A successful artist living a second life as a spy during the 17th century may sound like the hottest historical novel, but it is the actual life of Peter Paul Rubens.
During the 17th century the Netherlands had been split into two warring factions along religious lines, protestants in the north, and catholics in the south. The southern area called Flanders was controlled by the Spanish, and the northern area of Holland was seeking acknowledgment of independence.
Antwerp, Rubens’s hometown, was the largest city in Flanders and had been under a blockade by Hollander ships for years reducing it to a poverty stricken near ghost town. Rubens had returned at the death of his mother after spending years in the service of the Duke of Mantua in Italy.
Rubens loved Flanders but he was greatly disturbed at the way war had ruined his beloved city that had once been the economic capital of northern Europe. Flanders was being governed by the Infanta Isabella, aunt to Phillip the 4th king of Spain, and her husband. As the greatest living artist of the time, Rubens was in great demand with royalty and aristocrats from all over Europe, and Isabella desired that he become her court painter.
Rubens had never enjoyed court life, and worked out a deal with the Infanta and her husband that he could remain at his independent studio as long as he painted a portrait for each of them, and also passed on any information he might overhear, for which he would receive a yearly salary. In other words, he was now a spy for Spain.
Dukes, ambassadors, kings, and queens all wanted a painting by Rubens so whether they came to his studio, or he traveled to them, Rubens had the perfect excuse to observe and hear things from all the parties involved in the war, namely England, France, Spain, and Holland.
Rubens greatest political coups was in negotiations with Charles I the King of England, who had strangely commissioned the self portrait of Rubens (seen at the top) years earlier through his agent the Duke of Buckingham. By signing a truce with England, Rubens hoped that Holland would be pressured into negotiations for peace with Spain since Holland would now have the threat of England to it’s north, as well as Spain to the south.
Unfortunately, peace didn’t happen until eight years after Rubens’s death when Spain finally recognized Holland’s independence.