Gerson Digital : Italy


1. Tradition and Significance of Trips to Italy

A whole host of Dutch artists made their way to Italy in the course of the 17th century.1 There were certainly more than in the 16th century and, even in relation to the larger number of painters, no fewer than at that time.2 A trip to Italy was an inherent part of a young artist’s education. That was the case in the 16th century and the practice had lost little if any of its significance in the century that followed.3 Commenting on this in his Great Theatre of Dutch Painters Arnold Houbraken wrote: ‘It seems to me as if that century had no esteem for artists unless they had seen Rome. After all, most of the painters of the time who appear in my writings had already been there in their youth’.4 Purchasers of artworks seemed to think along the same lines, as August Terwesten discovered from personal experience: ‘A certain gentleman summoned our painter in order to discuss a work of art he wanted to order from him; then, after some discussion, he asked him if he had already been to Rome. Terwesten was obliged to reply in the negative; immediately after he had said this, he could see that the gentleman thought less of his artistic qualities than before: clearly people can be governed by prejudice’.5

Terwesten’s remarks are confirmed by the relatively high prices buyers were prepared to pay for Italianate landscapes. Were they perhaps willing to compensate artists for the training they had undergone abroad? Their parents sometimes had to pay a high price for such trips. The journey undertaken by the painter, Adriaen Arents Gouda (c. 1628/1629-1667), cost his father 3,000 guilders.6 Dirk Ferreris (1639-1693), on the other hand, was thriftier. He kept the ‘Bent’ at arm’s length, because the ‘Bentvueghels’ (birds of a feather) ‘were usually only intent on spending money’. He got by on 30 guilders a year.7 Abraham Staphorst (c. 1638-after 1671), the son of a predikant (minister of the Dutch Reformed Church), required a larger though not unreasonable sum. After he had learned the basics of painting in Holland his father sent him to Italy, where the exercise of art commanded greater respect. He spent only 110 of his annual grant of 300 guilders, as he knew ‘how to cope adequately and in a rational manner.8

Warning voices drew attention to the perils of a journey to Italy, which occasionally resulted in great hardship or loss of life. One need only recall the fate of Andries Both (1611/12-1642), who drowned in Venice,9 or of the poor devils who were robbed en route. But there was an ulterior motive behind these warnings. A major objective was to address the threat posed by an excessive cult of Italy. Balthazar Gerbier d’Ouvilly (1591-1663) was quite blunt in this respect. What, he asked, was the use of all this travel if an artist had only limited talent? ‘Start out as a donkey and you will probably not return as a horse!’10 Samuel van Hoogstraten warned against blindly copying works by Old Masters. Notwithstanding the reputation they enjoyed, they should be studied ‘with seriousness and a defiant attitude, as it were’.11 Had not Holland’s greatest artists refused to go abroad, after all? Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Johannes Vermeer, Jacob van Ruisdael, Jan Steen and many others never left their native country.12 Constantijn Huygens, however, who knew both Rembrandt and Jan Lievens when they were young artists in Leiden, was convinced that a trip to Italy would have been very salutary for both of them. The excuse the young painters offered was that they were at a key stage in their training and so had no time to travel. Moreover, they could study the best Italian works of art in Holland itself.13 That this was no empty phrase and that Rembrandt had thoroughly assimilated Italian art [1-2] has recently has become increasingly evident as a result of the more thorough examination of his ‘classical style’ that has taken place in recent years.14
The aspirations of the artists who went to Italy were not always focused on the same objectives as those pursued since the time of Jan van Scorel (1595-1562) and Maarten van Heemskerck (1498-1574).15 The study of antiquity remained a crucial part of the education of young travellers to Rome.16 They made drawings of the main ruins and statues of ancient Rome just as their predecessors had done in previous decades. They even ‘discovered’ the catacombs.17 However, the genuine interest in antiquity and archaeology that had been boosted by Heemskerck’s sketchbooks waned during the 17th century. While Heemskerck used a quill to carefully render the contours of the monuments [3], the younger generation preferred brush and ink to capture the atmosphere of the sun-drenched south.18 The Dutch landscape artists who went to Italy in the early part of the century gradually created a romantic image of ancient ruins and devised a kind of urban veduta,19 both of which were largely unknown in Italy.20 They were the outcome of collaboration between Dutchmen, Flemings and the German artist Adam Elsheimer. Dutch artists enjoyed an outstanding reputation as landscape painters. Even Karel van Mander I (1558-1606), who ranked Italian art higher than that of his native country, was obliged to admit that the Italians ‘ons altijts gissen Daer fraey in te zijn’ [always think we excel in that field].21 This is confirmed in the Italian sources, which had sung the praises of Netherlandish landscape painting throughout the 16th century.22 Writing in 1575, Giovanni Maria Cecchi stated that the painters from north of the Alps ‘vagliano più di ogni altra nazione per dipingere paesi ad animali…’ [are better than any other nation in painting landscapes and animals].23

