The Battle of the Amazons

Lucas Vorsterman after Peter Paul Rubens, The Battle of the Amazons, 1623, Copperplate Print, 857 × 1202 mm, London, British Museum

In June 1620, Aletheia Howard, Countess of Arundel, traveled from London to Antwerp and met Peter Paul Rubens, who painted an impressive larger-than-life portrait of the English collector. During the portrait session, Lady Arundel had the opportunity to admire the painting of the Battle of the Amazons. Here Rubens had staged the battle between the Amazons and the Greek warriors on 120.3 x 165.3 cm as a dynamic, colorful pull from horses and people. After the meeting, Lady Arundel traveled on to Venice, where her sons were to study medicine, and lived there alone for two years. During her stay abroad, exceptional for the time, Rubens dedicated his largest copper engraving to date to her.The original reproduction of the Battle of the Amazons was assembled from six printing plates and is the largest graphic ever created in Rubens’ workshop. In the dedication to Lady Arundel almost three years after the meeting, Rubens describes the noblewoman as an “outstanding heroine” and relates her to the combative Amazons:

Excellentissimae Heroinæ Alathiæ Taboth Magni Comitis Arundelli Supremi Britanniae Mareschalci Coniugi Lectissimae Hanc Amazonum Pugnam Obsequii Et Observantiae Argumentum. Petrus Paullus Rubens L.M.D.D. [Libenter Meritoque Dedicavit] cum privilegiis Regis Christianissimi Principum Belgarum et Ordinum Bataviæ / Lucas Vorstermann fecit / Antwerpiæ KaI. Ianuarij MDCXXIII

Detail

(„Peter Paul Rubens with a good cause gladly presents and dedicates this ‚Battle of the Amazons’ as a token of his devotion and deferential regard for that most excellent heroine Alethea Talbot, matchless wife of the Earl of Arundel, supreme marshal of Britain“, see Andrew D. Hottle, “Commerce and Connections. Peter Paul Rubens and the Dedicated Print”, in: Rubens and the Netherlands (Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 55), Zwolle: Waanders, p. 55–85, p. 69.)

As a modern Amazon, the Countess is declared the ideal addressee of the dramatic battle between the female warriors and their Greek adversaries. To this day, explanations of the dedication range from her trip to Italy as the reason to a strategy for selling the original painting to an English clientele. Similar to the dedication of the graphic of the bathing Suzanna to Anna Roemers Visscher, known as a writer for her moralizing aphorisms, it is far more plausible, however, that the reason for the dedication is to find in the person of the countess and the political events from 1620 to 1623. Rubens’ dedication constitutes, moreover, the second tangible sign after the dedication of Titian’s biography by Tizianello, of Lady Arundel being perceived as an important figure in the early modern art world. The graphics were to ensure the distribution and profitability of Rubens’ ideas. A connection to famous contemporaries provided the occasion for potential buyers of the print to demonstrate their knowledge of current events. A suitable and widely intelligible dedication fostered interest in the invention by connecting the present with the mythological and biblical past. Through its dedication the Battle of the Amazons was to be read in a network of political and cultural references around the figure of the English collector.

In the midst of political turmoil in Europe in 1622, Lady Arundel had to defend herself against allegations by the Venetian Senate. Her diplomatic skills were put to test in the political scandal known as the Foscarini Affair. On April 8, 1622, the Doge had arrested Antonio Foscarini, a member of the Senate. Known from his time in London as a bon vivant, he was being charged of high treason and conspiracy.Foscarini, a member of the Senate since 1620, was accused of visiting the house of the Spanish ambassador and revealing state secrets to Spain. Lady Arundel had gotten to know Foscarini during his time as Venetian ambassador in London. Rumors quickly spread that some of the meetings with foreign ambassadors had taken place under her roof at Palazzo Mocenigo, which Lady Arundel had been renting since her arrival. The English ambassador Henry Wotton recommended leaving the city immediately. Less than two weeks later, on April 20, 1622, the council sentenced Foscarini to death for high treason. The sentence was carried out immediately and the body of the condemned man was hung on the Colonna di S. Todaro in Piazza San Marco that night. The exact background of the Foscarini affair is unclear. In Venice there was fear of a Spanish conspiracy and although Foscarini belonged to the parliamentary group loyal to the state, his dealings with the Arundels, known from England as sympathizers of Spain, could have compromised him. On the contrary, to the advice of the English ambassador to leave the city, Lady Arundel reacted by appearing in person at the Doge’s Palace. While an escape would have come close to an admission of guilt, the courageous appearance in front of the seventeen members of the Senate on the day after Foscarini’s execution not only saved the Countess from the anger of the Serenissima, but also completely rehabilitated her across Europe. The Senate acquitted the noblewoman of all suspicions. On January 16, 1623, the Senate continued to posthumously declare Foscarini innocent and news of Foscarini’s belated pardon were sent to courts throughout Europe. Lady Arundel was being admired for her unwavering strength.

