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October 26, 2015
Moments in Art
Merchantile Magic (Rubens 2)
by Lawrence Jeppson

In the early centuries of Western art Peter Paul Rubens probably was the most prolific painter. I have some tales to tell, but not for a “Moment.” To appreciate Rubens and his adventurous life, it is necessary to understand the Antwerp, Belgium of his time (this column) and the Guild of St. Luke and the Friday Market, (next week’s story).

Few cities of the Western World have a spirit of free commerce that goes back as far as Antwerp's. This far-ranging and wily mercantile energy simmered and brewed with other forces over a slow peat fire for a dozen centuries until it turned Antwerp into an unsurpassed center for the traffic in phony art.

While secret workshops in France and Italy may be today's best providers of counterfeit art, we shall never be quite quit of the multitudinous impostures spewed out long ago in Antwerp. It is fascinating to see how all this came about by interplay of implacable forces: the inbred need to trade or perish; the growth, changing role, and moral decline of the Guild of St. Luke; the establishment of the Friday Market; the prestige of Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony Van Dyck, Jan Breughel, Frans Snyders, Jacob Jordaens, and many lesser Flemish masters; and the political-religious war that drained away much of the externally oriented vitality of the city and enabled its artistic fountainhead to gush forth, first with great art and then a copiousness of imitations, plagiarisms, counterfeits, fakes, and frauds.

The character and genius of people is first manifest in their choice of emplacement. This choice then further shapes their character. Farmers settle on flat and fertile lands, while warriors fortify themselves in places which are the easiest to defend. A commercial people gravitates to crossroads and ready transportation: where caravan trails intersect, where boats can deposit cargo, where different cultures or peoples come together.

Because of its strategic location 50 miles from the sea on the right bank of the Scheldt, where the Schyn joined it in the middle of a swamp, Antwerp must have been a trading point from the moment some first Belgae family from the Ambivariti tribe set up camp there and didn't move on.

The air was humid and feverish, given to thick fogs. Much of the soft, unstable earth was daily inundated by tides, and the sweet rushes were bent by the winds. Three cattail stalks commemorate the swamp on the city's early coat of arms.

By the fifth century A.D. the community was part of the Saxon coasts composed of the same men of proud independence and free institutions who founded the Kingdom of Kent in Britain in 455. They established the guilds, which became too powerful for even Charlemagne to dissolve. Thus Antwerp did not undergo feudal tyranny.

As the people multiplied they created, in addition to the guilds, vast associations of free men to protect their goods against brigands. These associations were generben, which is pronounced Anerpen, later Antwerpen.

There is an old legend which is indispensable to an understanding of the unfettered genius of the people. A terrible giant, Druon Antigen, lived in the Castle of Anvers. (Anvers remains the French name for Antwerp.) He retained right of passage on all merchants going up or down the Scheldt and took one-half their merchandise for toll. Any blockade runner he caught lost all his cargo and his right hand, which was cut off and thrown into the river. Hence from hand and werrpen (to throw) came handwerpen—and eventually Antwerpen or Antwerp. The valiant King of Tongres, Salvius Brabon, who was the husband of a cousin of Julius Caesar, subdued the giant, cut off its hand, and threw it into the river.

An amputated hand is another part of an Antwerp coat of arms, and for many centuries the axing off of a hand was a penalty for certain crimes.

Salvius became the first Duke of Brabant, a domain of 26 walled towns, 18 lesser towns, and 700 villages. Court was at Bruxelles and the University at Louvain. In the heart of 17 Benelux counties, Antwerp became the greatest commercial town in Europe. In fact by the time of William the Conqueror it was already one of the great cities--but it had not a single paved street. Wood buildings of all shapes and sizes jumbled against each other. Public structures were no more than vast hangars.

While written political records go back to 726, the earliest surviving commercial record dates from 1212. It shows a spirited commerce in wine from Cologne, which was sold from public depots in the Great Market and in the Cemetery of Notre-Dame. City fathers evidently feared fakery of the product, and strict regulations and inspection were instituted to prevent adulteration or dilution. The Antwerpers were not going to be history's first to be duped by eau de Cologne.

In 1288 the people of Antwerp helped the House of Louvain subdue Limbourg in the Battle of Woeringen, which insured Brabant its safe trade route to Cologne and on into Germany. In recognition of services they were able to obtain from Duke John I a charter abolishing slavery, guaranteeing personal liberty to all, and enfranchising everyone born in the city.

Within a few years the first trading galleons appeared from Venice and were soon followed by others from Genoa. Under the initiative of free men, trade boomed.

Cologne wine was traded northward for Hamburg wheat; timber came in from Germany, Denmark, and Sweden; and the wool and fabric commerce with England took on such enormous proportions that it became the dominant factor in the commercial market, particularly after the silting of the Zwyn drove the English out of Bruges. In fact when Edward III decided to move the wool staple to Antwerp, 400 ships sailed from Yarmouth.

By 1500 textile trading with England reached an annual rate of 12 million gold ecus, while wheat accounted for 1. 7 million, German wine 1.5 million and French wine 1.1 million. Obviously in those days, Gerrnan wine was more highly esteemed as the French, for the commerce in each amounted to 40,000 barrels.

The Jesuit Scribanius recounted, “I have seen as many as 2500 ships in the Scheldt, the latecomers remaining two to three weeks at anchor before being able to reach the docks.” He also said that 1,000 commercial chariots of freight from Germany and France entered the city each week and that peasant chariots in the same period accounted for 10,000 more.

