Catalysts of knowledge. Artists' and artisans' collections in early modern Antwerp

Katalysators van kennis. De collecties van kunstenaars en ambachtslieden in vroegmodern Antwerpen
Begin - Einde 
2012 - 2016 (lopend)
Vakgroep Kunst-, Muziek- en Theaterwetenschappen



This dissertation tells the story of the collections of artists and artisans in early seventeenth-century Antwerp. Based on archival research of probate inventories, it turns out that many artists and artisans had rich collections containing diverse objects (of art, artifice, naturalia, exotica, scientific instruments) and, as such, belonged to a community of knowledgeable liefhebbers (or, at the very least, aspired to be part of this community). The methodological innovation of close reading and analyzing probate inventories of otherwise unknown people, demonstrates that the critical mass of knowledgeable burgers in an early modern city such as Antwerp was much larger than was hitherto known. They operated in a (often tight) network, in which erudition, hands-on experience, and visual knowledge were the standard. This is yet another argument in favor of the thesis of cities as ‘hubs of knowledge’ in early modern knowledge societies, but it also uncovers new specificities about how the material world was understood in Antwerp’s collectors’ rooms.  

So how precisely were collections used to demonstrate one’s knowledge? I argue that collections were first of all conversation pieces: collectors or visitors demonstrated to be knowledgeable through conversations about particular objects, about the relationships between objects, and, on a meta-level, about the status and nature of objects. Very important was the openness of meaning of collected objects: there were many layers of knowledge and meaning attached to one object (from the domains of art, nature, trade, religion, literature etc.). The more layers beholders could detect, and the more interrelationships between different objects beholders could detect, the more erudite and knowledgeable they were considered to be. This type of argumentation (and hence the attraction of encyclopedic collections) must be understood as part of a cosmology of the interconnected world, where everything was connected to everything. The sheer amount of objects available in an early modern city like Antwerp (from locally made to imports from the faraway lands of the East and West Indies), was not only at the basis of the encyclopedic culture of collecting; it also preluded the beginning of the end of the interconnected world. The comprehensive (or seemingly comprehensive) displays of objects, which seem to defy order for the modern beholder, were the material apotheosis of this worldview. At the same time, it was a Trojan Horse: the ideal of the encyclopedic collection may have been one of the forces that eventually led into the direction of specialization and new types of ordering. This was a historical turning point, from whereon the quest for specialization and ordering continues to this day.  

There is little evidence that Antwerp artists and artisans used their collections to produce new knowledge, with the possible exception of the invention of the painterly genre of the gallery picture (which may be interpreted as an intellectual reflection upon the culture of collecting). I do, however, propose the hypothesis that collections served as catalysts of knowledge. As in a chemical reaction, the collection serves as a catalyst, powerless in itself, but able to connect two objects that were before separated. New connections could confirm or shake established knowledge. The process of making (new) connections may be called the epistemology of collecting; which implied the human agency necessary to master the catalyst. Even though my source material hardly permits any conclusions on how this process was at the basis of new knowledge-products (with the exception of the gallery picture), I do argue that the collection as a catalyst and the epistemology of collecting played a part in new ways of knowing about the material world.

Three ways of dealing with the material world stand out: 1. Descriptive 2. Tactile 3. Imaging. These so-called ‘new’ ways of knowing about the material world were in fact not new, but they were elevated to a higher level, even reaching the lofty bastions of high learning at the universities during the seventeenth century. As such, these new ways of knowing the world were crucial for the so-called ‘Scientific Revolution’. All this has been suggested before, but in this dissertation, it is argued that these new ways of dealing with material objects also took place (and was further developed) in the collectors’ rooms of artists and artisans. Their passion for collecting, which naturally overlapped with their own making, may be seen as a missing link in the development towards increasing respect for practical-material knowledge. In that sense, their collections stood in-between the earlier promotion of the arts and sciences by the Chambers of Rhetorics and the later salons, academies, and ‘contsgenootschappen’ (which were more elitist than their predecessors). Also underestimated in scholarship so far, is that these ways of knowing were anchored in religious debates and worries about the material world. One of the major claims of this dissertation, is that the religiously inspired debates on the status and nature of material objects are vital to understand cultures of collecting and the related new ways of knowing. The religious understanding of materiality was key – and not just for dogmatic theologians.

At this point, context comes into play. Although a religious understanding of materiality may have been a general feature of all early modern societies (since religion was still the sine qua non), comparisons may yield further insight into differences per context. In Counter Reformation Antwerp, there were different ideas about the status and nature of material objects than in other comparable contexts (such as the predominantly Calvinist Dutch Republic). Three aspects stand out: 1. The possibility of miraculous nature 2. The physicality of devotion and 3. The vital role of imagery for devotion (not coincidentally, these last two issues were related to the tactile and to depiction).  I argue that this Counter Reformation understanding of materiality and imagery impacted Antwerp’s culture of collecting. Certain types of objects were typical for this context (e.g. particular painterly subjects or devotional objects). Then, it arguably impacted the display of objects (e.g. the combination of natural objects and devotional objects) and the percentage of certain categories of objects (e.g. the percentage of naturalia compared to paintings, or the percentage of landscapes compared to religious paintings).

The central sore point in the religious understanding of materiality was how to find accordance between the man-made and the God-made. This then, leads back to the issue of openness of meaning. A seemingly endless openness of meaning was perhaps more acceptable in Counter Reformation Antwerp than in Calvinist cities in the North, where the religious meaning and use of man-made objects was rejected (and only the religious understanding of Nature, as God’s Second Revelation, remained). This, in turn, may have forced people (more, or sooner, or faster) to reconsider the openness of meaning and instead focus on Nature-for-Nature’s-sake (analogue to the l’art pour l’art that Dutch painters have been credited with / accused of). Of course, in Antwerp too, it was honourable to learn about nature as God’s Second Revelation, but there was also room for miraculous nature, as well as a great value attached to man-made objects and images for religious use. As a final note, this may be related to the motif of iconoclastic (image-destructing) donkey-headed figures on some Antwerp gallery pictures, who, by their vain ignorance, destroyed the ideal of the collection as a place to gain a deep understanding of the harmony of God’s Creation.