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

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Chapter III, Section II

‘Venne a caso visto un ritratto d’una dama’: trajectories of Medicean matrimonial and foreign policy

Reassessing the significance of Costantino’s 1609 Persian trip means we now have to explain why in November 1610 this trip was cancelled, and why Costantino was sent to England instead. Henry Prince of Wales had not asked the Medici for him specifically: the request which Ottaviano Lotti, the Tuscan resident in London, had forwarded to Florence in September 1610 was for the services of the Francini brothers, currently employed in France, or one of their pupils.cxcii Caterina Pagnini notes that no further mention of Francini can be found in Lotti’s correspondence, and assumes that, the two brothers being still busy in France, Grand Duke Cosimo II had singled out Costantino as the obvious alternative.cxciii Yet Costantino was also busy. His designation cannot have been obvious; rather, it was a deliberate choice to send him rather than someone else to England. By analysing the motives behind this choice, this Section will point to marriage negotiations as the second foreign policy context within which Costantino was employable.

As has been discussed, Costantino’s 1609 appointment for service to the Persian Shah was probably part of one of the bold Levantine schemes of which Ferdinando was so fond—though his passport was released in November 1609, nine months after the Grand Duke’s death in February of that year. Ferdinando I’s son and successor, Cosimo II, increasingly steered away from his father’s Mediterranean intrigues, preferring to concentrate on Western Europe. As mentioned in Section III of Chapter II, indeed, the 1610s were a decade of mounting confessional tensions, and each minor crisis, from the succession to the Duchy of Cleves, Jülich, and Berg to the 1613 Piedmontese aggression of the Duchy of Mantua, threatened to escalate into a major conflict. As Carla Sodini has shown, Cosimo skillfully navigated this complex situation, making the most of the three tools of Medicean external projection: war, money, and diplomacy.cxciv

In November 1610 the Grand Duke asked Lotti, apparently for the first time, to explore the possibility of a match between Henry Prince of Wales and Caterina de’ Medici, with the double aim of furthering both the cause of Catholicism in the British Isles and Medicean dynastic ambitions.cxcv The coincidence with the designation of Costantino for service at the English court is too precise not to suggest some level of correlation between the two decisions. Less than a year later, in September 1611, Lotti was indeed writing:

Prince [Henry] being one day in his [Costantino’s] room, and leafing through a notebook of drawings, His Highness saw by chance the portrait of a lady, and asked who she was, [Costantino de’] Servi answered, ‘This is the second sister of Milord the Grand Duke’, and His Highness looked again carefully and said that she was a beautiful princess […].cxcvi

This is unlikely to have been just an accident. With marriage negotiations having reached a fairly advanced stage, thanks to the offer of a generous dowry,cxcvii Henry had repeatedly asked to be able to see a portrait of the bride, but Lotti had been instructed to reply that ‘we do not ordinarily give out the princesses’ portraits’.cxcviii As Pagnini points out, this was a lie, for Henri IV of France was presented, only a few years earlier, with a portrait of Maria de’ Medici prior to their marriage.cxcix Pagnini attributes the reluctance to send a portrait of the Medici princess to London to ‘aesthetic qualities which Caterina must clearly not have possessed’.cc Whatever the reason, Costantino was able to save Lotti from a difficult predicament by showing Henry, ‘by chance’, an image of a beautiful lady, and claiming it represented Caterina de’ Medici. This might not have been the main reason why Costantino was chosen by Cosimo II to go to England, but his ability to paint portraits might have mattered to the Grand Duke when making his decision.

