Art, religion, and diplomacy in the life of Costantino de’ Servi (1554 – 1622)



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Such insecurity stemmed from the fact that, contrary to the noble ideals of the time, he was not a rentier, who could devote himself to lofty contemplation or choose an activity of his liking; he was someone who lived off his art, that is to say the work of his hands. Costantino himself would never have admitted this, of course: in March 1604,

I stabbed someone who called me a Painter […] but with the handle of the sword, for by calling me thus he appeared to be insulting me. I said that I would do it again whenever such a word will be thrown at my face out of malignity rather than ignorance, and that I was never a painter if not according to my own fancy, and in order to satisfy princes and friends, not as a mercenary.cxxxvi

If to modern ears stabbing someone, even ‘with the handle of the sword’, sounds quite disproportionate, we should remember that in the early seventeenth century duels between gentlemen were still widespread practice. If the offender in this particular case was no gentleman, knocking him out ‘with the handle of the sword’ might have been fairly appropriate.cxxxvii Either way, the episode highlights Costantino’s sensitivity on the topic, and his eagerness to stress, in his letters, how honourable his behaviour always was.

Similarly, when he was jailed for debts in March 1605, he protested in his letters that it was all the fault of his creditor, ‘Dr Peza’. ‘His avarice’cxxxviii had led Peza to lose his temper as soon as the repayment delay had expired, and he had profited from the corruption of the Imperial police, who ‘would go and arrest any gentleman without any respect’cxxxix for very little money. Being very conscious that this version of the story was not the most plausible, given that he had not repaid a debt within the agreed period, Costantino added that ‘il Signore Guidi’, Secretary to the Florentine Ambassador in Prague, knew that he was innocent, ‘but I know he is friends with Peza […], so it could be that he does not tell this very much in my favour’.cxl

Thus, Costantino’s letters ought to be read as the sites of a conflictual self-fashioning process. On the one hand, Costantino himself wished to project to his grand-ducal paymasters the image of a self-confident, successful nobleman—albeit not quite successful enough to make it without their patronage, of course. On the other hand, his very efforts highlight the fact that both his main problem—financial distress—and its solution—artistic activity under princely patronage—were potential threats to such self-image of the confident nobleman. This provides the historian with an excellent case-study to illustrate John Martin’s argument that early modern identities were shaped both by the inner self and by external, structural forces.

Through a study of contemporary literature on prudence and sincerity, Martin has suggested in 1993 that early modern intellectuals like Montaigne perceived their self as split between a private, inner half and a public half functioning as façade. Martin has argued that historians should keep this in mind when working with early modern ‘ego documents’, such as (auto-)biographies, (self-)portraits, letters, and first-person fictions, for it will help them steer clear of two dangers. First, scholars will avoid Jacob Burckhardt’s naïve assumption that ego documents are windows onto early modern selves; rather, they should be seen as screens onto which a carefully constructed image of such selves was projected. Second, the agency of the inner self in such self-fashioning will be remembered, alongside an important role for social conventions and groups—whilst scholars such as Stephen Greenblatt have tended to focus exclusively on the latter.cxli In Costantino’s case, this simultaneous process of self-fashioning from the inside and the outside proved very conflictual, sometimes even violent. His letters constitute the screens on which we are able to watch the tensions between the two influences unfold.

Chapter II, Section III

‘L’incomodita delle mia Messe e’ diuotione’: reassessing confessionalization theory

The third facet of Costantino de’ Servi’s identity which can be fruitfully explored from a double, Florentine and Rudolfine perspective is that of religion. His lifespan corresponds with striking precision to the so-called ‘Confessional Age’: he was born the year before the Peace of Augsburg, and died shortly after the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War. Confessionalization theorists, foremost among them Wolfgang Reinhard and Heinz Schilling, have argued that during this period early modern secular and ecclesiastical authorities used faith as a glue to cement communal identities and foster state formation, drawing and policing confessional boundaries from the top down. Issues of periodisation have been one of many grounds on which scholars have revised confessionalization theory: Reinhard himself, for example, has suggested that Catholic confessionalization started as early as the 1520s and continued beyond the Thirty Years’ War. The theory has also been criticised for developing a modernising narrative; for overstressing the elites’ agency in the formation of confessional identities; and for disregarding the confessional cultures which made up the day-to-day religious experience of early modern folk.cxlii This Section will engage with these criticisms through an exploration of Costantino’s relationship with Catholicism and its evolution over time.