Perhaps the figures are exaggerated, but at this time the powerful Fugger banking family from Augsberg opened an Antwerp branch and kept on hand in cash the astonishing capital of 6,000,000 gold ecus, which, as Antwerp people noted, was the equivalent of 125,000,000 francs.

Originally all commerce was direct trading, exchanging this item for that. But as dozens of strange coinages poured in, each nation established its own clearing house in the city, and a money changing trade developed.

Because of usury laws, which imposed confiscatory penalties, the Lombards devised letters of credit.

Statutory ceilings on annual interest charges were enacted. For Antwerp citizens this limit was 44 1/2%, while for foreigners the ceiling was 66 3/4%. Interest on undercover loans went higher, much higher. So the tradition of making a lot of money fast was inbred into this free-trading, self-ruling people.

With all its mechanisms and rights of self-government, Antwerp, as a part of the Netherlands, was Habsburg property and under the political authority of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, himself a Netherlander. The lowland peoples liked him and in their devotion tried to uphold his desires but often found it disastrous when they did. Of Charles V, Eugene Gens says, “He was fatal to the people's civil liberties and destructive of their material interests; he substituted monopolies and prohibition for the free market and organized work; his wars produced waste; he created the colonial system, reinstituted slavery, subjugated Negroes, created royal factories, protected the Inquisition, and prepared for the ruin by the Spanish monarchy of all countries under his domain.”

Charles bequeathed both the Netherlands and the crown of Spain to his son Phillip II, thus placing the 17 low-country provinces under Spanish rule. After centuries of fighting Moorish infidels, Spaniards, "with mixed strains of brooding mysticism, rigid orthodoxy, and angry intolerance" were prepared to stamp out any whisper of heresy wherever it might be suspicioned, but could not as readily understand stock exchanges, letters of credit, bills of transfer, or bank deposits.

The Netherlanders, on the other hand, were scholars and intellectuals, and their cities were clearing houses for ideas as much as trade goods. Long before Martin Luther, scattered Albigensian and Vaudois protesters from France escaped liquidation by finding refuge in Flanders. Luther and Calvin found staunch--if often underground--adherents throughout the provinces, as did the Anabaptists, the far left flange of the Protestant movement, whose suspected presence in Antwerp made even the tolerant merchants and council uneasy, lest an infiltrating movement endeavor to duplicate in Antwerp the madness Johann Bockholdt--John of Leyden--had perpetrated in Munster.

Philip, in terror of being Anabaptized, preferred to anathematize, and he reinstated the hated Inquisition throughout the provinces. Heresy was a bid for political power. Philip would crush it out. To strengthen his hand, he decided to create new bishoprics. The Estates-General, the governing assembly of nobles and tradesmen, howled. Charles V's Placard Against Heresy of 1550 had decreed that those who bought, sold, printed, or possessed heretical books; sold or painted pictures opprobrious to the Virgin Mary, the saints, or the Ecclesiastes; broke or effaced images; held a disputation over the Holy Scriptures, in private or public; or preached or supported doctrines disapproved by the government should be beheaded, buried alive, or burned. To accommodate objections from Antwerp the applications of these measures were softened for its citizens.

The Estates-General was willing to have the Placards Against Heresy enforced, but by lay authority! They saw the move to create new bishoprics as a camouflage to subject laymen to canon law, to stifle trade as well as conscience, and to seize the property of rich people by accusing them--secretly--of heresy. Even monks opposed the move, lest their own revenues be diverted.

The riots that drove city planner Van Schoonbeke out of Antwerp were part of the general unrest against Habsburg and Spanish repression, which brought the garrisoning of Spanish troops. Their withdrawal was demanded by the Estates-General and by William of Orange, who led the provinces of Holland and Zeeland in successful revolt. Philip trotted up the ruthless Duke of Alva with 11,000 more Spanish warriors. When he retook Malines he freed the troops for three days of pillaging. So much plunder was brought to Antwerp by Spanish soldiers that the Friday Market was glutted. There were so many chalices, pictures, and other church property that the Council ordered the people not to buy it, except to give it back to the churches of Malines. When Antwerp's number came up, the Spanish Fury massacred 6,000 citizens and burned 8,000 houses. Rich men begged for bread, and vast regions remained uncultivated.

During brief Protestant occupations of various cities, religious art of every kind was destroyed in mass; much of it could not be replaced on the Friday market, even by second rate work, and new pieces would need to be created whenever peace came.

Once the Germanic Northern Provinces established their independence, they maintained it by battle and international intrigue; but the Latin Southern Provinces remained Spanish. The seven Northern Provinces controlled the sea and blocked the Scheldt, cutting off Antwerp’s maritime commerce. Massacres, war casualties, exiled Protestants, and craftsmen fleeing to cities where they could obtain employment brutally sliced Antwerp’s population from 110,000 (plus 15,000 floaters) in 1568 to 85,000 in 1584 and to 55,000 in 1589.

These do not sound like circumstances which would nourish a great art movement, but they did. The tide which had moved the center of art and culture--including schools of sculpture and painting and great printing houses--from Bruges to Antwerp had vigorous momentum. Cut off from external trade and preoccupations, the people turned inward, both to create a stronger intellectual climate and to build prosperity by increased trade among themselves. The mass destruction of religious art in itself created a tremendous market for the members of the Guild of St. Luke, and the Friday Market became livelier than ever.

The time was ripe for the advent of Peter Paul Rubens, who was not only one of the great painters of all times but a political spy and intriguer, a painter of hundreds of copies of other artist's works, and even a forger of himself.

He also became one of the most forged artists of his time.

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