Mercator Sapiens. Early Modern Merchants as Cultural Middlemen

Marika Keblusek (Leiden University / Netherlands)

In early modern Europe, princely and aristocratic collectors depended largely on the services of cultural intermediaries who procured works of art, artefacts, rarities, books, mansucripts and other collectables for their cabinets, libraries and gardens.

Often, these agents – merchants, diplomats, librarians, artists – were collectors themselves. A merchant-diplomat from Augsburg, Philipp Hainhofer acted as cultural agent to Duke Philipp II of Pommern-Stetin and Duke August of Wolfenbüttel. Hainhofer’s own  Kunstkammer was renowned amongst his contemporaries and was visited by European collectors, such as the Dukes of Bavaria and the Earl of Arundel. Indeed, Hainhofer’s cabinet seemed to have doubled as a ‘showroom’ where visitors could choose and acquire collectable items and luxury products. Similarly, the Flemish merchant/art dealer Daniel Nijs assembled a picture gallery from which paintings were sold on to other collectors, while he also scouted other collections to acquire paintings for his patrons.

In this project, I focus on the cabinets and libraries of several merchants who acted as artistic brokers, examining their collecting activities in the context of their role as cultural intermediaries. What did their services consist of? Did they merely facilitate the collecting process in terms of transport and finance? Or did they indeed – to a certain extent - ‘mastermind’ their customers’ collections and thus shape their taste? Should we look upon the agent’s collections as ‘blueprints’ for the larger collections they helped build for their patrons? To sum up: were these agents mere followers of fashion, or were they responsible for the introduction of new ideas and tastes in European collecting?