Cultures of Knowledge
Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640)
Rubens was the embodiment of an array of early modern accomplishments: an artist of consummate talent; a polished diplomat fluent in multiple languages; a prolific writer of letters; an antiquarian; an art collector and dealer; an architect; a family man; and a friend to many — to scholars and to members of the nobility, the professional classes, and artisans alike. His surviving letters reveal him to be a man at the heart of certain complex political events that beset the first decades of the seventeenth century. Addressed to many of the leading figures of his generation, these letters offer glimpses into early modern ‘corridors of power’. As a result of his particular combination of professions, as he writes to his friend Peiresc on 18 December 1634, he felt he could provide historians with material ‘very different from what is believed in general’.1
He was born in Siegen in 1577, where his father, Jan (1530–1587) worked as a lawyer in the service of Anna of Saxony having fled Antwerp in 1568 with his wife Maria Pypelincks. Rubens returned to Antwerp with his mother in 1589, two years after his father’s death, and he was raised there as a Catholic. Following an initial placement as a page to Margaretha de Ligne-Arenberg, Rubens served an apprenticeship as a painter before, in 1600 at the age of twenty-three, setting out for Italy where he joined the court of the Gonzaga. From the outset, he worked as a diplomat in the service of the Duke of Mantua. In the first instance he visited Rome; from 1603–04 he was in Spain; and upon his return he was based consecutively in Mantua, in Genoa, and once again in Rome. Rubens made the return journey north in 1608 only after receiving news of his mother’s ill health.
Back in Antwerp, his brother, Philip, who was embedded also in public affairs, took over as Secretary of the city in January 1609. Rubens was appointed court painter to Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella on 23 September 1609 and, extraordinarily and as an alternative to moving to the court in Brussels, was granted leave to base himself and his studio in Antwerp. In addition, he was permitted to teach and paint as he wished without being subject to guild regulations. Invested with these privileges, an annual pension, and the rights of the ducal household, Rubens married Isabella Brandt, the daughter of lawyer and humanist Jan Brandt, and, the following year, settled into the house he had designed himself, which is now the Rubenshuis Museum.
Following the end of the Twelve Year Truce on 9 April 1621, Rubens embarked upon a number of lengthy diplomatic missions: from early January 1622 he was to be found in Paris, ostensibly discussing a series of allegorical paintings for the Queen Mother, Marie de’Medici; he travelled to Spain, and thereafter to England, as part of the attempted peace process, during the course of which he was knighted in the former by Philip IV and in the latter by Charles I; he visited the United Provinces. Wherever he was based he wrote and dispatched letters, and at every court he was received he painted. In a letter of 10 January 1625 to Peiresc’s brother, Palamède Fabri, sieur de Valavez, Rubens maintained that ‘due to the brief time allowed for finishing the Queen Mother’s pictures, and to other duties besides, I am the busiest and most harassed man in the world’.2 Just eighteenth months after this letter, he suffered the loss from plague of his wife Isabella; the grief expressed in his letter of 15 July 1626 to Pierre Dupuy is palpable.3
From his mid-fifties onwards, Rubens focussed more exclusively on his painting, his — as he described to Peiresc in his letter of 18 December 1634 — ‘dolcissima professione‘, and he tried to absent himself from affairs of state.4 His dearest wish, he wrote on 23 November 1629 to his friend Jan Gaspar Gevaerts, was to return ‘home and to remain there for the rest of my life’.5 He explained retrospectively to Peiresc how he had begged the Infanta Isabella to serve her from his own home and that he had made the decision to cut the ‘nodo doro d’ambitione per ricovrar la mia liberta‘.6 This appears to have been a decision not taken lightly by Isabella but it released Rubens to enjoy his house in Antwerp, his country residence (Het Steen, near Malines), his painting, his collections, and his family. Following the death of Isabella, he had married for a second time, in 1630, the latter’s niece, Helena Fourment. In his later years, Rubens suffered dreadfully from gout and and he died in his sixty-third year, on 30 May 1640, from heart failure.
Partners and Additional Contributors
This calendar of Rubens’s correspondence was complied and incorporated into EMLO by Cultures of Knowledge and is based on the six volumes of letters edited and translated by Max Rooses and Charles Ruelens, which were published in Antwerp between 1887 and 1909. The metadata from this edition has been collated gradually, with a large number of Digital Fellows and interns rolling up their sleeves and working their way through a portion of the volumes as part of their training, and Cultures of Knowledge would like to thank Sarah Rose Head, Lucy Hennings, Katharina Herold, Charlotte Marique, Katie McKeogh, Callum Seddon, Mark Thakkar, Sarah Ward, and Milena Zeidler, as well as work experience students Jake Deans, Ran Flanagan and Christina Majdi. Thanks are due in addition to EMLO’s most recent intern Dr Antonio Geremicca, who checked, proofread, and standardized all the metadata and worked also to identify more precisely many of the individuals connected with the correspondence. Rubens himself deserves credit for providing such an interesting and relevant correspondence that has served so well as a training ground in the twenty-first century for those wishing to work with epistolary metadata.
