Oud Holland

Review of: 'Imagining a Northern Renaissance' (2018)

September 2019

Review of: Edward H. Wouk, Frans Floris (1519/20-1570): Imagining a Northern Renaissance, Leiden [Brill] 2018

If I work, I live; if I stop, I die. That was the motto of Frans Floris de Vriendt, one of the greatest, most prolific and most forgotten Netherlandish artists of the sixteenth century. Of course, the ‘Flemish Raphael’ might never have uttered those words; his admiring biographer Karel van Mander might have conveniently invented them in his Schilder-boeck. Regardless, Edward Wouk’s exhaustive study of Floris’ life and work reveals how much truth is in that alleged motto. Floris cultivated a reputation for extravagant productivity and overwork throughout his career in the 1550s and 1560s. His alcohol-fuelled decline was correspondingly extreme, the stuff of (local) legend. It was exacerbated by the destruction of many of his religious works in the so-called wonderjaar (miracle-year) of the 1566 Iconoclasm, and then the destruction of his society in the Dutch Revolt, from 1568. Floris died in 1570.

Left: Cover of Frans Floris (1519/20-1570): Imagining a Northern Renaissance.
Middle: fig. 1 Frans Floris, The fall of the rebellious angels, 1554, oil on panel, 308 x 220 cm, Antwerp, Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, inv. 112.
Right: fig. 2 Frans Floris, Study of the head of a woman, ca. 1555-56, oil on oak, 41.5 x 32 cm, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, inv. GG 9800.

When Van Mander wrote Floris’ biography two generations later, in 1604, he warmly praised him as one of the greatest artists in living memory and the beloved teacher of many of his peers. As Van Mander suggested, generations of Netherlandish artists likely learned to draw by copying Floris’ prints. But he does not shy away from Floris’ debt, drunkenness and the shock (possibly similar to today’s PTSD) of seeing iconoclasts violently destroy so much of his legacy. Things soon got worse. Wouk explains that the vehemently Protestant religious environment in the Dutch Republic censored Floris’ Roman Catholic religious paintings, to the extent that erasing Floris from "the canon of 'Dutch' art history became a political imperative" (p. 26). The expurgation was so effective that it took just over 400 years for Floris’ reputation to be resuscitated with a book-length study. Carl Van de Velde re-established Floris as a major figure of the early modern art world in his Dutch-language dissertation of 1975, though his stylistic and iconographic studies partly rely on his interpretation of Floris’ volatile inner self. Wouk is the first to reconstruct Floris’ oeuvre – including so many of his lost religious paintings – and reputation, within his own social and historical context.

The book is organised into twelve chapters. Following an introduction and study of Floris’ biography, Wouk chronologically moves through his trip to Italy, his return to Antwerp in the 1540s and, crucially, his foundation of an Italian-style workshop there. Then he addresses the major categories of Floris’ production: portraits and head studies, Roman Catholic religious imagery and nature. In the next chapters, Wouk examines the upheavals of the turbulent 1560s, though especially Floris’ ‘reformed’ religious imagery, and the devastation of Iconoclasm. Wouk ends with an elaboration of Floris’ artistic theories, which Floris broadcast pictorially on the façade of his palatial house, and concludes with a ‘coda’ about Floris’ influence and reputation.

The body of the text comprises 536 pages, or 600 pages including footnotes. The length alone attests to the depth of the research, together with the generous citations of archival material and contemporary texts. The remaining third of the text block comprises a scholarly apparatus, including the transcription and translation of literary references to Floris; a checklist of lost drawings attributed to Floris; the text and music of the song ‘Le cruel Mars’; a timeline of Floris’ works in their broader historical context; and a 100 page checklist of Floris’ paintings, drawings and prints. This study is monumental. However, it tells only part of the story. In 2011, Wouk compiled an authoritative, fully illustrated, two-volume catalogue raisonné of Floris’ prints for The new Hollstein Dutch and Flemish etchings: Engravings and woodcuts 1450-1700. Together, Wouk’s three books comprise the definitive study of Floris for the next generations.

Wouk’s narrative might be grounded in political, religious and social history, but it is driven by artworks. The story begins, perhaps fittingly, with Fall of the rebel angel (1554) (fig. 1). That was first major altarpiece Floris created in Antwerp. Wouk describes how Floris placed Michelangeloesque musculature on the elongated, twisted bodies of Mannerism – but that those bodies belong to Northern European beasts, and not to idealised humans. Their tormented limbs are entwined in a writhing mass, a nightmarish vision that is more in keeping with Hieronymus Bosch’s horrors than elegant Italian paintings. Wouk eloquently analyses this, "spectacular, vertical curtain of nudity and monstrosity", before revealing that it is just a fragment, the only part of an altarpiece that happened to survive the ravages of iconoclasm and Napoleonic looting. This partial artwork exemplifies Floris’ incredible skill and the novelty of his synthetic painterly style, the physical and academic effacement of his reputation and the scale of Wouk’s challenge to reconstruct Floris’ corpus and re-establish his reputation.

