Behind the famous painting by Diego Velázquez lies a rich story of the artist's life in art
What began as propaganda art to celebrate a rare Spanish victory in the Eighty Years' War with Holland, The Surrender at Breda is today recognized as Velázquez's narrative masterpiece.
Breda is packed with vivid military detail—whole armies are suggested on the huge canvas, twelve feet high and eleven feet wide. Unlike typical surrender scenes, there is neither a heroic victor on horseback nor a vanquished commander on his knees. Instead the rivals appear on foot almost as equals. The loser bends forward to offer the key and receives a chivalrous pat on his shoulder, as if to say: "Fortune has favored me, but our roles might have been reversed."
Anthony Bailey examines the paintings from which the artist arose, coaxing stories from them that flesh out a complete portrait of one of the world's major artists whose personal life has remained largely unknown.
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About the Author
Anthony Bailey is the author of Vermeer: A View of Delft, two books on Rembrandt, the novel Major Andre, and nineteen other books. A writer for The New Yorker for a quarter century, Bailey has been called "one of the best descriptive writers of his generation" (John Russell, The New York Times).
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Velázquez and The Surrender of Breda
The Making of a Masterpiece
By Anthony Bailey
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2011 Anthony Bailey
All rights reserved.
the turfship. Breda. 1590
The wing of a butterfly beats, we are told, and a million aftereffects later, far away, a tidal wave happens. In the chain of causation that matters here, what could be taken for a starting point was not an insect wing-beat but a spade cut, as a rectangular piece of peat was sliced from soggy ground and placed onto a barrow from which it was then loaded onto a high-sided barge, heaped up, turf upon turf, in a pile that resembled an earthen shed, hollow inside, though only a few were aware of this fact. From the riverbank, where the loading was taking place, the ship's cargo looked like a solid stack. The river was the Mark; it flowed northward through Brabant, a province in the Netherlands, to join the much larger river Waal, and thence out to the North Sea. The time was the beginning of March, 1590, a gray morning, and a war was going on. Despite this the scene near Zevenbergen seemed utterly peaceful as, the next day, the barge's sails were hoisted and — think of a painting by the Dutch artist Jan van Goyen — the turfship set off up the Mark toward the town of Breda, past the diked green meadows in which cattle grazed.
One man, one of the only two visible crew members, stood in the bow while the skipper sat on a bench at the stern, holding the oak tiller against his hip, and listening to the rustle of water as it curved around the plump sides and the barn-door rudder and fell away astern without disturbance. There had been a heavy frost the night before and the air was damp. But during the next few hours the breeze freshened, the wetness dissipated, and the mainsail was reduced in area by being brailed up at the front bottom corner between mast and boom. Nevertheless Adriaan van Bergen, the skipper, thought it better to keep going with the flood tide under them. Every now and then a figure could be seen on the riverbanks, probably a cowherd or farmer, so far at least no soldiers from the outposts of the Spanish Army of Flanders. Before the ship came abreast of these strangers the man on the foredeck leaned down and loudly whispered, seemingly at the peat, the word "Silence!"
Not that you could hear much up on deck. The seventy or so men crouched below were indeed silent, pent up with their thoughts. They huddled together in almost total blackness, communicating by nudges and gestures, hands touching shoulders, occasionally reaching out to make sure their weapons were still there, within reach, on the barge's hefty ribs and the bottom boards that lined the hold. The few cracks in the stacked-up peat gave just enough light and air. It was the lack of air rather than of light that most affected the party; the strong thick smell of the peat made it feel like being buried in a compost heap, and the need to swallow or — worse — sneeze and cough occasionally overcame them.