Religion is remarkably absent from most of Costantino’s letters. There are occasional mentions of ‘going to Mass at the Capuchins’ Church’cxliii in his 1603–05 correspondence from Prague, but nothing is said of the confessional tensions running through the Empire, and through Bohemia itself. The earliest explicit reference to religious differences is found in a letter to Grand Duchess Maria Maddalena d’Austria, written from London on 6 August 1611. Costantino was then fascinated by his new patron, Henry Prince of Wales, but nonetheless acknowledged that he was experiencing ‘the discomfort of my Masses and devotion’, surrounded as he was by Protestants.cxliv After this date, expressions of his Catholic faith will become more and more common. In 1615, for example, one of his letters from The Hague described in great detail the ongoing skirmishes between the United Provinces and the Prince-Elector of Cologne, who had just raided a Lutheran city. The Dutch were mounting a military operation in response, leading Costantino to exclaim, ‘may God guard the poor Catholics, for they are innocent and should not endure such vengeances’.cxlv

Costantino’s most poignant lines about religion are found in his two 1619 letters from Saxe-Weimar. In the first of these, dated 5 April, Costantino, by then sixty-five years old, resented ‘being far from the Divine offices and among the forces of our enemies in matters of religion’.cxlvi Furthermore, as mentioned in Chapter I, his wife had been forced to sell their house in Florence to repay a debt. Costantino was therefore planning to return home as soon as ‘the stonemasons from Italy, who will get here in 20 days’ time’,cxlvii would begin work on the new Weimar Residenzschloss he had designed. Five months later, however, he was still ‘here, it can be said, buried amidst the woods in a miserable city where these Princes of Saxony reside’.cxlviii Almost half of his second Saxon letter was devoted to a detailed description of the palace he was building, of which he was understandably proud: as has already been noted, this was the most ambitious undertaking of his life.cxlix

Pride, however, faded into gloom and fear as Costantino retold a conversation he had had with his Protestant patron, Duke Johann-Ernst I of Saxe-Weimar, ‘in private and in Italian’,cl about the recent military, political, and religious manoeuvres in the region. Costantino had accused the German Princes of ‘thinking more about the Interest of the State than that of the Soul, neither do they think of anything else but to occupy that which belongs to others with a thousand excuses of religion’.cli Their time would have been better spent, in his opinion: ‘It would be much better if you Princes would unite all together out of common agreement against the Infidels and the non-believers in Christ, for you would acquire greater states and kingdoms’.clii This is the first of a number of irenicist suggestions made by Costantino in the course of the conversation: he also exhorted Johann-Ernst to ‘let religion alone and you’ll see that you’ll be left alone by us Catholics, for we also love the freedom of state and preservation of our religion’.cliii Being keenly aware of the influence exerted over Johann-Ernst by his relatives Prince Ludwig I of Anhalt-Köthen and Prince Christian I of Anhalt-Bernburg, both prominent leaders of the Protestant Union,cliv he deployed an economic argument as well, adding that in case of war, ‘Your Highness will spend so much money that You would afford two of the Palaces just begun’.clv Costantino’s role as a self-appointed advocate of peace, in this letter, points us already towards Chapter III, which will focus on his informal diplomatic activity.

Costantino’s religious identity, thus, does not surface in his letters until the 1610s. This is perhaps not surprising, given that he was writing to his patrons, and therefore had little reason to talk at length about his religious life.clvi Yet his fatherland, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, was strongly committed to Tridentine Catholicism: Cosimo I de’ Medici had allowed an Inquisition tribunal to be set up in his domains in the 1550s, and Tuscany had been the first Italian polity after the Venetian Republic to enforce the conclusions of the Council of Trent in 1564. This was partly dictated by political calculations, as the Medici saw in the Papacy a powerful ally, and a means to counterbalance Habsburg influence over their (Grand) Duchy; it was also in keeping with Florentine traditions, for the city’s political landscape had always been dominated by the Parte Guelfa.clvii

On the other hand Wratislaw von Pernstein, Costantino’s first non-Medici patron, is described by R.J.W. Evans as one of the foremost exponents of the old, irenicist Imperial élites, who could straddle the confessional divide and regarded religious differences as a secondary matter. Bohemian magnates like Pernstein or Wilhelm von Rosenberg were imbued with the universalist philosophy which Evans describes as quintessentially Rudolfine.clviii It is plausible to assume, therefore, that service at the Pernstein court in Lytomišl and travels across the contorted confessional boundaries of Central Europe in the 1570s and ’80s moderated Costantino’s Tuscan Catholicism, equipping him well for a life of travels.

