Africa, Infrastructure, and Empire in Rubens’s Portrait of Mulay Ahmad

Braden Lee Scott

Painted around 1609, Peter Paul Rubens’s portrait of Mulay Ahmad depicts an African man from the waist up, standing before a city and a massive aqueduct. The figure dons a white turban with a portion of cloth drooping around his neck—a flap that came in handy as a face shield in the North African desert. A thick layer of luxurious green silk wraps around his body. The green garment indicated the religion of Islam just as much as Islamic dynasty. Prince Ahmad and his father, King Mulay Hassan, belonged to the long legacy of Berber kings—known as the Hafsid dynasty—who ruled North Africa from the 13th to the 16th century.

Curiously, neither Ahmad nor his father sat for Rubens; by the time the artist painted his portrait, the prince and king had long since passed away and the Hafsid dynasty that ruled North Africa for centuries had fallen. Although the MFA’s painting features Rubens’s characteristic voluptuously rendered flesh, fabrics, and architecture, it’s modeled after a now lost work from around 1535 by the Dutch painter Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen. Inventories of Rubens’s art collection from the 17th century reveal that he owned the original Ahmad portrait as well as another work by Vermeyen depicting the king, Hassan.

We still don’t know why Rubens wanted to acquire and copy Vermeyen’s paintings, or what the portraits meant to him and his patrons. But even without these exact historical details we can gather that by copying these portraits Rubens was reviving a visual culture from nearly a century earlier: Vermeyen’s works were among the many images made in the middle of the 16th century that glorified and commemorated the expansive social networks tying together imperial ambitions. In 1535 Vermeyen had accompanied the Holy Roman emperor Charles V to Tunis. There the imperial armies fought to free the city from the Ottomans, who had taken it in the previous year. While in Africa Vermeyen was charged with drawing the battle as he witnessed it. He also rendered portraits of the Hafsid rulers, who Charles reinstalled as vassal kings under the Holy Roman Empire.

Portrait of a man wearing a turban.
Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen, Portrait of Mulay Ahmad, about 1535–36. Etching. Collection Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Purchase with the support of: Stichting Lucas van Leyden 1959 / Photographer: Studio Tromp.

Rubens’s painting is difficult to interpret in part because we don’t have enough evidence to clearly know which Ahmad the artist was depicting. Today we must assess what the lost Vermeyen painting of Ahmad that Rubens owned looked like based on a surviving print. As early as 1536 and as late as 1550, Vermeyen made an etching to disseminate the portrait of the Hafsid prince, whom he clearly identified as Mulay Ahmad with the Latin inscription: Mulei Ahmet Princeps Africanus Filius Regis Tunsi, which reads “Mulay Ahmad, African Prince, Son of the King of Tunis.” However, historical and fictitious stories of the Hafsid dynasty abounded by the time Rubens made his painting, affording more than one idea of who Ahmet was. It could have been the eldest prince, his brother, or his son—all of whom were Ahmet in Latin. Perhaps, avoiding any single identifier, Rubens intended to evoke more than one Hafsid prince when he painted his version.

Regardless of which Ahmad Rubens was painting, the aqueduct in the background places the subject within a wider social network. It’s a convincing replica of the one in North Africa connecting a natural spring in the Zaghouan Mountain with Carthage, the ancient Phoenician city from which Tunis sprang. After ancient Roman rulers conquered North Africa and rendered the region a province of their empire, they built infrastructure—physical networks that afford and maintain a mobile flow of things. The city of Rome was the center of the Roman Empire, but it was far from the distant provinces. Imperial Roman infrastructure—which included roads, aqueducts, ports, and shipping routes—always connected back to the center of the Empire. The ancient realm was important to the Holy Roman Empire and Charles V, who sought to revive the rhetoric of ancient empire and pull it into the early modern world.

Remnants of Roman aqueducts in present-day Tunisia.
Aqueducts in Tunisia, about 2nd century CE. Photo courtesy of the author.

If, as the adage goes, “all roads lead to Rome,” then what do we make of the aqueducts in the background of Rubens’s painting? Rubens’s aqueduct and those he copied punctuate the idea of an imperial social network. Like Vermeyen before him, Rubens forged a visual culture of a connected empire when he composed his portrait. When I look at this painting, I see Rubens conveying that its subject may be an African prince, but more than that, he’s also a prince within a vast and connected domain.


Braden Lee Scott completed his PhD in art history at McGill University in February 2023. He was a 2022–23 research fellow at the Center for Netherlandish Art.