Furthermore, this was not the first time Costantino had been involved with Medici matrimonial affairs. In 1600, he had been a member of the retinue of Maria de’ Medici, as she travelled to France to meet her husband Henri IV, in what was probably the greatest exploit of Ferdinando I’s foreign policy.cci If little is known of Costantino’s activity in that occasion, we can be sure that in 1603–04, whilst residing in Prague, he played a much more active role. Asked in December 1603 by Johan Barvitz, Rudolf II’s secretary, if he had with him ‘the portrait of our Princess for it seems that His Majesty [the Emperor] would have liked to see her’,ccii Costantino immediately understood the importance of the question. He had no painting for the Emperor, but he praised Caterina’s qualities verbally—and immediately wrote to Florence soliciting the dispatching of a portrait.cciii The Holy Roman Emperor, indeed, was looking for a bride: as the Tuscan resident Giovanni Uguccioni reported a few months later, in February 1604, ‘Hans Van Aachen, painter for this Majesty, made and brought here the portrait of the Princess of Modena; and the portraits of the princesses of Innsbruck, Savoy, and Graz were also made. His Majesty has got them hung up in his room’.cciv As is well known, Rudolf II never married, and thus Costantino’s ambitions must have been frustrated, which would explain the absence of any further reference to them in his letters. Nonetheless, the episode must have reminded the grand-ducal secretaries, if need there was, of the importance of pictorial prompts during marriage negotiations, especially if such portraits were painted in a particularly flattering way by an artist at their orders.

There is therefore yet another sense in which Costantino was ‘an excellent man, who would be universal in different sorts of professions’: his multiple artistic skills could be employed to produce art; to survey fortifications and other military buildings; and to facilitate matrimonial negotiations. This made him an extraordinarily flexible foreign policy agent, who could be deployed in a variety of contexts. Thus, Costantino’s trajectory around the most prominent courts of early modern Europe can help us map Medicean external relations in the first 75 years of existence of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

After the 1559 Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis acknowledged the French defeat in the Habsburg-Valois Italian wars, the century that followed, up to the 1628–31 War of the Mantuan Succession, is generally described by historians as one of Spanish dominance over the Italian peninsula. Whether directly or indirectly, Madrid was the overlord of most of the Italian States, with the exception of the Venetian Republic, stubbornly independent, and the Duchy of Savoy, gravitating within the French orbit.ccv Thus, when the Florentine ‘Grandi’ chose the young Cosimo de’ Medici as the successor of the murdered Alessandro de’ Medici, in 1537, they had to await confirmation from Charles V’s representative, the Duke of Cifuentes. He acquiesced merely because he came to see Cosimo’s rule as the best guarantee of continued Habsburg ascendancy over the city.ccvi

For some years, Cosimo did labour under such ascendancy: he had to receive imperial approval both for the execution of his arch-enemy, Filippo Strozzi, and for his marriage, contracted in 1539 with Eleanor of Toledo, the daughter of the Spanish Viceroy of Naples. Not until the 1550s, when faced with an imminent French threat, did his Habsburg overlords consent to let him annex Siena, despite the de facto military protectorate he had established there for some fifteen years.ccvii Through a strong commitment to the cause of the Counter-Reformation Papacy, however, Cosimo was able to start signalling his independence; his efforts were rewarded by a 1569 Papal decree making the Medici Grand Dukes of Tuscany. Imperial and Spanish confirmations of the title were only grudgingly issued in 1575, after years of protests for Papal interference in Tuscany, an Imperial fief.ccviii

Costantino’s 1572 trip to the Duchy of Saxony should be placed within such context. He was accompanying there, as we have seen, the Baron of ‘Prinzistain and Norbuus’, who had been entrusted with some gifts for the Saxon Dukes by Francesco de’ Medici and Giovanna d’Austria, Cosimo I’s son and daughter-in-law respectively.ccix These gifts were presumably meant to congratulate the Dukes on their accession to their domains, for in 1572 the Duchy of Saxony had been split among the heirs of the Ernestine branch of the Wettin family. The Ernestine Wettins, however, were Lutherans, who had lost the Electorate of Saxony to their Albertine cousins due to their participation in the Schmalkadic League against the Emperor.ccx Thus, a mere 35 years after its creation, and eight years after the closing of the Council of Trent, the (Grand) Duchy of Tuscany was already playing politics at the highest level in Europe, and exchanging gifts with a prominent Protestant principality of the Empire.

