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

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

Table of Contents

The author


A note on quotations and translations


List of illustrations


List of abbreviations




Chapter I: Costantino de’ Servi, 1554 – 1622


Chapter II: A Florentine and Rudolfine identity


Section I: ‘Aqua in laitemise’: the upbringing of a versatile artist


Section II: ‘Mai fui pittore senon per mio Capriccio’: the importance of gentility


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


Chapter III: The art of diplomacy


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


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


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






The author

Davide Martino has graduated from St John’s College, University of Cambridge in June 2016 with a Class I Bachelor of Arts degree in History, obtained with a Distinction (commonly referred to as a Starred First). The present work was written over the course of his third (and final) year under the supervision of Dr Richard Serjeantson FRHistS (Trinity College, University of Cambridge).
A note on quotations and translations

All quotations, from primary and secondary sources, are given in English in the body of the text, and in the original language in the footnotes. When the original language is English, the quotation is given in its original form in the body of the text, with spelling and punctuations unaltered.

All translations are my own, unless otherwise stated.

List of illustrations

Chapter I

  • Figure 1 - Portrait of Eleonora di Francesco I de' Medici, Duchess of Mantua by Costantino de’ Servi. Miniature, oil on copper, 7.3 x 5.8 cm. Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi, Corridoio Vasariano. Inv. 4533.

Source: Wikimedia Commons — Public Domain file — online at'_Medici_-_Costantino_de'_Servi.jpg

(last consulted Jan 2016)

  • Figure 2 – Sketch of Costantino de Servi's coat of arms, based on the blazon preserved in ASF, Ceramelli-Papiani, fasc. 4372; and on the wax seal on ASF, Mediceo del Principato, Filza 918, fol. 353.

Source: sketch by the author. Pencil on paper, 21 x 29 cm.

  • Figure 3 - Sketch of the plan of the Weimar Residenzschloss, as described by Costantino in his letter from 25 September 1619 (ASF, Mediceo del Principato, Filza 996, fol. 900).

Source: sketch by the author. Pencil on paper, 21 x 29 cm.

  • Figure 4 - Sketch of the Weimar Residenzschloss, as described by Costantino in his letter from 25 September 1619 (ASF, Mediceo del Principato, Filza 996, fol. 900).

Source: sketch by the author. Pencil on paper, 20 x 20 cm.

  • Figure 5 - 1557 view of the city of Florence (engraving by Hieronimus Cock, 1557; published in Braun & Hogenberg, Civitates Orbis Terrarum (1st edn 1572)).

Source: digitised by — online at (last consulted Jan 2016)

Chapter II

  • Figure 6 - A 'pietre dure' mosaic representing the arms of Florence, in the Cappella dei Principi, Basilica di S. Lorenzo.

Source: Wikimedia Commons — uploaded by ‘Doma’ under a GNU Free Documentation License (some rights reserved) — online at,_Capelle_Medicee.jpg (last consulted Jan 2016)

  • Figure 7 - The castle of Litomyšl as it stands today.

Source: Wikimedia Commons — uploaded by ‘Christof Halbe’ under a GNU Free Documentation License (some rights reserved) — online at,_Schloss.jpg (last consulted Jan 2016)

List of abbreviations

ASF Archivio di Stato, Florence

Baldinucci Baldinucci, F., Notizie de' professori del disegno da Cimabue in qua, per le quali si dimostra come, e per chi le belle arti di pittura, scultura e architettura, lasciata la rozzezza delle manière greca e gotica, si siano in questi secoli ridotte all’antica loro perfezione, 6 vols (1st edn 1681–1728; present edn by Ranalli, F., Firenze: V. Batelli & Compagni, 1846), Vol. III, ‘Decennale IX del Secolo IV: dal 1580 al 1590’, ‘Costantino de’ Servi, nobile fiorentino, pittore, ingegnere e architetto’, pp. 207–29

