The Renaissance Reconceived

Book Review

  • Hieronymus Cock: The Renaissance in Print

  • Edited by Joris van Grieken, Ger Luijten, and Jan van der Stock, with essays by Jan van der Stock, Joris van Grieken, Ger Luijten, Peter Fuhring, Krista de Jonge, Mandred Sellink, Wouter Bracke and Pieter Martens
  • 416 pages, 320 illustrations
  • Published by Mercatorfonds, distributed by Yale University Press, 2013
  • $95

The name Hieronymus Cock (1518–1570) might not be familiar to all Renaissance scholars or historians of printmaking, but it ought to be. The splendid new catalogue Hieronymus Cock: The Renaissance in Print, published in conjunction with a major exhibition in Leuven (M Museum Leuven), Belgium, and Paris (Institut Néerlandais), makes it clear why. In 1548, Cock and his wife, Volcxken Diericx, established Aux Quatre Vents (“At the Sign of the Four Winds,” a name that signals the publishers’ global ambitions), which the catalogue presents as the single most important print publishing operation of the 16th century. The remarkably vast and diverse range of prints that issued from their presses in Antwerp was instrumental in disseminating ideas and images throughout Europe and beyond. Along the way, they employed famous and experienced artists, among them the Italian engraver Giorgio Ghisi, whom Cock brought to Antwerp, and discovered and nurtured homegrown artistic talent, including the young and as yet unknown Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Their initiative and enterprise helped build the foundations of print culture and shape the contours of the Renaissance.

Johannes Wierix, Portrait of Hieronymus Cock, from the series Pictorum aliquot celebrium Germaniae inferioris effigies (1572), engraving and letterpress, 15.5 x 11.9 cm. Image courtesy the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Johannes Wierix, Portrait of Hieronymus Cock, from the series Pictorum aliquot celebrium Germaniae inferioris effigies (1572), engraving and letterpress, 15.5 x 11.9 cm. Image courtesy the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Organized by the scholars Jan van der Stock (Illuminare, KU Leuven), Joris van Grieken (Royal Library of Belgium) and Ger Luijten (Fondation Custodia, Paris), the exhibition is the first in a quarter century to be dedicated to Cock. In the catalogue, the curators are joined by a host of experts in the many areas in which Cock made his mark. The book’s eight essays focus on Cock’s biography (van der Stock), his commercial practices (van Grieken), his relationship to Italian printmakers and publishers (Luijten), his architectural and ornament prints (Peter Fuhring), his interests in antiquity and archaeology (Krista de Jonghe), his development of a wide range of landscape types (Manfred Sellink) and his substantial cartographic output, one of the least studied aspects of Cock’s career (Wouter Bracke and Pieter Martens). These are followed by 109 catalogue entries organized into nine thematic groups; together they offer a wealth of information and new insights that will be as valuable to experts in the field as to scholars of the Renaissance and prints more generally.

Van Grieken’s close analysis of the printshop’s commercial operations explicates the intersections of art and commerce, showing how savvy entrepreneurship was the foundation of Cock’s success and key to shaping the artistic landscape of the period. Van Grieken carefully parses inventories and financial records to determine the value, range and quantity of prints published by Aux Quatre Vents. Counter to prevailing wisdom, he demonstrates that in addition to the prestigious, high-quality prints produced for an international clientele, the shop also printed cheap images in bulk. These prints, which were neither signed nor dated, most likely served the devotional needs of local audiences and institutions. Van Grieken shows how these mass-market prints provided a steady income to support more ambitious and risky ventures the couple undertook. It is a pity the catalogue doesn’t include any of these; it would be fascinating to compare them to the “officially” issued prints.