It was Adriaan van Bergen's turfship. But its mission had been an idea floated before, by the late William of Orange, the revered if somewhat reluctant leader of the revolt against the Spanish overlords of the Netherlands. William had taken note of the fact that turf skippers could enter the walls of the occupied town of Breda most easily. Breda had been the home territory of the Orange-Nassau family. William, nicknamed the Silent because of his cautious habit of thinking a long time before acting, lips sealed, had fallen to an assassin's gun in Delft six years before, but his son and heir, prince Maurice, had taken up the turfship idea. He had made inquiries about an experienced skipper and van Bergen, one of a family of turf handlers from Leur, was recommended. Van Bergen also had a big enough ship. The Spanish had captured Breda in 1581, killing six hundred of its citizens and plundering the place; they had occupied it ever since, and Maurice was impatient to regain it. It was not only his family seat but a key link in the ring of walled towns and forts with which Spain encircled the northern rebellious provinces. The winter still not quite over had been a tough one; it was a matter of waiting for the castle garrison or town council to order a new load of fuel, which they must do soon. Meanwhile an assault force was put together. An experienced officer from Cambrai in the southern Netherlands, the mostly Spanish Netherlands, thirty-four-year-old Charles de Héraugiere, who wanted to prove his loyalty to the Orange-Nassau family, was given the command. Several meetings took place at secret locations to work out how and when the men would be embarked on the turfship. The unit was recruited by Count Philip van Hohenlohe, a relative of Maurice's by marriage, and Maurice from his palace at The Hague organized a force of about 4,600 men of the States army to be ready to take over the city if the surprise initial attack led by de Héraugiere was successful.
At the end of February 1590 it became known that a new shipment of peat had been ordered by Breda. Maurice — who was twenty-three — set off with his small army toward Dordrecht, although, because of spies everywhere, he attempted to get it known that he was going somewhere else. Gorinchem was mentioned. The governor of Breda, an Italian named Lanciavecchia, led an opposing force of the king of Spain's Army of Flanders toward Geertruidenberg, northeast of Breda, on the edge of the large area of river and swamp known as the Biesbos, thinking Maurice was heading there. In this time of haste and flurries of misinformation, the first attempt to embark the assault force went wrong; the blame fell on the skipper for "oversleeping" though overdrinking was more likely. The river Mark was tidal up to Breda and very low water then kept the turfship immobile for several days. But on the afternoon of Friday, March 2, the decision was made to go for it. On the following day van Bergen's heavily laden ship sailed up the channel to the north of a small island named Reygersbosch. Here a moveable barrier or boom controlled passage to the canal surrounding Breda's castle. Here guards waited in an outpost, and a brief inspection took place led by an Italian corporal, the guards seeing that the ship obviously carried the expected peat shipment. Then there was an uneasy period of waiting for the tide to rise high enough so that the ship could be moved in through the water gate. This was the worst time, the Dutch soldiers uneasy under their stack of peat, the leaky ship's bilges slowly filling with water that would soon need pumping out, de Héraugiere murmuring encouraging words to keep spirits up. But just after three p.m. the tide served. The ship's mast was lowered and the vessel was poled toward the quayside. Van Bergen now pumped away, the noise disguising some coughs coming from within the peat. At the quay a squad of Italian soldiers hauled on warps to bring the turfship in through a sort of tunnel under the walls to a sluis or lock that controlled the water level and thence into the little harbor within the castle. There the ship was moored alongside the arsenal. An impatient squad from the garrison climbed aboard to start unloading the peat.
"What's the hurry?" Adriaan van Bergen wanted to know. The beginning of Lent was approaching and a drink or two surely wouldn't come amiss. There was all day tomorrow to unload the cargo. To reinforce this idea he doled out some coins to the soldiers and the suggestion worked. Most of the garrison men went off to a hostelry in the town or to their barracks. Only one Italian was left on guard but he too was plied with beer and by midnight he was asleep. It was a quiet night. When van Bergen gave the word that the time was right, de Héraugiere's band silently climbed out from their peat stack one by one, adjusting their helmets and cuirasses, unsheathing their swords and axes, priming their guns, and formed up in two groups. The sleeping guard was knocked on the head and rendered truly unconscious. One party went toward the bastion by the harbor and the northwest gate. The other, led by de Héraugiere, headed for the gate that gave entry into the town. On the way they encountered a guard, who, surprised, at least remembered to ask "Qui va là?" The Dutchmen seized him and questioned him about the garrison, its size and its whereabouts. The facts were that the town was guarded by six companies formed by citizens and five vendels, which were mostly Italian. The castle itself was garrisoned only by a unit of some fifty men, led by the son of the governor, Paolo Antonio Lanciavecchia.