Key Bibliographic Source(s)
Correspondance de Rubens et documents épistolaires concernant sa vie et ses oeuvres, Codex diplomaticus Rubenianus, ed. and tr. Max Rooses and Charles Ruelens, 6 volumes (Antwerp, 1887–1909).
Rubens was a prolific painter. He was a prolific correspondent also and it is unfortunate that only a small proportion of his epistolary output appears to have survived, primarily the letters preserved in national archives which were sent in connection with his diplomatic activities and public affairs. Few letters remain of what must have been an extremely large number written to his friends, amongst whom he he counted Bathasar Moretus, head of the Plantin-Moretus firm of publishers; the scholar and Antwerp official Jan Gaspar Gevaerts (to whom Rubens entrusted temporarily during his official travels abroad the education of his son, Albert); the French antiquary and intelligencer Peiresc and his brother Palamede Fabri de Valavez; Balthasar Gerbier and his wife Deborah Kip, in whose home Rubens stayed when first he arrived in London; the painters Jan Brueghel and Diego Velázquez; Claude Maugis, abbé de Saint-Ambroise; and Parisian scholar Pierre Dupuy. Whilst eighty-five letters from Peiresc to Rubens are included in the Ruelens and Rooses edition (plus an additional seven from Peiresc that concern Rubens), only twelve are printed from Rubens to his friend in Provence. This correspondence is not to be found in the Tamizey de Larroque Peiresc edition. It would be safe to assume that Rubens, the meticulous and dedicated communicator, would have reciprocated with letters to complete his side of the correspondence whenever he could. It may be assumed also that he wrote to his family during his frequent and lengthy trips abroad. Unfortunately Rubens’s family papers do not survive. Charles Ruelens, inaugural editor of the Codex diplomaticus Rubenianus, speculated that the number of letters written by Rubens himself over the course of his life — just one side of the correspondence — might have been close to a total of eight thousand.
Whilst writing in these surviving letters about the diplomatic work he conducted and the current political situation he encountered as he travelled in his official capacity, Rubens is unable to resist speaking in passing of both art and of art collections. By choice he tended to write in Italian (indeed, his correspondence with Peiresc seems — at his own request — to have been conducted in Italian), but he was fluent also in Latin, in Flemish, and in French.
Scope of Catalogue
The Codex Diplomaticus Rubenianus, initiated in 1887 by Charles Ruelens and completed in 1909 by Max Rooses, brings together in print all the letters either by, to, or relating to Rubens that were known at the time of publication. In this impressive edition, the text of each letter is presented in its original language, together with annotations and a translation where necessary into French. Within the large number of Rubens-related correspondence sit 237 letters from Rubens and 145 addressed to him.
English translations of 250 letters from Rubens were published in 1955 by Ruth Sanders Magurn and bibliographic details for these translations will be added to the relevant letter records in EMLO over the course of the coming months. It is hoped that people mentioned and keywords for topics discussed in Rubens’s own letters will be entered also.
It is worth noting in addition that many of the letters sent in the name of painter Jan Brueghel the elder (1568–1625) which are in now the care of the Bibliotheca Ambrosiana, Milan, were written by Rubens, who is known to have helped his friend with Italian correspondence in the years between his own return from Italy and his departure for France in 1621. Many of these letters are in the hand of Rubens, as, on occasion, is Brueghel’s signature itself.7
Svetlana Alpers, The Making of Rubens (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).
Kristin Lohse Belkin, Rubens (Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1998).
Michael Jaffé, Rubens and Italy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977).
Ruth Saunders Magurn, ed. and tr., The Letters of Peter Paul Rubens (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1955).
Max Rooses and Charles Ruelens, ed. and tr., Correspondance de Rubens et documents épistolaires concernant sa vie et ses oeuvres, Codex diplomaticus Rubenianus, 6 vols (Antwerp, 1887–1909).
William Noël Sainsbury, Original unpublished papers illustrative of the life of Sir Peter Paul Rubens as an artist and a diplomatist, preserved in H. M. State paper office (London, 1859).
Anne T. Woollett and Ariane van Suchtelen, ed., Rubens & Brueghel: A Working Friendship (Malibu: Getty Publications, 2006).
1 Max Rooses and Charles Ruelens, ed. and tr., Correspondance de Rubens et documents épistolaires concernant sa vie et ses oeuvres, Codex diplomaticus Rubenianus, 6 vols (Antwerp, 1887–1909), vol. 6, pp. 81–6, letter 785, and Ruth Saunders Magurn, ed. and tr., The Letters of Peter Paul Rubens (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1955), and Ruth Saunders Magurn, ed. and tr., The Letters of Peter Paul Rubens (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1955), pp. 391–7, letter 235.