Artists of the modern era are not known to engage in international diplomacy. Often a rebel challenging the norms of the establishment both political and cultural, sometimes beset by inner demons or addictions, the artist as conceived in the modern popular imagination is scarcely in a position today to attempt to bring solutions to intractable political problems. Imagine Madonna shuttling between world capitals in an attempt to bring an end to the Middle East conflict. But in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, artists were often in a position to engage in clandestine work.
Mark Lamster’s political biography of Peter Paul Rubens’ role in continental politics is a work gracefully styled and delightful to read, a story that recovers the artist’s hidden side — a man of uncommon political skill, Rubens was a philosopher and pragmatist well ahead of his time in recognizing the linkings between the power centers of Europe.
The role of art in the lives of the powerful aided the artist turned spy. Painters could move easily between seats of power, and their cover was always air-tight: dukes, princes and kings engaged in arts patronage, commissioning paintings and supporting court studios. Few would suspect the painter of acting as conduit of information or of ulterior motives. But the interaction with such top men was often an opportunity to broach important matters of state, and Peter Paul Rubens availed himself of the opportunities inherent in his role in order to try to find a way to end the Eighty Year’s War.
The background for the story of Rubens as ersatz diplomat concerns the troubles in the Low Countries during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Part of this territory, the south of which Flanders was a part, was under the power of Spain, at the time a great European power. Spanish rule was so unpopular that a war of independence resulted between the Dutch nascent republic to the north and Spain, a struggle which embroiled European powers in a broader conflict known as the Eighty Year’s War.
Art was one of the signifies of state power and prestige in that era, and royal courts often sustained studios, supporting numerous painters who worked on various painting projects. Their work often consisted of painting reproductions and originals that would benefit the image of their patrons. Peter Paul Rubens worked in such court studio, one belonging to the Duke of Mantua, Vincenzo Gonganza. There he developed a reputation for charisma and intelligence. Gonganza noticed the young man and was drawn to him, so much so that he chose the painter over his own court grandees to deliver a gift of paintings and other items to the youth on the throne of Spain. It was Gonganza who launched Rubens on a career in international diplomacy, sending the young man on his first major mission to the most powerful royal court of Europe — Spain. Rubens’ mission was a success despite a near disaster.
What prompted Rubens’ involvement in international political maneuvering was the dire condition of his native land. Beset by sectarian violence, Flanders, and especially Antwerp, once the center of international trade and art, lay in ruins, its people subject to terrors of the Court of Troubles. He engaged in this project of private peace making for over a decade, traveling between the courts of the continent, attempting to deal with statesmen and monarchs who were also clients. The men he often dealt with were rather childish: they lived in isolation and made important decisions blithely, sometimes on a whim. Rarely did they engage in what would be called reasoned deliberation of serious matters. Rubens was the voice of moderation and pragmatism. In the end, however, history has it that Rubens did not achieve a reconciliation of Spain and the Dutch provinces — peace in the Low Countries. That would be achieved as part of a larger international accord, the Peace of Westphalia, which brought into being the modern notion of state sovereignty.