Van Grieken also illuminates Volcxken Diericx’s importance to operations at Aux Quatre Vents. Husband and wife worked together from the start, and while most of the works discussed in the catalogue were published during Cock’s lifetime and bear his name, a handful were produced by Diericx after Cock’s death. In fact, she maintained Aux Quatre Vents for an additional 30 years—longer than Cock himself. While production slowed and concentrated more on cheap devotional prints, Diericx also continued to print from the huge stock of plates the couple had amassed over the decades. After her death, these plates were sold to eager publishers who continued to print them in Antwerp, Amsterdam, Paris and elsewhere right through the 17th century.

Johannes Wierix, Portrait of Volcxken Diericx (1579), engraving, 15.9 x 12.4 cm. Image courtesy the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Johannes Wierix, Portrait of Volcxken Diericx (1579), engraving, 15.9 x 12.4 cm. Image courtesy the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Several essays explore the counterpoint between Cock’s fascination with ancient Rome and contemporary Italian art alongside his cultivation of a specifically Netherlandish artistic idiom. The book displays the high quality and technical accomplishments of Cock’s Italian and Italianate prints, with a section devoted to prints after Italian artists that were engraved by both Italian and Northern printmakers, and another showcasing prints after Northern artists working in the Italian manner. While art history in general still tends to privilege the Italian Renaissance as paradigmatic of the period as a whole, this book demonstrates that prints published in northern Europe were instrumental in disseminating the Italian approach. Northern artists often equaled their Italian counterparts in cultivating and advancing this idiom, which blossomed from a regional to an international style through the dissemination of their work. Frans Floris emerges as a primary figure in this conversation. Edward Wouk’s catalogue entries on his drawings and the prints made after them elucidate the artist’s pictorial sophistication, his nuanced interpretation of ancient and contemporary Italian art, and the relationship of his work to the humanist interests of the time. In short, thanks to Cock’s printmaking enterprise, the “Italian” Renaissance style expanded beyond its geographic borders to become far richer and more influential than it otherwise would have been.

As the catalogue moves from prints of ancient Roman subjects, to contemporary Italian prints, to Italianate prints that echoed and expanded the Netherlandish tradition, the categories of Italian and Netherlandish art come to seem less distinct and more like a continuum of artistic possibilities, all freely explored in Cock’s prints. To take one example of his complex negotiations between antiquity and modernity and between north and south, the section of the catalogue on antiquities opens with the Large Book of Ruins (1551), etched by Cock himself. Rather than isolating the ruins like specimens, as Italian artists tended to do, Cock situates them in the midst of expansive landscapes, his delicate etched lines modulated to create a sense of atmospheric space and depth. Cock deployed these landscapes, traditionally considered a Northern specialty, to augment and transform the presentation of ancient ruins. Landscape would emerge as a major artistic genre as a result of Cock’s publications, which included maps, city views, and real and imaginary landscapes. These are assessed in the final section of the catalogue and in Manfred Sellink’s fine essay. Appearing not just as independent works but also as settings in a wide range of images, landscapes are prominent in many Aux Quatre Vents prints, and thus offer a unifying thread throughout the catalogue.

Cock also invites a moral reading of the ruins’ dilapidated forms. Van Grieken assesses the series:

Unlike Italian printmakers and publishers, who depicted the famous monuments of Rome in reconstructions, Cock chose to preserve every trace of decay… Admiration for the enormous buildings and colossal statues of Rome was tied to amazement at the loss of this rich ancient civilization. The decayed remains also provided a cautionary exemplum of the transitory nature of earthly glory.1

The moral current running through Ruins connects the series to the many other moralizing prints Cock published, most notably the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Virtues series after designs by Pieter Bruegel. The catalogue places these Netherlandish Bruegelian inventions together with the Italianate moralizing prints after Maarten van Heemskerck and Maarten de Vos, emphasizing both the continuities of theme and the variety of styles to be found in Cock’s publications.

Hieronymus Cock, Ruins of the Colosseum, A Vaulted Corridor, from the series Praecipua aliquot Romanae antiquitatis ruinarum monimenta vivis prospectibus, known as The Large Book of Ruins (1551), etching and engraving, 22.7 x 28.5 cm. Image courtesy National Gallery of Art, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund.

