In 1675 Joachim von Sandrart wrote of Peter Paul Rubens, whom he had met personally, that his erudition was marked by ‘extraordinary genius, wit and understanding.’ Art historians have always seen Rubens as the prime example of a ‘Pictor doctus,’ an educated artist. While the reputation of Raphael and Titian rests solely on their artistic output, Rubens’s fame derives both from his standing as one of the foremost European painters of his age and from his considerable importance as a learned diplomat. But exactly what sort of knowledge did Rubens have?
Rubens’s numerous letters contain not only copious clever and witty citations from ancient literature, as was the custom of the time, but also provide clear indications of his intellectual interests and reading habits. It was Rubens’s extensive correspondence that prompted the librarian Prosper Arents (1889-1984) to attempt a reconstruction of the artist’s library. With a perseverance rooted in the nineteenth-century ideal of librarianship, he set about this task, and in 1961 published his initial findings as an ‘Inleiding tot de bibliografie’ (Noordgouw, 1). He continued working on the project, and extended his research to the extensive documentation of the archives of the Plantin-Moretus publishing house in Antwerp. Max Rooses was the first to draw attention to this rich source of material: the account books of the Officinia Plantiniana contain references of payments to Rubens for his illustrations of title-pages for works published by the Plantin press, as well as of books purchased by the artist. Prosper Arents systematically combed these sources; he also discovered the only known copy (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris) of the catalogue drawn up in 1658 for the sale of the library owned by Rubens’s son Albert.
In the present volume, the actual catalogue of Rubens’s library is preceded by two essays. Alfons K.L. Thijs’s moving account of Arents’s life (pp.11-42) makes the publication a posthumous tribute to the scholar. Taking the dry facts of the catalogue as his point of departure, Frans Baudouin demonstrates the extent of Rubens’s intellectual interests, and by drawing on earlier research gives us a clearer picture of Rubens as a reader (47-75). Baudouin also explains the system according to which the books in the catalogue are divided into different categories (93-336). The first category containing hand-written or printed dedications to Rubens is followed by those for which the artist designed title-pages. After these are books acquired by Rubens from the Officinia Plantiniana, and then those mentioned in his correspondence. Further removed from Rubens are the books owned by his family, and the bibliography concludes with a facsimile of the sales catalogue of Albert Rubens’s library. While it in no way reduces the achievements of the editor, it would have been desirable to have included a list of the books used by Rubens when he attended Latin school from 1587-90 – something which Max Rooses already attempted.
The difficulty of using Albert’s library to reconstruct his father’s becomes immediately obvious when one realizes that it did not contain many of the works mentioned in the artist’s correspondence, while of course many of the books were acquired by Albert himself, who was a lawyer. Moreover, we will never know if Rubens actually read ‘from cover to cover’ all the works mentioned in lists or in correspondence, and unfortunately no book annotated by the artist himself has hitherto been found. Nevertheless, in many cases it is possible to establish with relative certainty which books Rubens owned and accordingly which subjects interested him. In her 1997 Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard volume on Rubens’s history paintings, Elizabeth McGrath shows that Rubens especially acquired publications related to particular projects.
Taken in the context of his literary, historical, philosophical, political and artistic interests, the reconstruction of his library clearly makes a valuable contribution to understanding Rubens’s life and work. Knowing more about his intellectual interests opens up new possibilities in interpreting his iconographically often complex oeuvre. Furthermore, the present volume provides an interesting addition to recent research on readership, and will hopefully provide new impetus for the study of artists and their books (see for example the forthcoming study by Amy Golahny, Rembrandt’s Reading: The Artist’s Bookshelf of Ancient Poetry and History, University of Amsterdam Press). In general, comparatively little research into the reading habits, literacy and ownership of books has been undertaken to-date, and a systematic study for the Southern Netherlands has not yet been carried out. (H.W. de Kooker/B. van Selm, Boekcultuur in de Lage Landen 1500-1800, Utrecht 1993; Christian Coppens, ‘Der Bürger liest – liest der Bürger?,’ Stadtbilder in Flandern. Spuren bürgerlicher Kultur, 1477-1787. Exh. cat., Schallaburg 1991, pp. 210-218).
A comparison with other seventeenth-century book collections shows that Rubens’s library was unusual for the time (Jan A. Goris, ‘La bibliothèque d’un marchand milanois à Anvers au XVIe siècle,’ R evue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire, 3, 1924, pp. 851-856). Most upper-middle class households in Antwerp contained more than thirty books, and it was not rare to find collections of 200 and more. The approximately 500 titles owned by Rubens made his one of the most extensive in Antwerp, but the largest was that of printer and publisher Plantin, whose 1592 inventory lists 728 books.
A detailed index makes the bibliography very easy to use, and an English summary of both essays (43-45; 76-80) ensures access to a wider audience.
University of Dortmund
(Translated from the German by Fiona Healy)