Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens eBook –

chapter ia novice without experienceYou are going as official representative into Spain, a country different in her ways and customs from Italy and unknown to you Further, 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 niccol machiavelliSometime in the late spring ofthere 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 thronePhilip 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 Gmez de Sandoval y Rojas, the Duke of Lerma He, too, would be on the receiving end of Vincenzo s generosityWhereas 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 andvaluable Lerma s own favorite minister, or valido, the ruthless Don Rodrigo Caldern, 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 wellThat 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 Madridpeter 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 dealhair 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 SpanishDespite 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 Franois I Jan van Eyck, until Rubens the most famous of Flemish painters, represented the duke of Burgundy on several diplomatic missions Gentile Bellini, in , 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 allyThe 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 , 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 IIIt 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 eitherWhether 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 wasthan 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 wasof a proselytizer than most Upon his return he went so far as to assume a Romanized name Octavius VaeniusBy , 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 beckonedRubens 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 ,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 From the Hardcover editionAProvidence Journal Best Read of Engaging, instructive and thought provoking, all at once Mark Lamster is a brave writer His affection for his subject is so completeand completely convincinghis style is so gracefully unpretentious and his research is so thorough The Los Angeles TimesA different kind of artists biography Gripping reading St Louis Post DispatchHighbrow and brilliant New York magazine An illuminating look at a side of the great painter usually kept in the shadows The Daily Beast An exhilarating portrait of an age as dramatic and richly toned as one of Rubenss gigantic canvases Ross King, author of Michelangelo and the Popes CeilingImagine that Pablo Picasso, in addition to painting the most famous masterpieces of the twentieth century, had also devoted decades of his life to secret diplomacy aimed at preventing another world war That is exactly what Peter Paul Rubens, the most revered painter of his era, did in seventeenth century Europe Mark Lamster tells this little known story with a combination of brio and historical erudition bound to appeal to anyone who cares about beauty, passion, war and peace I couldnt put it down Susan Jacoby, author, The Age of American UnreasonIn elegant brushstrokes Mark Lamster gives us here a vivid portrait of th century Europe and the political intrigue that led to the modern world Russell Shorto, author, The Island at the Center of the WorldA fascinating study The Telegraph London When people think of Peter Paul Rubensthey probably conjure up images of rosy cheeked, buxom women, proud courtiers, and grand historical scenes Mark Lamster does nothing to dispel that familiar impression but a great deal to modify it The Providence Journal Rubenss story surprises and dazzles KirkusThis adroitly crafted biography of Rubens brings to life an artist so busy wheeling and dealing with the crowned heads of Europe that its amazing he found the time to put brush to canvas Lamsters account engages the student of history as much as it opens the eyes of those who love Rubenss art Timothy Brook, author, Vermeers Hat The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global WorldAn exceptional book Library Journal Master of Shadows is a fascinating account, as lively as it is informed This utterly intriguing narrative has the knowledge and verve that infuse Rubenss brushstrokes Lamster writes with the panache and enthusiastic engagement, as well as the capability, warranted by his marvelous subject Nicholas Fox Weber, author, Le Corbusier A LifeArt, war, diplomatic intrigue, secret spy missionsall rendered with the erudition of a scholar and the deft touch of a gifted writer This is exactly what popular history should be I was utterly transfixed by this book Jonathan Mahler, author, The Challenge Hamdan v RumsfeldPiercing the darkened, secret world of agents, operatives, and diplomats is a difficult task at the best of timesand in Rubenss case, one thought impossiblebut Mark Lamster brilliantly succeeds at shedding light on this most enigmatic, and aptly dubbed, Master of Shadows Alexander Rose, author, Washingtons Spies The Story of Americas First Spy RingMark Lamster, a master of vivid writing, provides a highly readable account of the national rivalries and endemic warfare that fostered secret diplomacy in seventeenth century Europe Master of Shadows is a page turner not to be missed Lita Rose Betcherman, author, Court Lady and Country Wife Two Noble Sisters in Seventeenth Century England