In this letter, Pieter Paul Rubens humbly explains the images in his masterpiece Consequences of War in the Palatine Gallery in Palazzo Pitti in Florence to Justus Sutterman: a piece which was destined to radically change the fate of Florentine painting. And who better than its author could recount the details of this extraordinary work of art, painted during the Thirty Years’ War?
The main figure is Mars who, in leaving the Temple of Janus open (which, during peacetime, was closed according to Roman custom) moves forth with his blood-soaked sword and shield to threaten villagers with great disaster. He pays little attention to his lover, Venus, who tries to hold him back with gentle caresses, accompanied by Amors and Cupids. On his other side, Mars is tugged by one of the Three Furies, Alecto, who holds aloft a torch. Monsters float alongside him, representing Pestilence and Famine: inseparable companions of War. A woman lies beneath him holding a broken lute, which represents Harmony: something which is incompatible with the Discord of war. Lying also beneath him is a mother with her baby in her arms, demonstrating that fruitfulness, fertility, and charity are thwarted by war, which corrupts and destroys everything in its path. There is also an architect on the ground clutching his tools, as if to portray the idea that all the efforts made to construct and decorate cities during peacetime is torn to the ground by the violence of the military. I believe, if I remember correctly, that Your Grace will also find a book beneath Mars’ feet, along with a few paper sketches. This implies that he is trampling over literature and the arts. There should also be a bundle of arrows or darts, once held together by a broken rope. If the arrows had remained tied together, this would have been the emblem of the goddess Concord, as are the caduceus and the olive branch which lie beside them – symbols of Peace. Both of these have also been cast onto the ground. The mournful woman dressed in black, her veil torn and her body stripped of her jewels or any kind of ornamentation, is the discontented Europe, who has already been suffering for a number of years from devastation, outrage, and misery. These factors are so harmful to all that they need no further specification. Her distinctive symbol is the globe, held up by a small angel or genie, with a cross at its peak, representing the Christian orb. This is as much as I can say to Your Grace about this piece, and it even seems a little too much – Your Grace, in your wisdom, will easily have understood this concept. This is why I have no more to say, and shall not bore you, or keep you any longer. I wholeheartedly wish you well. 12th March 1638.
P.S.: I fear that the painting, having for so long been bound and stored, could have a little of its colour – in particular, the skin tones and white shades may have yellowed somewhat. However, as you are such a well-esteemed figure in your profession, I have no doubt that you will easily remediate this by exposing it to the sun, leaving it in the light for intervals. If necessary, Your Grace has my permission to retouch the colours where needed, or to redefine any problems born from my own ineptitude. Again, you have my utmost respect.
Peter Paul Rubens, “Consequences of War”, 1638, Florence, Palatine Gallery, oil on canvas, 206 x 345 cm.
Quotation translated from Rubens’ letter to Justus Suttermans.