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



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Figure - Sketch by the author 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.
In 1600, Costantino entered Medici service again: he left for Lyon, then Paris, as one of many Florentines accompanying the Tuscan bride Maria de’ Medici to the French court.xlviii By 1603 he must have been back in Florence: the Guardaroba Medicea records the execution of portraits of ‘Eleonora e Caterina di Francesco’, by him jointly with Valerio Marucelli.xlix He left again at the end of summer 1603: he intended to travel to Paris in order to officially put an end to his service to the French crown; his footsteps, however, led him to Prague first.l This odd choice of itinerary might have been explained by a task entrusted to him by Grand Duchess Cristina di Lorena.li On his way from Florence to Bohemia, in Bologna, Costantino sent a letter outlining his progress to Florence; on this particular envelop his seal, which has been worn away by time everywhere else, has been quite well-preserved.lii It corresponds to the de’ Servi arms as recorded in the Ceramelli-Papiani heraldic register of Tuscan families, and it had probably been modified by Costantino upon his ennobling in 1581 to add the imperial eagle (Figure 2).liii

Grand Duke Ferdinando I’s permission was sought and granted, and Costantino was assigned ‘some rooms which are in the Corridor where His Majesty can daily come and go’, a honour reserved to the most prominent court artists only.liv Indeed, in addition to painting, sculpting, designing models, and working on medals, bas-reliefs, and precious stones,lv Costantino soon became a close artistic advisor of the Emperor, who asked him to evaluate the works of other artists.lvi Upon leaving the imperial capital in May 1605, Costantino was made a ‘Gentleman of his House’ (‘Gentilomo della sua Casa’) by Rudolf II, who also provided him with a carriage and some horses to travel back home.lvii His financial situation, however, was far from secure: in March of the same year he was jailed for debts by the imperial police, and only the Emperor’s prompt intervention and his friends’ generosity rescued him.lviii

Back in Florence, he was employed by the Medici as ‘overseer of the whole workforce and the works of it and of our New Chapel of S. Lorenzo’.lix His connection to the world of the pietre dure mosaics, that quintessentially late-Renaissance Florentine artistic speciality, already emerged from his Prague correspondence, where he had commented on the different precious and semi-precious stones he had seen at the Imperial court.lx Indeed, Pagnini notes that in the works for what is today known as the Cappella dei Principi, in S. Lorenzo, a particular jasper known as ‘of Prague’ was employed alongside more traditional Florentine stones.lxi Exactly how successful Costantino was in his overseer role is unclear: Baldinucci records a bitter rivalry with his colleague Matteo Nigetti, which left the maestranze they were supposed to manage in a disorderly state.lxii What is more, his project for the triumphal entrance of Maria Maddalena d’Austria, bride to the future Grand Duke Cosimo, into the city in 1607 was rejected: it would have entailed too radical an urban transformation.lxiii

Thus, Ferdinando I’s decision to send him to Persia in 1609 could be read both as a reward for his merits and an attempt to get him out of the city.lxiv The Persian trip, however, was interrupted at Trento by sudden orders from Florence: Costantino’s new destination was to be England, at the court of the young Henry, soon to be officially created Prince of Wales.lxv The Florentine Secretary Ottaviano Lotti was waiting for him in London already in the autumn of 1610, but Costantino was still in Paris in the spring of 1611, finishing off previous commissions.lxvi This delay obliged Henry to start employing the French engineer Salomon de Caus for his projects of renovation of Richmond Palace and its park;lxvii nonetheless, Costantino’s honeymoon with the Stuart Prince started almost instantly after his arrival in London.lxviii This did not fail to provoke jealousy within the London artistic milieu, and also on the part of Lotti, who felt betrayed after having so generously introduced Costantino at court.lxix This was hardly a problem for the highest paid artist under Stuart patronage, who received the enormous sum of £200 a year, far more than either Salomon de Caus or Inigo Jones.lxx Costantino’s ambitious plans for Richmond included an overhaul of the palace according to late-Renaissance Tuscan taste, and a complete refashioning of the gardens following a precise iconographical plan. This new park was to include a triumphal column in the style of Trajan’s and a colossal statue of Neptune with grottoes inside, three times bigger than the Appennino sculpted by Giambologna for the Medici at Pratolino.lxxi Before the works could really go beyond planning stage, however, in November 1612 a sudden illness took away the life of Prince Henry, and with it Costantino’s bright future prospects.lxxii

