Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Don Giovanni in Flanders

Spanish attack on a Flemish village,
Attr:  Pieter Snayers.
In the winter of 1603-04, Glassmaker Antonio Neri embarked on what would become a seven-year-long visit to Antwerp, possibly the most productive period of his career. He was to stay with his Portuguese friend, Emmanuel Ximenes, one of the richest men in that city. But Neri was not the only Florentine courtier in Antwerp; Don Giovanni de' Medici, Florence's top military commander was already there, prosecuting a war. He was uncle and friend to Neri's sponsor Don Antonio, as well as an alchemist in his own right. There is no known record of a meeting, but it is not hard to imagine Giovanni as a dinner guest at the Ximenes household.

Neri had moved from the safety of the Tuscan hills into the very center of a bloody war for Dutch independence. The Dutch wanted freedom from Spain, which was allied with the Holy Roman Empire through a single ruling family: the Habsburgs. Within the previous thirty years, Antwerp had been burned and pillaged by Spanish soldiers that had gone unpaid. The carnage cemented a regional rebellion that would last for most of a century. The northern territory, known as the Dutch Republic, had seceded from Hapsburg rule in 1581. As Neri started his journey in late 1603, the Southern territory was caught in the middle between warring factions. The North had become a haven for protestant Calvinists and Lutherans who streamed in from surrounding countries. Catholic Antwerp was near the center of the conflict. The city was blocked from sea-trade by their Dutch neighbors. Armed confrontations with imperial troops from the south demolished surrounding towns; fighting threatened to spill into the city that Neri would call home.

The troops on both sides of this conflict were not monolithic armies, but patchworks of borrowed forces and paid mercenaries. On the imperial side, an early attempt to break the blockade had been under the command of Don Giovanni de' Medici on behalf of his half-brother, Tuscan Grand Duke Ferdinando. Florence owed its allegiance to the Habsburgs. Don Giovanni was anxious to secure Catholic Flanders for Spain and secure a military success for himself. However, in truth, the situation was more nuanced. The Medici were privately sympathetic to the Dutch cause. They were friendly with the French Bourbons as well as the English who were both secretly financing the Dutch resistance, neither of whom wanted to see a strong imperial presence in the Low Lands. Flemish Catholics themselves lost no love for their Spanish overlords, who had already destroyed Antwerp once. In 1604, Don Giovanni was back to help prosecute the siege of Ostend, under Don Ambrogio Spinola. This was a conflict so bloody that it ultimately leveled the city and took the lives of thirty-five thousand men. Ostend was the last remaining stronghold of the Dutch on the North Sea coast between Sluys and Nieuport. It was only sixty miles (95km) west of Antwerp.

As bloody as it was, war in the seventeenth century followed the seasons. In the winter, Don Giovanni found time to submit a design for the Chapel of Princes in Florence. He also had Flemish marble cut for the project, and shipped back to Tuscany using, yes, Dutch traders in Amsterdam. During the lull in fighting, at the behest of Grand Duke Ferdinando he commissioned paintings of famous contemporary battle scenes by Flemish masters, which were also shipped back to Florence on Dutch ships. One set of seventeen pictures, fully paid for by the Ximenes family, was destined to hang in the new Medici villa 'La Ferdinanda' at Artemino in Prato. The interior decoration of the public spaces in this villa were being executed by artists Passignano and Poccetti, fresh from their recently completed collaborative masterpieces; the Neri Chapel and Cestello church on Borgo Pinti, financed by Neri's father. After some delay, the paintings finally shipped to Livorno in April of 1604, just as Antonio Neri was settling into his new quarters on the most fashionable street in all of Antwerp; the Meir.

By June of 1605, fighting was on Antwerp’s doorstep, Don Giovanni de' Medici was dispatched to London. He saw the King (James I) several times, but the reception was somewhat less enthusiastic than he had hoped (at least according to reports home by the Venetian ambassador). Three weeks later Giovanni left for Paris with the promise of a royal ship to bring him across from Dover to Calais. Finding no such escort, he commissioned a Dutch captain for the voyage.  

Don Giovanni's behavior, at first blush, seems quite odd; perhaps even treasonous. Commanding troops under the Spanish flag, he left the front lines at Antwerp, and using enemy (Dutch) transportation, he traveled first to the English and then the French royal court, both powers recently at war with Spain. However, Giovanni was in constant contact with Grand Duke Ferdinando and undoubtedly acted on direct instructions. While technically subjects of the Spanish crown, the Tuscan duchy had close economic and strategic ties with all the countries involved and had every reason to pursue a diplomatic solution that would avoid another bloodbath in Antwerp. A few years earlier, Giovanni had successfully stalled the Spanish infantry from a potentially devastating invasion of France and had military experience in the Low Countries that spanned two decades. Historically, Giovanni's part in any diplomatic negotiations has not been established, but within two years, a temporary truce was reached that would eventually result in Dutch independence. In April of 1607, a temporary eight month ceasefire was negotiated, which was later extended to cover conflicts at sea.

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