The Italian who was being questioned gave erratic answers: any number or location that came into his terrified head. He was killed. But the lethargic watch had now woken up. The alarm was sounded. Short battles took place at the guard houses by the outer gates. Those inside were shot through the windows. Young Lanciavecchia's men made a counterattack, but this was repelled. Their colleagues who had been partying in town tried to burn the outer gate but were forcibly prevented. Mopping up went on for some time, but by dawn the victory was evident. Thirty-seven Italians lost their lives and among the insurgents only one Dutchman, Hans van den Bosch, who fell into a canal and drowned. A number on both sides were badly injured. Paolo Lanciavecchia managed to negotiate the surrender of himself and some of his men, paying a hefty ransom. On the north side of the castle, the field gate was found to be frozen shut — warming it up by fire might have helped — but it was finally prized open and van Hohenlohe's vanguard let in, the first contingent of Maurice's small army. Trumpets sounded the Dutch anthem, the "Wilhelmus." Breda had been taken. The flags of Spain were hauled down and burned.
The burghers and magistrates of Breda thought it advisable to show how pleased they were. Bells were rung and thanksgiving services held in the Groot Kerk near the market square and in the many other churches in town. As the news spread, bonfires were lit in celebration all over the northern Netherlands. A feast was held in one of the town's best inns for the van Bergens, owners of the turfship, and its skipper, Adriaan van Bergen, who was given an annual pension and made a lockkeeper in Breda. De Héraugiere was given a set of pewterware, a gold-plated model of the turfship, and an even bigger pension. Many of the citizenry of the town who had enjoyed the royal, Catholic status quo tried to hide their chagrin at the turn of events, their fury at the failure of the king of Spain's army to defend Breda against the States rebels. Any remaining Italian or Spanish civilians fled town. The town had to cope with the sudden inrush of Maurice's 4,600 men, who included an English contingent under Sir Francis Vere, and a new governor (de Héraugiere for a period and then Maurice's half brother, Justin). The citizens of Breda were scared of looting and the imposition of fierce financial exactions. To alleviate their concern the town council negotiated a cash payment to take the place of the plundering generally permitted a victorious occupying force. Sixteen thousand guilders was the amount first agreed upon, but this was soon raised to 87,000 guilders. Breda couldn't afford this demand and the States General in The Hague had to make good the bill. The town moreover had to pay for the billeting, board, and lodging of the prince's troops. The citizenry also suffered the fate of collaborators everywhere; there was a decided loss of face; the feeling was common in the northern Low Countries that the Baronie, the name for the whole district of Breda, wasn't participating staunchly enough in the opstand, the revolt against Spain. As for the so-called defenders of Breda for the king of Spain, it was trouble. The royal governor of the Low Countries, the Duke of Parma, court-martialled those responsible. The Italian corporal accused of letting in the turfship and two of his superior officers were beheaded in Brussels. Young Lanciavecchia was dismissed from his command. Bolting the stable door after the surprise break-in, Count Karel van Mansfelt, the commander of the Army of Flanders, was ordered to ensure that Breda was properly locked up. One effect of this was that Adriaan van Bergen's turfship was stuck inside the city walls. Unattended, without constant pumping, it would have sunk and blocked the canal; it was therefore hauled out onto the quay by the castle, a roof built over it, and on every fourth of March for the next thirty-five years featured in civic celebrations.
* * *
IN 1590 THE conflict was already mature and getting older. What would become known as the Eighty Years War between the Dutch United Provinces and the Spanish empire had begun in 1568. Like many historic European wars, it would beggar understanding, causing as it did an immense loss of men's labor, the capital of nations, and human life; like many other such conflicts, it was sparked by rivalry over trade, control of overseas possessions, by religious dissent and dynastic dissatisfactions. The way royal families extended their power by inheritance was much to blame. A simplified family tree has Hapsburg possessions being first brought together in 1477 when Maximilian, son of the emperor of Germany, married Mary of Burgundy, and in time became regent of the Netherlands. Their son Philip married Juana, daughter of King Ferdinand (of Aragón) and Queen Isabella (of Castile). The elder son of Philip and Juana was Charles, born in the Netherlands and boasting the protruding Hapsburg lower lip, who married Isabella of Portugal and inherited an empire that, despite its pan-European and indeed eventually worldwide extent, had many fault lines. Charles V ruled a diverse conglomeration of countries in which what the historian H. A. L. Fisher called the "old medieval unity of faith" was being tugged apart by vehement forces, sometimes under monarchical leadership, sometimes in the guise of religion, sometimes fired by early nationalistic fervor. Charles — who started out knowing no Spanish — slowly became a Spaniard; keeping an empire together and without heresy was a full-time job from which he finally abdicated in 1555, worn out, immobilized by gout, and for the occasion leaning on the shoulder of one of his Low Countries noblemen, the young Prince of Orange.
