“Hieronymus Bosch and Italy?” (Bernard Aikema) 2001
[in: Jos Koldeweij, Bernard Vermet and Barbera van Kooij (eds.), Hieronymus Bosch. New Insights Into His Life and Work. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen-NAi Publishers-Ludion, Rotterdam, 2001, pp. 24-31]
In his Notizia d’opere del disegno the Venetian patrician Marcantonio Michiel reports that in 1521 he saw three works by ‘Hieronimo Bosch’ in the collection of the Venetian cardinal Domenico Grimani (1461-1523): a canvas with a Hell, a canvas with Dreams and a canvas with Fortuna and a whale that swallows Jonah. These subjects obviously don’t match the subjects of the three works by Bosch that are in the Ducal Palace in Venice: the triptych with the Crucified Martyr, the Hermits triptych and the four panels with Visions from the Hereafter. We don’t know what has happened with the three works that were mentioned by Michiel. About 1528 Marino Grimani, Domenico’s nephew, shipped a number of paintings from his uncle’s heritage to Rome, among them a Flemish painting with two wings about the Last Judgment, a Flemish oil painting with a Hell and two canvases, attributed to Bosch, with the Temptations of St. Anthony. It is not sure whether the painting with the Hell is the same as the Hell mentioned by Michiel, nor is it clear whether the Hereafter panels that are still in Venice today, can be identified as the wings of the Last Judgment triptych mentioned around 1528. The further history of the Marino Grimani paintings is unknown to us.
In 1664 the art critic Marco Boschini signals the presence of fifteen small panels with monsters, dreams and visions attributed to Civetta (Herri met de Bles) and a triptych with a crucified female saint attributed to a certain ‘Girolamo Bassi’ in the Ducal Palace in Venice. In 1733 Antonio Maria Zanetti reports that this latter triptych is a work by ‘Girolamo Bosch’ and that there is still another triptych by Bosch (its subject: St. Hieronymus and two other saints) in the palace. Furthermore Zanetti signals that only four out of the fifteen paintings that were attributed to Civetta, were indeed made by the hand of this master. Perhaps these four paintings have to be identified as the four Hereafter panels that are still in Venice today.
All this leads to the conclusion that it is possible, but far from definite, that the three works by Bosch that are in Venice today, originally belonged to the collection of cardinal Domenico Grimani. In that case there are two possibilities: Grimani himself commissioned these works (but according to Aikema this is improbable because the iconography of the works bears no relation whatever with the cardinal), or he bought them from an intermediary, who bought the works in the Netherlands or in Italy. A number of authors who favour this last possibility, presume that Bosch made a trip to Italy around 1500. One of these authors is Leonard Slatkes and his major argument is that the main figure on the Crucified Martyr triptych is not St. Wilgefortis, but St. Julia who was venerated in Brescia. Aikema’s opinion, though, is that the saint is St. Wilgefortis (originally her beard was very thin and later it has been removed).
Phyllis Williams Lehmann thinks that Bosch travelled around in Italy because the elephant and the giraffe on the left wing of the Garden of Delights bear a great resemblance to the drawings of these animals by the early-fifteenth-century traveller and humanist Cyriacus of Ancona. But Lehmann did not signal that in Sigismondo Tizio’s late-fifteenth-century edition Historiae Senensis there is a print of a giraffe which is based on Cyriacus’ drawing. By way of merchants travelling through Europe it is possible that Bosch knew a copy of this book or even copies of Cyriacus’ drawings in his home town.
Aikema stresses that the more or less ‘italianizing’ elements in Bosch’s work stand by themselves in contexts that bear no technical or stylistic resemblances to the contemporary (North) Italian art of painting. But how then did Bosch become famous in Italy and especially with cardinal Grimani? From about 1450 on the Italian public shows a growing interest in Northern European painting. Furthermore cardinal Grimani’s personal doctor, the jew Abrahàm ben Meir de Balmes, had a close relationship with the major publisher of jewish books in Venice, the Flemish merchant Daniel van Bomberghen, a native from Antwerp. Aikema presumes (as does Lorne Campbell) that Van Bomberghen bought paintings by Bosch in the Netherlands shortly after Bosch’s death in 1516 and that somewhat later he sold these to cardinal Grimani.
The fact that on the wings of the Crucified Martyr triptych two patrons were overpainted can mean that this was done in order to bring the triptych back to the market. Aikema presumes that Van Bomberghen was the man behind this manipulation. He also had two scenes with a landscape and burning buildings added because landscapes and fires were popular themes in Italy in the early sixteenth century when it came down to ‘Flemish’ paintings. The Hermits triptych and the Hereafter panels also point in the same direction. Probably when buying the Bosch paintings cardinal Grimani was not led by the paintings’ themes but by his ‘artistic taste’.
According to Aikema Bosch did not make a trip to Italy and his paintings only reached Italy after 1516. He disagrees with the authors who think that the work of Giorgione and his circle shows Boschian influences. An interesting example of a North Italian painter who wàs influenced by Bosch, is Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo (active after 1520) whose works demonstrate a strong affinity to Bosch’s pedlars and to the Bruges Last Judgment triptych. Savoldo was married to a Dutch woman.
Aikema, who seems to be quite familiar with the Italian sixteenth-century primary literature ànd with the modern literature about the topic ‘Bosch and Italy’, wrote an interesting and stimulating contribution. His view on the matter: did Bosch make a trip to Italy?, is still relying on hypotheses a bit too much, though. Especially the link Bosch-Daniel van Bomberghen-cardinal Grimani needs time to reflect and further research.