For centuries, Floris has been hidden in the shadow of Pieter Breugel I (1525-1569). Their lives, and their careers, overlapped almost exactly. Perhaps fittingly, the publication of Wouk’s once-in-a-lifetime study nearly coincided with an, also once-in-a-lifetime, monographic exhibition of Bruegel at the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna, which opened six months later. An oversimplified narrative has long held that Floris misquoted Italy while Bruegel brought a local, Northern visual idiom to maturity. Some have argued that Bruegel exaggerated his unpretentious style to satirise Floris’ ‘pompous’ foreign Romanism. Wouk demolishes that axiom with the simple observation that, their works were commissioned by the same patrons who gave Breugel’s and Floris’ works equal pride of place, by displaying them next to each other in their homes. He recasts that longstanding truism to argue that Floris and Bruegel give expression to two sides of the same coin: the upheavals that defined their lifetimes, and the art markets in the Netherlands. Even more remarkably, this is simply Wouk’s starting point (p. 10). The next 800 pages are just as densely packed, convincingly argued, and are transformative for the understanding of early modern Netherlandish art.

Throughout, Wouk continues to disparage the idea of a dichotomy between Italy and Northern Europe, and Catholicism and Protestantism, in favour of detailed analyses of real people, places and projects. This frees him to address the issue of Floris’ Italian influences, head on. It is not a question merely of artistic style. Wouk expands his discussion of "the tension between Michelangelesque form and Netherlandish medium" to broader cultural issues (p. 284). For example, Wouk traces Floris’ connections to Granville, who, "imposed Catholic orthodoxy" in his professional capacity, as an ecclesiastical authority and advisor to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Phillip II, but whose private "artistic commissions hardly project the monolithic image of the Catholic orthodoxy" (p. 291). This is old-school art history, in the best sense of the phrase. Wouk builds a social history based on discussions of brushstrokes that create illusions of muscularity. In doing so he interprets the discourse of Reformation-era Christian iconography by mining contemporary texts, though without taking the texts or images at face value. The end result is a masterclass in how to assess an artist’s life and works.

But this book is not just about Floris. It is also about Floris’ collectors, patrons, disparagers and supporters, in and far beyond Antwerp. Wouk argues that Fontainebleau influenced Floris’ style, and that Floris indirectly influenced Fontainebleau (at least, through his pupils in the ‘Second School’) (p. 423). He discusses Floris’ knowledge of the "latest scientific instruments", with relevant, gendered personifications (pp. 340-342). He also addresses Floris’ publishers, especially Hieronymus Cock. Given the emphasis on reconstructing Floris’ networks, Wouk does not stop at their business arrangement. Instead, he explores how their mutually supportive relationship as "associate, neighbour and friend", meant that their careers were interlinked for decades (p. 454). This approach to mapping Floris’ personal and professional lives enriches the art historical discussions. It also makes this monograph a landmark publication, not only of early modern Netherlandish art history, but also of cross-disciplinary assessment of visual culture and visual production at a crucial transition of the early modern world.

The discursive endnotes are perhaps, slightly too generous; diligent readers might become impatient as they flip a five centimetre text block back and forth. But this level of detail is wholly necessary. It allows Wouk to explore how Floris could become his own manner of Romanist, one who emulated the antijcse stijl (antique style) within a Netherlandish idiom, by drawing on a full arsenal of primary sources.

Although Wouk is relatively early in his career, Frans Floris reads like a magnum opus. It is clearly the work of many years of interdisciplinary scholarly labour. This is especially important to note because the time pressures of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the UK’s national professional assessment exercise for academics, discourages such authoritative ambitions. It counts a book as a single research ‘output’, like an article. Upon application, a book can be double-weighted, meaning it can be assessed as the equivalent of a maximum of two articles. Of course, this extraordinary contribution to scholarship is the equivalent of dozens of articles – but the value of bringing this research together in one place makes it more than the sum of those article-parts. Wouk’s Frans Floris should be celebrated as exemplifying the continuing need for this mode of scholarship, as much as for the research as for the analyses it presents. The book is essential reading not just for those interested in Floris, but for art historians, cultural historians and those interested in the production, dissemination, collection and reception of visual culture in early modern Europe.

Elizabeth Savage
Senior Lecturer in Book History and Communications
School of Advanced Study, University of London

Elizabeth Savage, ‘Review of: E.H. Wouk, Frans Floris (1519/20-1570): Imagining a Northern Renaissance, 2018’, Oud Holland Online Reviews, September 2019.