It has now become part of the standard service for visitors to exhibitions to receive, free of charge, a small guidebook, which is usually available in a number of languages. Such booklets have the added advantage of de-cluttering the exhibition space of lengthy explanatory wall texts and labels, which are often hard to read. Thus it is disappointing for those who purchase the exhibition catalogue to find the informative texts of the guidebook have been replaced by the bare minimum of factual information. This is however the only complaint about the elegant presentation in the Palazzo Rubens exhibition of around 60 cleverly chosen drawings, letters, books and a group of eight exquisite paintings from first-class collections in Europe and the United States. In any case, the catalogue clearly was aimed at readers with little need of elucidating texts on individual objects. The essays by Ben van Beneden, Barbara Uppenkamp and Piet Lombaerde address many different facets of the current discussion among Rubens scholars, while references to some of the past and future volumes of the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard (Parts XXII,1: Palazzi di Genova; XXII,2: Rubens’s House; XXII,3: Jesuit Church; XXII,4: Architectural Sculpture) show that the texts incorporate up-to-date research findings.
The most accessible essay for the general public is Ben van Beneden’s introductory text on “Rubens and Architecture” (8-32), which – as in a guided city tour through Antwerp – culminates, naturally, at the Rubenshuis. The book concludes with a systematic and well-balanced overview of the state of research on “Rubens the Architect” (124-157), for which Piet Lombaerde drew on many different sources, including the books on architecture known to have been in Rubens’s library, the artist’s own notebooks and his sole architectural publication, the Palazzi di Genova of 1622. These invaluable sources helped Lombaerde illuminate Rubens’s understanding of aspects such as the use of perspective, optics and light in architecture. In addition, the author reports on an interesting “mental exercise” which in 2009 used computer simulation to create a “Virtual Rubens City” by transporting some of the Genoese palazzi documented by Rubens to Antwerp’s “Nieuwstadt”, which lies to the north of the historic city centre (153-155, fig. 183).
Sandwiched between these two essays are two further contributions, written jointly by Uppenkamp and Van Beneden. The first, “‘La vera simmetria’ – Rubens’s Italian Examples” (34-74), takes the reader to Italy. By referring to numerous Italian architectural drawings and prints as well as buildings which Rubens saw during his stay in Italy from 1600 to 1608, the authors show how Rubens extracted from diverse Italian building traditions various elements which he then incorporated into his own architectural language. The essay does not examine the influence of Genoa, presumably to avoid an overlap with Lombaerde’s essay. The second contribution, “Rubens and Architectural Symbolism” (76-123), forms the main body of the book and looks at the significance of the architecture of Rubens’s own house on the Wapper. Naturally, an explanation of the “genius loci” had to be the primary focus of the exhibition. Taking as their starting point the two engravings of 1684 and 1692 of Rubens’s house by Jacob Harrewijn after Jacques van Croes, both of which are reproduced several times and with numerous details throughout the catalogue, the two authors explore the many individual elements of the portico (referred to repeatedly as the screen), the decoration of the façade of the studio and architectural features in the garden. As is to be expected with this much-debated aspect of Rubens’s creativity, this section offers much room for discussion. For instance, just how reliable are Harrewijn’s engravings for the actual appearance of the house in Rubens’s time? This is particularly relevant for the two statues of Mercury and Minerva crowning the portico. Ulrich Heinen noted in his article of 2004 (Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch, 65, pp. 71-182, esp. 112-114) that these figures are missing from depictions of the portico by Van Dyck (Portrait of Isabella Brant, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; c.1620), Jacob Jordaens (Cupid and Psyche (?), Madrid, Prado; c. 1640-45) and Conzales Coques (Portrait of a Young Woman as St. Agnes , National Gallery, London; c. 1680). They are moreover also absent from the recently discovered painting showing the Courtyard and Garden of the Former House of Rubens, dated to the last quarter of the seventeenth century and now on permanent loan to the Rubenshuis from the Buckinghamshire Country Museum in Aylesbury (England). The method used in the catalogue of first discussing individual architectural elements as bearers of meaning in order to deduce the overall significance of the architecture is problematic. Whereas Heinen could show that the portico is a coherent construction which represents a “satirical passage in a Stoic garden”, its de-construction in the catalogue reduces it to little more than part of Rubens’s overall self-fashioning as a virtuoso (122). While this attractive catalogue does not answer all questions, it will nevertheless remain a significant reference work, not least because of the large body of excellent illustrations.
(Translated from German by Fiona Healy)