A Painting near Willem van Nieulandt II of the Colosseum and S. Croce in Gerusalemme

In the Museum at Montepulciano is a painting on panel with ruins, a church, and the Colosseum. It is catalogued as ‘Romanised Northern painter, Landscape with Roman ruins and figures. Mid-16th century. Oil on panel’ (Fig. 1).[1] It bears the inscription ‘DP’ on the column at bottom right. I think this is the vertical column between two sheep, which on my photo has something on it that I cannot read properly (Fig. 2). This need not mean anything. There is also apparently an inscription on the back reading ‘Di Carlo Panichi 1797’, referring to a later owner.

At first glance this looked to me to be close to the two Willem van Nieulandts, Willem van Nieulandt I (1560-Rome, 1626), in Rome from 1596-1626, and his nephew and pupil Willem van Nieulandt II, who was working in Rome from about 1601/02-1604, especially the latter. It seems much weaker (the cows are comical (Fig. 3) and the condition is poor, but the painting should be associated with the name of Willem van Nieulandt II.

Willem van Nieulandt II assembled his compositions from several motifs. This practice went back to the first ‘independent’ landscapes painted by Joachim Patinir at the beginning of the sixteenth century in Antwerp. Patinir was able to create an ‘independent’, or free-standing landscape by employing a spatial framework—normally a high vertical wing on one side, with a flat open plane or sea on the other, without a middle distance. Within that framework he could add in components made from drawings that at some stage may have been observed. But Patinir was not capable of painting a ‘prospect’: that is, a painting that wholly constituted a view of a place seen from a particular point. A good example is his Martyrdom of St Catherine, where you see the high wedge at the right and the open plane at the left (Fig. 4). On this plane are disposed objects seen from a variety of viewpoints: the two houses are seen from above, probably based on a drawing taken from a hillside, while the castle is seen in ‘elevation’ (Fig. 5). Only with the generation of Claude Lorrain in about the second decade of the seventeenth century do artists succeed in painting true prospects, a fact that they celebrated by frequently including in their drawings and paintings the figure of an artist sketching.

Van Nieulandt predated that development, and followed Patinir’s practice, but with some variations of his own, in particular the use of a long receding diagonal on the ‘distant’ side where Patinir used a flat plane with features like promontories stacked one above the other. This enabled van Nieulandt to create a better transition to the background, so that we do see a middle ground, but there is still a sudden jump over a wedge or wing from here to the foreground. A good example is one found on the internet without proper data (Fig. 6). The first wedge, of ‘hyperbolic’ type, is in shadow and has a statue of a satyr. The next has a version of the Septizonium (or Septizodium) which demonstrates his dependence on prints, since the Septizonium, which was on the corner of the Palatine facing the Circus Maximus, was long gone by the time van Nieulandt was working. The best known representation is a print by Lafréry, and the treatment of the motif here is worth exploring further. Beyond that is a Roman tomb based on the so-called Tomb of the Horatii and Curatii at Albano, which in fact is only small. This he seems to have derived from Paul Bril, who used this in an etching that was etched by Willem van Nieulandt II made in 1602-05 but only published in 1635 (Fig. 7).[2] On the other side is the Temple of Saturn in the Forum, the round temple by the Tiber, and a long wall with a wooded hill behind which is probably inspired by the wall along the Campo Vaccino and Sacra Via at the foot of the Palatine. Saint Peter’s is in the background.

In the painting in Montepulciano we can recognise easily the Colosseum and the Tor di Conti (Fig. 8). The church is less obvious. Topographically speaking, given its relationship to the Colosseum, one would like it to be S. Gregorio Magno, but it is nothing like that and, as I said, Nieulandt assembled his compositions from discrete motifs. The church has the high viewpoint and the look of print by Maggi prints made for the Holy Years of 1600 and 1625, and sure enough it turns out to be S. Croce in Gerusalemme (Fig. 9). The correspondence is not exact, but the key details are the relationship of the campanile to the church (it is on the right) and the little portico like the one at S. Cosimato. Its position and the forecourts are simplified somewhat but it is recognisably the same. Maggi shows the ruins of the apse of the civic basilica of the imperial palace, which was enlarged by the Emperor Constantine and his mother, Helena, and there are ruins in the corresponding position in the painting (Fig. 1), but these are quite different and from another source altogether. What is highly suggestive is the relationship between the is long wall in Maggi that curves around the Roman ruins in a series of straight steps and the curved wall in the painting (Fig. 10), even if is topographically in a different place.

