The London publishing house Pallas Athene has come up with the very welcome and worthwhile project of assembling English translations of early biographies of artists in an easily accessible publication. The present book on Rubens is the third in the series (after Raphael and Caravaggio; since then 3 volumes on Michelangelo have come out and Rembrandt and Velazquez are forthcoming*), and brings together three biographies: the first, written by Giovanni Baglione for inclusion in his Vite de’ pittori, scultori, et architetti moderni and published in 1642, just two years after the Flemish painter’s death, has been translated by Lisa Adams; this is followed by Joachim von Sandrart’s account from the Teutsche Academie of 1675 (Latin ed.: 1683), translated by Kristin Lohse Belkin; and finally two texts by Roger de Piles: the first, a vitaproper, from his 1681 Dissertation sur les ouvrages des plus fameux peintres, avec la vie de Rubens , was translated by Katie Scott, the second, Reflections on the Works of Sir Peter Paul Rubens , is the English translation by John Savage (1706) of the French theorist’sL’Abrégé de la vie des peintresÉ avec un traité du peintre parfait(1699). A concise but lucid and informative introduction by Jeremy Wood characterizes the different approaches and interests of the three biographers, the sources of their knowledge of Rubens, his life and work, and the aspects of his successful career they found most fascinating.
Publication of individual books is scheduled either to coincide with an important exhibition – the Lives of Rubens, Caravaggio and Raphael appeared for the exhibitions in the National Gallery, London (Raphael: 2004; Caravaggio and Rubens: 2005), or to appear during an anniversary year, as in the case of the Lives of Rembrandt. The books are for their size (14.5 x 11 cm) lavishly illustrated in color, very affordable (approx. euros 10; $15; £7), and slim enough to conveniently fit the pocket of the interested public. Unfortunately, they are likely to get lost on the academic bookshelf. While it is understandable that successful sales and marketing tactics are essential in today’s harsh world of publishing, it is regrettable that the series does not cater more to the needs of scholars, who after all are the group most likely to consult these translations. While The Life of Raphael reprints Vasari, the other titles contain three biographies each: Mancini, Baglione, and Bellori on Caravaggio; Baldinucci, Houbraken, and Sandrart on Rembrandt; Vasari, Condivi and Francisco de Holanda on Michelangelo. In the case of Rubens, Bellori’s vita of 1672 is a lamentable omission, and though offset by the recently published English translation of the entire book (Cambridge University Press; 2005), it would have been infinitely more convenient to have all four biographies together. But perhaps most frustrating is the haphazard approach to annotation. The translated texts by Baglione and De Piles on Rubens contain a few footnotes related to the identification of paintings but none correcting factual errors. Belkin provides annotations correcting mistakes by Sandrart, though the printed text by no means reproduces all the annotations she submitted to the publisher. It was clearly an editorial decision to confine the number of annotations/footnotes to the bare minimum; while this may make the biographies more digestible for the general public, it also perpetuates among that same audience misinformation about the artist’s life and undermines the value of the art historical research that rectifies the inaccuracies of the earlier biographers. It is however encouraging that the publisher is apparently considering the possibility of producing more scholarly editions.
* The series also includes memoirs and recollections of Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Palmer, George Stubbs and Henri Rousseau.
Those interested in acquiring the complete set of annotations of Sandrart’s vita should email Kristin Belkin (firstname.lastname@example.org).