Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.10.20 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.10.20

Maria Luisa Napolitano, Hubertus Goltzius e la Magna Grecia: dalle Fiandre all'Italia del Cinquecento. Itala Tellus, 3.   Napoli:  Luciano Editore, 2011.  Pp. 471.  ISBN 9788860261380.  €65.00.  

Reviewed by Christopher Smith, British School at Rome; University of St Andrews (

Hubertus Goltzius (1526 -1583) was renowned in his day for his versatility and for his monumental and handsome volumes on numismatics in particular. He founded a printing house, was friends with a core group of Dutch humanists, notably Ortelius, and left an important list of the coin collections which he had visited in Europe, which is of great significance for those wishing to understand early modern collecting and the origins of numismatic study.

In the 18th century, Joseph Hilarius Eckhel made a vigorous critique of his reliability, and although it was not the first, it was the definitive dismissal. The reliability of Goltzius’ identifications and indeed the authenticity of the coins he claimed to see were questioned. Thereafter, Goltzius languished and received less attention, until in recent times, Christian Dekesel produced a series of important (but not uncritical) works.1

Napolitano’s volume, a detailed study of Goltzius’ life and output, with a particular emphasis on his account of Sicily and Magna Graecia (the first work in fact to use the term in its title 2), is a welcome addition, and will be a standard work for Goltzius as well as a useful contribution to understanding sixteenth-century scholarship on Roman history and numismatics.

The book is divided into two parts, the first on Goltzius’ work generally, and the second specifically on the Magna Graecia. The first two chapters focus largely on Goltzius’ biography. He was born in Venlo in 1526. At the age of 18, he moved to work with Lambert Lombard in Liège. Lombard was in Rome in the aftermath of the sack of 1527, but was forced to return to Liège, where his little academy taught the classics. Cornelis and Frans Floris were fellow academicians with Goltzius, and Ortelius, the great cartographer, moved in the same circles. Lombard gave a boost to the collecting and studying of coins in Belgium, and was an important influence on Goltzius’ early life and friendships.

Goltzius moved to the great trading city of Antwerp in 1546, and it may have been there that his relationship with Ortelius deepened. Through this, he gained access to a wider world of humanist learning and tolerant Catholicism. Ortelius’ circle included Fulvio Ursino, Gerard Mercator, Iustus Lipsius, and Benedictus Arias Montanus, who supervised a great polyglot version of the Bible. How close Goltzius was to this world is unclear; he is not named in Frans Swert’s contemporary list of Ortelius’ friends, but letters survive between Ortelius and Goltzius which show a familiarity; Napolitano argues that the ties were close.

Goltzius’ first publication was the Imagines, images of the emperors from Caesar to Charles the Fifth, with accompanying notes in 1557 in several different languages, and this work, with its beautiful engravings influenced by but surpassing those of Enea Vico, made his name. In 1558 he moved to Bruges, where his new patron Marc Lauweryn (Marcus Laurinus) funded a two year trip through Europe to visit all the major numismatic collections. On his return, again with his patron’s support, he set up a publishing house (the first private press in the Netherlands), the Officina Goltziana, and his works began to flow; C. Iulius Caesar, which brought together the coins of the dictator and his contemporaries within a broader historical narrative (1563), an edition of the Fasti Magistratuum & Triumphorum Romanorum ab urbe condita ad Augusti obitum, ex Antiquis Numismatibus restituti (1566), and an account of Augustus in 1574, continuing the work begun in his earlier work on Caesar.

Bruges was not to be a peaceful resting place; the Spanish sack of Antwerp in 1576 was followed by a Protestant backlash. The Laurinus brothers, both Catholics, were forced out and Laurinus’ death in 1581 finally deprived Goltzius of his financial and moral support. His own religious position may have swung over to a moderate reformist position, and his later years were marked by an oddly disputatious marriage and litigation with Laurinus’ heirs. He died in 1583; his more famous nephew, Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617) continued a career as an artist and engraver of note.

