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Albert en Nicolaas

Albert Rubens

Portrait of Rubens's son, January 1627

This is a poem in Latin about Roman coins. I think about the cadence and count the metrical feet and the syllables but some syllables are not pronounced, something I need to take into account.

In Brabant dialect my poem would begin as follows:

 Koppen van keizers, stoeten, tempels en triomfen,
            Zijn ooit vereeuwigd in metaal
Toen Rome, moederstad van mensen en van goden,
            Nog onder oude wetten stond.
De vraatzuchtige tijd bedreigt al wat de duistere
            Schoot van de aarde in zich bergt.

(Heads of emperors, processions, temples and triumphs were once immortalised in metal when Rome, the mother city of humans and gods was still governed by the old laws. Voracious time threatens everything that the dark bosom of the world conceals.


Papa's collection

This is a poem about Roman coins. Papa and his friends collect old coins and precious cameos. These are tiny sculptures, a piece of history which you can hold in your hand and study in detail. I often do this. I look closely at a golden denarius or a polished agate and am surprised at the detail of the tresses of the hair, and how gracefully the togas fall.

Papa also has life-sized marble statues from the era of the Roman emperors and an Egyptian mummy. In a stone coffin, which has been painted in red and blue. But I really like Seneca's bust best: he was a great Roman orator and papa, my uncles and their friends like to read his books.


We must be strong

Seneca said that one can cope with the blows that life deals you by controlling your emotions. Life can be tough and we must be strong – my mother died last year and my sister Clara Serena three years earlier. Now papa often spends time in Brussels. They say he will travel to Spain soon on behalf of illustrious Archduchess. It's got something to do with politics. My brother Nicolaas and I will stay with our uncle Brant.


"I know you also miss her, son"

Then I can no longer sit with papa in his studiolo when he writes letters or slowly melts candle wax to seal the letters or when he takes his cameos out of their boxes. I have to be quiet though (I usually do my Latin homework without rustling too much with the sheets of paper or scratching my pen). I like spending time with him. He is so wise, he knows how to do so many things. Sometimes he talks to me about Seneca. He tells me how he bought the bust in Rome when it had just been dug up. Previously nobody knew what Seneca looked like. Once he told me: "I know you also miss her, son. We miss her in the morning, at lunch and in the evening." Then I felt strong, like an adult, because papa confided in me. He would probably just play with Nicolaas, he's only eight years old.



I'll let papa read my poem when it's finished. I like writing, about Antiquity. One day I want to write about papa's cameos. And about how the Greeks and the Romans used to dress, in different centuries. Papa knows a lot about this, as he often is asked to paint famous generals and philosophers. Toga and tunica and pallium and boots and sandals. I like to read the lesser-known works of ancient writers, because they always contain gems. And who knows, maybe one day I may find the manuscript of a forgotten author in a convent or library myself.


Rubens was very proud of his son

In 1627 Albert Rubens was the youngest poet in Antwerp. His Latin poem about antique coins was published in a book. Rubens was very proud of his eldest son. When he was staying in Madrid for political negotiations in 1629, he wrote the following to his friend Jan Caspar Gevartius on 28 December: "I beg you to take my little Albert, who looks so much like me, into your study and not into your chapel. I love this child and highly recommend my son to you, my best friend and the high priest of the Muses: take good care of him, whether I live or die, along with my father in law and my brother Brant."

In August 1630, he corresponded with his French friend, the erudite archaeologist Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, about antique dishes and cooking utensils. In passing he noted: "My son Albert provided the quotes by classical authors. He is interested in ancient studies and is making progress in the Greek language. Above all, he worships your name and your noble brain. Accept his contribution with this in mind and admit him to the ranks of your servants.” In time, modest Albert would go on to write some fascinating studies about antique cameos, coins and clothes. One was published anonymously by friends, the other was only published after his death.


After Rubens's death

In 1640, Albert Rubens succeeded his father as secretary of the Privy Council, an important position at the court. While this was an honorary title for Peter Paul Rubens, Albert was very meticulous about his work and moved to Brussels for this position. In 1641 he married Clara del Monte, a daughter of Susanne Fourment (the elder sister of his stepmother Helena). Albert and Clara had four children, three girls and a boy, Albert-Hyacinthe, who died at the age of eleven. 



On 31 December 1656, Albert Rubens wrote to his friend, Nicolaas Heinsius: "My only son, my best hope, was lightly bitten by a dog at the end of July and fifty days later he contracted dropsy, followed by rabies. He died a few hours later. I was so crushed by this that I am barely able to come to my senses. I beg you, do not make a mockery of my weakness. I thought that I could deal with every blow that life dealt me after reading Seneca's books." Albert Rubens died of grief one year later. His wife Clara died six weeks after him. The inventory of their home after their death showed that they had kept all their son's clothes. Albert and Clara were both buried in the Rubens Chapel of St. James's Church in Antwerp. Their three daughters were raised by Albert's cousin, Filips Rubens, a city clerk in Antwerp.