Assessments of the three years that follow differ. Giuseppe Gargano chooses to paint a rather cynical portrait of a man desperate for money, happy to associate himself and his son Giovan Domenico with the Venetian ambassador’s household (Venice being a sort of Florentine nemesis), and unable to live up to his own reputation when staging masques or organizing pageants for the wedding of Elizabeth Stuart with the Elector Palatine Friedrich V.lxxiii Pagnini is a bit more generous: pointing to the bias inherent in Lotti’s letters, because of the latter’s antipathy for Costantino, she chooses to see him as someone who struggled, but only failed financially and artistically because of the lack of support and understanding he received from those who surrounded him.lxxiv

In 1615, Costantino eventually left London for The Hague, where he briefly served Prince Maurits of Nassau, designing a few models and plans.lxxv This was followed by a period in Stuttgart, where Costantino worked for Johann Friedrich, Duke of Württemberg, until November 1616.lxxvi We must assume that he was back in Florence by the end of that year, for in 1617 he received a passport to go from there to Milan, where he was to serve don Pietro di Toledo, governor of the city.lxxvii In 1618 he crossed the Alps yet again, this time to rebuild the Weimar Residenzschloss for Johann-Ernst I of Saxe-Weimar, which had been destroyed by a fire.lxxviii This was without a doubt the most important project of Costantino’s life, for the building work did get under way according to his plans, unlike what had happened in Richmond in 1612. In his letters from Saxony, the pride for what was being built shines through: the palace, complete with ‘50 Rooms per floor’, stables large enough for ninety horses, and an internal square that could host jousts and tournaments, must have made for a challenge even more complex than the Cappella dei Principi (Figures 3 & 4).lxxix






Figures & 4 – Sketch by the author of the plan and internal façade of the Weimar Residenzschloss, as described by
Costantino in his letter from 25 September 1619
(ASF, Mediceo del Principato, Filza 996, fol. 900).

What would become known as the Thirty Years’ War, however, was dawning on Central Europe, and tensions between the two religious communities kept increasing. Even more depressingly, the de Servi’s precarious financial situation and the vagaries of what we might call international money transfer forced Costantino’s wife to sell their house in Florence in 1619 and move out of the city.lxxx This house, mentioned in the 1618 tax assessment of Costantino’s property as being located ‘In the popolo of S. Salvatore, in Borgo Ognissanti’lxxxi, can be more precisely identified thanks to a letter written in 1608 by Gabriele Bertazzolo: ‘they gave me a room in the house of messer Costantino de’ Servi […], whose backyard looks onto the river near the Ponte della Carraia.’lxxxii (Figure 5)




Figure - 1557 view of the city of Florence (engraving by Hieronimus Cock, 1557; published in Braun & Hogenberg, Civitates Orbis Terrarum (1st edn 1572)). The probable position of Costantino's house is indicated by a red arrow.

Costantino was understandably desperate to escape the deadly trap of the conflict looming over Saxony—as he had managed to do by December 1619, when he reached the neutral territory of the Palatinate-Neuburg.lxxxiii He remained there for the whole of 1620, perhaps lobbying the grand-ducal secretaries by letter to be appointed to a civic office once back in Florence, a request he had first formulated in the spring of 1619 so as to secure a source of revenue for his return.lxxxiv After a halt in Parma to receive a long-due payment from the Farnese,lxxxv he finally returned home and was appointed, once again, Vicario for the Val di Chiana, in December 1621.lxxxvi His period of rest, however, only lasted a few months: the Florentine public records tell us he died in office, on 27 June 1622, at the age of sixty-eight.lxxxvii His place of burial, like his will, is lost.lxxxviii

