The Garden of Love is a post-modern novel about the famous baroque painter and diplomat P.P. Rubens, his time and faked history of the emergence of a painting after which the novel was named. The story begins in Antwerp in 1625, when the main female character, Rubens’s wife Isabela Brandt quite by accident discovered his infidelity. The marital and life drama of this woman is framed with a number of other love stories where readers can recognize models from classical and contemporary world literature (from “Romeo and Juliet” to the “The Girl with the Pearl Earring”). All love plots should end at a garden party hosted in honour of his town mates by the Mayor of Antwerp Nicholas Rockox.
But just as the party is about to begin, the story moves to another place and another time, to the home of the Mayor of Coral Gables, an elite municipality of Miami, who celebrated the beginning of the new millennium on 31st December 2000. At this new garden party where Rubens’s chubby beauties will be replaced by modern fashion models to whom high heals became a body part, will be the anti-climax of the funny story lines from the 17th century. In a post modern novel this does not mean the end of the story itself: from a multiplied plot a triple ending will emerge – the first at the decadent party in Miami; the second in the baroque garden of the Mayor of Antwerp, the memory of whom will come alive few years later on Rubens’s canvas, and the third one in New York, where “young female writer” explains her motivation for writing this novel: her private unhappy love affair with the post-modern painter who replicates the motifs of Rubens’s painting and even more, the age-old drama of unsatisfied woman spending her life in the shadow of a great man.
“The Garden of Love is that rare book that both the so-called ordinary readers and theoreticians of post-modernism will ravel in. The book which is read with the purest of smiles of literary pleasure and immensely funny and unpretentiously clever psychologically deep and turned to history at the same time. However, essentially, it is modern both in terms of its implicit value system and at the literary, artistic and structured level. All those who laugh and know how to truly enjoy in literature I warmly recommend not missing The Garden of Love.” (Ivan Radosavljević, Stubovi Kulture).
“More clearly than in The Theft by Peter Kerry, The Garden of Love as oil on canvas is a metaphor of unfathomed possibilities of another artistic medium, the word. The canvas is a metamorphosis of prose and its skills to change itself over and over again, to interpret itself and comment on it. Rubens as a painter character is, however, aware that the past has to be altered as one goes along so as not to clash with the present.”( Vladislava Gordić Petković, Politika).
Garden of Love, Chapter I
Sooner or later, a woman realises just who she has married. Isabella Brandt, wife of the famous painter Peter Paul Rubens, found this out a little later than most women, so her disappointment was understandably all the greater.
It came at an unfortunate time. The Rubens had just sent a cordial reply to their great friend Nicholas Rockox, the old mayor of Antwerp, saying that they would be pleased to attend his celebration. What is more, the May opening of the Marie de Medici gallery at the Luxembourg Palace in Paris, from where Peter Paul had just returned, had spread the reputation of this master throughout Baroque Europe, so there was nothing dearer to the hearts of his fellow citizens at this moment than to talk to the great artist, who did them the honour of living in the same city. Everyone wanted to see him and it would be unheard of for this notable occasion to be marred by rumours of his marital drama.
God only knows Isabella had never rummaged through his papers. The letter to Queen Marie de Medici had somehow fallen onto the floor of Rubens’ study that morning just as Isabella appeared at the door to ask her husband if he planned to go to the party in their light phaeton or if, given the importance of the occasion, he would hire something grander. She rarely entered his workroom, access to which was through the studio where his assistants and students worked, as she wanted to spare her husband any disturbance during his hours of deep imagination. And wasn’t everybody in the town agog with admiration at how Master Rubens managed to paint, dictate his diplomatic correspondence and listen to a young man reading extracts from Plutarch, Titus Livy or Seneca – all at the same time.
When she saw that her husband was not in the room, Isabella bent down to pick up a sheet of paper that a draught had probably blown off the desk, with the modest desire to be as unobtrusive as possible. The mist was rising from the Wapper canal. It looked as if it was going to be a sunny day and that this clement weather would continue up to the eagerly awaited Rockox party. These were the thoughts going through the head of Isabella Brant as she cast a cursory glance over the text of the letter, as yet unaware that she was holding in her hand her own misfortune. Then, the rising mist seeming to lift the veil over her attention, her eyes fixed on one sentence, the content of which went far beyond the normal correspondence between a famous painter and a queen who admired his work.