The Flemish passion for Rome is well documented; what Napolitano demonstrates is how the travels of the Flemish, when they went south, were facilitated. Habsburg connections appear to have been vital to Goltzius. In turn, Goltzius named all those who showed him their collections – a list of great importance. Is it reliable however? Napolitano is more accepting than others; a recent study of Goltzius’ trip to Genoa is sceptical.3 However, Goltzius made a sufficient impact to be awarded the citizenship of Rome, which he proudly inserted in his frontispieces. Napolitano has a lengthy excursus on this, comparing Goltzius’ situation with the near contemporary award to Montaigne, who knew many of the same people. Secular and papal power intersected in the making of this award; but it was in the gift of the Conservatori, and the 1566 production of the Fasti of the magistrates and triumphs, which were already in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, was no doubt a calculated move.

Napolitano’s third chapter is a summary account of Goltzius’ works, attempting to set them into a broader context. Goltzius was part of an extraordinary world of scholarship, and he touched on many themes and tried his hand at many things – he was even known for painting, including a Last Judgement in the Town Hall at Venlo and a portrait of Diana of Poitiers. It was in the quality of the engravings however that Goltzius’ books stood out – and Napolitano may underplay his innovation here. The woodcuts for the first edition of Imagines were the first use of chiaroscuro in the Netherlands.4

The intellectual context could also have been expanded upon, and Napolitano may err slightly on the side of compression; it would have been interesting for instance to know how Goltzius’ version of the Fasti distinguished itself from the others in existence, notably that of Sigonius, the fourth edition of which was published in 1559 and was selected to be included by Henri Estienne in 1568 in his edition of Roman historians and by Sylburg in his Frankfurt edition. Was this academic choice, or for some other reason? How far was Laurinus implicated, and how much did he himself write? Presumably, Onofrio Panvino’s accusations of plagiarism hit the mark, even if he was himself not above suspicion in the vicious world of humanist backbiting. There is more to be said, and Napolitano’s focus is narrower than for instance Susan Gaylord’s account of early modern concerns with the self-representation of rulers, which is relevant especially to the Imagines.5

Napolitano devotes the second half of her book specifically to Goltzius’ work on Greece and Magna Graecia; it has the feel of a set of slightly disconnected studies. A first chapter looks at the unattractiveness of the Athenian model of democracy for contemporary political philosophy, and the relative scarcity of attention to Greek studies, given the predominance of Roman history. Goltzius is shown to have taken an unusually broad view of the pervasiveness of Greek influence.

The second chapter includes lengthy quotes from the work. The quotes are perhaps excessive – entire sections on Croton, Metapontum, Sybaris and Caulonia are reproduced. These passages, largely paraphrases of the ancient sources, are then set alongside sections on Goltzius’ use of coins in relation to the same sites, with comparative illustrations of modern photographs as against engravings. Goltzius comes out reasonably well from the comparison – the engravings are not hugely inaccurate and there is a good deal of overlap, that is, Goltzius did not entirely illustrate fakes. However, his methodology survives less well. So to take the example of Caulonia, Goltzius believed that the key deity was Zeus Homarios, relying on Polybius 2.39.6; he therefore interpreted all the coins, which we now know to be of Apollo, to be of a young beardless Zeus, and his engravings imported thunderbolts into the deity’s hands to support the argument. (It is small consolation that in modern times it has been suggested that the temple of Punta Stilo at Caulonia was dedicated to Zeus Homarios).

The third chapter looks in detail at the relationship between Ortelius’ mapmaking and that of Pirro Ligorio; Napolitano concludes that Goltzius relied more on Ligorio. Given the earlier relationship between Goltzius and Ortelius this might seem surprising; the reason may have been polemical – Goltzius was rather independent-minded and may have found it easier to disagree with Ligorio. Napolitano alludes to adventurous theories of how Ortelius’ maps revealed his religious leanings, but prefers to emphasise that Goltzius uses the concept of a history characterised by mobility, migration and mixture of populations to render the story of Greeks in Italy attractive in the contemporary context of a world of Spanish expansion.6

The appendices include a bibliography of Goltzius and the Officina Goltziana; the works of Ortelius; and an account of the magistracies of Rome in the 15th and 16th century which is useful, if out of place.