The unit of Colosseum, Tor di Conti and S. Croce in Gerusalemme appears in a painting on copper (50 x 66 cm) by Willem van Nieulandt II in a private collection that has been entitled A Capriccio View of Rome on copper that is in the Web Gallery of Art where it is dated to the 1620s (Figs. 11, 12). A palm tree has been inserted behind the church and camels in front of it which signals that it is set in the Holy Land and has a subject to match. What that subject might be is not immediately clear. There is a statue of Jupiter with thunderbolt and eagle forming a fountain. A mask in the base spills water into a round basin where women in antique dress are gathering water in colourful vases (Fig. 13). One gives water to a man in humble clothing, kneeling with a staff (Fig. 14). On the other side are two men and two women who seem to be doing a deal over a piece of fancy fabric (Fig. 15). One of the women wears a colourful carpet-like cloth like a zingara and intended to show they are in the East, and the other has a broad brimmed round travelling hat with fabric side flaps. The women are presumably customers, and the men, who have their backs to us, merchants. In the foreground are goats, dogs, sheep, and various agricultural implements including a scythe.

The subject that fits this best is the story of Eliezer and Rebecca at the well. Eliezer is a servant of Abraham who is sent to Abraham’s home town to find a suitable wife for his son Isaac. She reveals herself to Eliezer as a suitable wife by offering him, and then his camels, water. This subject was quite popular with early seventeenth-century Dutch Italianate painters.

If this is by Willem van Nieulandt II in the 1620s it was painted in the Netherlands. Apparently Willem II mined his Roman material for the rest of his life, but one wonders what was the role of Willem I, who was there for a long time. Worth investigating is a drawing of the Colosseum given to Willem I (Fig. 16), but this is from a different angle and doesn’t seem to have much in common with the treatments in question.[3] Also of interest is a signed painting recently at Dorotheum as ‘Willem van Nieulandt’ , evidently II from the dates (Fig. 17).[4] This has an intriguing subject which needs to be investigated further.

With regards to the attribution of the Montepulciano painting, a comparison of the Colosseum and S. Croce in Gerusalemme areas with the Eliezer and Rebecca (Fig. 18) reveals how weak the Montepulciano picture use. The Tor di Conti is barely intelligible, and all the other details are much more crudely done, often without a full understanding of what is being represented. This cannot all be attributed to condition, so one must suppose that it is by a follower, or a more or less contemporary attempt at a copy.

[1] https://www.museocivicomontepulciano.it/it/opere-sezione-pinacoteca/dipinti/pittore-nordico-romanizzante-meta-del-sec-xvi

[2] Willem Adriaensz. van Nieulandt II, after Paul Bril, published by Bonenfant, Landscape with Tobias and the Angel, from Italian Landscapes, 1602-1605 (but published after 1635). Etching, 234 x 314 mm. London, British Museum, 1874,0808.2089. Lettered in lower margin: “P. Bril Inue. / nieulant fecit” and “A. Bonenfant excu. / Auec priuile. du Roy.”. Full BM description: ‘Landscape with Tobias and the angel on a road in right foreground, shepherds near ruins in left foreground, a ruined tower in right background, other shepherds and their flocks in middle distance; second state with address of Bonenfant but before number. BM description: This is one from a series of thirty-six plates showing Italian landscapes after Paul Bril by Willem van Nieulandt (Hollstein 76-111). The BM only holds this plate. Hollstein 76-111.II Purchased from: Charles Francis Arnold Howard, 5th Earl of Wicklow. Previous owner/ex-collection: Hugh Howard.

[3] Willem van Nieulandt the Elder (Flemish, died 1626), View of the Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine. Pen and Ink. 26.7 x 41.1 cm. Unknown sale, 17 November 1993.

[4] Willem van Nieulandt [II] (Antwerp 1584–1635 Amsterdam), View of a town with Roman ruins and figures, signed lower right: G. V. NIEVLANT, oil on panel, 26.3 x 36.1 cm, framed. Provenance: Private collection, Belgium. This was sold at Dorotheum on 25 April 2017, lot 226, reaching EUR 19,117. https://www.dorotheum.com/en/auctions/current-auctions/kataloge/list-lots-detail/auktion/12398-old-master-paintings/lotID/226/lot/2197330-willem-van-nieulandt.html

©David R. Marshall 2018

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