The secret gardener who eavesdropped at Europe’s royal courts

An undergraduate research project at the University of Cambridge that set out to explore the presumed gardening career of a 16th-century Florentine Artist has discovered that he was actually intriguing at royal courts across Europe, including that of James I. 

Until now, little has been known about the life of Costantino de’Servi, an Italian artist and sculptor who lived from 1554-1622. However, the research project undertaken by Davide Martino, a History student at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, unearthed evidence of a career of undercover political collusion with the heads of the royal family that governed 16th-century Tuscany – the Medici Grand Dukes.

While investigating Costantino’s personal papers and letters at the State Archives in Florence, Martino, 21, discovered that rather than working exclusively at the Medici courts, like many of his contemporaries, Costantino travelled widely around Europe, making it as far as Persia. Intriguingly, records also revealed that even during his time away from Florence, the artist continued to receive a salary from the Medici Grand Dukes.

As he sifted through thousands of dusty, 400-year-old documents, Martino realised he had stumbled upon a paper trail that exposed the motivation behind these continued payments: Costantino was operating as a kind of informal diplomatic agent.   

“I became interested in Costantino because I thought he was a landscape gardener and I wanted to find out more about the gardens and fountains of the late Renaissance period” Explained Martino. “It turns out that Costantino was only ever involved in the design of one garden that was never completed, but weeks of going through his letters and documents allowed me to piece together a much more interesting picture of his life.”

Costantino spent a lot of time in Prague, London, The Hague and other important foreign courts, always writing home to update Florence on the latest events. In a time before the rapid dissemination and easy accessibility of news, strategically placed individuals like him without obvious political agendas would have been highly valuable to rulers as a means of finding out what was happening abroad.”

However, Costantino was no mere fly on the wall to political manoeuvres - he also exploited his position for diplomatic gain. 

His correspondence has revealed a particularly amusing example of his undercover activities that took place during his time in England, where he was working for Henry Prince of Wales, the elder son of King James I, who was to die before he could inherit the throne.

In 1611, the Medici Grand-Dukes were eager to secure the marriage of Prince Henry to the Florentine Princess Caterina. Negotiations for the match ensued, but ground to a halt when Henry demanded to see a portrait of the Princess. Considering this request to be improper, the Ambassador of Florence to England refused to comply.

All the while pretending to be unaware of the situation, Costantino knocked up a sketch of a beautiful young woman and left it in the Prince’s quarters. After catching sight of the portrait, the Prince complimented Costantino on his artistic ability and enquired as to the identity of the lady. Costantino was all too pleased to reveal that it was none other than the Princess Caterina de’ Medici.

Prince Henry was to die of typhoid fever before the matter of his marriage could be resolved, leaving the Stuart dynasty to his younger brother Charles, but the Florence State Archives are home to a letter from the Ambassador to the Medici Royal Court, informing the Dukes of how useful Costantino had been in the matter.

The research into Costantino’s letters also has interesting implications for theories relating to Confessionalisation. This term refers to a period from around 1555 to 1618 during which the rival denominations of Catholicism and Protestantism competed to establish their faiths more firmly with the populations of their respective areas in Europe, widening distinctions between the two creeds.

It has been claimed by some historians that this was a gradual process of religious enforcement that dominated public consciousness across Europe, but Costantino, a Catholic, hardly mentions religion at all in his letters until 1618 on the outbreak of The Thirty Years War. The fact is surprising given his travels through Europe and his agenda to report back on the moods and tensions in other Courts.

“For Costantino religious tensions don’t seem to be a particularly concerning matter until this extreme moment of religious conflict” said Martino. “This potentially has interesting implications for theories that suggest that Confessionalisation was a phenomenon that slowly built in public consciousness, as in this case it took a pivotal moment for it to come to public awareness and there doesn’t appear to have been much persistent tension.”

The research on Costantino formed Martino’s final year dissertation about the life of the artist. The experience of carrying out the project, which was funded through a research grant from St John’s College, has been invaluable to the young Italian scholar who is now studying for an MPhil at the College. “Looking through between 500 and 1500 items in the archives each day was a painstaking process and I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of locating, transcribing and then interpreting the sources. Carrying out a unique research project was an amazing opportunity for me and studying the life of Costantino has given me an invaluable insight into the world of late Renaissance art patronage and the princely courts.”