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0100 Jesper Svenningsen, A noble circle. The vogue for collecting Italian paintings in Denmark 1690-1730

RIHA Journal 0100 | 23 Dec 2014 | Special Issue "Collecting Italian Art North of the Alps"

A noble circle. The vogue for collecting Italian paintings in Denmark 1690-1730

Jesper Svenningsen

Peer review and editing managed by:

Martin Olin, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm


Birgitte Bøggild Johannsen, Sabrina Norlander Eliasson


This article presents a closer look at an important moment in the history of art collecting in Denmark when Italian art first began to be admired by noble virtuosi. During the last decade of the 17th and first quarter of the 18th century, a number of art collections were formed by young Danish noblemen, most of whom had travelled in the company of Crown Prince Frederik. Due to the very incomplete level of documentation we are now often frustratingly unable to gauge the exact size and contents of these collections. Yet the sources presented in the article do suggest a strong bias towards Italian art, by old masters as well as contemporary painters.



  1. At what point did Danish collectors begin to appreciate the art of Venice, Florence and Rome? While royal patronage was occasionally extended to Italian artists or artists working in an Italianate style, little is known of a taste for Italian fine art in other parts of Danish society.1 This article aims to look past the much-studied phenomenon of royal patronage and focus instead on an early circle of private art collectors in Denmark. Most of these aristocratic collectors belonged to the entourage of Crown Prince Frederik (1671-1730), who in 1699 succeeded his father as King Frederik IV. And like their European contemporaries, these men came to consider Italian paintings the pinnacle of art and the pearls of their collection. Our knowledge of collecting and uses of pictures in seventeenth-century Denmark remains extremely scarce, and while a widespread use of graphic images and decorative painting is documented, we know of few real attempts (excepting those of the king) to procure high quality paintings from abroad.2 Thus the collecting activities of this circle of courtiers mark the point when art collecting first comes into view as a shared activity of the Danish elite, parallel to (if not always independent from) the taste and patronage of the king.


The princely travel parties

  1. Since late medieval times a European journey had formed an indispensable part of the education of young Danish nobleman.3 These hugely expensive journeys were usually directed towards academic or military training, though a young gentleman was equally expected to return with a knowledge of foreign languages, manners and politics. Time was usually divided between universities and cultural capitals in the Netherlands, Germany, France and Italy, in approximately that order of preference. Artistic matters formed part of the standard curriculum too, yet the Danes do not appear to have brought back souvenirs of paintings and sculpture in greater number.4 By the late seventeenth century, the character, duration and outcome of the nobleman's journey had been formalised into what we now know as the Grand Tour.5 Danish princes too were expected to educate themselves abroad and in 1692-93, the young Crown Prince Frederik left for his Grand Tour. The chosen route carried him and his retinue via Frankfurt, Nürnberg and Innsbruck to the Alps, from where he entered Italy as the first Danish monarch in two centuries. After visiting Venice, the prince journeyed south along the Adriatic coast to spend spring in Rome and after a short sojourn in Florence in May, he continued by sea to Genoa and on to Marseille. The following six months were spent in different cities in southern and western France, studying language and customs. Only then was the prince considered ready to make his appearance in Paris and at the court at Versailles, before returning home via Flanders and Holland.

  2. Prince Frederik's Grand Tour is considered of great importance for the course of royal patronage in Denmark. The impulses received are perhaps most notable in his modelling of his favourite palace Frederiksberg on Italian prototypes, yet the prince was not the only one to come under the spell of Italy. His retinue included a group of young court officials, many of whom had been friends of the prince since childhood. And as the prince was invited into the palaces of Rome, Florence and Paris, so were these young noblemen. As a consequence, most members of the travel party were severely smitten with the taste for anything Italian, be it art and architecture, dances or dinners.

  3. Italy left such a deep impression on the prince himself that he even decided to return one day, and sixteen years later, in 1708, he embarked on his second Italian journey, now as King of Denmark.6 That an absolute monarch should travel abroad for leisure was almost unheard of and caused endless administrative headaches. Several daily dispatches were needed for the king to rule from the far end of the continent. Though the purpose of the journey was clouded in mystery (and surely caused some speculation throughout Europe), the king's agenda was hardly suspect.7 It seems that he simply wished to revisit Italy for the sake of entertainment and recreation, to attend lavish balls and in short to relive his youth. To this end, he brought with him a number of his companions from his first journey. This time the chosen route carried the travel party through Leipzig, Nürnberg and Augsburg to Innsbruck and from there across the Alps into Italy. Christmas was spent in Verona before arrival to Venice in time for the carnival.8 Though Rome had been a natural and important stop on his first Grand Tour, it clearly held little fascination for the bon vivant King Frederik who felt no need to revisit the Eternal City. The lavishness and festivity of Venice suited his tastes better, and the ten-week sojourn there seems to have been the main object of the journey. And after spending the following six weeks in Tuscany, the king and his retinue of 121 people headed back to Denmark.9