Cosimo I’s son, Francesco I, who took over at Cosimo’s death in 1574 after ten years of nominal co-rule, has received an extremely bad press from historians, who have tended to see him as a hopeless Casanova.ccxi Tuscany did indeed abandon any daring foreign policy initiative, refusing for example to intervene in Genoese affairs in 1577, despite Papal backing and explicit Genoese calls for assistance, which led to increased Piedmontese influence over the Tyrrhenian city-republic.ccxii Francesco’s bad reputation bears some resemblance to that of Rudolf II, with whom he also had in common a passion for alchemy.ccxiii Scholars would therefore benefit from a Tuscan equivalent of R.J.W. Evans’ Rudolf II and his world, reassessing the importance of Francesco in creating a splendid late Renaissance court in Florence. After all, he was the Grand Duke who first hired both Bernardo Buontalenti and Giambologna, and it was for him that the garden of Pratolino, source of inspiration for many landscape designers to come, was built.ccxiv Costantino’s trajectory would fit in well with such narrative: if the 1580s and ’90s were the most sedentary decades of his life, during which he seems to have been sent on no foreign mission by the Grand Dukes, they were also the time when he first entered official Medici employment as someone who ‘works in plaster’.ccxv

At Francesco’s death in 1587, his brother Ferdinando relinquished the Cardinal hat and took over as Grand Duke. Costantino’s involvement with Ferdinando’s ambitious Levantine schemes, and the marriage of his niece Maria de’ Medici with Henri IV of France, has already been discussed. It should be added that Costantino’s presence at the Imperial court, 1603–05, might have been yet another clever move by the Grand Duke, whose ambassador in Prague was struggling to approach an increasingly introverted Rudolf II. Artistic skill, on the other hand, was exactly what the Emperor prized, and for Costantino the doors of the Imperial palace proved indeed to be wide open.ccxvi

A similar reasoning might have been made by Ferdinando’s son and successor, Cosimo II, as he sent Costantino to Weimar in 1618. Like Henry Prince of Wales, Johann Ernst I of Saxe-Weimar had not asked for Costantino himself; he would have preferred to have the famous architect Giulio Parigi at his service.ccxvii With a looming confessional crisis in neighbouring Bohemia, however, Cosimo II probably seized the opportunity to send to Weimar someone who, in addition to designing and building Johann Ernst’s new Residenzschloss, would be able to send information on the impending conflict back to Florence.ccxviii Like a litmus test, thus, Costantino’s biography reveals the geographical dimension of the different foreign policies pursued by different Medici Grand Dukes. This ‘excellent man, who would be universal in different sorts of professions’, often present at the right place at the right time, was also a political agent. The next Section of this Chapter will therefore examine more closely his letters, the physical remains of his diplomatic activity.
Chapter III, Section III

‘Seruendolo piu absente che presente’: Costantino’s letters and early modern diplomatic communications

Fifteenth-century Italy is usually regarded by scholars as the birthplace of modern Western diplomacy: the pursuit of peace, or at least the avoidance of war, through the services of permanent residents, representing a ruler’s or a city’s interests abroad.ccxix These ambassadors and envoys scattered across the continent weaved a network of paper: letters, dispatches, reports, and instructions were sent back and forth between early modern capital cities and their agents abroad.ccxx Thus, the burgeoning bureaucracies and diplomacies of the European polities mirrored to some extent the Republic of Letters, which linked together many of the most prominent scholars and learned men of the age. This led to the emergence of well-organised postal services, which could be lucrative affairs, as is evident in the fortunes of the Thurn und Taxis family, who went from being the Holy Roman Emperors’ post managers to establishing themselves as their representatives at the Imperial Diets.ccxxi

The Medici also incurred great expenses in ‘Carryings of letters’ and ‘Post and Couriers of His Highness’.ccxxii For example, the Florentine correspondence to and from the Empire—the Imperial court in Prague; but also Brussels, in the Southern Netherlands; Nancy, the capital of Lorraine; and various Imperial cities, such as Regensburg or Augsburg—was channelled through Venice, where the ‘Mannelli’ family acted as intermediaries. Their services cost the Medici a very rough average of two ducati and five lire per month in the two years 1612–14—or 32 ducati per year.ccxxiii This must have been but a tiny fraction of the whole postal budget: the flows of official correspondence between Florence and other Italian courts, or Florence and Spain, are likely to have outweighed that between Florence and the Empire. Estimating the total sum would be a guesswork of little use; bearing in mind its order of magnitude is crucial for an assessment of Costantino’s role within Medici foreign policy.

