Read an Excerpt
a novice without experience
You are going as official representative into Spain, a country different in her ways and customs from Italy and unknown to you. Furthermore, it is your first commission. Hence if you make a good showing in this office, as everybody hopes and believes, you will gain high honor; and so much higher, the greater the difficulties.
Sometime in the late spring of 1602-there is no record of exactly when-Vincenzo Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua, decided it would be a good idea to send an extremely large gift to Philip III, the king of Spain. This was to be an act of considerable generosity, but not one motivated by pure altruism. To be a minor European monarch in the seventeenth century was to live in fear of Spain's pitiless and well- disciplined tercios. Those professional armies, bristling with artillery, pikes, and Toledo steel, and drilled in formations that seemed well-nigh invincible, made Spain the most potent military force on the Continent. Spain's possessions encompassed much of Italy, including Lombardy, Mantua's neighbor to the west. Vincenzo, no fool, eyed Spanish power with a healthy wariness. Like Philip, he was of Habsburg blood, but attachment to Europe's foremost dynasty did not guarantee the autonomy of his duchy. It was therefore only prudent that Vincenzo place himself squarely within Philip's good graces, as the young king was new to his throne.
Philip had a reputation as something of a sportsman, so Vincenzo tailored his offering accordingly. The centerpiece of the gift was to be a plush riding carriage driven by six of the finest horses from the duke's stable, revered across Europe for its thoroughbreds. That was a good start, and Vincenzo added to it with eleven harquebus guns decorated with whalebone and silver filigree, a rock crystal vase filled with perfume, and-somewhat immodestly-portraits of himself and his wife for the king's cabinet. These items were for Philip alone, but the duke did not stop there, for he knew that the king, in his hedonistic youth, had voluntarily surrendered much of his authority to his rapacious political Svengali, Francisco Gómez de Sandoval y Rojas, the Duke of Lerma. He, too, would be on the receiving end of Vincenzo's generosity.
Whereas Philip was a Habsburg scion, Lerma was born to minor nobility, and only created a duke by an act of his patron, the king. As with so many of history's arrivistes, Lerma understood the practice of collecting art, traditionally a pastime of royalty, to be a path to improved social respectability. Vincenzo's gift to him, then, was shrewdly designed to appeal to a man who would be a great connoisseur from a man who could already claim that distinction: some twenty old-master paintings, most of them actually copies of works by Raphael, several of which belonged to Vincenzo himself. (In an era before the easy mechanical reproduction of color images, there was little stigma attached to well-executed copies, even if originals were preferred and more valuable.) Lerma's own favorite minister, or valido, the ruthless Don Rodrigo Calderón, would also receive works copied from the Mantuan collection, along with damask and cloth of gold. Lerma's religious sister would have a crystal crucifix and a pair of candelabra. A cash gift would be provided to the director of music at the royal chapel-Vincenzo was a patron of that art as well.
That Vincenzo might deliver these gifts himself was out of the question; that would have been too great an act of fealty for someone of his stature. The duke was a prideful man-in his own youth he had even killed a man over a minor indiscretion-and considerably older than Philip, who was still in his early twenties. Vincenzo thus preferred to cast himself as a benevolent elder statesman, an avuncular figure to be respected as a fellow Habsburg sovereign. He had even taken to the battlefield on behalf of the Habsburg cause, participating in a series of campaigns against the Ottomans, usually to his discredit. (He was an early-and failed-experimenter with poison gas; inept soldiering was something of a Gonzaga family tradition.) With this in mind, Vincenzo decided that an emissary would chaperone the gift. Any number of courtiers might have qualified for this job. The duke, like so many royals, surrounded himself with a cadre of ambitious grandees who would have thrilled at the prospect of a trip to the great Spanish court, not to mention a personal audience with Philip, the highest of royal highnesses. Vincenzo, however, did not choose any of these men. Instead, the duke summoned into his chamber a young Flemish painter with neither noble blood nor diplomatic pedigree. Vincenzo required someone reliable, preferably a painter who could handle any minor restoration work necessary after the long trip across the Mediterranean. But this agent also had to be someone with a bit of panache: someone who could handle the inevitable obstacles of a long journey while keeping its purpose quiet, for the duke most assuredly did not want every royal on the Italian boot to know of his private business groveling before the Spanish throne. More important, however, Vincenzo required someone who could represent him with appropriate dignity before his Habsburg relation in Madrid.