Bardazzi Bardazzi, S., Sguardi fiorentini sull’impero. Notizie dei residenti fiorentini presso la corte cesarea a Praga e a Vienna da Massimiliano II a Ferdinando II (unpublished dissertation in ‘Storia del Teatro’, supervised by S. Mamone, at the Università degli Studi di Firenze, 2003–04)

Gargano Gargano, G.S., Scapigliatura Italiana a Londra sotto Elisabetta e Giacomo I (Florence: L. Battistelli, 1923)

nn non numbered (referring to folios)

Pagnini Pagnini, C., Costantino de’ Servi: architetto-scenografo fiorentino alla corte d’Inghilterra (Florence: Società Editrice Fiorentina, 2006)


‘I will recollect how from the year 1568 to this day 1st May 1612 I, Costantino de’ Servi, have travelled across different parts of the world, both on my own, and at the pleasure of other princes.’i Thus begins Costantino de’ Servi’s memoir of his life, written in London at the age of fifty-eight. Had that manuscript survived in full, we would know a lot more about the life of this cosmopolitan Mannerist artist. However, only its first few paragraphs have been preserved, in a transcription by the late seventeenth-century Florentine art historian Filippo Baldinucci in his Notizie dei professori del disegno, which contains the first biographical sketch of Costantino’s life.ii Four centuries and four years after ‘this day 1st May 1612’, this dissertation seeks to reconstruct what might have come after those paragraphs, and to offer some new perspectives on Costantino’s age.

Since Baldinucci’s Notizie, three scholars have given Costantino something more than a passing mention in their works.iii Whilst all invaluable in researching this dissertation, each of these treatments has a few shortcomings. In 1923, Giuseppe Gargano came across Costantino while on the lookout for ‘Italians’ residing in London during Shakespeare’s lifetime, who might have been living sources of inspiration for the latter’s plays. Chapter IV of his Scapigliatura Italiana a Londra sotto Elisabetta e Giacomo I thus focuses only on the four years Costantino spent in England, from 1611 to 1615, with a brief overview of the rest of his life. The absence of footnotes or an extensive bibliography and the humorous tone in which the prose is couched make for a lively read, but not for the most useful of secondary sources. Most importantly, Gargano’s interest in ‘Italian characters’ led him to highlight flamboyant anecdotes to the detriment of more substantial information.iv

More recently Simone Bardazzi and Caterina Pagnini, then studying the history of theatre at the Università degli Studi di Firenze, have devoted parts of their 2004 Masters’ dissertations to Costantino. They have respectively chosen to focus on his Prague years (1603–05) and his 1611–15 English stay, and have inserted their findings within broader frameworks of argument. Their works follow the most rigorous academic criteria, as one would expect, and are grounded in archival research of a remarkable thoroughness. Their interest in Costantino, however, is bound not only by chronological limits—a feature of all scholarship—but also by their formation as historians of theatre. This is a particularly rich angle from which to explore an age, and a man, which were both peculiarly concerned with displaying, seeing, and being seen. It does not, however, allow one to appreciate all the facets of Costantino’s complex personality and professional identity.v

I had myself a specific angle of inquiry in mind when I first came across Costantino. His name was mentioned in connection to the intriguing figure of the ‘hydraulic philosopher’ Salomon de Caus (1576–1626), and I thought Costantino might also have been involved in the designing and building of late Renaissance fountains and I soon discovered there was much more to him than that, and decided to broaden the scope of my research, so as to enrich it. Under scrutiny here is not Costantino the Italian, Costantino the architect-scenographer, or Costantino the painter—rather the Costantino de’ Servi who was all of these things, and several more.