“I am honoured by the memory of those pleasant moments you accorded me in your warm embrace…”
She stood rooted to the floor, almost amazed at herself that she did not scream while every fibre of her body was howling with pain and suffering. At this point Peter Paul appeared at the study door.
He seemed his usual absent-minded self, his thoughts wandering off into the world of artistic fantasy and – oh, so disgustingly self-assured! Rubens had not the faintest idea of what had just happened and why his wife was looking at him with such puzzlement. The mist was still rising from the canals of Antwerp.
“I think you owe me an explanation”, she said quickly, afraid that she would burst into desperate sobs.
“Oh…the letter…”, he fell silent before he went any further. He thought for a couple of seconds, feverishly seeking a way out of the situation, any excuse, another deception, then realising that this was impossible, he decided to give up and completely surrender. He collapsed into a chair. On the one hand, he was relieved that at last he could come clean; on the other, he was seized with a strange irritation, as if she were somehow to blame, not him. The painter did not enjoy being caught out in a lie.
“My dear…”, he began with a sigh that was more revealing than any confession. His wife interrupted him nervously:
“Don’t you ever address me in that way again.”
“Mrs Rubens…I have dedicated my life to art, the most beautiful thing to illuminate the human soul through many dark and unhappy centuries. When I came back from Italy, I genuinely wished to share with someone the joy and noble suffering with which painting imbued me, so as not to be alone any more. Everything that I have achieved during these thirteen years has also been yours. You cannot say that I have not been devoted to you. I did not separate my happiness from the happiness of our family and our children can always be proud of the reputation I have worked hard to achieve. I have done everything in my power to enhance that reputation, but the greatest obstacle on that road lay in fact within me, in the shameful vices of my manhood. How I wish none of this had ever happened… It was a moment of pathetic weakness. Nothing more. I hope that you will understand why I found it necessary to shield you from its discovery.”
In another situation, she would have listened to his words with admiration and pride. As it was, she simply said:
“It’s sixteen years we’ve been together, not thirteen.”
Rubens shrugged his shoulders. As far as he was concerned, this unpleasant conversation could end right here. He counted on her depression, the tears that would soon flow. He needed just a little time to recover from the shock, and time would certainly work its healing powers. In a few days’ time, at dear old Rockox’ reception the two of them would be on good terms again and he would put a smile back on her face.
“There is something I wish to add… I spoke about you to Her Majesty with the greatest love and respect.”
“Am I supposed to take that as comfort… or irony?”
Isabella’s words were uttered with a degree of gravity that seemed to sound the knell on the last peaceful moment of that dreadful day – a day that the painter would strive to forget till the end of his life.
Then something happened that is not for the telling, at least not in the sort of detail that one can enjoy. Isabella suddenly burst into floods of tears, and her rage was unstoppable. The unfaithful husband did not know whether he should first struggle to recoup his trampled hat or head for the door in disarray, the hairs standing up on the edges of his bald head. He must shut the door as soon as possible so that his assistants did not witness this shameful scene. But he realised in consternation that Isabella was throwing down the things on his desk one by one. He would never know, when he finally decided to flee the room and her fury, whether it was Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Plutarch’s Parallel Lives that landed on the back of his head causing considerable pain – as both volumes were reinforced.
In his studio he was greeted by astonished looks from Master Snyders and young Justus, who were in the process of applying paint to a large canvas portraying a hunting scene. Rubens hastily picked up from the floor the two books that had been hurled after him and before the gaze of his bewildered associates considered that he was duty bound as paterfamilias and holder of a recently bestowed title to return to his study at this difficult juncture.
“Dear Justus, I think that this rabbit needs a bit more grey”, Master Snyders concluded calmly.