Chapter II

A Florentine and Rudolfine identity


Chapter II, Section I

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

Historians of art often start studying an artist by analysing his/her artistic education—and the late seventeenth-century scholar Filippo Baldinucci was no exception. Unable to state with certainty who had been ‘Costantino’s master for painting’,lxxxix he resorted to a comparison of his style, painting technique, and colouring choices to those of the major schools of the time, concluding that he was likely to have been a pupil of the Florentine Santi di Tito.xc He added that in some portraits of ‘ultramontane princes’xci painted later in life, his style had grown closer to that of ‘Purbus’—referring either to the Flemish painter Frans Pourbus the Elder or his son, Frans Pourbus the Younger.xcii This Section will ask the same question as Baldinucci—where and from whom did Costantino learn his art?—but will attempt to answer it with reference to a much wider range of sources of artistic influence.

Baldinucci’s reconstruction, repeated by all other biographers of Costantino, is unsatisfactory in its narrow focus on painting alone.xciii As early as the 1580s, indeed, Costantino was also able to carve two bas-reliefs.xciv By the 1600s, his set of skills had expanded to urban planning, medal-making, sculpting, and working with precious and semi-precious stones. By the 1610s, he had added scenography, stage-setting, and architecture to the list.xcv He might have developed some of his later skills over a long period of time, but this does not change the fact that we cannot just point to two painters—Santi di Tito and Pourbus—as the masters of such a versatile artist. What we need is as many masters as Costantino’s skills; a rich and varied artistic milieu, in other words.

Late Renaissance Florence provided one such milieu, of course. If the Medici grand-ducal period has been so little studied as to be dubbed ‘the forgotten centuries of Florence’xcvi, it was still home in its early years to such exceptional talents as Giambologna, Bernardo Buontalenti, or Giorgio Vasari. Its palaces, its gardens, its theatre plays, its public shows, its art, and its fashion were all eagerly copied around Europe.xcvii In many ways, Costantino was a product of such milieu. For a start, he was for most of his life a client of the Medici, albeit often an absentee one, with their permission.xcviii Second, and most importantly, he was involved with the art of the ‘pietre dure’, which was such a distinctly Florentine craft that it was often called ‘commesso fiorentino’.xcix Within a process that went from mining to stone cutting and mosaic composition, he seems to have been a selector of stones (Figure 6)—a very complex role, as Baldinucci explained. It required a capacity to recognise the full potential of a stone before it had been cut in its final shape, together with the ability to think about the whole project at once, so as to select a stone for any part of the design, without having to search the whole lot of uncut stones multiple times.c

A closer look at Costantino’s early years, as retold by himself in the incipit of his autobiography, however, suggests that he did not spend much time exploring the Florentine artistic milieu. We know that up to 1568, when he painted his Nunziata, he ‘had only had a natural gift and inclination for drawing, but had never studied it’.ci Four years later, aged eighteen, he left for Saxony with the Baron of Prinzistain and Norbuus.cii Santi di Tito, who finished his apprenticeship with Sebastiano da Montecarlo at the age of twenty-six only to go into further training in the bottega of Agnolo Bronzino, remained with his masters for far longer than four years.ciii What is more, Costantino was quite busy in the period 1568–72: in 1569, he was an apprentice of Zanobi Gini from the Arte della Lana; and in 1570 he followed a relative, ‘messer Agnolo della Tosa’, to Montaione and Gambassi, where the latter was serving as Potestà.civ This does not discard the possibility that he might also have been introduced to one or more Florentine arts then, but it does suggest that he must have learnt a great deal elsewhere as well.

The Holy Roman Empire is the place where Costantino would have logically continued his learning process. He resided there for up to six years, from 1572 to 1578, before returning for a few months in 1580–81. This represents a sizeable portion of Costantino’s youth, and one is not surprised to find that he had learnt German by the end of his stay; the artistic influence must have been just as important.cv In 1574, we know from his earliest surviving letter that he was in ‘the castle of Litomyšl belonging to the most illustrious Milord Pernstein’;cvi in 1580–81, as mentioned in Chapter I, he was in


Figure - A 'pietre dure' mosaic representing the arms of Florence, in the Cappella dei Principi, Basilica di S. Lorenzo. According to Baldinucci (p. 220), Costantino selected stones for the arms of the Tuscan cities and oversaw their composition before being sent off to Persia, then England, in 1609–10.