Like Bardazzi and Pagnini, I access Costantino through his letters to the grand-ducal secretaries, written when he was travelling around Europe. These are preserved in the Florence Archivio di Stato, in the fondo Mediceo del Principato. The Carteggi which make up this fondo contain letters to the Florentine court from senders as diverse as King Henri IV of France down to the overseer of the Grosseto grain trade. They are ordered chronologically but not indexed, which renders the localising of Costantino’s letters a rather time-consuming process. A list of those I have studied can be found in the Bibliography. They have provided me with a very rich picture of a man who was an artist with a versatile talent, a skilled courtier, and an indefatigable traveller. This picture is presented in Chapter I, a biographical study of Costantino where Baldinucci’s, Gargano’s, Bardazzi’s, and Pagnini’s own biographical sketches are contrasted and, if necessary, corrected.

This dissertation learns from scholars such as John Martin in treating Costantino’s letters not as transparent reflections of Costantino’s self, but rather as sites of self-fashioning and self-presentation.vii This is crucial to a study of Costantino in his own terms, and also allows one to go beyond Costantino and make some general points about the early modern self. Identity is thus the red thread running through Chapter II. In Section I, Costantino’s artistic education, begun in Florence and achieved in Bohemia, is the occasion to talk about early modern cosmopolitanism, and to challenge the pertinence of labels such as ‘Italian’ or even ‘Florentine’. Section II analyses the tension between Costantino’s gentle status and his precarious finances, within the conceptual framework of Martin’s argument that early modern selves were fashioned from society and from the individual’s inner self.viii Section III follows the change in the importance of religion over Costantino’s life, and sets this change against contemporary geopolitical developments.

Chapter III moves on to Costantino’s informal diplomatic activity. This is the facet of his career that has received least scholarly attention, and yet it is likely to go a long way in explaining his peculiarly itinerant life. It also illustrates the interdependence of art and politics in the Medici Grand Duchy, an argument which scholars like Giorgio Spini have so far put forward with reference to internal, not external, affairs.ix With this in mind, Section I assesses the plausibility of Costantino’s hypothetical voyage to Persia, thereby making a point about the employability of architects and engineers in foreign policy schemes. Section II broadens the chronological focus to the whole of Costantino’s life, setting his travels against the changing priorities of Medici diplomatic activity. Here, it is the role of artists in early modern marriage negotiations which will end up under scrutiny. Finally, Section III looks closely at Costantino’s letters as vehicles of strategic information, thus opening a discussion on early modern means of communications. The nature of the primary sources which have underpinned the whole argument thus constitutes the fitting final note of this dissertation.

The approach which will be followed throughout is micro-historical rather than biographical. Costantino’s individual trajectory, in other words, is not this dissertation’s ultimate end, but rather its starting point, providing one with a contemporary point of view from which to explore early modern themes and historiographical debates. The overall argument is thus twofold. On the individual level, the need for studying Costantino in his own terms rather than retrospectively labelling him is stressed. This dissertation accepts that his career cannot be summed up in a single word, and is happy enough to call him a polyvalent artist, pan-European courtier and informal diplomatic agent. On a more general level, the broader points which each section makes are diverse, but all add up to one general argument: in Daniel Roche’s words, what a focus on a single past individual ‘may lose in breadth, it gains in depth’ of historical analysis.x

Chapter I

Costantino de’ Servi, 1554 – 1622

Costantino de’ Servi was baptised in Florence on 26 March 1554,xi the son of Francesco di Costantino de’ Servi and of a daughter of Giovanni della Casa.xii The de’ Servi were citizens of Florence, civic nobles since 1457, and they had been honoured with the ‘noble canonry of the metropolitan’ by Pope Alexander VI.xiii By the time of Costantino’s birth the family had split in two branches, both living in the Florence Quartiere Santa Croce (although in different Gonfaloni) and both involved with the highest level of civic government. For example Giovan Domenico, Costantino’s uncle, was made one of the ‘12 Buonuomini’, the most senior advisory and deliberative council in Florence, by the young new Duke Cosimo I a few months after his rise to power in 1537. He had already served as Pennonierexiv of the Republic of Florence in 1521, and in 1540 he became Potestà of Palaia.xv