peter paul rubens, age twenty-five, had been on the duke's payroll for only two years when he was selected for this mission. In that time, he had worked without ceremony on tasks of no great import: the minor portraits and copy work that were the routine business of a court studio. There was something about Rubens, though, that made him stand out from the several other painters employed by Vincenzo. People were naturally drawn to him, and the duke in particular. Vincenzo may even have noticed a slight resemblance between himself and the artist fifteen years his junior, even if the younger man, to be frank, had a good deal more hair and a good deal less paunch around the middle. Rubens was unquestionably handsome: tall for the age, with gently receding brown hair, neatly trimmed whiskers, and a piercing gaze. Those who knew him found him to be confident but not cocky, with an innate charisma that attracted both sexes. He possessed that ineffable quality Italians called sprezzatura-a kind of easy, knowing charm. In the brief time they spent together, Rubens managed to impress Vincenzo as a quick-witted, refined, and highly intelligent individual of no small ambition. He was comfortable in the society of court, obsequious when circumstances demanded, and possessed of a diplomat's natural ability to appear both deferential and sincere even when conveying unpleasant information or shaving the rough edges of truth. That he was gifted with languages was especially useful; already he was fluent in Dutch, French, German, Italian, Latin, and Spanish.
Despite these qualities, Rubens was an unorthodox candidate for an important embassy. Diplomatic work was typically reserved for members of the aristocracy, men with political experience and the means to fund the considerable expenses of a life at court. Only those of high breeding, it was thought, could be expected to have the social dexterity and intellectual aptitude necessary to represent a sovereign prince in a foreign land. There were, however, exceptions to this rule. In one of the earliest primers on ambassadorial conduct, the Dutch-born diplomat Abraham de Wicquefort wrote that "it be not absolutely necessary, that the Embassador should be a Man of Birth, yet at the same time there must be nothing sordid nor mean in him."
As members of the court, painters were granted a standing above that of other tradesmen, and could be counted on to possess a worldliness typically restricted to those of hereditary advantage. Indeed, the profession required mastery of a broad range of fields, from chemistry (required to mix pigments), geometry (for perspective), and anatomy (for the drawing of the figure) to the classical and biblical history that served as the subject matter of so much painting. The most celebrated artists, prized for their seemingly magical image- making prowess, on occasion became trusted princely advisers. Leonardo da Vinci was a counselor to several princes (often on matters of defense and engineering) and in his later years an intimate of the French king François I. Jan van Eyck, until Rubens the most famous of Flemish painters, represented the duke of Burgundy on several diplomatic missions. Gentile Bellini, in 1457, was dispatched by the Venetian senate as a goodwill emissary to the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II at Constantinople. At the time of his trip, Rubens had yet to achieve the artistic reputation of Bellini, but his presence would similarly confer a bit of the Gonzaga family's considerable cultural authority on the Spanish court. That the paintings sent with him were largely copies of works from the Mantuan collection, rather than originals, only reinforced the sense of paternalism that Vincenzo hoped to convey. Every time the king and the duke glanced at these works, they would be reminded of both the magnificence and the munificence of their esteemed Mantuan ally.
The choice of an artist, then, was not unprecedented, but the choice of this artist, Rubens, occasioned a good deal of chatter among Vincenzo's notoriously chippy courtiers. He had good manners, yes, but he was not of aristocratic blood, and he was not a member of Vincenzo's inner circle-for that matter, he wasn't even Italian. His relevant experience was, indeed, practically nonexistent, though he had been prepared, at least in his early years, for a life in court service. As a child, he had been enrolled, along with his older brother Philip, in Rombout Verdonck's school for boys, the academy of choice for Antwerp's burgher elite. There, the Rubens brothers were drilled in the classics: Virgil, Horace, Pliny, and especially Seneca, whose stoicism was considered a philosophical model for contemporary behavior. Art was not on the program. Jan Rubens, the boys' late father, had been a lawyer and an alderman, and it seemed the young Peter Paul was headed down a similar path. He had always been an eager student, and a gifted one. The painter's nephew would later write that "he learned with such facility that he easily outstripped his classmates." Economic circumstances, however, put an end to Rubens's formal schooling at the age of thirteen. In 1590, the family education fund was diverted to provide a dowry for an older sister, Blandina. Rubens's evident intelligence and charm, even then, made him a prime candidate for a career as a court functionary, and his devoted mother, Maria, arranged through family connections to have him set up as a page in the residence of the Countess Marguerite de Ligne-Arenberg, whose father-in-law had been a governor-general of the Netherlands during the reign of Philip II.
