Rubens stood before Velazquez’s painting The Drunks for a long time in silence.
“Have you ever thought of going to Italy?” he finally asked Velazquez, who had discreetly left him and pretended to be busy in another part of the workshop. Velazquez was another diplomat. He was shy to start with; and courtlife in Madrid had taught him to be as quiet as a cat.
“Ah, I’ve dreamed of it often,” he said and sighed. “I’d like nothing better than to see the great paintings—the Titians and the Tintorettos, the Veroneses and the Correggios. Are they as wonderful as they say?”
“Much more,” said Rubens.
“My duties here make it really impossible for me to leave. I don’t know of anyone who just took a vacation like that. I wouldn’t even dare propose it to His Majesty.”
“But in your case it wouldn’t be a vacation! For goodness sake, Sr. Velazquez, a trip like that for you would be your education. You are His Majesty’s official painter, aren’t you? Well, he should be told the trip would make you a better painter. You are already the best in Spain. What’s to stop you from becoming the best in the world? I mean it.”
Velazquez blushed. “You are very kind.” He wasn’t being informed of anything. He knew his own superiority. But hearing the master Rubens recognize it was like daydreaming.
“One thing I’ve learned in all my dealings with monarchs and rulers,” Rubens went on: “you have to tell them what you want. It’s natural to be put off by their power and all the kowtowing around them. But unless you propose things to them, you will never get anywhere. You will be neglected—sure. They have other things to think about than what is good for you. You have to make what is good for you look like it is good for them.”
Velazquez was afraid to say what he was thinking: that he would never have the courage to ask such a favor of the king. Besides, he was sure a long absence from the court would mean the end of his career. He already had his enemies. There were minor intrigues going on all the time and several candidates for all of the court positions. You couldn’t just walk out and expect to step back into the same river a year later. He was ashamed to tell Rubens that he and his family had just been granted daily expenses equal to those of the royal barber. A promotion like that was nothing to sneeze at. The king himself had given the order.
Rubens looked away from the Bacchus picture and at one of the king’s portraits Velazquez was finishing, and then back at the Bacchus. Velazquez’s naturalism was seductive but so cold—and so dark! Rubens himself had learned about color from the Italians. He had started to brighten up his pictures after seeing Titian’s work. If Velazquez, here in the backwoods, could come up with a painting as good as this Bacchus, imagine what he could do if he got to see the work of really good painters! “We’ve got to get you to Italy,” he said.
As soon as Rubens left for England, the king called for Velazquez. “Do you know what Sr. Rubens proposed? He wants me to send you to Italy. He is very persuasive, you know. No wonder so many have used him as a negotiator and ambassador.
“I have decided to send you,” the king went on. “We will book you passage from Barcelona with the Marquis of Spinola when he is ready to leave. You have heard of him, I suppose—the former Governor of the Netherlands? Now I have made him Governor of Milan and he will assume that responsibilty in July.”