The patron Charles I and his circle
Whatever his character failings and political misdeeds as monarch might have been, King Charles I was undoubtedly a refined individual and a great collector and connoisseur of art. The Flemish painter Sir Peter Paul Rubens famously called him: “The greatest lover of paintings among the princes in the world.” He was the connoisseur-king who amassed the largest collection of art of any British monarch in history (around 1,500 paintings and 500 sculptures of the very highest quality), replete with stellar Renaissance names such as Andrea Mantegna, Leonardo da Vinci, Giorgione, Raphael, Correggio, Titian, Holbein, and Dürer, as well as two outstanding contemporary artists, Rubens and van Dyck.
Charles’s interests and tastes were shaped from an early age by his family. He was the son of the scholar-king James VI and I and his cultured Danish wife, Queen Anne, who was an important patron of art, architecture, and music, and the brother of Henry, prince of Wales (a true Renaissance prince if ever there was one, a major collector of mannerist paintings of northern Italian and Netherlandish artists, who died of typhoid fever at the young age of 18, much to Charles’s heartache).
There was also the tutelage of the dashing and dangerous George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, James VI and I’s favorite (and most likely lover), a savvy collector of art who favored Italian painters, most especially the Venetian artist Titian. He owned, for example, Titian’s stunning Ecce Homo (‘behold the man’), which shows Christ bloodied and bowed, wearing a crown of thorns, being led out of the Praetorium (“judgment hall” or “governor’s house’”) by Pontius Pilate, governor of Judaea, to the shouting crowd. Buckingham became Charles’s inseparable companion and mentor until the duke’s untimely death at the point of an assassin’s dagger in 1628.
In stark contrast to Buckingham, there was the figure of the austere and high-minded Thomas Howard, 14th earl of Arundel, who did much to foster Charles’s enthusiasm for and taste in Italian art, though at a distance. An admirer of continental European cultures, Arundel was one of the richest aristocrats in England; some 600 paintings, including 37 works by Titian, were accounted for at the earl’s death.
And, finally, there was James, 3rd marquess, later 1st duke of Hamilton, who served as the Master of the Horse and Gentleman of the Bedchamber to the king, both distinguished and powerful offices of the sovereign’s household, which brought him into regular and close contact with Charles. In avaricious competition with Buckingham and Arundel, Hamilton amassed a huge collection of Italian Renaissance art which included works by Raphael and Correggio and the celebrated Venetian artists Giorgione, Veronese, Tintoretto, and, yet again, betraying the Caroline English court’s predilection, over 36 works by Titian, who was also an artist beloved of the court of Habsburg Spain.
A stay at the Spanish Habsburg court
By far the most important single experience in developing Charles’s artistic appetite when still prince of Wales, was the six-month stay, in 1623, alongside his confidant, Buckingham, at the court of the Spanish Habsburg king, Philip IV, in Madrid, a court renowned for its rigid formality and complicated protocols, as well as for housing the greatest collection of paintings in Europe. This took place at the time of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), a religious conflict between Catholic and Protestant states in central Europe.
Charles and Buckingham traveled incognito—in wigs and false beards—as “Jack and Tom Smith” and caused something of a stir at the court. The visit was intended to negotiate for the hand of the Spanish Infanta Maria Anna (sister of Philip IV) to help cement peace between the Catholics and Protestants. In the end, it came to nothing, much to the relief of the Protestant Parliament and people in England who had feared a marriage between their Protestant prince and a Catholic princess, who was, after all, progeny of their traditional enemy Spain.
Instead, here, Charles feasted his hungry eyes on many works by European masters, including Titian (who had been court painter to the imperial Habsburg court in the sixteenth century), Correggio, Hieronymus Bosch, and Diego Velázquez, court painter to Philip IV. Charles was nothing short of over-awed by what he saw and left the court gifted with two splendid paintings by Venetian artists. One was by Titian, the so-called Pardo Venus (Titian’s largest mythological painting) in which Jupiter, father of the gods, disguised as a satyr, moves towards Antiope, who is in the form of nymph, to impregnate her, after which she gives birth to twins, Amphion and Zethus (a story told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses). The other was Veronese’s sensual masterpiece Mars, Venus, and Cupid, in which Venus rests on the knee of Mars, god of war, with Cupid and a lapdog playing at her side.
The consequence of the visit was that Charles set his heart on a comparable collection of art for his own court when king. His wish was granted in 1628, when the collection of the Gonzaga dukes of Mantua came up for sale. Charles purchased it at a colossal cost (it took him two years to pay what he owed). The jewels in the crown of the collection were without question Titian’s eleven half-length portraits of Roman emperors (1536–40; destroyed by fire in 1734) which were inspired by the Roman historian Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars and the nine canvases of Italian renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar, which celebrated the victories of Julius Caesar and have resided in Hampton Court Palace for nearly 400 years. One cannot underestimate the impact of this collection on Caroline court culture—it was nothing less than transformative. Charles was pivotal in bequeathing an incomparable artistic legacy to the history of the visual arts in Great Britain. For this, we should be thankful.
Read more about Anthony van Dyck’s life at the National Gallery of Art
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