The 1610s represented both a personal and a continental turning point, and this doubly shook the relaxed approach to religious difference which Costantino had adopted up to that point. On a personal level, in those years Costantino served a string of Protestant patrons and experienced life in a ‘heretic’ polity for the first time.clix That this triggered the appearance of religion among the themes of Costantino’s letters seems logical: the experience of religious ‘exile’, even though voluntarily undergone for professional reasons here, regularly appears to have impacted on early modern confessional identities.clx On a European scale, the 1610s were also a crucial decade: confessional and political tensions were mounting all around the continent. The Spanish rallied their troops to resume the war against the rebellious United Provinces; Rudolf II’s power collapsed after years of isolation, to the advantage of his brother Matthias; and Henri IV of France, the man who had reunited the country after the Guerres de Religion, was murdered and succeeded by a child, under the regency of Maria de’ Medici.clxi Costantino’s increasingly frequent mentions of religious matters in his letters closely mirror the European escalation leading to the outbreak of what would become known as the Thirty Years’ War. The first of such mentions, as we have seen, appeared in a letter from London, which was then regarded as one of the capitals of Protestantism. The following, in 1615, was written in The Hague, with an eye to the military manoeuvres on the Eastern border of the United Provinces, one of the geopolitical hotspots of Europe. The paroxysm was then reached in 1619 in Saxe-Weimar, the hotbed of the Protestant Reformation.

Thus, Costantino was in a sense a witness of confessionalization, even though a different one from Reinhard’s and Schilling’s. It undoubtedly had something to do with princes and religious leaders competing against each other—but no one enforced a heightened confessional identity onto Costantino from above. Rather, the circumstances of his itinerant life were such that he came to experience religious isolation within ‘heretic’ territory, which led to a reinforced concern with his own faith, as evidenced by his letters. Confessionalization as experienced by Costantino can also hardly be described as modernising: he saw it as a step backwards, precipitating Europe into the chaos of conflict again. This leads us to the most important difference between Costantino’s reality and Reinhard’s and Schilling’s theory, one of periodization. The sons of the Europe of the Peace of Augsburg, like Costantino and even more so Evans’ Rosenberg and Pernstein, were not the first wave of confessionalization. Rather, they were the generation who attempted, after the bloody struggles of the first half of the sixteenth century, to find some form of religious harmony; they were the more successful cousins of the French politiques. The Thirty Years’ War, far from representing the end of the Confessional Age, marked the return of religious conflict in the Empire, after 60 years in which Costantino and his contemporaries had attempted to look elsewhere.

Chapter III

The art of diplomacy

Chapter III, Section I

‘Mi parue piu presto dessere in Persia che in praga’: Costantino’s lost footsteps to Persia

Costantino’s trip to Persia has proved the most elusive episode of his life for his biographers. In November 1609, he received a passport to travel to the Safavid Empire; its routine formulae enjoining all to let the bearer proceed unimpeded were preceded by this preamble:

Having heard from Don Robert Earl of Sherley, ambassador of the most serene and powerful Great Shah King of Persia that among his other duties which he had with us on behalf of that Majesty there was that of looking to have an excellent man, who would be universal in different sorts of professions […] we have granted Him Costantino de’ Servi.clxii

This document has been the source of a number of speculations on Costantino’s travels to the East, which this Section will attempt to disentangle. Its rather disappointing conclusion will be that a Persian trip in Costantino’s youth can neither be conclusively proved nor disproved. More importantly, however, its analysis will demonstrate the usefulness of architect-engineers in international relations and diplomatic exchanges—which constitutes a fitting start for a Chapter devoted to informal diplomacy.

