The Italian historian Gerolamo Conestaggio (1540-1611) is mentioned in few historiographical surveys. Nevertheless, he was a widely read and influential author in his day. One of his most important books describes the beginning of the Dutch Revolt. The work, which is critical of Spanish behavior, was placed on the Spanish Index in 1632 and subsequently fell into obscurity. Remarkably enough, the author was paid by Spain to write his book.
The imagination and image of the Dutch Revolt have been handed down to us through works of history such as that of the literator P.C. head. His Dutch Histories, the first volume of which appeared in 1642, is still praised mainly for its stylistic quality. A revised anthology of this was published in 2007.
With this work, Hooft wanted to give as accurate and objective a picture as possible of the run-up and start of the Revolt. To this end, he documented himself extensively and read all possible chronicles and historical works that had appeared since the outbreak of hostilities in 1568. This also included Italian histories.
One was Delle Guerre della Germania Inferiore (On the Dutch Wars) by the Genoese merchant and historian Gerolamo Conestaggio. At various places in his Histories Hooft has borrowed passages from his work, especially those about the violent behavior of the Spanish-Habsburg garrisons, such as during the Spanish Fury in 1572 and 1576.
Correspondence with the poet Constantijn Huygens, with whom he was a friend, shows that Hooft highly valued Conestaggio's work. In one of his letters he expressed the hope that the book would be published in a Dutch translation. However, that never happened.
Hooft was not alone in his appreciation of Conestaggio. 17th-century historians, including both supporters and opponents of the Spanish crown, used passages from his work. In the Netherlands he was seen as a reliable source. In the introductory words of his book, Conestaggio emphasizes his intention to give an impartial picture of the Dutch wars.
However, the Italian says nothing about the fact that the Spanish court gave him the financial opportunity to write his history. Emanuel van Meteren, one of the first chroniclers of the Revolt, reports in his book on the Revolt (1611) that the Spanish king guaranteed the Italian historian an annual allowance of 600 ducats.
After its publication in 1614, Conestaggio's book on the Revolt came in a bad light. According to critics, it gave an incorrect picture of Spanish-Habsburg policy in the Netherlands. The Spanish chronicler Carlo Coloma accused the Genoese author of being one-sided in the use of his sources. According to the Spaniard, these sources were only based on heretical literature from the province of Holland.
What made its history so controversial in the eyes of contemporaries? Two examples. At various places in Delle Guerre della Germania Inferiore Istoria from Conestaggio criticized the Spanish Habsburgs. In the description of the Spanish Fury that took place in Antwerp in 1576, the author states that the mutiny had caused great damage to the authority of the Spanish monarch. The marauding garrisons of the Spanish Habsburg army caused increasing unrest in the Netherlands.
The mutinies (other cities in the Netherlands were also hit by mutinous soldiers) changed the shape of the war, Conestaggio believes. Catholics and Protestants teamed up to unite in expelling the Spanish troops from the Netherlands. The Pacification of Ghent in 1576, in which seventeen provinces concluded an agreement to expel the Spanish troops, was in the eyes of the Italian because of the many mistakes the Spaniards had made for ten years. You will not find such critical words in other Italian descriptions of the Spanish Fury.
Conestaggio had been part of the Genoese trading nation in Antwerp for at least fifteen years. He may have witnessed the groups of iconoclasts passing through the city in 1566. His assessment of these events is nuanced. According to him, most of the Calvinist community in Antwerp kept aloof from the attacks on churches and monasteries.
Conestaggio probably also experienced the horrific scenes of the Spanish Fury up close. In any case, his descriptions show that he had first-hand information. His portrayal of the terrible events in Antwerp is authentic and deviates from the picture that other histories give about the Revolt.
Despite his criticism of the Spanish Habsburg policy in the Netherlands, Conestaggio defends the Spanish monarch in his tightening of the Inquisition. According to him, it was not the king's intention at all to do injustice to the Dutch. His sole aim was to keep his subjects away from the 'false dottrine' and thus to prevent the unity of the Spanish-Habsburg empire from being endangered. Conestaggio also criticized the Dutch nobles in the first phase of the Revolt. He immediately adds that the use of coercion and violence against unwilling subjects was unnecessary and led to a further escalation of the war.
