In the midst of the XVII century, when Europe was a chess board in which the great princes played around as they fancied with the confessional discourse in order to defend they dynastic patrimony, a baroque, polyglot, wealthy and well living artist was cunning enough to use his gift with people, his paintbrushes and his great reputation to enter the main courts of the continent, as an ambassador, and a spy. His name was Peter Paul Rubens.
Rubens was born in Germany due simply to the fact that his father had been forced to flee Flanders after a bedroom indiscretion with Princess Anna of Saxony, wife of the great stadhouder and Dutch leader William of Orange. Converted to Catholicism after his return to his fatherland, young Peter Paul alternated in his youth his life at court as a page boy to the Countess of Ligne-Arenberg with his first painting classes in the Ambers workshops. From both experiences he learned to develop his two greatest future activities, that of courtesan and painter, one of the best of his times.
The great dream of all painters of that era was to move to Italy, and Rubens did so in 1600. Three years later, his friend and protector, the Duke of Mantua sent him on his first diplomatic mission in Valladolid, at the court of Philip III and of the powerful Duke of Lerma, whom he regaled with the equestrian portrait that still hangs in the Prado Museum.
After a few years in Italy, Rubens returned to Ambers, where he established a tightknit friendship with Isabel Clara Eugenia, daughter of Philip II, and monarch of the Netherlands, jointly with the Archduke Albert of Austria. After his death, which coincided with the end to the Twelve Year Truce in the Netherlands, Isabel Clara Eugenia began to send Rubens on diplomatic and political missions, taking advantage of his extraordinary fame as a painter, and his perfect command of Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch and Latin.
His dedication to these missions was such that the monarch assigned him a fixed salary in 1623, for his services to the State. His influence was such in the royal courts that the Queen Mother of France, the very catholic and Hispanophile Maria of Medicis, took refuge in the painter’s house in Ambers when in 1622 she fled the grasp of the kingdom’s strongman, Cardinal Richelieu.
His constant travels to the Madrid Court (which had regained its status as capital in 1606), as well as giving him a number of artistic commissions, allowed him to build a strong relationship with Philip IV, a great art lover, whom he served faithfully as painter, spy and diplomat.
Around this time, one of his contacts (more specifically the Danish ambassador in the rebel Netherlands) told him that there was interest, on the part of Charles I, King of England, to begin peace negotiations with the Spanish Monarchy. The painter passed the information on to Isabel Clara Eugenia in Brussels, and she told her nephew, Philip IV. The result was another move to Madrid, to place himself in service to the Monarch, for whom he led a diplomatic mission to London. In the English capital, Rubens spied for Philip IV, and painted for Charles I, who was passionate about art, until he was knighted by both kings, the English and the Spanish.
The pinnacle of the painter’s political career came with his naming as secretary of the Flanders’ Council by Philip IV, a position he held for life, and passed on to his son after his death, in Ambers in 1640