At home with the master
Accustomed as we are to artists being iconoclastic bad boys and girls, it comes as a shock to discover the legacy of Rubens in his home city of Antwerp. Not only a master painter, but a diplomat and councillor, Peter Paul led a life very different to that of today's Traceys and Damiens.
I discovered this, and much more, strolling around Antwerp following the walking tour in a book available from the tourist office in the city-centre Grote Markt. But why all the Rubens brouhaha this year? The 400th anniversary of his birth in 1977 was the last big event. Carl Depauw, director of Rubenshuis (Rubens's House) and artistic co-ordinator of the Rubens 2004 exhibitions, says the curators were in a cafe chatting about plans for 2005 or 2006, when a call came from Lille, this year's European capital of culture, asking to borrow some paintings. Antwerp lent half a dozen or so, but, as Mr Depauw says, "Antwerp has paintings by Rubens in its museums and churches that will never travel," so the city rolled up its sleeves and prepared a response to Lille's Palais des Beaux-Arts show with no fewer than seven Rubens-related exhibitions of its own between March and September.
"Rubens is a cool man," says Mr Depauw enthusiastically. "The exhibition in Lille shows Rubens as a universal artist, but Antwerp shows him as a universal collector." Speedily, Mr Depauw summoned from the world's galleries works Rubens had once owned to hang together again in the painter's splendid baroque house on the Wapper. Rubens's portrait of his wife, Isabella Brandt, has been sent from the National Gallery in Washington, to hang in the house for the first time in 350 years.
A short walk away from Rubenshuis is St James' church in Lange Nieuwstraat, the painter's parish church, where he worshipped and is buried. He painted his own memorial, which still hangs here - "Mary Surrounded by Saints", including himself as St George and portraying both his wives. Threading through the backstreets around the university, with its strange mix of medieval and 1970s concrete brutalist buildings, to Rockoxhuis, the beautifully restored rococo house of Rubens's friend and patron Nicolaas Rockox, you pass fascinating small shops and a few of the 300 or so statues of the Virgin Mary that adorn street corners in the old city. Rockoxhuis is wrapped around a small, formal courtyard, with one corner rising up in a tower, once used as a look-out point. Its owner was burgomaster of Antwerp eight times between 1603 and his death in 1640, just a few months after Rubens.
Rockox commissioned paintings from Rubens's friends Jan Brueghel and Frans Snijders as well as Rubens's "The Descent from the Cross" for the arquebusiers' guild (to which, as solid citizens, he and Rubens belonged), which now hangs in Antwerp cathedral. Furniture and coins from the period complete the recreation of the art lover's house as a haven of well-polished domesticity.
On to St Carolus Borrowmaeus church. The ceilings were once adorned with 39 paintings by Rubens and Van Dyck, which, after a fire, are no more. But the Italianate marble facade with trumpeting angels designed by Rubens remains, as does the huge trolley system he created to rotate four of his paintings, like advertising hoardings, above the altar. Here I chance upon Frank Herman of Antwerp's Cultural Heritage Cell, in a splendid tie-dyed frock coat, explaining why he has chosen to write information for visitors on lampshades and why he plans to project images of the lost paintings on to the ceilings here from June to September: it's all about enlightenment, of course. Modern artist Kathelijne Adrianensen is dangling punchbags over the nave, to make the new reverberate with the old (I think). I didn't quite get it but it makes you look again.
More treasures await at St Paul's. Here we see Rubens as colleague, in the 15 mysteries of the Rosary portrayed by a variety of painters of his time, including his apprentice, Van Dyck, and the only Caravaggio in Antwerp.
There's much more, including books from Rubens's library under the tooled leather walls of the Plantin-Moretus Museum, once the house of another of his friends; the Cathedral; and From Delacroix to Courbet at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, showing how painters who came after Rubens engaged in a discussion with his ideas.
At every turn of a cobbled street, another connection is made, but I need to sit down and let all this information settle. In Den Engel, one of Antwerp's characteristic old pubs, on a corner of the Grote Markt, I funk calling for a "Bolleke De Koninck", or local beer, and settle for a lager and lunchtime sandwich. I wonder if I'll have enough energy to try the Fashion Walk - this is the city that forced fashionistas to learn to get their tongues around names such as Demeulemeester and van Bierendonck - or perhaps the Docks Walk, tomorrow. This afternoon, I'm going to make a detour to one of Antwerp's famed chocolate shops - Burie has a homage to Rubens in chocolate in the window and, inside, tempting boxes of chocolate "diamonds", celebrating one of Antwerp's other claims to fame.
More information: www.rubens2004.be; www.visitflanders.co.uk; or call the Belgium Tourist Live operator line on 0906 3020245 (calls cost 60p a minute). VLM Airlines flies to Antwerp daily: from pound;25 one way from London City Airport and pound;35 one way from Liverpool and Manchester (excluding taxes). Details: 020 7476 6677; 0161 493 3232; 0151 236 9696; www.flyvlm.com