When Pieter Paul Rubens entered the Brussels' home of fellow diplomat Alessandro Scaglia he was surprised to find his friend and patron, Nicolaas Rockox of Antwerp, deep in conversation with the abate.
"Nicolaas," said Rubens, clasping his friend's arm as Rockox and Scaglia rose to greet him, "I didn't know you were acquainted with Alessandro."
Scaglia smiled and motioned for Rubens to take a seat next to him. "We do share an affinity for Flemish painters. Don't we, Nicolaas?"
Rockox laughed. "Indeed we do. And since Pieter has been much occupied with the cardinal-infante's diplomatic missions, we have had to look for new artists to patronize, haven't we?"
"Actually Pieter," said Scaglia, "Nicolaas is assisting me in the purchase of a house in the Keizerstraat in Antwerp and decided to visit when he learned that Anthony Van Dyck had returned from London. You know I've always been partial to Van Dyck's work."
Scaglia sat back in his chair and his eyes sharpened. "But that is why Nicolaas is here. A more interesting question I think is why are you here, Pieter? Is that abominable siege of Amsterdam over yet?"
When the cardinal-infante had become the governor-general of the Spanish Netherlands both he and Scaglia had offered their services to the young Spanish nobleman. Like Rubens, Scaglia had extensive diplomatic contacts throughout Europe. Unlike Rubens, however, Scaglia was acknowledged as one of Europe's premier spymasters. Originally from Savoy, Scaglia had settled in Brussels when the pro-French duke Vittorio Amedeo I had ascended to the Savoy throne. Because the duke had not wished to offend Alessandro's elder brother, Augusto Manfredo, count of Verrua, Scaglia had been permitted to retain control of all three of his commendatory abbeys and pensions held in Savoy. Those, plus the abbey of Mandanici in Sicily that had been granted by the Spanish in 1631 as a gift for his services, had allowed him to maintain a sumptuous lifestyle in one of the best houses in Brussels.
What had especially attracted the cardinal-infante's attention, however, was the abate's antipathy for Richelieu. Throughout the 1620s, Scaglia had worked hard to develop extensive diplomatic contacts in France and England for Duke Carlo Emmanuele I of Savoy. He had built an excellent working relationship with the duke of Buckingham in England and with many nobles of the French court, particularly those supporting the Protestant duc de Rohan and the queen mother, Marie de Medici. With the deaths of Buckingham in 1628 and Carlo Emmanuelle I in 1630, however, Scaglia had found himself out of favor, especially when he continued to push for the support of French Protestants as a counterweight to Richelieu's growing political power.
Like Scaglia, the cardinal-infante was apprehensive about French intentions regarding the League of Ostend and had encouraged Scaglia to maintain and broaden his contacts with the French exile community in Brussels and elsewhere. Scaglia had further cemented his relationship with the infante when his spies had uncovered a plot by leading Walloon noblemen, including the duke of Aerschot, to disconnect the Spanish Netherlands from the direct control of Spain and create a neutral territory at peace with the United Provinces. While several of the plotters had been arrested, others, including the duke, had not. That fact had intrigued both Scaglia and Rubens. It was clear to both of them that the cardinal-infante was interested in far more than being a simple creature of his older brother, the king of Spain.
Rubens waved his hand in dismissal. "Unfortunately not, Alessandro. The siege continues. The cordon is somewhat looser than it has been because the infante has had to send additional troops to Haarlem and Utrecht to put down riots and unrest by Counter-Remonstrants. The Arminians seem to be content enough with the infante's light-handed rule, but the anti-Catholic fanatics are not and continue to campaign against him."
"A difficult knot to cut," mused Scaglia. "If he does not respond with force he emboldens the rebels, and if he uses too much force he makes them into martyrs for the cause."
"Precisely," said Rubens. "In this situation, maintaining adequate troop strength is a must—which brings me to the reason why I'm in Brussels."
Rubens took two manuscripts out of his valise and handed one to Scaglia and another to Rockox. For several minutes the men read with little comment beyond a mild exclamation or two.
When Scaglia was done he looked over at Rubens and smiled. "So let me guess. You have promised the infante that the wonderful mechanics and men of science of the Spanish Netherlands can make this elixir, this . . . " He glanced down at the manuscript again and pronounced the final word slowly and carefully. "Chlo-ram-phe-ni-col. Am I right?"
Rubens nodded. Scaglia looked over at Rockox. "Well Nicolaas, what do you think? The Acontians?"
"Perhaps," said Rockox dubiously. "But even then . . . " He shrugged. "There are too many unknowns here to say for sure. We need an expert's opinion."
Rubens cocked an eyebrow at Scaglia. "Acontians?"
The suggestion caught him by surprise. The Acontians were followers of Jacobus Acontius, an Italian Protestant from the last century who'd settled in England. He'd written Satanae Stratagemata in 1565 calling for the renunciation of violence in religious affairs. The Acontian society was established to further his ideas on religious tolerance and science. Rubens thought of them as similar to the Baconians; more tolerant and less dogmatic, yet more secretive. They were particularly strong in England and the Low Countries.