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Carl Van de Velde (ed.). Classical Mythology in the Netherlands in the Age of Renaissance and Baroque – La mythologie classique aux temps de la Renaissance et du Baroque dans les Pays-Bas. Travaux de l’Institut Interuniversitaire pour l’Étude de la Renaissance et de l’Humanisme, 14. Leuven – Paris – Walpole, MA: Peeters, 2009. ISBN: 978-90-429-2052-1, 394 pp., b/w ill., € 65.

Reviewed by Demmy Verbeke

[1]  The essays collected in this book form the proceedings of an international conference which took place in Antwerp from 19 to 21 May 2005. Its international character is reflected in the languages used: the book contains nine contributions written in English, six written in French, and an introduction switching between Dutch, French and English. It is important to realize at the outset that the conference was organised by the Institut Interuniversitaire pour l’Étude de la Renaissance et de l’Humanisme (Brussels) in collaboration with the Museum Plantin-Moretus (Antwerp) and the Rubenianum (Antwerp), i.e. the specialist documentation centre and library focusing on the study of Flemish art, in particular that of its golden age from Pieter Bruegel to Peter Paul Rubens. As a result, no fewer than six out of fourteen contributions (not counting the introduction and the conclusions) are most relevant for art historians; and five of these are partly or wholly devoted to Rubens.

[2]  The collection opens with what seems to be the literal transcription of the opening speech pronounced at the conference by the editor of these proceedings. Besides a brief discussion of the theme and the organizational background of the meeting, this introduction treats a number of mythological engravings and the Latin inscriptions accompanying them. In the first real article, Eric-Jan Sluijter offers an analysis of various portrayals of Andromeda by Netherlandish painters of the seventeenth century, and rightfully stresses the ‘truly diverging approaches [and] the fascinating variations in usage, functions and attitudes’ towards the heritage of classical antiquity. The next couple of essays focus on literary topics: Rudolf De Smet discusses mythological figures as argumentative elements in the correspondence of Erasmus and Claudio Gigante treats mythological figures in Italian Renaissance poetry. Karolien De Clippel then zooms in on Rubens’s Bacchus and contrasts it with his Andromeda, arguing that the diverse manners of execution (and especially the brushwork) were connected with the mythological themes and their interpretations. Marie Geraerts follows with a discussion of attitudes towards nudity at the Spanish court on the basis of Rubens’s Judgment of Paris for Philip IV. The richest and perhaps the only truly transdisciplinary contribution to the volume is Bert Schepers’s article about poetic commentaries on pictures by Rubens. Another highlight is Nicolette Brout’s piece about the dialogue De prisca religione diisque gentium of the Antwerp Jesuit André Schott, which illustrates the critical distance maintained by some Renaissance and Early Modern intellectuals versus antiquity in general and classical mythology in particular. Related to this is Karl Enenkel’s discussion of Georgius Pictorius’s Theologia Mythologica and Julien de Havrech’s De cognominibus deorum gentilium, two theoretical treatises devoted to the description and the interpretation of the myths of classical antiquity (of which, in fact, only one has a clear link with the Netherlands). This is followed by a discussion by Thomas Berns of the use of mythological material, and especially the reference to a Golden Age or the Age of Saturn, in the work of Hugo Grotius. In the next essay, Monique Mund-Dopchie observes the longevity of the ancient representation of the world and its periphery as well as the almost accidental use of mythological references in cosmographical works from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. An example of the attempt to reconcile the Iudaeo-Christian tradition with Graeco-Roman mythology is found in Jeanine De Landtsheer’s analysis of an obscure reference by Justus Lipsius to the eccentric work of Goropius Becanus. Elizabeth McGrath traces the sources of mythological themes in the work of Netherlandish artists to their reading and discusses their book collections. Jan Bloemendal addresses the interesting fact that the visual arts might abound with figures from classical mythology during the period under discussion, but few of them seem to appear on the theatrical stage, and offers an account of the relevant dispute between Daniel Heinsius and Jean Louis Guez, seigneur de Balzac. Fiona Healy, finally, discusses allegorical adaptations of the judgment of Paris. The volume closes with a rather polemical conclusion written by Wouter Bracke, who rightfully points out that a lot of research remains to be done concerning the use of classical mythology in Netherlandish culture during the age of Renaissance and Baroque. He also takes philologists, and especially neo-latinists, to task for being too superficial in their study of mythological material in poetry.

[3]  The volume would have benefited from a stricter editorial hand. There are a number of regrettable but perhaps forgivable issues, such as the inconsistent treatment of Latin, Italian or Dutch sources (sometimes quoted in the original language, sometimes not; sometimes translated, sometimes not) and the apparently random sequence of the essays. More important and more detrimental for the use of this book for further research is the absence of an index. In addition, the presence of the article by Claudio Gigante is puzzling: no matter how interesting this contribution may be (and it is), its link with the Low Countries is too tenuous to be included in a book about classical mythology in the Netherlands.

[4]  Classical Mythology in the Netherlands in the Age of Renaissance and Baroque offers a number of illuminating case-studies, and suggests many more stimulating lines for further inquiry. It thus lifts a tip of the veil upon a vast and rich field of research. Unfortunately, the decision not to include an introduction or conclusion which would attempt to bring the contributions together in an over-arching synthesis, as well as the comparatively limited attention to – or even complete absence of – certain genres or art forms equally marked by the presence of themes from Graeco-Roman mythology (such as Neo-Latin poetry or music), preclude that this book could be considered as a well-balanced overview of classical mythology in the Netherlands during the period under discussion. However, the relative novelty of this kind of research focusing specifically on the Low Countries, and the quality of most of the contributions, still ensure that it is a valuable document of what undoubtedly must have been an inspired and inspiring conference.

 K. U. Leuven, November 2011