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Rules of Engagement: Art, Commerce, and Diplomacy in Golden-Age Antwerp


Foreign merchants were the lifeblood of ‘golden-age’ Antwerp. Already in the fifteenth century, the city promoted itself as the ‘Mercatorum Emporium’, a meeting place for worldly merchants. It was not until global trade networks expanded during the sixteenth century that Antwerp truly earned its moniker. As contact with Asia, Africa, and the New World intensified, merchants looked to Antwerp as a place to exchange their exotic cargo for other goods. By organizing themselves into various trading nations, merchants improved their access to Antwerp’s relatively unrestricted commerce, and in the process, to the cultural riches of Flanders. Strong domestic luxury industries in paintings, tapestries, and other crafts counterbalanced the foreigner-lead commodities trade. For so long as foreigners profited from wholesale, they spent small fortunes on artworks readily available in Antwerp, which they purchased for personal use and resale abroad. Because art historians have traditionally studied producers rather than consumers, a distorted and oddly localized image of Antwerp’s golden age has emerged. By repositioning the function of Flemish art within early modern international relations, my dissertation seeks to revise this picture.

Drawing upon the methodologies of Michael Baxandall, my dissertation studies how artistic patronage satisfied the social and political needs of foreign merchant communities—and how Antwerp’s artistic culture responded to its international audiences. Antwerp’s success as an international hub during its greatest commercial era depended not only on sustaining a diverse pool of trading partners, but also on the city’s manifold efforts to forge an inclusive, outward-looking civic culture. For nearly a century, this literary and pictorial branding of Antwerp as the merchant’s metropolis was promulgated not just by Brabantine burghers but also by travelers, fair-time traders, and expatriate merchants. While the first half of the dissertation explores the city’s self-fashioning as an encompassing marketplace for merchants, considering how the city conscripted foreigners into furthering these messages, the second half tells a story about the kinds of artworks individual merchants commissioned for themselves and for others, and the cultural connections they facilitated between Antwerp and the wider world. Even as I explore the social function of artworks in mediating community and international relations, I attend to the practical experiences of merchants, that is, how their knowledge of specific commodities shaped their connoisseurial habits as collectors.

Underlying the inquiry that draws my dissertation together is an interest in exploring the incipient topologies of mobility that shaped the visual and textual representations of Antwerp as a commercial metropolis. From the experience of traveling as form of socio-spatial connectivity to the transcultural communicativeness of artworks produced in Antwerp, artists and cultural producers in Antwerp set themselves upon the task of giving discernible visual form to the commercial and cultural mobility that was reshaping their city. One of the overarching theses of this study is that the responsiveness of Antwerp artists to the transformational dynamics of global trade engaged foreign merchants as patrons, offering them alternative ways of imagining or perceiving their experiences of both spaces and places.

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