Cover image
Gerard ter Borch (I)
Ruins of the baths of Caracalla in Rome, probably 1609
paper, pen in brown ink 197 x 250 mm
in verso : terme antoniano
Amsterdam, Rijksprentenkabinet, inv./ A 876

Self portrait at the age of 34, dated 1640
canvas, oil paint 91 x 75 cm
lower right : Rembrandt f 1640
London, National Gallery (London), inv./ NG672

Portrait of Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo, c. 1510
canvas, oil paint 81,2 x 66,3 cm
London, National Gallery (London)

Maarten van Heemskerck
Rome, the old St. Peter's and the Vatican Palace, c. 1523-1524
paper, pen in brown ink 275 x 620 mm
Vienna, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, inv./ 3168

Other Dutch painters also achieved a certain renown in Italy. They included Gerard van Honthorst, known as Gherardo delle Notti, Pieter van Laer, known as Bamboccio, and Gaspard van Wittel, known as Vanvitelli. But justice can only be done to the extent of Netherlandish influence if account is also taken of the Flemish artists.24 Seen through Italian eyes, the pittori fiaminghi formed a close-knit group which included both Dutch and Flemish artists.25 The towering figure of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) surpassed all his Netherlandish contemporaries as an artist, collector and antiquarian.26 Immensely productive during the eight years he spent in Italy, his influence was felt for a long time especially in Northern Italy. The style of portrait painting developed by Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) made a lasting impression in Genoa.27 In addition there were Lucas de Wael (1591-1661) and his brother Cornelis de Wael (1592-1667) [4],28 Vincent Malo I (c. 1600-1642)29 and a few others.30 Paul and Matthijs Bril were among the oldest landscape artists in the Netherlandish colony in Rome. Flemish and Dutch artists were to be found in every Italian town as far south as Naples (Abraham Brueghel) and even in Sicily.31 But we will restrict ourselves here to the artists from Holland. As was stated earlier, they made up an impressive number and their presence raises a number of issues, as we shall see.

Anthony van Dyck
Double portrait of the brothers Lucas (1591-1661) and Cornelis (1592-1667) de Wael, painters at Genoa, c. 1622-1624
canvas, oil paint 120 x 101 cm
Rome, Musei Capitolini, inv./ 71

There is a general question which must be addressed at this point. What was it that prompted so many artists to flock to the south in the 17th century? Most of them found enough work there to make a living.32 In some cases they spent many years in succession away from home. So there must have been a certain ‘market’ for their pictures. They were something of a novelty for Italy, the witty, realistic little paintings proving popular among collectors and sometimes even finding their way into distinguished picture cabinets.33 We will come back later in more detail to the influx of such works and the opposition they encountered. The success enjoyed by Dutch artists should not lead us to overestimate their influence in Italy, however. It is not as though they were welcomed everywhere with open arms because there was no longer any significant Italian art to speak of.34 Even if we were to regard 16th century Mannerist art as marking the decline of the Renaissance – a view I would not endorse myself – the process of renewal and recovery which took place cannot be attributed to the Dutch artists in Italy. On the contrary, the stimulus to overcome Mannerism came from within Italy itself. The originators of 17th century Baroque painting, such as the Carracci in Bologna and Michelangelo da Caravaggio in Rome and Southern Italy, exerted a tremendous influence which far exceeded that of the Dutch painters in Rome.35 Art historians from the North are all too prone to underestimate the significance of Italian Baroque painting because it does not include any Raphaels, Leonardos or Michelangelos. Given the wealth of talented artists in the various art centres of Italy, it would certainly be an exaggeration to speak of a period of decline. The aristocratic collectors of the 18th century demonstrated a certain shrewdness in acquiring for their galleries some of the 17th century Italian masterpieces that are held in such little esteem today.