Figure – The castle of Litomyšl as it stands today. Its external aspect is virtually identical to when it was first built, in the same years which Costantino spent at the Pernstein court.
Prague. Both of these places were home to very stimulating artistic environments. At Litomyšl, Costantino’s patron Wratislaw von Pernstein was having his castle reconstructed in Renaissance style by two architects from Lugano, Giovanni Maria Aostalli and Ulrico Aostalli, precisely in the years from 1568 to 1580–81 (Figure 7).cvii On the basis of Costantino’s letter from Litomyšl, it is impossible to say whether he had any involvement with the building works. If he remarked that ‘as for the lodging of Milord it is a very nice building’cviii, his service at the Pernstein court seems to have been primarily concerned with painting: ‘I have handed in just now an almost full portrait of his daughter […] and I continue to be doing certain portraits sent by Lord Dietrichstein which I have to copy’.cix These models with which the twenty-year old Costantino was being provided are precisely the kind of sources of artistic influence we are on the lookout for.

As for Prague, its vibrant intellectual and artistic world has been vividly described by R.J.W. Evans in his Rudolf II and his World as a bastion of late Renaissance culture, animated by scholars, virtuosi and craftsmen from all over Europe, and presided over by ‘the greatest art patron in the world at the present time’.cx There worked painters of the calibre of Spranger and Arcimboldo, but also famous goldsmiths like Anton Schweinberger and celebrated architects such as Bonifaz Wolmut.cxi In October 1604, over twenty years after his first stay in the Imperial capital, Costantino himself described the ongoing artistic activity in Prague in a long letter to Florence.cxii Among the painters he listed ‘a Flemish painter called Brugol’, i.e. Jan Brueghel the Elder;cxiii and ‘the Sprangher and Lanzifanache’, i.e. Bartholomaeus Spranger and Hans van Aachen.cxiv Then there was ‘Ladeler who engraves in copper’, most likely the famous Bavarian engraver Aegidius Sadeler,cxv and an unnamed newcomer who specialised in embroidery.cxvi Pottery was dominated by ‘the Milanese called Miserone’cxvii, and ‘as for the works of ‘commesso’, there is no one but the Castrucco’, i.e. the Florentine Giovanni Castrucci.cxviii The latter ‘is wary of me with great jealousy’cxix—Costantino was by then old and experienced enough to be a little haughty.

Thus, all of the skills deployed by Costantino throughout his artistic life, including the very Tuscan art of the ‘pietre dure’, were represented both in late sixteenth-century Florence and in late sixteenth-, early seventeenth-century Bohemia. Deciding which of the two milieus exerted a greater influence over the young Costantino would be a sterile exercise; instead, we should accept that he was just as Rudolfine as he was Florentine. Describing him as ‘Italian’, as most of his biographers have done, would thus be inappropriate—not least because the label is anachronistic.cxx If the geographical term was already in use to describe the peninsula by the late sixteenth century—Costantino himself wrote of workers ‘from Italy’cxxi—it has no more value than ‘German’ for the early modern historian, who prefers to distinguish a Saxon from a Swabian, and a Piedmontese from a Neapolitan. The one geographical definition that would perhaps fit Costantino de’ Servi is that of being a citizen of the Holy Roman Empire, of which Tuscany was the southernmost reach.cxxii

Talking of cosmopolitan figures cutting across boundaries is very fashionable among historians today. This is a commendable corollary of the discipline’s heightened sensitivity to nuance— but also a feature of the globalised twenty-first century which we sometimes risk imposing on earlier times and lives. The danger is well present in this dissertation as well, for the letters on which it is based were written by Costantino during his travels; when he was in Florence, he did not need letters to communicate with his grand-ducal paymasters. However, the two only available documents which approximate self-conscious self-presentation seem to confirm that Costantino would not have self-identified as an Italian, perhaps not even a Florentine. The first of these is the already quoted autobiography written in 1612: ‘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.’cxxiii The focus is firmly set on travels; Costantino’s birth and childhood in Florence are not even mentioned. Costantino himself, in other words, seems to have thought that the story of his life only really started when he left Florence.

