Bosch’s, Cock and Volcxken clearly intended to profit from the cache afforded by Bosch’s Europe-wide fame at a time when Bruegel’s own reputation was still in its ascendancy. As such, this print represents not only the fashion for Bosch on the art market in Antwerp in the 1550s, but also points clearly to Cock’s and Volcxken’s commercial savvy and wily market strategies, who attached famous names to their prints to ensure saleability.
Pieter van der Heyden (engraver), Cock (pub.), after Bruegel, Big Fish Eat the Little Ones, 1557
“Visualising the World” is given over to landscape, which was emerging as a legitimate category in art, in and of itself, at exactly the time of Aux Quatre Vents’s establishment. Here, Bruegel’s idiosyncratic response to the Italian sojourn is given due recognition. Most artists went off to Italy and absorbed the Italian style, which subsequently suffuses their art (do a Google image search for Frans Floris’s Rebel Angels!). Bruegel, however, took away something different. Sure, he must have seen a lot of things from Antiquity when in Rome, ditto the art of Michelangelo, Raphael etc. But he was clearly most taken with the Alpine landscape that he probably saw, and drew, on his way back up to the Netherlands in 1554-55. And on his return to Antwerp, he invented several large-scale Alpine-inspired compositions that were published by Cock immediately upon Bruegel’s return in 1555 as the Large Landscapes. The impact these had on Netherlandish art and the development of landscape as an independent genre in art cannot be overestimated.
Overall, this exhibition gives a comprehensive account of the output of Aux Quatre Vents and its impact in the course of Netherlandish art from the mid-1500s on. Navigating the exhibition is easy. You’re guided along the way by blurbs on the wall that explain each of these themes under consideration. These are also reproduced in the handy (and free!) walking guide, which also contains captions to each of the exhibits. The handbook also tops and tails the exhibition by giving some introductory remarks about the establishment of Aux Quatre Vents, the cultural and economic ferment that Antwerp was in the 1550s, as well as explaining relevant issues including what kinds of copyright laws did, or rather, didn’t, exist in the sixteenth century. All this and more is examined to greater depth in the accompanying catalogue edited by Joris Van Grieken, Ger Luijten and Jan Van der Stock, which, although a bit of a tome, is sumptuously illustrated and available for a discounted price from the Museum shop.
Hieronymus Cock: The Renaissance in Print is on at Leuven until the 9th June before travelling to Paris’s Institut Néerlandais where it will be on show from 18th September to 15th December.