Taken as a whole, this volume is more a series of connected studies than an intellectual biography. It is a good introduction to a man who was once highly regarded and whose work showed artistic originality and commercial intelligence, and whose role, as Carmine Ampolo shows in his elegant short preface, has been rather overlooked. If it has not entirely rescued Goltzius from de la Fontaine Verwey’s comment that Goltzius was ‘a well-known historian, but … did not write his works himself …; he is praised for his typographical work, but it is a matter of doubt whether he himself ever did any printing,’ Napolitano’s work has reminded us of the fascinating world in which, briefly, Goltzius was a player, and, in his younger contemporary William Camden’s words, restaurator ille antiquitatis.7


1.   J. Eckhel, Doctrina numorum veterum, pars I (Vienna 1792); C. E. Dekesel, Hubertus Goltzius the Father of Ancient Numismatics: An Annotated and Illustrated Bibliography (Gent, 1988)
2.   See J. Raby, ‘ Pride and Prejudice: Mehmed the Conqueror and the Italian Portrait Medal,’ Studies in the History of Art Vol. 21 (1987), 171-194 for a medal struck in 1480 referring to Mehmet as emperor of Magna Graecia, and apparently referring to Sicily.
3.   A. Bedocchi. Documenti di collezionismo genovese fra XVI e XVIII secolo: I numismatici della lista Goltzius e la collezione Viale : cultura e business di una famiglia di corallieri nel mercato europeo delle anticaglie e del lusso, Memorie, Accademia nazionale dei Lincei. Classe di scienze morali, storiche e filologiche; ser. 9, v. 29, fasc. 2, Rome 2012, which also reveals the fascinating Kunstkammer collection of one Battista Negrone Viale.
4.   For details of the technique, see C. E. Dekesel, ‘Hubertus Goltzius and his Icones Imperatorum Romanorum in R. Pera (ed) L'immaginario del potere: studi di iconografia monetale, Serta antiqua et mediaevalia, VIII (Rome, 2005), 259-79. For a recent brief account of the development of the technique and imagery in the Netherlands, with a strong focus on Hendrick Goltzius, see A. Gnann, with D. Ekserdjian and M. Foster, Chiaroscuro: Renaissance Woodcuts from the Collections of George Baselitz and the Albertina, Vienna (London, 2014), 136-63. See also S. Gaylord, Hollow Men: Writing, Objects, and Public Image in Renaissance Italy (Fordham, 2013), 178-96.
5.  See W. McCuaig, Carlo Sigonio: the Changing World of the Late Renaissance (Princeton, 1989), 346-56 for Sigonio’s bibliography’; J-L. Ferrary, Onofrio Panvino et les antiquités romaines (Rome, 1996), 114-20 on Goltzius and Laurinus as plagiarists.
6.   For Ortelius see G. Mangani, Il "mondo" di Abramo Ortelio : misticismo, geografia e collezionismo nel Rinascimento dei Paesi Bassi (Modena, 2006). See also G. Ceserani, Italy's Lost Greece: Magna Graecia and the Making of Modern Archaeology (Oxford, 2012), 104-5, bringing in Hugo Grotius’ subsequent work.
7.   H. de la Fontaine Verwey, ‘The First Private Press in the Low Countries: Marcus Laurinus and the Officina Goltziana’, Quaerendo, 2 (1972), 294–300 at 294; it might be fairer to acknowledge the largely collaborative nature of much early encyclopaedic work; see A. Vine, ‘Copiousness, conjecture and collaboration in William Camden’s Britannia,’ Renaissance Studies 28.2 (2014) 225-41. ​

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010