The storm was still going on in Rubens’ study. Her Majesty, Her Majesty, the tearful Isabella was shouting, asking herself if he was at all normal, I mean, how old was the woman? Fifty-two, said the painter, gathering up his valuable possessions under the desk. Well, and what had she failed to give him in a marriage that was regarded by all as happy and ideal if he desired an aging widow who was hated by the entire French nation? Oh, how she had been deceived by his stories of those allegorical scenes in which he glorified the queen mother of France – Marie Disembarking at Marseilles, Marie on the Road to Lyons, Marie Bringing Peace to a Suffering Nation! How he had praised the beauty of a woman, who could never be called beautiful, how he praised the breadth her mind (Marie’s Education!), which she didn’t have. He elevated her in every painting, everyone could see that, the whole of Paris was now seeing that, and only she, Isabella, was taken in by those stories of allegorical scenes and symbols, he even exposed her left breast in one portrait – imagine! And what about those other paintings of the royal breasts. It’s a wonder that the French didn’t hang him and that he got back to Flanders in one piece…
“It has nothing to do with my art”, rejoined the offended leader of Flemish Baroque, trying to catch his breath and get a word in edgeways, and cruelly reminding his wife of the munificent sum of money he had assured for his family after his three-year stint painting these very scenes from the life of Marie de Medici.
But Isabella wanted details. All of them! When had this happened? On his first visit to Paris, three years ago, or on the second trip when he took the canvas to try it out? And just now, at the opening of the exhibition and the marriage of the French princess to the King of England, had he exchanged “sweet embraces with that old aunt” (A real Don Juan for older ladies!). Had that been a condition for his getting the aristocratic title? But my title was granted by King Philip of Spain, not the French, said Rubens, trying to retrieve his dignity from the floor. Of course, the French would probably have killed you, oh, the shame of it!
As he attempted to answer this flood of questions and relate the details of this unusual affair, she suddenly lost all desire to listen and simply insisted on an explanation. Why, why? All he could do was shrug his shoulders, powerless and afraid. Naturally, the queen is only four years older than him, that’s why it came about, he must have been missing something in his youth, why had he even married her, Isabella, fourteen years his junior? And why had she been so naïve, she had known all along something was not right, but she couldn’t put her finger on it, she didn’t know where to start, without disrupting his inspiration and hurting his feelings. That was the last thing she wanted, for his peace of mind meant peace of mind for the whole family, now she understood everything, except she couldn’t put it into words, she had been blindly jealous of Rubens’ Antwerp model Susanne Fourment, whose portraits he had painted in recent years…
Rubens was not pleased to be called “a Don Juan for older ladies”.
“Your jealousy of Susanne Fourment was not without foundation.”
Isabella let out a scream and the carefully collected books went flying off the table. Virgil, Terence, Cicero, Plutarch…Ancient figurines, notebooks, sketches, white writing paper, pens, inkwells…The most lethal were the paperweights.
“A little more grey on this rabbit, Justus”, said Frans Snyders with dignity as glass shattered on the other side of the wall.
Rubens tried to explain. Shameful instincts, the male psyche…women found these difficult to understand…but passing passions can never replace the tenderness of married life between a man and a woman who understand and love each other, surrounded by growing children, their children, now was the time to think of them, that was the most important thing, and as to the flirtation with Susanne Fourment! – it was nothing serious, he found her attractive, that he admitted, but nothing more, her intellect was not of a level that could hold the interest of a man of his calibre, anyway she rejected his advances and married that Arnold Lunden instead. The young widow had urgent need of a husband, not a man. What an excuse, thought Isabella: is this man at all capable of shame?
“How many portraits did you give her?”
“Well, there was the portrait with the hat. That was a wedding gift, and if I recall, a wedding gift from both of us…then, those drawings…and that portrait in the white dress that you didn’t like…and that other…”
Their conversation, interspersed with occasional bouts of hysteria and tears, lasted until four in the afternoon when the exhausted wife removed his arm from her shoulder and said she was going out into the garden. She wished to be alone.
“The only thing I want at this moment is to vanish, to disappear. Never to see you again and not to exist myself.”
With shoulders drooping, she left the study, passing by Snyders and young Justus, who were trying not to look at what was going on in their employer’s home. A flustered Rubens ran past them to the nearest window and cast a worried looked down into the garden, then turned towards their painting as if nothing had happened and said quietly:
“Don’t you agree that this rabbit could be a bit lighter? It’s too grey.”
The artists stared at him in amazement and, as if by secret agreement, demonstratively ignored his remark.
Translated by Sheila Sofrenovic