Inigo Jones, Atalanta, Queen of the Ætolyans, 1608, Tusche auf Papier,
o. M., Windsor Castle, Royal Collections

The Countess’s successful defense against the allegations of the Venetian Senate was not the only or even the first contemporary connection to be made between Lady Arundel and the myth of the Amazons. The virtuous warriors of Greek mythology had long been a popular subject at the courts in Europe, and particularly at the English. Years before the Venetian scandal, Lady Arundel had appeared in England as a kind of Amazon. In the Masque of Queens, written by Ben Jonson and staged by Inigo Jones, performed on February 2, 1609, a select group of ladies of the London court danced as historical and mythological queens around Queen Anna of Denmark. In the Court Masque, one of them Lady Arundel as Atalante. The huntress Atalante occupies a special position between queen, amazon and nymph. According to Pseudo-Apollodorus, she grew up alone in the wilderness and made a vow of chastity in front of the goddess Diana. She killed the Calydonian boar and was the only woman to take part in the search for the golden fleece. While Lady Arundel, a member of the English court, identified with the idea of fearless women who were perfectly equal to men, the main appeal of the ancient Amazons, the first chroniclers in the so-called West Indies, the South American continent, reported the discovery of tribes of warfaring women living without men. With Francisco de Orellana’s sighting of long-haired, fair-skinned and armed women during his expedition in 1541, the myth, which was originally located on the edge of the Greek Empire, found its place on the new frontier of Europe. Travel reports of encounters with so-called Amazons had a long tradition. The first Amazons of the New World had already been mentioned by Columbus.

Written on the basis of sources, eyewitness accounts and his own expedition, it was Walter Raleigh’s Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtifull Empyre of Guiana, however, which shaped European conceptions of the continent. Described as unfathomably rich traders, the Amazons in distant Guyana reflected contemporary debates about the independence and political abilities of women, as they characterized the Elizabethan age. For Raleigh, the stories about the Amazons were an argument to convince Elizabeth I and her court of the importance and the success of another expedition to the shores of the Amazon. Time and again Raleigh uses the mythical Amazon warrior tribe to construct a connection between the Amazon Queen Elizabeth and the continent. He closes his report with an appeal to the Queen, in which references to the Amazons play the central role. The ideas of the immense wealth and the infinite treasures of the Empire of the Amazones and the idea of independent women as the guardians have since Raleigh’s expedition report been inextricably linked.

Lord and Lady Arundel were close friends with Walter Raleigh, who is said to have addressed his last words to his good friend Lord Arundel. Immediately after Sir Raleigh’s execution in 1618, a group of supporters, led by Roger North, formed the Amazon Company. The year before, North had returned by Raleigh’s side from the last fatal mission from the Orinoco. Lord Arundel was one of the founding members of the Amazon Company, together with some influential noblemen of the English court, who did not deem Raleigh’s expedition a failure. Regardless of whether the members of the Amazon Company were convinced of the existence of a rich gold mine, believed in El Dorado and the existence of Amazons, or whether they were advocates of the establishment of a permanent colony for further exploration of the region – the development of the Amazon Company appeared as important step to secure English interests across Europe. A year later, in April 1619, Lord Arundel, along with North, published a call for participation in the Amazon Company, and the number of shareholders rose from thirteen to over fifty members. The Amazon Company meetings were held weekly at Arundel House.

Despite the protests of Spanish representatives in England, who feared a war against the Spanish crown in the Guiana area, the planning of the Amazon Company continued until the new ambassador of Spain arrived in London in March 1620. Defending the privilege of Spain, the Spanish ambassador threatened James I with breaking off political relations if the trading company were given permission to set sail. Nevertheless, North received permission to send the company’s two fully equipped ships to Plymouth, where he waited three weeks for further orders until an unofficial message advised him to leave without formal confirmation. This was the solution to James’ dilemma, who was then able to revoke the privilege of the trading company in June 1620 without having to defend the legality of English settlements in the Amazon against Spain and without endangering diplomatic relations. When Roger North returned in January 1621, the king had him arrested and awarded the trading goods to Spain. A crisis between the English and Spanish crowns – at a time when the marriage of the two ruling houses, also known as the Spanish Match, was still a political goal – was averted. In April, however, North submitted a petition to the king, in which he asked for a ship to be sent to the English settlers who had been left behind on the Amazon. The renewed discussion about the claims to the goods he had brought and the right of the king to dissolve the Amazon Company led to a short re-imprisonment.

While Lady Arundel was sitting for her portrait in Antwerp in Summer 1620, Roger North was on his way to the Amazon. After North’s return in 1621, negotiations over his fate became a topic of discussion across Europe. The Spanish ambassador had thwarted the ambitious plans of the Amazon Company. The prospect of the Spanish Match of the English heir to the throne Charles with the Spanish Infanta Maria Anna should by no means be endangered by confrontations on the Amazon. The dedication of the Battle of the Amazons to Lady Arundel in 1623 referenced a current issue of great importance for the political situation in Europe. It suggests deep diplomatic insights on the part of the Antwerp master. The dedication of the scene, through which Rubens established a connection to the Amazon Company and thus openly risked conflict with the Spanish crown, appealed to a contemporary audience critical of Spain’s imperialist ambitions and its monopoly on the West Indian continent. The graphic of the Battle of the Amazons refers to a female personality known throughout Europe and through her to a current colonization project, the success of which would have fundamentally changed the political situation in Europe. The graphic thus became a political manifesto tailored to a specific political climate.


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