Cambridge historian reveals double life of Renaissance artist

Image credit: Jean-Christophe Benoist

Davide Martino, a History student at St John’s, decided last year to explore the life and works of Constantino de Servi whom he believed to be an architect-scenographer and possible designer of a number of significant Renaissance fountains. What he discovered, however, on embarking on his dissertation, was that although Constantino was guest to a number of Europe’s royalty and frequently travelled around, he actually completed very few works — pointing to him being a spy. 

“In the beginning, as I trawled through his correspondence in the archives in Florence expecting to find evidence of many wonderful Renaissance gardens he had worked on and found nothing, I was very disappointed,” Martino commented to The Guardian. “Then as I followed the paper trial, I began to wonder if there was something more interesting going on.” 

According to Martino, there was one event in particular that led him to question Constantino ‘the artist’ and hinted at a secretive diplomatic role. The incident, recounted in a letter by the Florentine Secretary, involved an arranged marriage between Caterina, a Medician princess, and Henry, Prince of Wales, who was son and heir to James I of England. Discussions of their union were at an advanced stage and a substantial dowry promised to the Medici family, when the prince suddenly refused to marry Caterina without seeing a portrait first. 

At this point Constantino ‘by chance’ showed Prince Henry a portrait of a beautiful lady in his notebook, claiming it to be Caterina de’ Medici, which piqued the prince’s interest and reinstated good relations between the two families. This is unlikely to have been any accident, however, especially as it was possibly not the first time Constantino played a part in Medici family affairs, having been reported to help secure the hand of the French King, Henri IV, for Maria de’ Medici. 

Contantino was the son of a diplomat, which may have helped him access European courts, but it was his role as royal artist which meant that he could move amongst these circles unnoticed. He “could go anywhere and gain intimate access in any court in Europe” Martino said, “and I think it’s reasonable to assume that he was constantly feeding useful information back to his paymasters in Florence”. 

Such secret diplomacy might now earn Consantino the title of ‘spy’, but Martino is cautious about using the label. Speaking to The Cambridge Student, he said “I wouldn’t use the word ‘spy’, but these sorts of art [painting, sculpting, landscape designs] could have been used as a means of ‘soft power’ to allow Florentine officials to sway decisions in their favour.” Doubting that such a label even existed in the Reniassance vocabulary, he added: “while [Constantino] certainly had a diplomatic role, the extent to which that role was used for deception could be questioned”. 

Of Prince Henry’s marriage arrangements, Martino said that “this may not have been the main reason why Constantino was chosen by Cosimo II to go to England, but his ability to paint portraits might have mattered to the Grand Duke when making his decision”. Rather than purely being a commentary on Constantino’s life and works, Martino’s dissertation thus became a wider exploration of a certain “interdependence of art and politics” at the time. 

Martino is now undertaking a Masters and continuing his work into the intriguing de Servi family, moving from Constantino to his son, Giovan Domenico, who appears to have moved to Germany at the height of the Thirty Years’ War and transferred his loyalties from the Medici family to the German princes. He does not think that work on Constantino is complete, however — “there is much more to find out about this man, I’m certain of it”. 

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