This most welcome paperback publication in both Dutch and English (translated by Jantien Black) aims to settle the question once and for all as to when and where Rubens was born. Recorded in innumerable monographs, catalogues, survey texts and dictionaries, it would appear that the by now well-known facts of Rubens’s birth did not warrant yet another examination, but the recent statement by H. Rombaut and R. Tijs in the Nationaal Biografisch Woordenbook, XX, 2011 (cols. 727-832) proved otherwise. Insisting that Rubens was born in Antwerp between August 29 and December 9, 1576, the authors disputed the long established knowledge that the date of the artist’s birth is June 28, 1577, and the place the town of Siegen in Westphalia. Thus Carl Van de Velde and Prisca Valkeneers meticulously re-read and interpreted all relevant documents, including those concerning Rubens’s mother, Maria Pijpelinckx. Re-examining the records, they succeeded in demonstrating once and for all that the date of the artist’s birth is June 28, 1577, and the place Siegen.
The earliest document stating Rubens’s date of birth is found on a print by Jan Meyssens (1612–1670). While the date was generally agreed upon in early sources (De Bie 1662; Bellori 1672; De Piles 1677), the place of birth was not. Meyssens’s print claims Antwerp for the honor, as do De Bie, Bellori, Moréri (Grand Dictionnaire, 1674), and Sandrart (1675). On the other hand, Roger de Piles, who based his information on the Rubens Vita he had received from Rubens’s nephew Philip (1611-1678) sometime before 1676, names Cologne as the artist’s native city.
The confusion about the three locations is due to the political upheavals and personal circumstances that shaped the lives of Rubens’s parents. As first established by R. C. Bakhuizen van den Brink in 1853, the painter’s father, Jan Rubens, a lawyer and former Antwerp alderman who had left the city for Cologne in 1568 for his religious beliefs, was imprisoned at Dillenburg Castle in Hesse, the ancestral Nassau castle, from March 9, 1571 until May 10, 1573 because of an adulterous affair with Anna of Saxony, wife of William the Silent. Upon his release he and his wife and their five children lived in the nearby town of Siegen in Westphalia, albeit under strict house arrest, until 1578 when he was allowed to move back to Cologne. The authors examine the records concerning Jan Rubens’s imprisonment, all of which together with all other relevant documents are published in 30 Appendices 72-90, with references to their location and citations in separate footnotes). They are transcribed in their original languages, i.e. Dutch, French, German and Latin, but not translated into English. Additional documents on Rubens’s mother, Maria Pijpelinckx, shed light on her background, her supposed travels, and how she was able to support the family during the years her husband was imprisoned. Of special interest is Jan Rubens’s promissory note, written in Siegen on May 31, 1576 and today in the Felix archives in Antwerp, stating that he owes his wife eight thousand thalers, the sum she paid for his release, partly using her own money and partly obtaining a loan (Appendix 2, fol. 1-1v, figs. 28-29. The authors suggest further investigating this unpublished document).
During 1577 Maria Pijpelinckx is repeatedly documented as living in Siegen, where she and the five children had joined her husband. She petitioned first William of Orange, then his brother Johann of Nassau to permit her husband to return to his homeland, suggesting among other places Nispen or Lier. Jan Rubens’s official release from house arrest in Siegen was signed on May 15, 1578 (Appendix 11). Only then did the entire Rubens family that now included the one year old Peter Paul and his older brother Philip move back to Cologne where Jan died in 1587. Two years later, in 1589, Maria Pijpelinckx and her children returned to Antwerp, where she made every effort to hide her husband’s affair, incarceration and their stay in Siegen.
The authors found no records of the Rubens family in either Cologne or Antwerp for 1576-1577, thus negating Egidius Gelenius’s statement in 1645 that Rubens was born in Cologne in the Gronfeldsche Hof (89, Appendix 26). Actually when Jan was arrested in 1571 the family lived in the Cologne parish of St. Mauritius (10). The notion of Rubens’s birth in Cologne rather than Siegen apparently is partly due to Maria Pijpelinckx who had Jan Rubens’s epitaph read that he lived in Cologne from 1568 until his death in 1587. This was to secure her and her family’s safe return to Antwerp 53). The uninterrupted stay in Cologne was repeated later by Jan Brant in his Vita of Philip Rubens and by the painter’s nephew Philip in his biography of Peter Paul Rubens (57).
Van deVelde and Valkeneers explain the statement by Rombaut and Tijs in the Nationaal Biografisch Woordenboek that Rubens was born in Antwerp with the fact that several documents list Peter Paul as a citizen of Antwerp (54), possibly because his older brother Philip had obtained official Antwerp citizenship on July 24, 1607 even though he claimed to have been born in Cologne (Appendix 19-21). This was a prerequisite for his post of Secretary of the City of Antwerp, to which he was appointed on January 14, 1609 with his Brabant nationality specifically confirmed by the Archdukes Albert and Isabella. The authors point out that around that time the archdukes may have thought of appointing Peter Paul as their court painter which happened officially September 23 of that year. They also explain why Maria Pijpelinckx’s trip to Antwerp in 1576 or 1577, as Rombaut and Tijs suggest, is highly unlikely 60).
The Vita Petri Pauli Rubenii, first published in 1837 by Baron de Reiffenberg 28) is known today only from later eighteenth-century copies. The authors suggest that the underlying version is closest to the text, probably of 1772, bound in with the Tableau Historique et généalogique de la famille de P. P. Rubens par L.J.A. De Roovere, tome second (Ms. 21740 in fine in the Royal Library, Brussels; Appendix 29, figs. 10-11). Moreover, the article of 1861 on Rubens’s place of birth by L. Ennen in the Annalen des historischen Vereins für den Niederrhein (IX-X, 1861: 216-236) luckily preserves a now lost document from the Historisches Archiv, Cologne. One of the desiderata the authors suggest is to correlate the various Vita versions and to annotate and translate it (29). The authors also established that there was no inscription on Rubens’s tombstone in St. Jacob’s church when it was installed in 1755. The text seen today reproduces that cited by De Piles which apparently had been sent to him by the artist’s nephew Philip (49). The publication ends with a bibliography but no index.