The group of Netherlandish artists in Rome certainly developed a distinctive style of their own. They kept to themselves in their ‘Bent’ community,36 however, and effectively made no productive contribution to the advancement of Italian painting. The very marked differences between their fraternity and the host country surfaced in the dispute between the ‘Bent’ and the Academy as the representative of the Italian artistic creed – a matter to which we will return in a moment. If we consider the number of Dutch artists in Italy in the context of the dissemination of Dutch art, it is clear that only a few stood out from the rest. The overwhelming majority can be classed as young enthusiasts who had not yet developed a style of their own and were keen to experience the romantic atmosphere that Italy had to offer. The story of how the foreign artistic ideals they brought back with them helped to enrich and benefit their home country may have a certain attraction, but it is out of place in an account of the spreading of Dutch art to other countries. However, since my task here is to monitor the progress of all the artists migrating abroad without any prior certainty of their significance for the dissemination of Dutch art, we will let those who travelled to Italy file past in our mind’s eye in small groups at least, in which the less important will be disregarded.37 A summary of this kind would have been impossible had not the ground been laid for it by the long-term research of the Dutch Historical Institute in Rome headed by Dr. Godefridus Johannes Hoogewerff (1884-1963) [5].38

Anoniem Italië
Godefridus Johannes Hoogewerff (1884-1963)
paper, autotype 184 x 129 mm
The Hague, RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History


1 [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] On the travel routes from Holland to Italy: Caracciolo 1997; Schatborn 2001, p. 20-21; Levine 2016, p. 274.

2 [Gerson 1942/1983] For a different opinion: Martin 1936/1942, p. 91 and 111-113. [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] Martin stated that many 16th-century painters from the Northern Netherlands went to Italy because they felt inferior to their Italian colleagues, while only a few Dutch painters of the 17th century undertook the trip as a result of their increased self-esteem, personal opinions and ‘strong and sincere’ character. In absolute terms, Gerson was right, but in relative terms indeed less artists went to Italy in the 17th century, according to a statistic inquiry in RKDartists (November 2018). Of the 2,201 Dutch artists born between 1575 and 1675, 283 went to Italy (= 12,7%). Of the 260 Dutch artists born between 1475 and 1575, 50 went to Italy (=19,2%). Rieke van Leeuwen is preparing a PhD with the title Patterns in the Mobility of Artists of the Low Countries until 1800 (Utrecht University), which will address issues like this.

3 [Gerson 1942/1983] How people looked up to Italy at the end of the 16th century is expressed outright by Karel van Mander I: ‘De Oeffenaers onser Const, die buytens Landts besonder in Italien, hun langhen tijt hebben onthouden, t'huys weder comende, brengen gemeenlijck mede eenighe wijse oft ghedaente van wercken, die de gemeen oude Nederlandtsche in schoonheyt en treflijckheyt te boven gaet, oft daer men soo een onghewoon gheestighe aerdicheyt in siet’. Van Mander/Floerke 1906, vol. 2, p. 360, also Orbaan 1932, p. 118, note 1. [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] ‘The practitioners of our art who remain a long time abroad, and especially in Italy, usually return home with a manner or a way of working which surpasses the customary, old, Netherlandish manner in beauty and excellence – or in which one sees a certain unusual, lively naturalness’. (Van Mander/Miedema 1994-1999, vol. 1, p. 450 and vol. 6 (Commentary), p. 102).

4 [Gerson 1942/1983] Houbraken 1718-1721, vol. 1, p. 128. Budde 1929, p. 55-58. [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] We thank Hein Horn, who is working on the English translation of Houbraken 1718-1721, for the use of his text.

