The Cost of Charles I’s Art Collecting

I’ve been doing a lot of research on curiosity cabinets and art collecting, which is generally associated with mad kings in Germany or the Medici family. England did little of this as they were to busy arguing how to Reform which involved a lot of disputes as to the use of imagery. Plus there was a lot of fighting which left little money for such luxuries. Rulers were often condemned for spending money on art instead of helping the poor, but the art market employed a lot fo talented craftspeople, preventing them from bing poor, and establishing centres of excellence which helped diplomacy and trade in general.

But Charles I was a rare creature – a British ruler with a fondness for art and some taste. This is from ‘The Plunder of the Arts in the Seventeenth Century’ by Hugh Trevor-Roper: 

The collection of the Gonzaga, dukes of Mantua, had been famous for over a century. It had been built up by patronage and plunder: the patronage which successive dukes had extended to the great Italian masters – to Mantegna, Leonardo, Perugino and Correggio – and the plunder of Urbino by Cesare Borgia in 1502. All through the 16th century the dukes of Mantua prospered and their palaces were enlarged and decorated to advertise their prosperity At Mantua Giulio Romano worked n the 1520s and 1530s; here Rubens studied in the 1590s. By 1600 the citizens of Mantua gloried in what seemed totem not a private collection of the duke but a national gallery, the possession of their city…

The trouble was that Mantua, like all the industrial cities of North Italy, was in economic difficulties. From 1612, the silk industry, the basis of its prosperity, was in crisis and the dukes could no longer keep up their lavish court out of a dwindling income. They were reduced to pawning their jewellery. In due course they had to choose whether to lose their jewels or to redeem them by selling something else.

Of course, if the dukes of Mantua had been like the dukes of Bavaria – or indeed any other princes of Europe – they would not have sold their treasures. Those treasures, to any self-respecting Renaissance prince, were the symbol of his strength. They would have sold something else – offices, titles of honour, anything- or imposed new taxes or just let the debts mount. Unfortunately the 2 dukes of Mantua who reigned from 1612 to 1627 were not self-respecting princes: they were disreputable ex-cardinals whose ruling passion was not for works of art but for mistresses, relics, food and drink, and, above all, dwarfs and parrots. This being so, their subjects, in those years of financial stringency, reasonably began to tremble of those pictures – their pictures – which had made their city one of the artistic wonders of the world.

Daniel Nys was secretly the artistic agent of Charles I and of the earl of Arundel and the duke of Buckingham. Under the pretence of being a merchant, he negotiated the sale of the bulk of the Mantuan treasure, including masterpieces by Titian and Raphael, for £15,000. There was outrage by the citizens of Mantua when they found out, but in 1628 he purchased £10,000 more including works by Michaelangelo, in the teeth of intense competition with the grand duke of Tuscany, the queen Mother of France and others.

Trevor Roper continues;

The purchase of the Mantua collection was regarded by Charles I as the greatest triumph of his generally unsuccessful reign. Contemporaries regarded the sale as a European scandal. Rubens protested that the duke of Mantua should have died rather than allow it. But in fact the world probably gained rather than lost by it. For barely had the ducal treasures arrived in England when the Thirty Years’ Wr came to Mantua. In 1630 imperial troops captured and sacked the city and all the remaining contents of the ducal palaces simply disappeared.

But that was not the end of the story of course.

It is worth remarking, as an illustration of the intermixture of art and politics, and as a sidelight on the priorities of King Charles I, how he paid for his great triumph. At the very time of the sale, he was sending an expedition, under the duke of Buckingham, to the Isle of Re, to relieve the Huguenot citadel of La Rochelle, hard pressed by the army of Cardinal Richelieu. The financing of this expedition as of all Charles I’s operations, was handled by his regular international financier, Sir Philip Burlamanchi. But just as the expedition was about to sail, Burlamanchi received the bill for the Mantuan pictures. Hew was aghast. ‘I pray you,’ he wrote to the king’s secretary, ‘let me know His Majesty’s pleasure, but above all where the money shall be found to pay this great sum. If it were for 2 or 3 thousand pounds, it could be borne, but for £15,000, besides the other engagements for His Majesty’s service, it will utterly put me out of any possibility to do anything in those provisions which are so necessary for my lord duke’s relief. I pray you let me know what I must trust.’ The duke’s expedition, thus starved of money, was a disaster;La Rochelle was reduced; and Cardinal Richelieu,… canibalized its library. But Charles I had got what he wanted. Having secured the pictures, he was glad to get out of the war. the agent who got him out was… that great preacher of peace, Peter Paul Rubens, who came to England as ambassador of Spain and was quickly booked to decorate the Banquetting Hall of Whitehall.

So, Charles’ passion for art made him unpopular at home and sacrificed the lives of many fellow Protestants. His art collection was not vandalised by the Commonwealth; Cromwell claimed a few of his pieces but they came in handy to pay of the debts of the Civil War. History Today’s article on him can have the final word on this monarch:

whatever his private virtues and admirable aesthetic sense, in public life he was egocentric, inept and devious.

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