Quoting the 1609 passport, Filippo Baldinucci first mentioned Persia among Costantino’s destinations. ‘We believe however that the service performed for that Lord was rather brief; for we find that he was at home before the end of the year 1610’, he added.clxiii Caterina Pagnini’s research has uncovered the reason for such short absence: Costantino never made it as far as Persia. In November 1610, he received orders from Florence requiring ‘that I shall go to England, dispensing me from the Persian trip’.clxiv These orders reached him in Trento, just over a year after receiving his passport. At that time Robert Sherley, the Persian Shah’s ambassador, was in Spain, where he had landed in December 1609 after visiting a few Italian capitals, including Florence.clxv Costantino was therefore on his own in Trento in 1610, probably travelling to Persia via the Muscovy trail, running through Poland, Moscow, the Volga river and the Caspian Sea.clxvi Why it took him a year to get from Florence to Trento, and what he did in the meantime, remains a mystery.clxvii

Pagnini has asserted that 1609 was in fact the second time that the Medici had sent Costantino to the Safavid Empire; on her account, the first time had been in the early 1580s.clxviii This suggestion is based on Giuseppe Gargano’s dating of the Persian trip, between 1580 and 1585, and is refined by Simone Bardazzi: given that Costantino’s activity is documented up to the summer of 1581, and then again from the summer of 1584,clxix he must have travelled to Persia in the three intervening years.clxx Gargano’s dating of the Persian trip to 1580–85, however, is not substantiated by any footnote, or reference to a primary source; it is simply stated, in less than a sentence.clxxi Whether he made up his dates or he had access to a source we know not of is impossible to say—which leaves the door open both for the trip’s existence and for its non-existence.

No reference to a Persian trip has been found anywhere in Costantino’s correspondence; had he actually made it all the way there, it seems unlikely that he would have kept quiet about it. However one of his letters from Prague, dated 5 October 1604, in which he retold how ‘yesterday morning I found myself dining with the Persian ambassador’,clxxii is enigmatic in this respect. Interpreters were present at the luncheon, including the Emperor’s, ‘il signore Negrone’, and the description of the feast ends thus: ‘I spent the morning with certain Persian-like victuals which were not bad, and with so much drinking that when I left I more readily thought to be in Persia than in Prague (mi parue piu presto dessere in Persia che in praga), just like Negrone, with whom I left, who had the same impression’.clxxiii This allusive sentence could be a mere joke, intended to highlight the strength of the alcohol and the quality of the lunch. It could also, however, be a reference to the fact that Costantino knew what it was like ‘dessere in Persia’—just as much as the interpreter ‘Negrone’, who had presumably travelled to the place in order to learn the language. Once again, the possibility that Costantino did travel to Persia in his youth remains open.

Contemporary accounts of trips to Persia are another angle from which to approach the question: not that many Europeans travelled to the Safavid Empire in the late sixteenth century, and they usually left some sort of trace. Laurence Lockhart, in the Cambridge History of Iran, lists two trips from the 1580s whose accounts have survived to the present day.clxxiv The first traveller was John Newberie, who from 1580 to 1582 crossed the Mediterranean to Tripoli, and from there travelled to Aleppo, Baghdad, Basra, Hormuz, Tabriz (then capital of the Safavid Empire), Turkey, the Danube, Poland and back to England.clxxv The second traveller was Giovanni Battista Vechietti: his 1584–87 trip to the East, which started in Rome, was a confidential diplomatic mission, orchestrated on behalf of Pope Gregory XIII by Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici, the future Grand Duke of Tuscany. The details of Vechietti’s report were kept secret after his return to Europe in 1587; we know of it today because the Venetian ambassador to Madrid surreptitiously managed to transcribe the Spanish copy of the report, which has thus survived in Venetian diplomatic correspondence.clxxvi Neither Newberie nor Vechietti mention Costantino at any point in their travel reports; this is unsurprising, given that the sources discussed in Chapter I attest to Costantino’s presence in Europe in 1581, and again in 1584, i.e. during both of their voyages. The time span for which we have no news of him, 1581–84, neatly falls between Newberie’s and Vechietti’s travels. Once again, the possibility of a trip to Persia for Costantino cannot be confirmed, but it cannot be ruled out completely either: if anything, Newberie’s and Vechietti’s travel reports confirm that two to three years would have been a plausible length of time for a round trip to Tabriz.