It seems plausible that Costantino’s correspondence would have been included in such official flows, and therefore paid for by the Medici. For a start, his letters are kept to this day in the Carteggio Universale of the fondo Mediceo del Principato, which contains letters addressed to the Grand Dukes and/or their secretaries by a variety of people acting in their public capacity; as opposed to the Grand Dukes’ Carteggi Privati, consisting of letters from individuals writing in a private capacity.ccxxiv The long history of the archives’ holdings, their numerous reorganisations, and most importantly the fact that public/private distinctions are hard to draw in regimes of personal rule like the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, however, guard the historian against any assertion of certainty. Nonetheless, that the Medici paid for Costantino’s correspondence also seems plausible because Costantino, always so eager to outline his financial problems in the greatest detail, does not mention postage expenses in any of his letters.

Knowing who paid for their postage is only one in a number of elements allowing us to assess the status of Costantino’s letters. At the simplest level, these were private communications between an itinerant artist and his patrons, acknowledging receipt of grand-ducal instructions, pleading for favour, and signalling geographical movements. Often, however, they took up another dimension, offering detailed accounts of military events or other similar occurrences, and/or reports on courtly ceremonies and intrigues.ccxxv Costantino’s letter from Prague written on 9 August 1604 is a case in point. Its second half described a series of arsons in the city and the surrounding countryside: Costantino was horrified by having seen ‘as many as nine people, men and women, burning [to death]’ccxxvi, and added ‘this morning the same has happened in the countryside in a village near Prague just as in another place where for the third time two Houses have been burnt; this all makes me want to withdraw [to Florence]’.ccxxvii The first half of the letter, meanwhile, gave a detailed account of the arrival in Prague of ‘il Signore Cardinal da Este’.ccxxviii He ‘arrived here last night’,ccxxix and had to wait before being ‘lodged in the Archbishop’s house’ccxxx because ‘the key of the Room for his person was nowhere to be found’ccxxxi. The following morning, Costantino had been invited to a banquet by Dr Peza along with a series of Imperial military commanders, and together they speculated why the Venetian Ambassador was so eager to meet the Cardinal that he ‘decided to visit him before [the Cardinal] could even take his boots off’ccxxxii. Conscious of the importance of this information for Florence, traditionally opposed both to Venice and the Este family in Italian and foreign affairs, Costantino added ‘I took leave [from the banquet] with the intention to make said expedition’, i.e. to send the present letter.ccxxxiii

This seems enough to warrant the inclusion of Costantino’s letters among what C.H. Carter has called ‘the informational basis of policy-making’. In his 1964 study of Spanish Habsburg diplomatic networks, Carter argued that policy-makers in Madrid and Brussels under Philip III relied for their decisions on diplomatic dispatches, but also on historical accounts and records, financial and commercial information supplied by merchants, news received from Spaniards and Burgundians resident abroad but external to the diplomatic service, and of course rumours and gossip.ccxxxiv

The portion of such ‘informational basis’ provided by Costantino might have been wider than what is left of it. In his letter from The Hague written on 20 November 1615, indeed, Costantino’s language is so allusive it suggests the existence of another channel of comunication with Florence. Encouraged by the praise he had just received from Maurits of Nassau for his work, he declared that ‘in all of my actions I daily intend with the mind and with the effects to honour the most Serene Patron of ours, serving him more absent than present, as you will perhaps be able to hear by another way (come forse potra sentir per altra Via)’.ccxxxv This was because his talents could grant him access to ‘door and table of Princes’ccxxxvi, where ‘by dealing with Princes so simply with dexterity and familiarity I do the opportune and suitable offices’.ccxxxvii These ‘offices’ are non-defined in his letter beyond some generic praise of the Tuscan Grand Dukes he had proffered in front of Maurits of Nassau.ccxxxviii By Costantino’s own admission, they will be best known to the reader through a ‘altra Via’. This could have been a reference to someone else’s letters to the grand-ducal secretaries. Throughout his stay in Prague, for instance, both Ambassador Uguccioni and Secretary Guidi routinely mentioned Costantino in their dispatches to Florence, as did Ottaviano Lotti, the Medicean resident in London, from 1611 to 1615.ccxxxix Tuscany, however, had no permanent diplomatic representation in the Protestant United Provinces, and no special envoy appears to have been in The Hague in 1615.ccxl Whilst accounting for the possiblity that Costantino might be referring to someone writing to Florence in a private capacity, it can be suggested that by ‘altra Via’ Costantino meant another letter signed by himself.

