The Flemish Merchant of Venice: Daniel Nijs and the Sale of the Gonzaga Art Collection

by Christina M. Anderson, D.Phil.

Research Fellow, History Faculty & Ashmolean Museum, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Published by Yale University Press in 2015

Odoardo Fialetti, Daniel Nijs (1572-1647), engraving, in La pittura trionfante (1615) by Giulio Cesare Gigli. Reprinted in 1996 by I Quaderni del Batello Ebro. (Used with permission of the publisher.)


Daniel Nijs (or Nys), 1572-1647, a Flemish merchant who lived in Venice for most of his life, famously brokered the 1627-28 sale of the Gonzaga art collection of Mantua to Charles I of England. In terms of the amount of money and number of works of art that changed hands, it was the greatest art deal of the seventeenth century.

Born in exile in Wesel, on the lower Rhine in Germany, Nijs was the son of Protestant refugees from the southern Netherlands, today's Belgium. He moved to Venice in the 1590s to work for his cousins, Jean, Jacques and Pierre Gabry, who were originally from Tournai and had established an international trading firm with branches across Europe. Nijs assumed responsibility for the firm's Venetian branch where he was part of a small, yet conspicuous, expatriate community of Flemish merchants.

By 1615, Nijs had amassed a considerable fortune and an impressive art collection, as well as a wide circle of artistic contacts.  The architect Vincenzo Scamozzi, for example, for whom Nijs had guaranteed a loan, described Nijs's art collection in glowing terms in his L’idea dell’architettura universale (1615). The merchant was also fêted as a great collector and patron by the poet Giulio Cesare Gigli in La pittura trionfante (1615).  Odoardo Fialetti, an artist of Bolognese origin who had worked in the elderly Tintoretto’s studio, created the frontispiece for Gigli’s book as well as one of only two known portraits of Nijs (see left).  The Earl of Arundel and the English ambassador Sir Dudley Carleton both purchased works of art from Nijs, while the artist Philipp Esengren and musician Nicholas Lanier were involved in Nijs’s negotiations with the Gonzaga administration in Mantua.

As a Calvinist, Nijs cultivated contacts with Paolo Sarpi, the official theologian of the Serene Republic, and the Duke of Rohan, among others. He was also reported to the authorities for holding (forbidden) Protestant services in his Venetian home.

The Mantua sale proved Nijs's undoing. After successfully completing a first transaction between the Gonzaga administration and Charles I in 1627, he was tempted into a further sale of pieces from the collection in 1628, which included the highly esteemed Triumphs of Caesar by Andrea Mantegna. When payment from the English crown was not forthcoming for this second consignment, Nijs was forced into bankruptcy. He spent many of his remaining years in England trying to recuperate his losses and died in London in 1647.

Christina Anderson's monograph on Nijs and the Gonzaga sale was published by Yale University Press in Spring, 2015. Her article 'Daniel Nijs's Cabinet and its Sale to Lord Arundel in 1636' was published in The Burlington Magazine in March 2012. In addition, her article 'The Art of Friendship: Daniel Nijs, Isaac Wake and the Sale of the Gonzaga Collection' appeared in Renaissance Studies in November 2013.

This project has been funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation, the Society for Renaissance Studies and the Pollard fund of Wadham College, Oxford.

For more about Christina Anderson and her work at Oxford, please click on the links below.

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