Having ascertained the possibility of a 1581–84 voyage to Persia for Costantino, we ought now to assess its plausibility with reference to the late sixteenth-century geopolitical context. After the 1571 Christian victory at Lepanto, there was a renewed enthusiasm in Christendom for a crusade against the Turks, of which Pope Gregory XIII was a great sponsor. Western eyes were set in particular on Cyprus, which the Ottomans had conquered from the Venetians months before Lepanto. The Medici saw in these Eastern manoeuvres an occasion for self-aggrandisement: as previously mentioned, Cosimo I had obtained from Gregory XIII’s predecessor, Pius IV, the constitution of the Tuscan-based crusading Order of the Knights of St Stephen.clxxvii Within Christian anti-Ottoman machinations, Safavid Persia had been seen since the fifteenth century as a potential ally against the Porte.clxxviii Thus, in Vechietti’s own words, ‘His Holiness [the Pope] having heard that there was very great conflict between Turks and Persians […] decided to expressly send a person [i.e. Vechietti himself] to the King of Persia, to understand in what predicament the latter was, and to offer Him, if he had the spirit to continue the war, that [His Holiness] would do anything to the effect that the Christian Princes may come together at the expenses of the Turk.’clxxix Gregory XIII’s decision to entrust the organisation of such mission to Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici is easily explained: Ferdinando had inherited his father’s interest in the Levant, which he cultivated through a friendship with the Patriarch of the Maronite Church while in Rome.clxxx

Upon becoming Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1587, Ferdinando’s Eastern ambitions grew: he was now planning to reconquer Cyprus for himself, despite the hostility of the Papacy, Venice, and the Spanish Crown to such an initiative, which was bound to provoke a violent reaction from the Porte.clxxxi Thus in 1606, when news reached Florence of the uprising of the ‘Bascia di Aleppo’, Canbuladoğlu Ali Pasha, against his Ottoman overlord,clxxxii Ferdinando I immediately dispatched an envoy, Hippolito Leoncini, who within a few months had concluded a treaty with the rebels.clxxxiii In exchange of huge commercial and religious privileges in Syria, the Medici agreed ‘to lower and eventually destroy as far as possible, with the help of God, the Ottoman Empire, and to increase the power of the House of Canbulad’.clxxxiv In January 1607 the grand-ducal secretaries also instructed Curzio Picchena, Florentine ambassador to the Holy See, to lobby Pope Paul V into supporting the rebellious ‘Bascia’ with ammunitions, ships, and funds.clxxxv From their end, they were preparing a load of military supplies, and they also offered to ‘send to Cyprus and Jerusalem an Engineer of ours, who has great spirit, experience, and judgement, for the observation of places, the drawing up of plans, and the assessment of locations, and will be able to bring back full and truthful reports of them’.clxxxvi These are all skills which Costantino possessed: in 1604, he had mentioned the reception of a patent granting him the title of ‘Engineer’ from the King of France;clxxxvii and in 1611 he used the very same words ‘drawing up of plans (cavar piante)’ when describing his preliminary work for Henry Prince of Wales on the renovation of Richmond Palace.clxxxviii

The defeat of Ali Pasha’s forces at Oruç Ovasi in October 1607 marked the end of the Canbuladoğlu-Medici alliance; the Syria-bound military supplies had not yet left the port of Livorno by then, whilst the bold attempt by Ferdinando’s troops to take the Cypriot port of Famagosta in June of that year had failed.clxxxix There is therefore no way to know whether it was Costantino or someone else whom the grand-ducal secretaries had in mind when writing those lines to Picchena. Nonetheless, the episode sheds an entire new light on the matter of Costantino’s travels to the East, allowing us to draw three conclusions. First, that Costantino might have been sent to Persia in 1581–84 by a young Cardinal Ferdinando, ‘for the observation of places, the drawing up of plans, and the assessment of locations’—a trip immediately followed by Vechietti’s diplomatic mission, 1584–87. Costantino’s silence about the whole thing in his subsequent letters would be explained by the confidential nature of the mission.cxc Second, that Costantino might have been the ‘Engineer’ about to leave for the Levant in 1607, only to be halted by Canbuladoğlu Ali Pasha’s military defeat. Third, and most importantly, his definition as ‘an excellent man, who would be universal in different sorts of professions’ on his 1609 Persian passport now has a different ring to it. Given the precedents we have just listed, and given that among the aims of Robert Sherley’s mission was precisely to secure the support of Christian Europe in Shah Abbas I’s struggle against the Ottomans,cxci it seems plausible that Costantino’s skills would have been deployed not just in an artistic, but also in a military context, had he made it to Persia in 1610. All in all, it is clear that architects and skilled technicians had a role to play in (Oriental) diplomacy.



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