An extract from Antony Van Dyck : A Life 1599-1641 (1999)

This is taken from Chapter 13, ‘The Spanish Road’, which describes the 22-year-old artist’s journey from Antwerp to Genoa in 1621. Van Dyck had been a child prodigy, and had worked since at least the age of 16 at the Antwerp workshop of the greatest painter of the age, Peter Paul Rubens. Although he was already a fully trained artist, Van Dyck knew that his education as a painter would not be complete without a stay in Italy. He therefore left Rubens and set off with a merchant named Nani as his travelling companion.


It was a journey of 1300 kilometres, across multiple frontiers and through a jigsaw-puzzle of tiny demesnes, free cities and self-governing dioceses. The country was fraught with marvels, difficulties and dangers. Every city had its walls, its cathedral and its market, and there were numerous unpredictable local customs  - quarantines to observe, taxes and tithes to pay, safe passages to obtain. There were also brothels and holy reliquaries to visit, and thieves and swindlers to avoid. At every cross-roads and town-gate stood a cluster of gibbets where the blackened remains of malefactors swung in the wind. If he arrived after sunset, the traveller would find the gates shut, and would have to camp out with the smell of the admonitory corpses in his nose.

For a pious young man brought up in the dyke-protected flatlands of Brabant the passage through Switzerland and the Alpine passes provided the greatest thrill of horror. In the words of a modern writer [John Stoye] it was ‘a perilous passage where snow waters thundered like the sea and mules were buried in the snow and the number of fir trees seemed an infinite wilderness’. But the road had as many spiritual perils as physical ones. For Van Dyck’s contemporaries, the jagged peaks and rocky gorges were the acme of untamed nature – the prototypical setting for the temptation of St Jerome and the heroics of St George, because these regions were well known to be infested with sorcerers, demons and dragons.

But fear apart there was little time to linger on this journey. Van Dyck and Nani were in a hurry for, if they deferred their attempt too long the St Gotthard Pass would be buried by snow, forcing them to wait until Spring. By a recent innovation there were now guides who, for a price, conducted nervous or inexperienced travellers under the lee of the haunted Mount Pilatus, Pontius Pilate’s legendary burial place. From here they attacked the Pass itself, walking their horses anxiously along the narrowest sections, hugging the nearside cliff whenever they met a goatherd, mule train or detachment of troops, hallooing into the ravines to hear the echo and counting the milestones all the way to the top.

The 800 kilometres from Antwerp to the border of Italy must have been covered fast, in about three weeks. Thereafter the travellers could afford to relax their pace and Van Dyck did not in fact complete the remaining 400 kilometres until 20 November, when he crossed the ridge of mountains bordering the narrow strip of Genoese coastal territory and entered the city gates. On arrival he must have made his way straight to the Balbi palace to report to Geralomo Balbi, and to tell him what he knew from Antwerp, and had been able to gather along the way, of the last days of his son Giovanni Agostino. [Giovanni, a friend and patron of Van Dyck, had set off ahead of him, and had died on the way]. On the basis of the existence of a room among the palace’s ‘secondary accommodation’ known as ‘Van Dyck’s room’, [the scholar] Piero Boccardo guesses that the artist was at some point a long-term guest of the Balbi. In view of the news he brought with him of the family’s late-lamented, it is probable that this stay occurred at the start of his Italian years.

Genoa in those days was often pictured as being like a theatre – not Southwark’s Globe, but a classical amphitheatre , with the semicircle of steep surrounding hills sweeping down towards a stage-like central area abutting the all-important harbour. Such an image neatly combined an allusion to the cool classical heritage of the region with the notion that life in a small city-state is a seething concentration of human dramas. So, passing as if down the aisles and onto the stage itself, Van Dyck entered a world which consisted (and, as the Old Town, still consists) of closely packed buildings set in a network of shadowed streets, narrow enough in their densest recesses for a resident to lean out of a window five floors up and touch hands with her vicino across the way. This kasbah-like warren interconnects many pocket-sized squares, each in those days clogged with leather-covered market stalls, and each specialising in the manufacture and sale of a different class of goods. Successive attempts by the authorities to limit the number of craftsmen and traders in these markets had always failed. They were intrinsic to the swarming commerce of the tightly circumscribed city-state, whose closest equivalent in the modern era is Hong Kong.

Two decades after Van Dyck’s arrival in Liguria another newcomer, the English diarist John Evelyn, was never to forget the scents of orange, lemon and jasmine, which so strongly perfumed the Mediterranean breeze that one could enjoy them from the deck of a packet boat as it stood offshore. First encounters with Italy, as described by northerners, are filled by such powerful sensory impressions, the markers of strange territory – the shop smells, the street noises, the more open sexuality, the food and drink – all utterly mysterious and different from what is familiar at home. Nothing so clearly reveals the instant and overwhelming effect of Italy on Van Dyck’s senses than a comparison between Isabella Brant — the portrait he made of Rubens’s wife just before he left home —

with another portrait painted within a few weeks of his arrival in Genoa, the so-called Marquesa Balbi.

These two portraits, each representing a seated woman, and each celebrating her wealth and status, hang together in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. But they are so different that it is astonishing to realise they were painted within a few months of each other.

‘You learn for the first time in this climate what colours really are,’ commented the later English writer Leigh Hunt. But, oddly enough, what distinguishes The Marquesa Balbi is not the quality of its light, but the texture of its darkness. Back in Antwerp Isabella Brandt had been seen in perfect clarity, a woman with no mysteries at all, which is why it is so absurd to suggest, as did certain art-historical gossips, that Van Dyck desired her and had run away from Antwerp as a result. The Marquesa, on the other hand, is both beautiful and desirable. The gold-embroidered dress she wears scintillates and her Gioconda smile plays a teasing game with your expectations. She glows against the rich melting shadows of her room, from which she has emerged for a few tantalising moments, and into which she will soon withdraw again.

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