5 [Gerson 1942/1983] Van Gool 1750-1751, vol. 1, p. 313-314: ‘Zeker Heer zond om onze Schilder, om hem over eenig Kunstwerk, dat hy hem wilde laeten maken, te spreken, en, na eenige woordenwisseling over en weer, hem vragende, of hy al te Romen geweest was, moest hem TERWESTEN neen antwoorden; zo dra was dit woort niet gesproken, of hy kon zien, dat dien Heer dat gevoelen van zyn Kunstvermogen niet meer scheen te hebben als te vooren, zo kan het vooroordeel den mensch beheerschen’.

6 [Gerson 1942/1983] Bredius 1915-1921, vol. 2, p. 687.

7 [Gerson 1942/1983] Houbraken 1717-1721, vol. 3, p. 185.

8 [Gerson 1942/1983] Obreen 1877-1890, vol. 2, p. 279-280.

9 [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] The document recording his death, discovered by A. Scalabrin, reads as follows: 'Adi 23 Marzo 1642 Andrea Boz fiamengo de ani 36 incirca anegado. S. Zuane Bragola', Archivio di Stato di Venezia, Provv. Sanità, necrologio, anno 1642, busta n. 871 (Limentani Virdis/Banzato 1990, p. 24).

10 [Gerson 1942/1983] Hirschmann 1920, p. 115.

11 [Gerson 1942/1983] Van Hoogstraten 1678, p. 206.

12 [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] Ruisdael however did travel to Bad Bentheim and Steinfurt in 1650, possibly together with Nicolaes Berchem. Buvelot 2009. 19th-century and early 20th-century writers highly praised the art of Hals, Vermeer and Rembrandt for representing what they regarded to be the true character of the Dutch nation. This issue is addressed by Levine 2016, p. 265.

13 [Gerson 1942/1983] Worp 1891, p. 130-131 [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] Huygens criticized the young painters for not making the journey to Italy ‘to get acquainted with the works of Raphael and Michelangelo and take the trouble to devour with their own eyes the creations of so many great minds’ (Huygens/Kan 1971, p. 82; Huygens/Heesakkers 1987, p. 89). Huygens called their objections ‘a mix of nonsense’ (‘een mengsel van onzin’, Hoogewerff 1929, p. 151). For an overview of Italian works of art in Dutch 17th-century collections: Van Veen 1992; Meijer 2000. See also Hall 2001.

14 [Gerson 1942/1983] Especially in Saxl 1923-1924. [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] On Rembrandt’s response to Italian art: Clark 1966; De Jongh 1969; Bruyn 1970; Golhany 1984. As pointed out by Sluijter 2006, p. 110, Rembrandt’s approach to classical models differed fundamentally to that of Rubens, the modern master he most admired: ‘… for Rembrandt, it was not the visual forms of antiquity that were the ingredients for emulation, but the works of modern masters who, in his view, has already surpassed antiquity’.

15 [Gerson 1942/1983] Waetzoldt 1927. [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] On Jan van Scorel in Venice and Rome: Jehoel 2019, p. 115-163, 187-218. Recent studies on the Roman drawings by Heemskerck include Filippi 1990; Bartsch/Seiler 2012 and DiFuria 2019.

16 [Gerson 1942/1983] Hoogewerff 1929. [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] Dacos 1995. On the appeal of Rome in general: De Meyere 1991-1992.

17 [Gerson 1942/1983] Six 1913; Byvank 1914; Hensen 1916. [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] Among those who stimulated the discovery of the catacombs were the antiquarian Philips van Winghe (1560-1592), a friend of Hendrick Goltzius, and Hendrick de Raeff van Delft (1567/68-1640). Schuddeboom 1996 and Hoogewerff 1936.

18 [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] Schatborn 2001.

19 [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] On the origin of the cityscape and the contribution of Joris Hoefnagel and Lodewijk Toeput: Meijer 1989, p. 597.

20 [Gerson 1942/1983] Egger 1911-1931.

