The Gonzaga family ruled Mantua from 1328 and its members were notable sponsors of art. Mantegna was their court artist and they patronised many painters, including Correggio. The Gonzaga Collection (‘La Celeste Galeria’) set an example for other rulers. Lavish expenditure caused financial problems. By 1625, negotiations began for the sale of parts of the collection to Charles I of England. Acting on his behalf was merchant Daniel Nijs.
Born in Wesel in 1572, he was the son of exiled Protestant refugees from the Southern Netherlands. In 1627/8 he brokered the sale of the first instalment. Works by Titian, Raphael, Correggio, and Caravaggio transformed the depth of English holdings. It was the greatest art deal of the century, but the sale was Daniel’s undoing. After completing the first transaction, he was tempted into a further sale in 1628. A second instalment contained the series of canvases making up Mantegna’s Triumph of Caesar (placed to this day in Hampton Court), and hundreds of sculptures.
When payment from the English crown was not forthcoming, Nijs was forced into bankruptcy. He spent his remaining years in London trying to recuperate his losses. The sale ultimately acted like a curse. When Vincenzo II died in 1627, there was no successor. Mantua became the subject of wrangling between claimants and was sacked by the Imperial Habsburg army. What remained of the Gonzaga collection was dispersed. Charles I’s collection was scattered at Oliver Cromwell’s insistence to the Louvre, the Prado, and elsewhere.