Costantino’s first biographer, Filippo Baldinucci, was able to consult a manuscript preserved by Costantino’s grandson, Girolamo Pieralli, and today lost, which seems to have been the stub of an autobiography.xvi Written by Costantino in 1612, as he was residing in London, it recalls his first travels, ‘aged fourteen’xvii, when he left Florence to gain the villa of his mother’s brother, Francesco di Giovanni della Casa, in the Mugello. The latter’s wife, Francesca degli Spinelli, intended to see her late mother’s wish—to commission an altarpiece from a Florentine painter for the family chapel in the church of St Cassiano—realised, and Costantino, ‘who up to that point had only had a natural gift and inclination for drawing, but had never studied it’xviii volunteered himself, and painted an ‘Annunciation in such fashion that, had they not seen it in the making, they wouldn’t have believed it’.xix If his success might be a romanticization of the past by the old Costantino, what is interesting is the ostensible absence of any artistic education.xx

His 1569 apprenticeship with Zanobi Gini, a master craftsman belonging to the Arte della Lana, the powerful guild of the Florentine wool traders, reinforces the idea that Costantino was not being brought up to pursue an artistic career.xxi The first turning point in his life would thus be his encounter with the Baron of ‘Prinzistain and Norbuus, cup-bearer to the Duchess [of Florence] Giovanna d’Austria’.xxii Introduced by the uncle of a friend, the young Costantino must have made a good impression, for the Baron offered to take him on his trip to present some gifts from the Medici to the Duke of Saxony.xxiii ‘At which point, being curious to see the world, I accepted the proposal […], and thus I left with the name of God in the year 1572.’xxiv

Unfortunately, Baldinucci’s transcription of Costantino’s autobiography ends here. It is Costantino’s earliest known letter, sent from Litomyšl castle in Bohemia on 27 February 1574, which informs us that two years after leaving Florence he was serving as painter at the court of Wratislaw von Pernstein.xxv Pernstein (1530–1582) was a Bohemian magnate, Catholic convert of moderate views, and in addition to membership of Maximilian II’s and then Rudolf II’s Secret Council he held the Supreme Chancellorship of the Kingdom of Bohemia.xxvi That his patron was part of the imperial inner circle, and that his 1574 letter was sent to Giambattista Concini, Florentine ambassador to Vienna, both suggest that Costantino must have visited the Imperial capital, which was soon to move to Prague, at least once. His presence there is mentioned in a letter from Concini’s successor, Giovanni Alberti, to Florence, on 21 February 1581—which relates that ‘messer Costantino de Servi’ had been in Prague ‘since four months ago’, again serving Pernstein.xxvii In the meantime, Baldinucci records a trip to Madrid and Rome, in 1578, accompanying don Piero de’ Medici; and in 1580 brief stays at the courts of the Cardinal of Austria, in Innsbruck, and of the House of Savoy, in Turin.xxviii

In the summer of 1581 Johann von Pernstein, Wratislaw’s son, accompanied the Holy Roman Empress Mary of Austria on her trip back to Spain, and Costantino travelled south with them to Florence. He brought with him a patent of imperial nobility signed by Rudolf II, which also extended to his two brothers and all their descendants.xxix The next mention of Costantino is found in the records of Florentine civic offices, which note his appointment to the ‘12 Buonuomini’ for the second half of This has led Simone Bardazzi and Caterina Pagnini to suggest that Costantino’s possible voyage to Persia might have taken place between autumn 1581 and spring 1584.xxxi As will be shown in Section I of Chapter III, this is not entirely convincing, and in fact it is not clear whether Costantino ever travelled to Persia at all.