Hieronymus Cock, Ruins of the Colosseum, A Vaulted Corridor, from the series Praecipua aliquot Romanae antiquitatis ruinarum monimenta vivis prospectibus, known as The Large Book of Ruins (1551), etching and engraving, 22.7 x 28.5 cm. Image courtesy National Gallery of Art, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund.

In some cases, antique models took on unprecedented and entirely new forms under Cock’s direction, as in the architectural perspective views he published after Hans Vredeman de Vries, which incorporate classical forms into a modern—Northern—architectural language. Vredeman de Vries felt a similar freedom to interpret and elaborate on ancient forms in three books of designs based on ancient architectural orders. Vredeman de Vries himself explained that the series was intended for “ingenious builders, masons, stone carvers and other admirers of antique architecture,” but clarified that they should feel free to pick and choose from among his motifs and to adapt and substitute his ideas as desired.2 This intended flexibility was typical of Cock’s publications, which sought to expand and diversify the artistic and thematic range of artists and collectors alike.

De Jonge’s essay argues that the period’s adaptive reimagining and reformulation of the antique “might be directly indebted to Cock’s publications,”3 describing how actual antique fragments and newly created “antiquities” were incorporated into building decorations in the Netherlands, at the same time that they employed what Vredeman de Vries called “modern antiquity” in their structural form.4

Fuhring highlights the innovations in Cock’s ornament print series, which are linchpins of Renaissance design. Cock’s very first venture into print publishing was a series of ornamental tableware designs after Cornelis Floris in 1548. He followed these prints with others designed by Cornelis and his brother Jacob Floris, as well as Vredeman de Vries and Benedictus Battini. These series were groundbreaking in content, format and organization. Cock championed “a wholly new form of ornament consisting of scrollwork”: complex, illusionistic devices that look like sculptural scaffolds for a profusion of grotesques and other ornament.5 Cock arranged these prints systematically in standardized sets with title pages. This practice, borne of the desire to give coherence to nonnarrative sequences of prints, became standard practice among print publishers.

Cornelis Cort after Frans Floris, Hercules and the Pygmies (1562), engraving, 32.2 x 46 cm. Image courtesy the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Cornelis Cort after Frans Floris, Hercules and the Pygmies (1562), engraving, 32.2 x 46 cm. Image courtesy the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Beyond illuminating Cock’s formal, technical and pictorial innovations, the catalogue masterfully elucidates the vast network of Cock’s colleagues and patrons, making clear the publisher’s international reach and reputation. Among his acquaintances and business partners were prominent humanists, antiquarians, publishers, artists, printmakers and high-ranking members of the church and the court, who often had a considerable impact on some of his most ambitious projects (see especially De Jonghe’s essay). The catalogue is careful to connect publications to specific contributors and patrons wherever possible. For instance, The Baths of Diocletian (1558), a monumental series of etchings that offered the first scientific printed record of a major ancient building, was dedicated to Cardinal Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, former bishop of Arras and counselor to Emperor Charles V. Granvelle was instrumental to this undertaking, introducing Cock and the engineer Sebastian van Noyen. Granvelle’s connection to the Habsburg court and his antiquarian interests also put Cock in contact with humanists, artists, theorists, engineers and wealthy patrons from across Europe. This led to major projects for the Habsburgs, most notably the Funeral Procession of Charles V (1559), a joint publication of Cock and Christopher Plantin that was financed at least in part by Margaret of Parma, regent of the Netherlands, and Pierre de Vernois, an officer in Philip II’s service. Operating in the midst of this illustrious and far-reaching network, Aux Quatre Vents was uniquely placed to shape the artistic and intellectual culture of the Renaissance.

