The Flemish Italian


Peter Paul Rubens is one of the 17th century’s best-known painters. Less known, however, is that he was also a connoisseur of architecture. In the first-ever exhibition to be dedicated to the artist’s architectural endeavours, the Rubens House in Antwerp has brought together drawings, books and paintings from collections worldwide to tell the story of Rubens, the architect.

© Museo del Prado, Madrid
© Museo del Prado, Madrid

A new exhibition at Rubens House reveals the famous painter as an architect

Peter Paul Rubens is one of the 17th century’s best-known painters. Less known, however, is that he was also a connoisseur of architecture. In the first-ever exhibition to be dedicated to the artist’s architectural endeavours, the Rubens House in Antwerp has brought together drawings, books and paintings from collections worldwide to tell the story of Rubens, the architect.

Palazzo Rubens: The Master as Architect could not take place in a more apt setting. Not only did the museum used to be Rubens’ family home, it was actually designed by the artist himself. “A more eloquent testimony of his ideas on architecture is scarcely imaginable,” says Ben van Beneden, the curator at Rubens House.

Some of the pieces – valuable architecture books from Rubens’ library and works by Michelangelo, Van Dyck and Rubens himself – are from the museum’s own collection, others are on loan from the Hermitage, the Louvre or the British Museum.

Room by room, the visitor builds up a picture of where Rubens’ architectural inspiration came from, why his opinion as an architectural expert was sought and which buildings he worked on. “We hope the exhibition will be an eye-opener for people to recognise the importance of the Rubens House and of Rubens as an architect,” says Van Beneden.

Much of Rubens’ inspiration came from his stay in Italy from 1600 until 1608, where he not only studied great Italian painters such as Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto, but also observed the country’s ancient and contemporary architecture. In the city of Mantua in Lombardy province, he studied the work of 16th-century painter-architect Giulio Romano; while in Rome he familiarised himself with the architecture of Raphael and Michelangelo.

Building Italy in Flanders

Rubens was instrumental in introducing the Italian artist-architects in the Low Countries, with his own house resembling a Roman palazzetto, a small palace. He bought his Antwerp family home in 1610, completely rebuilding the house to his own design and extending it to include an artist’s studio, a garden arcade and a garden pavilion. The Italian inspiration for many of the architectural features is highlighted in a pocket-sized gallery guide.

Palazzo Rubens contains paintings and drawings of the Rubens House, including three 17th-century images showing how the house must have looked in Rubens’s day: two prints by Dutch artist Jacob Harrewijn and a painting by an unknown artist that recently surfaced in England’s Buckinghamshire County Museum.

The Rubens House was also often used as a backdrop, not only in paintings by Rubens himself but also by other famous Flemish painters of the period like Van Dyck and Jordaens. In portraits, the architecture lent a sort of dignity to the sitter, as in Van Dyck’s painting of Rubens’s first wife, Isabella Brant, on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

An architectural model for Antwerp

The house we see today is mostly a reconstruction. However, two original elements survive: the portico, built in the style of a triumphal arch that leads into the garden, and the pavilion, the focal point of the garden as you look through the arch. The portico’s combination of Italian architectural motifs with highly decorative elements, such as sculptures and ornaments, makes it “perhaps the most virtuoso example of 17th-century secular architecture that has survived north of the Alps,” says Van Beneden.

The structures, however, are in urgent need of restoration due to damage caused mainly by acid rain in the last few decades. A tender is currently underway to select an architect, whose job it will be to restore the monument and devise a way to protect it in the future.

Rubens considered the Italian palazzo to be an architectural model for Antwerp. He wanted to do away with what he termed “the barbaric, Gothic architectural style” of his homeland and embrace the style that adhered to the rules of antiquity, like symmetry and proportion, harmony and beauty.

The villas and palaces in the Italian port city of Genoa were also an inspiration in this respect. In 1622, Rubens published his Palazzi di Genova, a book filled with illustrations of facades, cross-sections and ground plans of the city’s urban palaces, villas and churches. The book, included in the exhibition, was “Rubens’ most influential contribution to architecture of the 17th century,” according to Van Beneden.

Touches of Rubens

Around the time Rubens was working on his own house, he was also involved in the design of Antwerp’s Carolus Borromeus Church, also known as the Jesuit Church and described by Van Beneden as “the most prestigious and eye-catching building project the city witnessed in those years.” It is unclear how large Rubens’ contribution was exactly, but it is known that he was responsible for details of the facade, the high altar and the ceiling paintings in the nave (which were destroyed in a fire in the 18th century).

“His thorough knowledge of architecture, based on first-hand experience, must have made him the ideal sounding board for Aguilonius and Huyssens [the church’s main architects], who had never laid eyes on either antique or contemporary Roman architecture,” says Van Beneden.

Rubens’ influence on the architecture of his day also comes across in his correspondence with Constantijn Huygens, secretary to the Prince of Orange. In the 1630s, Huygens designed and built a house for himself in The Hague, which he aimed to be an example of “true architecture” based on the rules of antiquity. Once completed, Huygens sent prints of the house to Rubens for his opinion.

Rubens’ correspondence has been lost, but Huygens’ letters are on display at the exhibition. They reveal that Rubens had some doubts about the design, saying the façade needed more “dignity and relief ” and that it was too simple for a town mansion. Rubens was one of just a small group of European architectural experts whose opinions were sought.

Rubens was commissioned to design the temporary structure for the “Joyous Entry into Antwerp of Cardinal Ferdinand”, the new governor of the Netherlands. Elements of the festive structure recalled architectural motifs that Rubens had used in the portico of his own home. Etchings of the designs are included in the show.

Well-kept secret

The ancient and modern buildings that he saw during his travels in Italy were not the only architectural sources from which Rubens drew his knowledge. He also immersed himself in architectural theory. The most important source for the rules on antiquity was a series of books called De architectura libri decem (The Ten Books on Architecture) by the Roman architect Vitruvius from the 1st century BC. It is the only completely preserved handbook on the architectural principles of antiquity and is considered to be the standard reference work. Rubens owned two editions.

By the time you emerge from the exhibition, you wonder how Rubens’ involvement in architecture could have remained such a well-kept secret. The buildings he actually designed may only be a few, but his research of the subject, his inclusion of architectural details in his paintings and his extensive redesign of his own home all make a convincing case for Rubens not only to be remembered as a painter but also as an architect.

Rubens and Antwerp

Rubens' parents abandoned Antwerp for Germany during the Counter-Reformation, and it was in Siegen that the painter was born in 1577. The family went back to Antwerp when Rubens was just 10, and he continued to live there most of his life.

He was a master of the Saint Luke’s Guild of Antwerp and at the age of 33 was appointed as court painter to the rulers of the Netherlands, the Archduke Albert and his wife Isabella.

The artist’s former family home is now a museum – the Rubens House – and Rubens-themed walks around town are a popular activity for tourists. His masterpieces are scattered across the globe, but many can be seen in Antwerp – at the Museum Plantin-Moretus, the former printing house where Rubens enjoyed both professional and friendly connections, or the Rockox House, the house of Antwerp mayor Nicolaas Rockox, a personal friend and important client of Rubens.


Rubens Palazzo: The Master as Architect

Until 11 December
Rubens House
Wapper 9, Antwerp

The Flemish Italian

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