In November 2016 I arrived at Bard Graduate Center armed with a well-defined goal for my two-month fellowship there: to crystalize the concept for an exhibition I am organizing on Flemish merchant collecting in Renaissance Venice. The exhibition stems from the research for my first book (The Flemish Merchant of Venice, published in 2015 by Yale UP) and my second book, which I am in the process of finishing, both on cultural aspects of the Flemish merchant diaspora between 1450 and 1650. Part of my work involves public relations, in the sense that only a small number of scholars are very familiar with early modern Flemish expatriate trading communities. Before I even begin to speak about specific individuals when making a presentation, I usually first show the extent of the diaspora and give some statistics to demonstrate that the Flemish were important and are worthy of scholarly attention. Because my approach is based on extensive archival research, I see it as a great accomplishment if at the end of a presentation I have been able to pull together all the “chicken scratchings” I have uncovered in the archives into a coherent argument and to have sparked excitement for the topic among those listening. It is in this context that two aspects of my time at BGC made especially memorable impacts on me.

Sometimes the greatest benefit of holding a visiting fellowship or attending an intensive course is meeting the other fellows. On day one at BGC I met Paula Hohti of Aalto University in Finland who would also be spending two months there, working on her book. We hit it off immediately, discovering that we had many scholarly interests in common. In particular, we both saw possibilities for practical applications of our research outside of the academy; and, perhaps because we both work on the early modern period and because Paula has researched shopkeepers and artisans, we did not need to explain the significance of our research to each other. It was a wonderful experience making this bond with such a great scholarly comrade-in-arms.

The second gift that I received during my BGC fellowship occurred near the end of my time there, during my seminar presentation. I spoke about the Flemish merchant communities in three geographic locations, the Atlantic islands (Madeira, the Canaries, and the Azores), Seville, and Venice; about two commodities (sugar and gems), and about the art that is connected to the Flemish presence in each of these locations. For the Atlantic islands this is early sixteenth-century Flemish art, mostly religious paintings and wooden sculpture as well as ecclesiastical metalwork; for Seville architecture in the form of hospitals and chapels founded by the Flemish as well as paintings commissioned for these buildings; and in Venice a variety of Italian and Flemish works of art and musical scores that the merchants commissioned and/or collected. At the end of the presentation I was gratified by the questions I received, and really pleased to hear from those who attended that, for example, they had no idea there was Flemish art still in situ on the island of La Palma or, from the deputy representative of the Flemish government in New York, that even he did not know any of this history and was impressed by what I had to say.

Nonetheless, Ivan Gaskell had asked a question that I did not feel I answered well, and that rankled for some time afterwards. He wanted to know more specifically how the sugar, gems, and art were connected. Although I had spoken about how the merchants that commissioned and imported the Flemish art to the locations previously mentioned were involved in the sugar and gem trades I had not spent much time discussing the implications of this, and the kind of concepts that could be explored as a result. A year later, I realize that my “takeaway” from this is that Ivan was giving me permission to stop being so concerned about whether others found Flemish merchants important or compelling. Instead, I now think of them much more in terms of geographies of art; actor-network connections; and paradigms such as shared values, professions, and geographies (e.g. port cities). I also look at how and in which circumstances the transnational networks of the art market overlap with those of other markets. The discomfort I experienced at BGC has gone a long way to helping me relax about my area of research and, I hope, to bring greater depth to my writing.

Christina M. Anderson, Senior Research Associate, School of European Languages, Culture and Society, University College London; Bard Graduate Center Research Fellow, November–December 2016.