Cock moved easily between “artistic” works and those of primarily topical or political interest, like maps and siege views. When Bracke and Martens write, “Cock’s production remained that of a publisher of prints,” they are confirming the idea that Cock thought of maps as images first and foremost.6 He issued maps, even very large multi-sheet ones, with the intention they be viewed as single unified images. He never compiled them into an atlas, as was increasingly common among publishers of the time. Cock borrowed and copied extensively from existing maps, and others in turn often copied his—the authors describe these complex paths of production and reproduction in detail. The speed with which this transfer of information and imagery could take place is striking. Cock published a map of the siege of Malta, for instance, just a few months after its original publication in Rome.7

Johannes and Lucas van Doetecum after Cornelis Floris, Title Page with Scrollwork Decorations with Figures, from the series Veelderleij niewe inuentien van Antijcksche Sepultueren... Libro Secundo (1557), etching and engraving, 30 x 20.7 cm. Image courtesy the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Johannes and Lucas van Doetecum after Cornelis Floris, Title Page with Scrollwork Decorations with Figures, from the series Veelderleij niewe inuentien van Antijcksche Sepultueren… Libro Secundo (1557), etching and engraving, 30 x 20.7 cm. Image courtesy the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The book is lavishly illustrated. Rather than showing just a single print from a set, several series are reproduced in their entirety. In many instances title pages and dedication pages are also included, so the reader gets the added advantage of seeing how these prints were visually and intellectually framed. Many preparatory drawings related to the prints are reproduced, some as catalogue entries that show the designers’ methods of communicating pictorial ideas to printmakers. Many rare prints appear, among them a map that has never before been mentioned in the literature on Cock (cat. 104), raising the tantalizing prospect that there are yet more prints from Aux Quatre Vents out there awaiting discovery and identification. The illustrations contradict the expectation that Renaissance prints are necessarily black and white; many of the impressions reproduced are luxury exemplars that were hand-colored or printed in colored ink or on colored paper. The book is a rich visual feast and a delight to peruse, its beautiful reproductions and engaging texts integrated into an elegantly and coherently organized whole. Indeed, the volume deserves its nomination for Belgium’s Cutting Edge award for best-designed book of 2013.

I am hard-pressed to levy any criticism of this exceptional book. The few infelicitous translations and typos and scattered across 416 pages are truly trivial errors. One is struck rather by the smooth flow and continuity of the text, a considerable feat in a volume with so many contributors. In addition to the consistent quality and tone, the book is unified by the authors’ shared premise: the quality and scope of Cock and Diericx’s initiatives as print publishers were unmatched in the Renaissance, and the prints that issued from Aux Quatre Vents were instrumental in shaping art and culture for decades, if not centuries. As Luijten, van Grieken and van der Stock put it: “It cannot be denied that art is inspired by genius, but there have also been, over and over again, men and women who have challenged genius to higher things, enabled it to flourish and shared it with many others. Aux Quatre Vents in a nutshell.”8 This magisterial catalogue ensures that Cock and Diericx’s great accomplishments will now once more be shared with many others.

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  1. Joris van Grieken, “Establishing and Marketing a Publisher’s List,” in Hieronymus Cock: The Renaissance in Print, 89. All subsequent page citations refer to the catalogue. []
  2. P. 303. []
  3. Krista de Jonge, “Hieronymus Cock’s Antiquity: Archaeology and Architecture from Italy to the Low Countries,” 49. []
  4. This puts one in mind of Christopher Wood’s recent Forgery Replica Fiction: Temporality of German Renaissance Art (University of Chicago Press, 2008), which in addition to highlighting many instances of this sort of creative invention of new antiquities also explicates the fundamental role of prints and print culture in shaping the Renaissance. []
  5. Peter Fuhring, “Hieronymus Cock and the Impact of his Published Architectural and Ornamental Prints,” 279. []
  6. Wouter Bracke and Pieter Martens, “A New View on the World: The Cartographic and Chorographic Publications of Hieronymus Cock,” 62. []
  7. Ibid., 65. []
  8. Joris van Grieken, Ger Luijten, and Jan van der Stock, “Challenging Talent and Letting It Grow: Aux Quatre Vents, 1548-1600,” 11. []