1634: THE BAVARIAN CRISIS – snippet 4:
Brussels, the Spanish Netherlands
Don Fernando, often known as the “Cardinal-Infante,” was the younger brother of King Philip IV of Spain by birth and, by virtue of his own martial accomplishments, the effective ruler of most of the Netherlands. All of it, actually, except Amsterdam and the small rump of less than two provinces still held by the Dutch rebels under the Prince of Orange, Fredrik Hendrik. But the uncertain expression on his face as he lowered the letter made him seem even younger than the twenty-three-year-old that he was. So, at least, it seemed to Pieter Paul Rubens, watching him—but since Rubens was acknowledged throughout Europe as one of the great portraitists of the day, his assessment was reliable.
The young Spanish prince was, indeed, very unsure of himself. All the more so, perhaps, because he knew as a gifted military commander that uncertainty was a deadly thing in the middle of battle. Still, at least for the moment, Don Fernando was uncertain.
“He has a somewhat unsavory—well, certainly interesting—reputation, you know.”
Rubens smiled thinly. “I think, were Cardinal Bedmar still here in person, he would urge you to abandon the qualifying ‘somewhat’—but would also point out that his reputation is only unsavory among his enemies. Spain’s enemies.”
The smile broadened. “To almost anyone, of course, he is interesting—including you. Which, may I remind Your Highness, is the very reason you decided to send him as your unofficial envoy to Venice. So why the sudden doubts in his capabilities?”
Don Fernando shook his head, folded up the letter from Bedmar and handed it back to Rubens. Then, leaned back in his chair in the salon of his headquarters. “It’s not Alphonso’s capabilities that concern me, Pieter. It’s… well. His loyalties.”
They were now treading on treacherous ground. Rubens paused, while he chose his words carefully. It would be tactless in the extreme to make too much of the fact that Bedmar’s loyalty to Spain was precisely what the young Spanish prince was worried about—since his own loyalty was now highly questionable.
Best to avoid terms like “loyalty” altogether, Rubens decided. “Alphonso has grown weary of what he regards as the blind fecklessness of Spain’s ministers, Your Highness. I think you may rest assured that his thoughts run in tandem with yours.”
A quick smile came and went on the cardinal-infante’s face. “That was very nicely put, Pieter. Have you considered taking up a career—just as a sideline from your painting, of course—as a diplomat?”
They shared a soft laugh. When it was over, Rubens shrugged. “What I said remains true. I really do not think that Your Highness needs to entertain any doubts with regard to Cardinal Bedmar’s discretion. In any event”—he waggled the letter in his hands—“he has nothing much to report of any interest, beyond the usual machinations of the Venetians. The American delegation hadn’t yet arrived in the city when he sent me this.”
Now, he smiled a bit ruefully. “I’m afraid you probably have a lot more to fear from my own… well, not indiscretion, exactly. Still, it’s not always easy to explain why I’m seeking a portrait of someone like Anna Katharina Konstanze Vasa or Anna de Medici or Claude de Lorraine—to say nothing of the two Austrian archduchesses, Maria Anna and Cecilia Renata. Taken one at a time, I believe my explanations have not aroused any suspicions. But should any competent spy”—what he meant was Spanish spy, but he left that unsaid—“happen to discover that I’m seeking portraits of all of them, I’m afraid… Well, to use that American expression, there will be hell to pay.”
“I can imagine! Given that there could be only one plausible reason that you’d be seeking portraits of every eligible Catholic princess in Europe.” Don Fernando gave Rubens a sly smile. “Of course, I suppose I could claim that you were obviously intending to do away with your wife Helena and marry one of them yourself.”
Again, they shared a soft laugh. And when it was over, Rubens shrugged again. “I don’t actually think there’s much risk involved, Your Highness. I’ve been dealing entirely with artists, not diplomats.”
“Yes, I imagine they wouldn’t be as prone to suspicion.”
Rubens burst into much louder laughter. “To the contrary, Your Highness! I can assure you that artists are obsessive about their suspicions—far more so than diplomats. The up-timers even have a word for the attitude. ‘Paranoia,’ they call it. But the suspicions run along professional channels, not those of matters of state. Each and every one of the artists from whom I’ve either bought a portrait or commissioned one is absolutely certain that I intend to do one myself based on their work—and then sell the end result for ten times what they would have gotten.”
He cleared his throat and added, perhaps a bit smugly: “Which, indeed, I could, were I so inclined.”
Don Fernando scratched his chin. “Perhaps that explanation…”
“No, I’m afraid not,” said Rubens. “One or two portraits, yes. But eight?” He shook his head. “No capable spy—not one, at least, with any knowledge of art—would believe for a moment that I’d delve that extensively into what is, after all, neither a lucrative nor a prestigious field of portraiture. At the risk of immodesty, I am an artist who gets commissioned by royalty to paint them in person—and turns down far more commissions than I accept. I do not have to paint portraits at second-hand in the hopes that I might be able to sell them at a later date. One or two I could explain, with not much difficulty, as a matter of specific personal interest. For eight portraits, there can be no logical explanation beyond the one that involves affairs of state.”
The Spanish prince was still scratching his chin. “Only eight? I’d hoped…”
“You will perhaps recall that I warned you, Your Highness. I’m afraid that today—and this won’t change for years—we have a shortage of eligible Catholic princesses who would suit you for a bride. Even that figure of ‘eight’ is stretching the matter. Two of the ladies involved—Claudia de Medici, the regent of Tyrol, and her older sister Maria Maddalena—are really a bit too old. Maria Maddalena is reported to suffer from very poor health, as well.”
Don Fernando finally stopped scratching his chin. “I’ve met Claudia. She seemed quite capable and she’s not that much older than me. Somewhere around thirty, I believe.”
“Yes, you’re right—and if you were a prince in a different position, with one or two brothers whose children could provide an heir in the event your own wife did not produce one, she’d be quite suitable. But a thirty year old woman—yes, you’re right about her age—is really a bit too old, when the entire dynasty will of necessity have to depend entirely on your own offspring.”
He cleared his throat again, but before he could speak Don Fernando waved his hand. “Yes, yes, I see the point. Not that my brother Philip wouldn’t be delighted to provide me with an heir—but that would rather defeat the whole purpose of the enterprise, wouldn’t it?”
His eyes narrowed slightly. “So… I need a wife who’s no older than her mid-twenties, and in good health. Of the remaining six, which do you think are the best prospects?”
“Best, in what terms, Your Highness? In an ideal world, there’s no question—the two Austrians, especially the older sister. By all accounts, and I’ve collected quite a few, they are both in good health—even very vigorous health, by the standards of most highborn women—and both of sound mind. The older daughter Maria Anna even has something of a reputation for her intellect, if not the younger. And”—here he suppressed a smile—“they are also quite comely.”
Don Fernando scowled. “I don’t care about their looks. Well. Not much. I need a wife who’ll produce children.”
The prince’s pronouncement was in the finest tradition of capable royalty. It was also complete nonsense. Don Fernando was a very vigorous young man and he was no more indifferent to the comeliness of women than any other twenty-three year old male in good health. Given his training, of course, he never ogled such women. But Rubens had not failed to notice the prince’s rapt interest whenever a woman as beautiful as—to give just one recent example—Rebecca Abrabanel came into his presence.
Don Fernando would never pursue the matter, to be sure. He was far too self-controlled for such foolishness. Leaving aside the fact that the Abrabanel was married, and apparently faithful to her husband, she was a Jewess. So, the prince made no advances, and did not ogle. But he certainly… observed.