It was customary for Florentine residents at foreign courts to divide their reports in two parts. The first was a general letter, which contained some information about the diplomat’s own situation, for example. The second, and arguably the most valuable, was the true diplomatic dispatch, containing information on military movements, political manoeuvres, and dynastic intrigues. This latter part was almost invariably written on a separate, smaller piece of paper, and it was ciphered, using a code which substituted combinations of numbers for letters and words. Some of such ciphered dispatches survive together with their decoding, which has allowed scholars to crack the Medici code. A handful of these subsisting dispatches bear some form of the ominous word ‘Distruggasi’,ccxli hinting to the fate of many more such reports. ccxlii

It would not be totally unreasonable, therefore, to suppose that some of Costantino’s letters having survived to this day originally contained a second, ciphered section. The grand-ducal secretaries would have destroyed it immediately after reading it, obscuring forever the full extent of Costantino’s role in Medici foreign policy. This might be all too speculative. Without needing to go as far as suggesting the existence of lost documents, the relevance of Costantino’s travels to the foreign policy of the Medici Grand Dukes can still be convincingly argued: in the pre-newspaper age, rulers and their secretaries were likely to rely on as many sources of information as were available to them to keep up to date with current affairs beyond their borders. Costantino’s letters were often replete with such information, and their postage seems to have been paid for by the Grand Dukes, suggesting their inclusion among the ‘informational basis of policy-making’ in Florence. If Costantino might not have been a fully-fledged diplomatic envoy, thus, he was undoubtedly a precious informant.


As anticipated in the Introduction, the overall argument which this dissertation has developed is twofold. On the one hand, the figure of Costantino has been reassessed, swapping the advantages and shortcomings of hindsight for an approach that seeks to replace him within his own context. On the other hand, Costantino’s letters, and what they reveal about his biography and identity, have been used as case-studies to engage with some well-established theses in early modern historiography.

Chapter I has been the indispensable premise for such discussion: relying on earlier biographical reconstructions and on original primary research, it has drawn up a biographical sketch of Costantino de’ Servi that is as comprehensive, as accurate, and as detailed as the state of our present knowledge affords. Precise chronological reconstruction has been the point of departure of Chapter II, which has challenged the pertinence of the label ‘Florentine’ for Costantino by pointing out that he spent a sizeable portion of his formative years in Bohemia. This had a number of consequences on Costantino’s identity, which he himself seems to have understood as cosmopolitan. First, the joint influence of the two main poles of late Renaissance Mannerism, Florence and Prague, allowed him to develop his wide range of artistic skills. Second, Imperial sanction for his status of Florentine civic noble increased the pressure Costantino felt to uphold and defend his gentility, in the face of a financial and occupational situation which was far from ideal for a gentleman. Third, his Tuscan Catholicism was moderated by a certain measure of Rudolfine irenicism—at least up to the 1610s, when soaring confessional tensions all around Europe forced Costantino to side with one of the two camps once and for all.

In Chapter III, a closer look at Costantino’s travels, and the letters by which he kept in touch with Florence during them, has allowed us to formulate three arguments. First, that architectural skills were a prized asset in external relations and military schemes, and that Costantino might at least once have been sent abroad with such role in mind. Second, that his artistic capacities were put to use within the matrimonial strategy of the Medici, as is documented in the case of the projected match between Caterina de’ Medici and Henry Prince of Wales. Third, that his subsisting letters most probably formed part of the informational basis of Florentine policy-making. Costantino can thus convincingly be said to have been a diplomatic agent of the Medici, representing and furthering their interests abroad in an informal capacity.

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