Sola Virtus Invicta

Giacomo della Porta, Dea Virtus, Marble and Porphyry, 1598, Rome, Campidoglio

The decision to present Lady Arundel not alone, but as the oversized center of an event, adds a strong dynamic to the painting. Not unlike the gallery in Mytens’ portrait, the group serves as a stylistic device to characterize the main character. And like Mytens ’portrait in front of the gallery shows Lady Arundel as a virtuosa, Rubens’ portrait presents the Countess as a long-time connoisseur of Italy on her journey into the empire of art. The dynamic characterization moreover imbues the Countess with a certain sprezzatura, the early modern ideal of relaxed, carefree sophistication. With Robin nano, mentioned in Antonio Vercellini’s letter, a pazzo or court jester, the greyhound and the hawk on Robin’s arm, Rubens shows Lady Arundel as a high-ranking and self-confident lady-in-waiting, who does not have to renounce the comfort of amusement by entertainers and the hunt even on her long journey. Travelling is presented as less of a strain and more a pleasure. The fact that two servants employed to to drive away melancholy with their jests and jokes are depicted allows the viewer to conclude that the countess regularly suffered from english malady (Stephanie Shirilan 2016, Angus Gowland 2006). In addition, the two entertainers suggest that Lady Arundel had an interest in humor and curiosities.

Jacob Burckhardt described the painting as extraordinary, as it is a group portrait in which all the persons depicted are grouped around the main character thus emphasizing them compositionally: „Unter den übrigen Gruppenporträts ist das der Familie Arundel in der Pinacothek von München besonders darauf gerichtet, einer Hauptfigur, der Gräfin, die volle Höhe des Pompes zu sichern: zu ihr gehören als Gefolge zunächst dr mächtige Jagdhund, dann der Narr, dann rechts der Gemahl und vor demselben der Page oder Zwerg mit dem Falken; das Übrige ist ein Vorhand mit Wappen, eine Prachtarchitectur mit gewundenen Säulen und ein reich gemustertr Bodenteppich […] Mit welch einer ganz andern Sympathie malte Rubens in London einen Antwerpener Landsmann und dessen zahlreiche Familie, die Gattin und die neun blühenden Kinder!“ (Jacob Burckhardt, Erinnerungen aus Rubens 1898).

Peter Paul Rubens (and possibly Jacob Jordaens), Deborah Kip, Wife of Sir Balthasar Gerbier, and Her Children, 1629/1630, 165.8 x 177.8 cm, Oil on Canvas, Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art, 1971.18.1

Like Burckhardt, Lisa Rosenthal contrasts her description of the portrait of Lady Arundel and her entourage with the portrait of Deborah Kipp, the wife of Balthasar Gerbier: Burckhardt and Rosenthal describe Lady Arundel’s portrait as an imposing representation of a powerful woman who, however, only has this power for Rosenthal as the wife of a nobleman, a status conferred by the valuable tapestry with the coat of arms of the Arundel family: “The Lady Arundel though larger than the Gerbier Family, is similar in format and shares several compositional features with it. Both paintings work their compositions around a seated woman […] Rubens, however, works this […] to very different effects […] Rubens’s painting impresses on the viewer not only Lady Arundel’s imposing personality, but also proclaims her entitlement to the commanding power she displays. The Arundel arms […] define her as the adjunct to her husband […] her status ultimately derives from his name. ” (Lisa Rosenthal, Gender, Politics, and Allegory in the Art of Rubens 2005).

Just like the hunting dog, the tapestry is an indication of Lady Arundel’s self-image. The motto SOLA VIRTUS INVICTA can be read prominently, stating virtue alone as invincible. The longstanding motto of the Arundel family lists noble virtue as an invincible force to which everything must submit. The banner wafts between the pillars over the scene as if over a battle, so that only the words VIRTUS INVICTA can be read. The motto virtus specifically addresses the divine grace of virtue, with the word invicta presenting it as an invincible weapon. The countess enthroned in the center of the picture appears under the motto as a victorious fighter in the struggle for virtue. The servant pulls back the heraldic banner from Lady Arundel’s face creating the impression of the waving tapestry revealing a statue of virtue itself.

A similar personification of virtue had been venerated in Rome as Dea Virtus since ancient times. The Dea Virtus has been interpreted in many forms. One of them is the statue on the Campidoglio. In 1594, Giacomo della Porta placed a porphyry statue with a white marble bust in the central niche of the newly installed fountain in front of the Senator’s Palace. This fountain with the Virtus Romana was a novelty during Rubens ’first stay in Rome, which he must have seen, and which Lady Arundel would also come to see. By alluding in pose and words to the newly installed statue, virtus becomes the central factor in the characterization of the first female English traveller to Rome.


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