Biography of Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), influential painter, diplomat and sometime spy whose foremost goals were to avert war and return his beloved Antwerp to glory.
With a map, chronology, list of principal players and a mostly lucid prose style, freelance journalist Lamster (Spalding’s World Tour: The Epic Adventure that Took Baseball Around the Globe—and Made it America’s Game, 2006) does much to simplify a tangled story of monarchs, aristocrats, diplomats, international alliances, poets, painters, wives and colleagues. The author charts Rubens’s quick rise to artistic prominence, pausing only occasionally to discuss a particular work. Lamster notes that it was not just Rubens’s artistic gifts that suited him for diplomatic service. He was polyglot (fluent in a half-dozen languages), tall and handsome, charismatic, highly organized, moderate and circumspect. He was also a loyal husband and devoted father. As a popular painter traveling to foreign courts, he was uniquely positioned to eavesdrop and, eventually, carry dispatches and proposals and advocate official policy. The politics of the day involved—no surprise—the quest for global power, and the great seafaring states of Western Europe (France, England and Spain, with occasional forays by the Italians and Danes) were maneuvering constantly to improve their relative positions. The rising Lowlands were divided into two large entities, which, for convenience’s sake, the author calls Holland (in the north) and Flanders (in the south, under the control of Spain). Antwerp lay south, so Rubens represented the Spanish in a number of diplomatic missions—some successful, some not; some covert, some not—to England, France and elsewhere.
Though sometimes eye-glazingly complex, Rubens’s story surprises and dazzles.