  4. Although Frederik himself was mostly interested in gardening and architecture and primarily brought back Venetian glass and other objets d'art, he also saw fit to acquire a few paintings on his two journeys.10 His purchases betray a particular appreciation of feminine beauty and include a group of paintings attributed to Jacopo Bassano, an oval painting by Giovan Gioseffo dal Sole (Fig. 1), a collection of pastels and miniatures brought from Rosalba Carriera (presumably including Fig. 2) and possibly also a couple of pastels and an oil painting by Benedetto Luti (Fig. 3).11 The other members of the travel party all appear to have brought back Italian pictures too and perhaps in greater measure than the prince. The encounter with the Venetian art market in particular left its mark on the taste and collections of the courtiers.12 Though the art works bought or commissioned by the Danes were rarely of great quality they were to be of importance to the dissemination of an aristocratic Italianate taste in Denmark.

1 Giovan Gioseffo dal Sole, Tarquin Threatening Lucretia, oil on canvas, 74 x 57,5 cm. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, KMSsp128 (SMK Foto)

2 Rosalba Carriera, Chastity, miniature on vellum, 8.8 x 7.1 cm. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, KMS4838 (SMK Foto)

3 Benedetto Luti, Head of a young woman, 1704, pastel, 32.5 x 27.3 cm. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, KMSB14 (SMK Foto)

  1. Unfortunately, the sources for the activities of this early circle of Danish courtier-collectors are extremely scarce. As probate proceedings were not mandatory, the archival records give only an incomplete picture. Several of the collections were only documented much later and may well have been greatly reduced or augmented in the meantime. Similarly, many collections had by then been transferred to provincial manor houses, where the art works had to conform to entirely different uses. A large number of unfashionable ancestral acquisitions were weeded out in this process. In other cases, the sale of a family town house caused entire collections to be auctioned off. In all, the reconstruction of early eighteenth-century private collecting in Denmark is difficult if not impossible. For the sake of clarity, I will focus on a few of the prince's better-known travel companions, beginning with the lesser court officials Wibe, Walter and Weiberg. These three men all appear to have shared a preference for contemporary painting, while their noble counterparts, the Counts Ulrik Adolph Holstein, Christian Detlev Reventlow and, perhaps, Christian Gyldenløve all seem to have preferred the Old Masters.


Ditlev Wibe

  1. The best documented example of early eighteenth-century collecting in Denmark is the prince's close childhood friend, the Secretary of the Danish Chancery and later Governor-general of Norway Ditlev Wibe (1670-1731). When the prince set out on his first Italian journey, Wibe had already spent several years studying abroad, particularly in Paris, and had even visited Rome in 1688.13 Though he was not able to partake in the prince's entire Grand Tour, Wibe travelled from Paris to Rome to visit the Danish travel party.14 Sixteen years later, however, he was an indispensable member of the king's council on his entire second journey.

  2. Like most of his fellow travellers, Wibe seems to have been inspired by the French and Italian art collections. At any event, the Wibe home later contained a number of pictures that may well have been acquired during either Italian journey. These art works are all recorded in a unique copy of an anonymous sale catalogue kept by the National Library of Denmark. The sale took place in Copenhagen in December 1732 and a contemporary note on the catalogue's back cover states that the items described within "have been the estate of the late privy councillor and governor-general Mr Wibe".15 The sale included 116 paintings, among them at least 30 pieces attributed to Italian artists, mainly of the 16th and 17th century. Besides names like Tintoretto, Titian and Carracci, we find more contemporary paintings such as "A large rectangular piece, Christ, Mary and Joseph", "A large piece with Cleopatra" and a "Mary Magdalen" all by Carlo Maratta, as well as "A Pan by Carlotti" i.e. by Johann Carl Loth.16 In general, Wibe seems to have preferred contemporary painters to the Old Masters and his collection included paintings by the two artists most admired by the Danish travel parties, Sebastiano Bombelli (1635-1719) and Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757). The former had left a particularly good impression on the Danes, and after a visit to his studio in February 1692 the prince himself considered Bombelli "den allerberühmtesten Mahler der heutigen Welt".17 As Bombelli was the leading Venetian exponent of formal portraiture at the time, Wibe had naturally commissioned a portrait from him, probably the likeness of one of his companions.18 Wibe's infatuation with the art of Carriera is attested by a letter to the artist dated 21 December 1709 in which he mentions having received a version of the portrait of La Zenobio.19 "Il sert d'un grand ornement à mon Cabinet," Wibe assures the artist. The portrait probably formed part of the series of paintings by the artist later appearing in the sale of the Wibe collection as "6 cabinet pieces on ivory, varnished, with lacquered frames, by Mademoiselle Rosalba, 4 glazed and 2 unglazed."20