Conestaggio's book on the Revolt was not the first he wrote about Spain. A few decades earlier, he had published a book on the annexation of Portugal by the Spanish kingdom. He referred to his experiences in Lisbon, where he had settled in 1578. As consul, he represented Genoa's business interests. In 1580 he had witnessed the occupation by Spanish troops under the command of Alva. A year later Portugal was annexed by Spain. Conestaggio was very successful in Italy with his book about this event, as witnessed by the seven reprints.
Outside Italy there was also much interest in the relatively pro-Hispanic work. However, under pressure from the Portuguese at the Spanish court, it was not marketed in a Spanish translation until 1610. But soon after the Italian edition appeared in 1585, unpublished manuscripts with translations showing a lively interest in the work were circulating in Spain.
The negotiations and the final results of the Truce were followed with great interest in Italy. Histories about the Revolt by authors such as Lanario and Giustiniano, published in Antwerp, pay attention to the history of the Truce.
The Italian interest in the developments surrounding the Truce can also be found in the Genoese publicist Giovanni Costa, who published a treatise on the treaty in 1610. In this work, Costa describes a dialogue between some Genoese noble merchants and members of the local intelligentsia, discussing, among other things, the consequences of the treaty for Genoa and the Spanish-Habsburg empire.
The Spanish court was aware from an early stage that Conestaggio was working on a history of the Dutch Revolt. The writer had meanwhile settled in his hometown. Incidentally, after a stay in Venice, where as consul he came into contact with Dutch merchants, partly Protestant businessmen from Antwerp.
In Genoa, Conestaggio took an active part in political life by serving in the city's senate. At the time, political writings were circulating criticizing the influence of the Spanish Habsburgs on the city. In this turbulent period, in which there were fierce political debates, Conestaggio resumed his work as a historian and started writing about the Dutch Revolt.
Access to archives
Between 1605 and 1609 there was an exchange of letters between Conestaggio and the Spanish court. This shows how much the Spanish court tried to get a grip on the author's work. Circles around the Spanish monarch had been warned by a 1601 publication by Conestaggio. In it he criticized a (failed) joint attempt by the city republic and the Spanish king to get Algiers, which was in the hands of the Ottoman Empire, under their influence.
Despite this warning, the Spanish court was prepared to grant Conestaggio access to the Spanish archives. In passing, his annual allowance, which he had apparently been receiving for some time, was doubled. At the same time, Madrid urged them to take another critical look at the work before it was published. It is not clear whether this was a friendly but compelling request to revise his work and to delete anti-Spanish fragments.
Finally, Conestaggio's work appeared in uncensored form in Venice in 1614, three years after his death. We possibly owe this edition to his second wife Isabella. She was the daughter of the merchant Nicolaas Pieters from Antwerp, who was known in Venice under the name Nicolò Perez.
When she returned to Venice after her husband's death in 1611, she is said to have meddled with his literary and historical legacy. The Venetian city-state was outside the sphere of influence of the Spanish-Habsburg monarchy. Critical works on the Spanish court could in many cases be published in Venice.
Critical Hispanic-Habsburg reactions to the book appeared after its publication. These were probably not directly but possibly indirectly orchestrated by the Spanish court. In any case, there were fears about the scope and influence of the work in parts of her empire. It was banned by the Spanish Inquisition in 1632. The book remained on the Index well into the 18th century. Until our time, Conestaggio's work on the Revolt has been forgotten.
Conestaggio was not only a writer, he was also an eyewitness and participant in the events he wrote about. In Antwerp he played an active role in the international trading environment. This experience and his contacts with Dutch merchants in Venice colored and influenced his view of the turbulent times in Western Europe. His book shows a remarkably nuanced and independent view. In addition, the political entanglements in his hometown influenced his book.
The great example for the Genoese intellectual elite who were critical of the Spanish-Habsburg empire was the autonomous Republic of Venice. But developments in the Netherlands were viewed with almost equal admiration. This special Genoese attention was reflected in Conestaggio's book on the Dutch Revolt.