Costantino’s tenure as Buonuomo ended in December 1584; little less than a year later, in October 1585, he was proudly writing to the grand-ducal secretary Antonio Serguidi from Rome to announce that the freshly anointed Pope Sixtus V had commissioned from him a bronze statue of St Paul, ‘nine or ten braccia’ tall.xxxii This colossus was to be placed on top of the Column of Marcus Aurelius, whilst its twin, St Peter, entrusted to the hands of two other artists, would decorate the top of Trajan’s Column—where they both stand to this day. It was not Costantino, however, who ended up casting the St Paul: as he explained in his subsequent letter to Serguidi, sent from Naples in December 1586, Domenico Fontana, chief Papal architect, had hindered his work so as to discredit him in the eyes of Sixtus V, who eventually assigned the commission to another sculptor. Costantino, defeated, had temporarily gained Naples to attend to ‘a business of my brother’, and recommended himself to the Grand Dukes in his letter.xxxiii

His plea must have been heard, for Warren Kirkendale, in his 1993 The Court Musicians in Florence, has recorded 1586–88 as the period when Costantino first appears on the grand-ducal payrolls, as someone who ‘works in plaster’.xxxiv There is no mention of him in the previous surviving payroll, dated 1579, and the absence of records for the intervening years means that he could have been hired by the Medici anytime between 1580 and 1586–88.xxxv His Roman and Neapolitan letters, however, suggest the end of 1586 as the most plausible date for the outset of Medici employment. Costantino’s salary was of 12 ducati per month—less than half of what the famous sculptor Giambologna received, and slightly less than the average stipend for the artists employed by Grand Duke Francesco I in the 1580s.xxxvi As Pagnini has argued, it must have been during this period of official Medici service that Costantino created five works recorded in the 1589 ‘Inventario della Tribuna’: two bas-reliefs of the Dukes of Mantua; one painted portrait of the Duchess Eleonora di Mantova (Figure 1); one of Cristina di Lorena, Grand Duchess of Tuscany, and one of Eleonora di Toledo, the late Grand Duchess.xxxvii

Figure - Portrait of Eleonora di Francesco I de' Medici, Duchess of Mantua by Costantino de’ Servi. Miniature, oil on copper, 7.3 x 5.8 cm. Firenze, Galleria degli Uffizi, Corridoio Vasariano. Inv. 4533.

In 1589, a reform of the Medici household by the new Grand Duke Ferdinando I led to the discontinuation of Costantino’s salary.xxxviii He therefore travelled to Parma, Mantua, and Bologna in 1589–90,xxxix before turning to civic office to secure a revenue: he was Potestà of Colle (di Val d’Elsa) in 1592; of San Gimignano in 1594; of Montelupo from mid-1595 to mid-1596; and finally he acted as Vicario for the Val di Chiana in 1597.xl The records of the Tratte, the Florentine office responsible for the recruitment of civil officials, note a revenue fluctuating between two and four ducati per month next to these offices.xli This is considerably lower than the salary Costantino had received from the Medici court in the 1580s; other forms of remuneration, however, might have existed, and there is no reason to suppose Costantino would not also have pursued artistic activity on commission.

The 1580s and ’90s must also have been the time when Costantino started a family. We know from his letters that his father-in-law was called ‘Michele Caracci’;xlii his partner, however, is always referred to as ‘my wife’.xliii Her name, ‘Ginevra’, has luckily been recorded in an internal document of the Medicean financial administration, which designated her as the recipient of Costantino’s absentee salary in the 1610s.xliv Together, Costantino and Ginevra Caracci had at least five children. The names of their three sons—Francesco, Giovan Domenico, and Ferdinando—have been recorded in the tax assessment of the family’s property drawn up after Costantino’s death, in 1623.xlv Costantino mentioned one of his daughters, Giulia, in a letter from 1603, where he asked the Grand Duchess Cristina di Lorena to sponsor her entry into a nunnery.xlvi Baldinucci also tells us of another daughter, Selvaggia, who married Francesco Pieralli and was the mother of Girolamo Pieralli, the keeper of many of Baldinucci’s primary sources on Costantino’s life.xlvii It is possible that the de’ Servi might have also had other daughters.

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