Charles retired to a remote Spanish monastery, his cell decorated with a Titian Gloria. His son Philip II was Spanish to the core, a devout Catholic, keen on destroying heretics with the help of the Inquisition. He insisted on only the plainest music. The times were hard on dissent: The works of Erasmus were banned; the Utrecht painter Antonis Mor, who had been working at the Hapsburg court, fled from Spain back to Antwerp in the Netherlands. Philip II also had a formidable army, the Spanish tércios providing him with the best infantry battalions in Europe, and he possessed a massive navy. However, despite its success with almost obsolete Mediterranean galleys at Lepanto in 1571, his armada against England came up against skilled sailors in oceangoing ships in the Channel and North Sea seventeen years later — resulting in an English victory over Spain that had the effect of leaving the Dutch rebels in command of the coasts of the Low Countries.
The Dutch had grasped the idea that free trade was the fount of prosperity. Banking came as naturally to Amsterdam as it had to Antwerp. Spain was hopeless at finance, inept with taxation, both the Spanish church and the nobility accustomed to exemptions, the country expecting its trade to benefit from protection when what would have most helped was freedom to ship anything anywhere. An increasingly uncertain prop for Spanish power was furnished by the mineral wealth of Mexico and Peru. These riches were diminished on their way to the royal treasury by enemy fleets, shipwreck, peculation, inflation, and sales taxes like the alcabala, which struck at the commercial energies of the very people who most needed to be given heart.
In the Netherlands, the tax that did immediate harm was the tenth penny — the Spanish commander the Duke of Alba's local version of the alcabala. It was in Breda castle in 1566 that what was called a compromise but was in fact a statement of intent was signed by many of the Netherlands nobility, demanding the abolition of the Inquisition in the Low Countries. From there a delegation went to Brussels to ask the governor, Margaret of Parma, to convoke the States General assembly and moderate the injunctions against Protestants. It was there that Margaret's counsellor, Berlaymont, famously exclaimed to his distressed leader, "What, Madam, afraid of these beggars!" — an abusive term triumphantly taken on as a compliment by those who had signed the Breda Compromise. While opposition to Spanish financial exactions and religious persecution mounted, and as the counts Egmont and Hoorn, two noble dissidents, were tried in Alba's "Courts of Blood" and executed in Brussels in 1568, William of Orange tried to maintain that he was a rebel against misgovernment, not against his monarch, Charles V's son Philip II. The writer of the "Wilhelmus," the anthem written about this time that became the Dutch national hymn, declared for all to sing, as though making a distinction between disloyalty and necessary dissent:
Unto the Lord His power I do confession make That ne'er at any hour Ill of the King I spake. But unto God, the greatest Of Majesties, I owe Obedience first and latest, For justice wills it so.
Excerpted from Velázquez and The Surrender of Breda by Anthony Bailey. Copyright © 2011 Anthony Bailey. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
List Of Illustrations,
I. The Turfship. Breda. 1590,
II. A Boy From Seville. 1599–1621,
III. Madrid: For The First Time. 1622–,
Iv. What Happened At Breda. 1625,
V. The Way To Italy. 1629,
VI. The Good Retreat. Madrid. 1631–,
VII. "Breda For The King Of Spain!" Madrid. 1634–35,
VIII. Madrid. 1632–39,
IX. Madrid And Aragón. 1640–48,
X. Rome Again. 1649–50,
XI. Rome: Venus Observed. 1650–51,
Xii. Transformations. Madrid. 1651–59,
XIII. Maids Of Honor. Madrid. 1656,
XIV. Knight Errant. Madrid. 1658–59,
XV. The Isle Of Pheasants. Biscay And Madrid. 1660,
XVII. Las Lanzas. Breda and Seville.,
A Note On Money,
About The Author,
Also By Anthony Bailey,
What People are Saying About This
"A superb account....wonderfully written."—The New Yorker
"Filled with rich detail and lush descriptions, this book, like the painting that inspired it, is remarkable for both its scope and its intimacy."—Barnes and Noble Review
"This highly provocative, rich, and savory feast challenges readers to see great art with fresh eyes and in context."—Kirkus
"In this witty, inquisitive, and redefining portrait…Bailey brings Velázquez forward as a brilliant and complex artist navigating an exciting and dangerous world and enables us to see his ‘split-screen’ compositions as the cutting-edge creations they were nearly four centuries ago."—Booklist, Starred Review