The second self-presentation of Costantino is contained in a letter sent to Rudolf II to introduce himself in November 1603.cxxiv In it, Costantino declared that ‘I delight myself with various things in matter of painting, sculpture and architecture’cxxv, and added ‘I know just as well how to work and how to command’,cxxvi quoting a ‘passport and patent from the King of France with the title of engineer and overseer of said arts’cxxvii as his letter of reference. Besides the language in which he wrote the letter, his Florentine origins were only signalled by the designation of his patron, ‘Milord the Grand Duke’, whose authorisation Costantino needed in order to remain in the Emperor’s service.cxxviii Thus, he presented himself as an artist defined not by where he was, but by whose courtier he was—hence also the choice of referring Rudolf II to the patent he had received from Henri IV, King of France. The prominence of the court, with its aristocratic ideals and noble codes of honour, will therefore be the topic of Section II of this Chapter.
Chapter II, Section II

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

As mentioned in Chapter I, Costantino de’ Servi was a member of the civic nobility of Florence: his family, ever since 1457, had been listed in the catasto of Florentine citizens, thereby enjoying full political rights. Officially, this was the most privileged status one could aspire to under Republican institutions—even though a de facto aristocracy of the ‘Grandi’, i.e. the most successful merchant families of the city, did exist. Upon estabishing the Duchy, then Grand Duchy, of Tuscany, in the 1530s, Cosimo I skillfully enlisted the support of most of these ‘Grandi’, together with that of the merchant oligarchs of Pisa, and of the great landlords of Arezzo, Pistoia, and from 1559 Siena. From 1562, Cosimo had at his disposal a formidable tool to knit together this disparate collection of prominent Tuscan families: the Order of the Knights of St Stephen, established by Pope Pius IV at the Grand Duke’s request. Primarily intended as a crusading order, to fight the Turks in the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Levant, it was also deployed by Cosimo and his successors as a vehicle for grand-ducal patronage.cxxix

Costantino was never knighted by the Grand Dukes. As mentioned in Chapter I, his patent of nobility was issued by Rudolf II in 1581, and he received additional honours from the same Emperor in 1605. Thus, in matters of nobility Costantino was also Rudolfine as much as he was Florentine: whilst his small land holdings—between one and two hectares, mainly vineyards, broken up in little bits scattered around the Tuscan countryside—were to be found near Florence, his title came from Prague.cxxx This was reflected in his coat of arms, which bore not only the griffon, emblem of the de’ Servi, but also the imperial eagle (Figure 2).

These trappings of nobility allowed Costantino to present himself as a gentleman. In the age following Baldassare Castiglione’s Cortegiano, appearance was everything, and Costantino seems to have been keenly aware of this.cxxxi Several of his letters are bold, self-confident statements of his noble status—chief among them the one he sent from The Hague on 20 November 1615. He had just completed some ‘drawings and models’cxxxii for Maurits of Nassau, who had greatly praised him and his work during a private interview. Costantino’s letter was thus jubilatory, and he boasted his ‘dexterity and familiarity with Princes’cxxxiii. ‘As I think You know—he added—under pretext of the few virtues which God has given me no door nor table of Princes is held away from me, for I have always kept my gentleman’s decorum and not otherwise, as my patents and letters of princes certify’.cxxxiv It should be remembered, however, that Costantino was writing to Andrea Cioli, a grand-ducal secretary who knew him well, the two of them having spent at least one year together, in London in 1611–12.cxxxv That on such an occasion Costantino would feel the need to call upon the authority of ‘patents and letters of princes’ when claiming gentle status is an unmistakable sign of insecurity—at the rather old age of sixty-one.



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