It was a good appointment, but Rubens was unhappy. "There always glimmered inside him a desire for the noble art of painting," wrote Joachim von Sandrart, a German painter who traveled with Rubens in his later years. As a child, he had spent hour after hour poring over the woodblock prints of the artists Hans Holbein and Tobias Stimmer, which were popular among middle-class families like the Rubenses. Young Peter Paul was a natural with a pen, and found himself especially drawn to the robust figures in Stimmer's book of illustrated stories from the Bible, which had a physical presence so strong-like the imposing statues of cathedral facades-that it seemed they might just stomp off the page. From even those early drawings it was plainly evident that Rubens had artistic talent, and now he wanted to make a career of it. This was not an unprecedented decision for a Rubens; an older brother, Jan Baptist, had left the family many years earlier to pursue a career in the arts, and was thought to be in France. Rubens was not prepared to forsake his kin as his sibling had, but life as a functionary was not going to satisfy him either.
Whether or not she approved, Maria understood that once her headstrong young son had fixated on some goal, refusing him would be pointless. Again using family connections, he was apprenticed to Tobias Verhaecht, an Antwerp landscape painter of minor reputation who was a distant relative by marriage. Roughly a year later he moved on to the atelier of Adam van Noort, a respected member of the painters' guild, and some two years after that to the studio of Otto van Veen, who figured among Antwerp's artistic elite. He learned the basics of his craft in these apprenticeships: how to make pigments and prime a canvas, the techniques required of different mediums, how to layer colors, how to model a figure, how to compose the elements of an image. Soon enough he was working on canvases that would be finished by his masters. His education was more than just practical. Van Veen especially encouraged Rubens's academic interests. Before establishing his studio, Van Veen had traveled through Italy, where he absorbed the ideals of the Renaissance and the classical tradition. This was not uncommon at the time. Among the informal circle of like-minded humanists who dominated Antwerp culture, an extended tour of Italy was practically de rigueur. Even Jan Rubens, the painter's father, had made such a trip, earning his law degree in Rome after seven years of study abroad. Van Veen was more of a proselytizer than most. Upon his return he went so far as to assume a Romanized name: Octavius Vaenius.
By 1598, Rubens had completed his training and become a member in good standing of the Guild of Saint Luke, the painters' guild. He was a master, but he knew that he did not have all of the education he required, and he could see this deficiency quite plainly in his first commissions. A large panel painting of Adam and Eve showed his promise, but there was an undeniable stiffness to the picture, a frozen quality, that he intuitively understood as a weakness. Italy beckoned.
Rubens's quest to travel abroad for personal and professional enrichment was contingent upon his receipt of documents from the Antwerp town hall. These letters were required of all travelers, and verified that their bearers had good standing in the community and clean health-"no plague or contagious disease." Rubens received his papers on May 8, 1600. The next day he was off, accompanied by his first pupil, Deodate del Monte, who was similarly certified and would serve as a faithful assistant for many years to come. They traveled by horse, and though there is no precise record of their path, in all likelihood they traveled south and west, crossing through Alpine passes into northern Italy. Their first destination was Venice, a city that had supplanted Rome as an artistic capital for a brief moment in the previous century. If Venice had lost that momentum, it could nevertheless boast a modern school of painting that was like nothing Rubens had seen in Antwerp. In place of the studied classicism of Van Veen, the works of Bassano, Veronese, Tintoretto, and above all Titian, with their explosive colors, dynamic compositions, and expressive brushwork, suggested new directions for the young painter.