21 [Gerson 1942/1983] Van Mander 1604, fol. 7r (71). [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] Van Mander/Honig 1604/ 1985, p. 13 (71).

22 [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] See Meijer 1993, p. 6-7 with references to several 16th-century sources. The earliest source, from 1509, is Lancilotti/Miedema 1976, p. 16: ‘A’ paesi dappresso e a’lontani/Bisogna un certo ingieggno e descretione,/Che me’l’hanno fiandreschi che italiani’.

23 [Gerson 1942/1983] Vaes 1935, p. 280.

24 [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] Among the most important studies on 17th-century Flemish painters in Italy is Bodart 1970.

25 [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] In 16th- and 17th-century Italian sources the term ‘fiammingo’ is used to indicate artists from both the Southern and the Northern Netherlands. Barroero 1999, p. 30, Schulte Van Kessel 1995, and Pomponi 2011, p. 170.

26 [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] On Rubens and Italy: Jaffé 1977; Morselli 2019.

27 [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] Barnes et al. 1997.

28 [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] On the De Wael brothers: Stoesser 2018.

29 [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] Although most sources state that Malo died in 1649 or 1650, the registers of the parish of San Lorenzo in Lucina in Rome record that the painter died there on the 14th of April, 1644, ‘di età di anni 42 in circa’ – about 42 years old (Hoogewerff 1942, p. 199).

30 [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] On artistic relations between Antwerp and Genova: Boccardo/Di Fabio 1997; Cataldi Gallo/Massa et al. 2003-2004; Orlando 2018A.

31 [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] On Dutch and Flemish artists in Naples: Osnabrugge 2015, Porzio/van der Sman 2018-2019, p. 54-57, Osnabrugge 2019. For Sicily: Abbate 1999-2000, Mendola 1999- 2000, Mendola 2018.

32 [Gerson 1942/1983] Hoogewerff 1913, p. 28: ‘De Nederlandsche Gouden Eeuw is, alles door elkaar genomen, in Italië even goud als ze thuis was’ (The Dutch Golden Age was, all in all, as golden in Italy as it was at home’. [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] Hoogewerff referred here to Houbraken, who wrote: ‘’t Schijnd mij toe of die eeuw geen agtinge heeft gehad voor Konstenaren, tenzij dezelve Romen gezien hadden’ (It seems to me that this century [= the Golden Age] had no esteem for artists who hadn’t seen Rome, Houbraken 1718-1721, vol. 1, p. 128).

33 [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] On the Roman patronage of the Bamboccianti: Ackx 2012 and Cappelletti/Lemoine 2014-2015, p. 31-39, 146-166. Among the landscape painters only Poelenburch, Van Laer, Swanevelt, Van Wittel, and to a lesser extent Jan Both and Jan Baptist Weenix, received a substantial Roman patronage. Chong 1987-1988, 114-115, 120, notes 44-48.

34 [Gerson 1942/1983] As is argued by Maurice Vaes: ‘Aussi lorsque la dégénération du grand art de Raphaël et de Michel Ange aura amené la décadence, on fera appel aux artistes flamands; en collaboration avec les maîtres italiens, ils réaliseront la formule de l’art nouveau qui triomphera au XVIIe siècle’ (Furthermore, when the degeneration of the great art of Raphael and Michelangelo had brought decadence, an appeal was made on Flemish artists; in collaboration with the Italian masters, they would realize the formula of the new art that would triumph in the 17th century) (Vaes 1925 , p. 142). The same is implied by Martin 1936/1942 , p. 443 ff.

35 [Gerson 1942/1983] Compare Friedländer 1928-1929. [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] On the impact of the art of Caravaggio: Van der Sman 2016B.

36 [Leeuwen/Sman 2019] See § 2.3.

37 [Gerson 1942/1983] Hopefully the reader will not mind that a large part of the over 450 names in our index files shall not be mentioned separately.

38 [Gerson 1942/1983] Mostly published in the Mededeelingen van het Nederlandsch Historisch Instituut te Rome from 1921 onwards. Hoogewerff/Orbaan 1911-1917, Orbaan 1905, Orbaan 1923-1924 and Fokker 1931; Noack 1927.

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