Frederik Walter

  1. Wibe was not the only Dane interested in the Carriera pastels. Several members of the travel parties were in fact competing to buy these fashionable pieces, and the prince's valet de chambre Frederik Walter (1649-1718, Fig. 4) is likewise known to have written a thank you letter to the Venetian portraitist.21 Other than that, Walter's taste and art collection has remained unknown. The reasons for his participation in the prince's journeys are, on the other hand, abundantly clear as he was exceptionally well travelled. In the 1670s, he had visited the Netherlands, France and Italy as tutor to the Swedish-German Count Johann Carl von Königsmarck and later Walter had served as tutor to Prince Frederik's half-brother, Count Christian Gyldenløve, on his journey to Italy in 1688-90.22 Fluent in Italian and well versed in local customs, Walter was an obvious choice for the post of royal marshal on both Italian journeys.

  2. Today Walter is mainly remembered as a discerning bibliophile, and especially his choice of bindings in French style red Morocco is well known to historians of book collecting.23 Yet his probate inventory reveals that he also owned a large number of paintings.24 His collection of some 139 paintings was first inventoried prior to his wedding in 1714 as part of a prenuptial agreement, whereas a second list drawn up after Walter's death in 1718 amounts to 148 pieces. The names of the individual artists, however, are only rarely stated. The collection held a large number of flower paintings and portraits, including likenesses of people that Walter had served under such as the Count and Countess Königsmarck, the Princess of Ostfriesland, Count Christian Gyldenløve and King Frederik IV. However, the two lists offer little evidence of any artistic souvenirs brought back from Italy, possibly excepting a landscape attributed to Salvator Rosa, two pictures by "Carlo Liota," and eight portraits by a certain "Monbelle" or "Monbelli".25 The latter could perhaps refer to the favourite of the Danes, Sebastiano Bombelli, as the royal collection is known to have contained a portrait of Walter attributed to the artist.26

4 Copy after Hyacinthe Rigaud, Portrait of Frederik Walter, after an original from 1702, oil on canvas, 43 x 34 cm. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, KMS4134 (SMK Foto)

  1. The two inventories of the Walter collection give only an incomplete picture of his Italianate taste. This is due to Walter's infamous habit of exceeding his means including (so the playwright Ludvig Holberg tells us) always ordering food for four people when dining alone.27 As a result, he was often short of money and in the years 1713-15, he had had to pawn the most prized pieces of his art collection. In all 21 painting were left with the Jewish jeweller Joseph Meyer Levin (died 1739) who in turn pawned them with the King's jeweller Andreas Norman (1666-1727).28 After Walter's death his executors tried to auction off the paintings, most of which remained unsold and had to be handed back to Norman in restitution of debts.29 The paintings included two portraits and a figure painting by Bombelli, a pastel by Rosalba Carriera (perhaps the one mentioned in Walter's letter to the artist) and some further paintings by Carlo Maratta and Benedetto Luti.30 In all, Walter's collection is comparable to that of Wibe in both the preference for the fashionable names of contemporary Italian painting and in the comparatively small number of earlier Italian pictures. Though their preference for Venetian and Roman figure paintings and portraits is almost without precedence in Danish society, this pattern of collecting is, of course, hardly remarkable in a wider European perspective. The content of the Wibe and Walter collection is in fact reminiscent of the kind of art works commissioned and bought by British travellers during what has been termed "the early 'Maratta' phase of Grand Tour collecting."31 And like contemporary British travellers, neither Wibe nor Walter showed any particular appreciation of Italian vedute or landscapes.


Frederik von Weiberg

  1. There is something to suggest that the taste of Wibe and Walter was shared by their close friend Frederik von Weiberg (ca. 1670-1720).32 After studying abroad in the 1680s, particularly in Holland, Weiberg had visited Florence in 1690 before receiving a minor post at the Danish court.33 In 1693, he was ennobled and ten years later, he was given the hugely important commission of ambassador to the imperial court in Vienna. Still, Weiberg's partaking in the king's spectacular entrance into Venice was a given. During his stay in the city, Weiberg is known to have bought a number of miniatures by Rosalba Carriera, allegedly including a portrait of King Frederik.34 After his return to Vienna, Weiberg (like Walter and Wibe) corresponded with the painter.35 One of his letters, dated 3 January 1711, is a particularly valuable source to Weiberg's views on art. He writes:

