Like most volumes in the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard (CRLB), Rubens’s House by Nora De Poorter and the late Frans Baudouin is a double volume. Volume One contains an introduction, eleven chapters and a catalogue, Volume Two, texts, appendices and illustrations, bibliography, index on collections, subjects, names and places. Rubens’s House is meant as a catalogue raisonné that aims “to form an impression of the appearance of Rubens’s unique house as well as the functions of its various parts” and discusses at length the sources which inspired the pictor doctus for its design.
The Introduction states that this book “is the result of a quest to establish as much as can be learned about the original appearance of this unique building, and about the uses and functions of its various rooms. It gathers together and analyses the architectural elements that have been preserved, the relevant archaeological information and all written and visual sources.” The circumstances in which the book came about certainly are relevant. Upon his sudden death in 2005, Frans Baudouin, longtime director of the Rubenshuis and one of the founders, together with the late Roger-A. d’Hulst the founder of the Centrum Rubenianum, left his writings and notes for an unfinished book on Rubens’s architectural oeuvre. As of 2006, Nora De Poorter, former director of the Rubenianum, took charge. As an editor, she entrusted other authors with the separate publication of sub-parts – Rubens’s designs for the Antwerp Jesuit Church, by Ria Fabri and Piet Lombaerde (2018, CRLB, XXII, 3), architectural sculpture, by Valerie Herremans (2019, CRLB, 4), both reviewed in this journal) and sculpture (forthcoming). Finally, she devoted herself to the part about Rubens’s House, an ambitious undertaking that took many years, as “the manuscript was nowhere near a usable text for publication.” In this she relied on Baudouin’s knowledge of architectural history, but had to complete his work with information and insights that had come to light after 2005. This required the adjustment of numerous hypotheses or conclusions. De Poorter increased the number of chapters and also added a catalogue and appendixes, fitting it all in the format of the CRLB series. She was broadly assisted in this venture by the team of the Rubenianum and by numerous colleagues. It is, however, impossible to tell which parts of the research and interpretation are Baudouin’s.
Chapter I: “A Historical Sketch of the Property on the Wapper” could fully rely on recent publications and unpublished reports based on archival and archaeological research on the historic structure. However, De Poorter prefers to give her own interpretation of written sources, and to ignore the available reconstruction plans of the evolution of the property and its broader surroundings.
Chapter II: “Eye Witnesses to the House: Written and Pictorial References” weighs the truthfulness of often distorted accounts and depictions by romantic artists, as well as the opinions of Emiel Van Averbeke, the reconstruction-architect in charge, who was a gifted designer but not a building archaeologist. It also elaborates on the conversion by the next inhabitants, William and Margaret Cavendish, of the studio’s ground floor into an indoor riding school with “viewing gallery,” and the highly unlikely conjecture that William would have used a long since destroyed round Calvinist church as a riding hall. Not mentioned are the changes effected by later owners, or the rescue attempts in 1762, 1777 and 1880 by the burgomaster and the city to purchase this important heritage to save it from the impending destruction. Touched only casually are the property’s decline and fragmentation during the nineteenth century, the long process of acquisition, restoration and reconstruction during WWII, and the archaeological finds witnessed by the architect and his team.
Chapter III: “The House in the Time of Hendrik Hillewerve: A Closer Look at Jacob Harrewijn’s Prints,” key documents for the reconstruction of Rubens’s House, questions their reliability and describes everything they show, except for the stone structure that stands against the street façade. The garden, however, is treated rather cursorily, with attention to its evocation in Rubens’s paintings, but without mentioning descriptions of 1763, and acknowledging an expert’s recent report on the plantings only in a footnote (p. 108, note 41).
Chapter IV: “Construction and Remodelling: Evidence for a Chronology” presents a very personal interpretation of mainly archival data. De Poorter chose not to discuss the differing conclusions of earlier attempts, but to formulate her own hypotheses. Rubens’s whereabouts before moving to his house at the Wapper are discussed, architectural treatises and his purchase of books are extensively analysed, as well as a few specific documents that should support certain dates. The author advances fixed dates based on hypotheses about the portico and garden pavilion, the purchase of antique sculpture and a letter of admiration. The artist’s first commissions in Antwerp are considered as indicative for putting his new studio into use.
Chapter V: “The Exterior of the Studio Wing or ‘Italian’ Wing” and Chapter VI: “The ‘Italian’ Wing: The Wall Paintings” and Chapter VII: The Interior of the ‘Italian Wing’ / the ‘Schilderhuis’ rightly get special attention.
Chapter VIII: “The East or Garden Wing with the ‘Antiquarium’ (The Roman Pantheon): The Circular Structures” focuses on a complicated issue, but for lack of research fails to achieve satisfactory solutions.
Chapter IX: “The Portico” and Chapter X: “The Garden Pavilion,” by far the most well-researched parts of Rubens’s house, benefit from the inclusion of the latest results of the exemplary preliminary research and restoration.
Chapter XI: “Sculpture and Sculptors” provides an overview of the sculptural decorations and the artists involved.
The Catalogue Raisonné treats 41 items – the façades of the studio building, the interior, the portico, the garden and its pavilion, and also discusses rejected attributions. The systematic comparison between the different iconographic sources delivers interesting and important conclusions.
Appendix I presents a chronological list of the Documents, referred to elsewhere, mainly concerning the property from 1610 to the 1770’s, including archival references. The items are a mix of transcripts and summaries, some translated into English. Appendix II presents a concise Timeline. Appendix III comprises a catalogue of in all 53 – rather small sized – images of Rubens’s house and garden.
Given the particularly high expectations of scholars on the subject, writing the book on Rubens’s House was a bold undertaking, even if the subject had been extensively studied from different perspectives and disciplines, and a bevy of colleagues was available for help and support. This is without doubt an important publication, if only because it concentrates a mass of art and architectural historical information, interpretations and opinions about an important heritage. Great effort has been made to tackle the many complicated issues in an understandable way.
Still, an earnest and honest review should also address its deficiencies:
Volume I would have benefited from a different structure, avoiding repetitions, and especially from a concluding chapter, allowing a better understanding of the building, its type, both its domestic and professional use, its architecture and its garden as one coherent, early Baroque concept. It is a pity that the house’s biography contains no overview of the later evolution and the most important hypotheses on the reconstruction issues. The importance of this book could have been significantly strengthened by a more open approach toward other disciplines and a more accurate processing of available knowledge, such as recent building history and archaeology reports and publications on this building complex, including its garden and surroundings. More documentation based on archival research, archaeological discoveries, and historical photographs would have solidified the book’s foundation. More familiarity with established research on the history of interior decoration, housing typology, the organization of artists’ studios, and standard terminology on construction would have enriched the imaging of this enigmatic artist’s house after its dubious reconstruction.
This book may be elaborate and erudite on an art-historical level, but the failure to fully recognize and process the input of other professionals makes the result a missed opportunity to present a balanced overview of the existent scientific research on Rubens’s House. This example might serve as encouragement for future collaborations among experts in different fields in the quest for solid answer.
KU Leuven, Department of Architecture