"Les belles peintures, que j'ay de vos mains, attirent chez moy les virtuosi et les connoisseurs. Ils admirent la légèreté de vos couleurs, aussi bien que leur vivacité. Ils sont charmés de la ressemblance de vos portraits et ils souhaitent touts que j'eusse apporté votre propre portrait, afin qu'ils eussent au moins icy la copie d'une originale qu'ils honorent tant et qu'ils ne verront jamais."36

  1. Continuing, Weiberg makes sure to point out that he (like Wibe and Walter) preferred contemporary art to the Old Masters:

"Je puis avoir des tableaux de Guido Reni et de Correggio, mais je ne puis pas avoir leur portraits faits par leur propres mains, que j'estimerois plus que touts leurs autres ouvrages, puisque j'aurois dans une pièce et l'ouvrage et l'auteur qui s'est rendu célèbre par ses ouvrages."

  1. Apparently a close friend of Walter's, Weiberg even dares to compare their individual acquisitions:

"Le portrait, que Vous avez fait, de Mad. votre Mère pour Mr. De Walter, me plaît beaucoup; mais si Vous voulez me favoriser de votre propre portrait, je l'estimerai au dessus de tout ce que Mr. de Walter et moy avons dans nos cabinets."

  1. It would surely be invaluable to our understanding of contemporary collecting if we were to cast a further glance into the cabinet of Weiberg's Viennese residence. However, this is made difficult by the peculiar events following his death in July 1720, whereupon the imperial Hofmarschall for some unknown reason sealed up his estate.37 This enraged Weiberg's Danish heirs but the well-founded protests aired by his nephew, Mr. Voscamp, only caused him to be extradited from Austria. Even though the case caused a short diplomatic crisis, it seems that Weiberg's belongings remained in Austria where they were probably sold by the imperial officers. It has not been possible to locate any probate inventory drawn up on this occasion, nor has it been possible to identify any pieces of his collection, except perhaps the copy of Walter's portrait (Fig. 4).38 Until the Weiberg estate papers resurface in the imperial archives, we may reasonably assume that his collection matched the Italianate taste of his two friends.


The Counts Holstein and Reventlow

  1. Other members of the travel party may have returned from Italy with a more pronounced preference for the Old Masters, yet Count Ulrich Adolph Holstein (1664-1737) and Count Christian Detlev Reventlow (1671-1738) are the only ones known to have formed such collections.39 Like Wibe, both Holstein and Reventlow had been childhood friends of Prince Frederik. In turn, the king rewarded Holstein with a countship and the powerful position of High Chancellor, whereas Reventlow was made a general of the army and long remained the king's close confidant. For a while, Reventlow was in fact engaged to Prince Frederik's half-sister Anna Christiane Gyldenløve and ultimately one of his sisters married Count Holstein while the other became a mistress to the monarch. Yet in 1692, Holstein was still just valet de chambre to the prince and Reventlow had not yet returned from his five years of military training abroad. Nevertheless, both were natural members of the first travel party.

  2. It seems highly likely that both Holstein and Reventlow should have acquired paintings while travelling in Italy, at least judging from some later notes by the steward of the royal collections, Lorenz Spengler (1720-1807). The latter had gathered a large private collection of paintings, including an Adoration of the Kings attributed to Veronese, which according to Spengler "kam mit Fiederich den 4ten aus Italien".40 His son and successor, Johan Conrad Spengler, later elaborated that "Il fut achetté par un Comte de Holstein à Venise dans la quelle famile il a resté longtems".41 This surely must refer to Count Holstein's visit to Venice with the prince in February 1692. Lorenz Spengler furthermore mentions having bought a number of paintings attributed to Titian and others at an auction in 1778.42 The sale was prompted by the sale of the Reventlow Mansion in Copenhagen and is said to have featured another Titianesque painting too, a copy after the master's lost portrait of Alfonso d'Este (Fig. 5).43 No copy of the sale catalogue is preserved but a newspaper advertisement tells us that the sale did include "a number of magnificent paintings in both oil paint and water colours."44 It seems likely that the collection of the elder Count Reventlow was included in this sale and the two "Titians" may well have been part of his legacy. In fact, Reventlow had enjoyed apt opportunity to enlarge his collecting when commanding the Danish troops in Italy during the War of the Spanish Succession.45 Whether he in fact brought back Italian paintings, we do not know. If not, he was given another chance to do so when joining the king's second Grand Tour in 1708-09 on which occasion he may have acquired a number of Florentine and Roman drawings dating from the 1690s to the early 1700s that were later found at his country estate.46