We got it out of the box and plugged it in! It has lights and a moving train and it sings Christmas carols.
What about this one?
We supervised Jean Pierre Sancho when he made it. We made sure it has lots of decorations. They are all edible!
This reminds me of the city of ginger bread houses…
That’s where we had our first cupcake! So many cupcakes ago now…
The ginger bread houses were very pretty!
Park Güell was designed by Antoni Gaudí upon the request of Count Eusebi Güell, who wanted to build a stylish park for the aristocrats of Barcelona. The Count had planned to build a housing development that would take advantage of the area’s views and fresh air; however, only two show houses were completed. Gaudí himself inhabited one of them, designed by architect Francesc Berenguer in 1904. The house is now a museum showcasing some of Gaudí’s work. The park is a common tourist attraction in Barcelona, and is known for its famous terrace and iconic entrance, flanked by two Gaudí buildings.
The park was built between 1900 and 1914 and was officially opened as a public park in 1926. In 1984, UNESCO declared the park a World Heritage Site under “Works of Antoni Gaudí”.
Park Güell belongs to Gaudí’s naturalist phase (first decade of the 20th century). During this period, the architect perfected his personal style through inspiration from organic shapes found in nature. He put into practice a series of new structural solutions rooted in the deep analysis of geometry and its shapes. To that, Gaudí adds creative liberty and an imaginative, ornamental creation. Starting from a sort of baroquism, his works acquire a structural richness of forms and volumes, free of the rational rigidity or any sort of classic premisses. In the design of Park Güell, Gaudí unleashed all his architectonic genius and put to practice much of his innovative structural solutions that would become the symbol of his organic style and that would culminate in the creation of the Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family (aka Sagrada Familia in Catalan).
Gaudí mixes his flamboyant style with nature to come up with structures that rise from the ground like trees but are identifiable as built elements never-the-less. The simultaneous accommodation of and respect for nature is one of the most beautiful qualities of this work, where Gaudí is said to make visual jokes, experimenting with the relationship between nature and architecture.
Gaudí built birds nests in the terrace walls. The walls imitate the trees planted on them.
Park Güell’s largest attraction is a terrace that overlooks the city of Barcelona, contained by a curved bench flowing around it. Mosaics, ceramic shards, and iron balustrades are all used to create this space, and the comfort of the rigid bench is remarkable. Throughout the project colorful tiling is used as well as playful mosaics and surface treatments. The architecture elegantly accommodates the qualities of the existing landscape, becoming an extension of the landscape itself.
The unique shape of the serpentine bench enables little bears sitting on it to converse privately, although the square is large. The bench is tiled and in order to dry up quickly after it rains, and to stop people from sitting in the wet part of the bench, small bumps were installed by Gaudí.
Another colourful mosaic work is the park dragon.
Doric columns support the roof of the lower court which forms the central terrace, with serpentine seating round its edge.
Don Eusebi Güell (from 1910 the Count of Güell) met the young architect, Antoni Gaudí, following a visit to the World Fair held in Paris in 1878, where he had seen Gaudí’s work at the Spanish Pavilion. Returning to Barcelona, Güell searched out the author of the design. From that time until Güell’s death in 1918, he and Gaudí became inseparable. Their friendship of almost 40 years was much more than a relationship between client and architect. In 1906, each went to live in his own respective house in Güell Park, and there they were in contact on an almost daily basis. Güell saw Gaudí as the man who could provide him with uniquely designed buildings and he allowed Gaudí to develop his ideas in absolute freedom. For Eusebi Güell, Gaudí designed the pavilions of the Güell Estate (1884-1887), the Palacio Güell (1886-1888), the Güell Cellars (1895-1897), the Crypt of the Güell Estate Church (1908-1917), the Park Güell (1900-1914) and other smaller works.
It says here that Antoni Gaudí’s unique, personal and incomparable architectural language defies classification. No it doesn’t! It’s the ginger bread house style! Look at the Casa Batlló and the Casa Milà!
The Casa Batlló and the Casa Milà were the culmination of Gaudí’s naturalistic architecture. The Casa Batlló, covered with pieces of coloured glass ceramic, and the Casa Milà, with its cliff-like aspect, seem to be symbols of sea and earth.
Casa Batlló, built between 1904 and 1906 in the heart of the city, is the most emblematic work of the brilliant Catalan architect. It is a masterpiece of shape, colour and light. Gaudí’s style encompasses all that defines the Art Nouveau, a School of French decorative artists from the 1890s who took influence from sinuous shapes in plants and nature. He explored his interests in flowing shapes, patterns and colors in the Casa Batlló, which was designed for the wealthy cotton baron Josep Batlló as a jolting contradiction to the rigid forms that surround it.
Gaudí gave Casa Batlló a facade that is original, fantastical and full of imagination. He replaced the original facade with a new composition of stone and glass. He ordered the external walls to be redesigned to give them a wavy shape, which was then plastered with lime mortar and covered with a mosaic of fragments of coloured glass and ceramic discs. The front facade reveals striking textures, colors, and imagery that work together to conjure thoughts of fairy tales and phantasmal dreams. The larger sculptural pieces that create the boundaries of the balconies and that frame the entrance resemble bones, suggesting a septum, eyebrows or clavicles, which keep to the anthropomorphic tone. The balcony railings in the shape of masks are made of wrought iron cast in a single piece and are secured by two anchor points in such a way that the balconies partly project outwards.
As a whole, the facade is a joyful and allegorical representation, full of organic elements and colours and charged with symbolism, a wonderful spectacle in the city which inspires the most sublime sentiments in all those who gaze upon it. The house is a dialogue between light and colour.
At the top of the facade, the roof is in the shape of an animal’s back with large iridescent scales. The spine which forms the ornamental top is composed of huge spherical pieces of masonry in colours which change as you move along the roof-tree from one end to the other.
The dramatic humpback mound “is clad on one side by armour plating resembling an armadillo’s, while on the other side it is covered with trancedis fragments producing a subtle white-into-orange sheen. The spine is dotted with bulbous green and blue vertebrae, suggesting that these might be organisms in themselves, while the flowing lines where roof meets facade are edged with other armatures of saurian bone and joint.”
The creaturesque resemblance is made strikingly apparent at night, when the facade glows and haunts with it’s bone-like skeletal structures and dramatic shadows. Antoni Gaudí worked closely with a textile manufacturer named Josep Maria Jujol who assisted primarily in the ornamentation and use of color on the surface treatments.
The interior is just as alive as it appears from the street; the knobbly spine lines the staircase through flowing wall forms of scale-like surfaces. The winding and twisting exhibited in the decorative features of doors, frames, peepholes, moldings and screens are all interpretations of the natural forms that inspired Gaudí’s art nouveau style. The long gallery of the main suite, the Noble Floor, overlooking Passeig de Gràcia, is composed of wooden-framed windows which are opened and closed by raising and lowering using counterweights. They are unusual in that there are no jambs or mullions, so that it is possible to raise all of the window panes and have a continuous panoramic opening running the full width of the room. The Noble Floor was the residence of the Batlló family.
From the entrance hall on the ground floor, a sturdy iron railing separates the private access to the Batlló family residence. A grand wooden staircase leads up from a hall with vaulted ceilings and skylights shaped like tortoises’ shells. The spine of some huge animal carved from fine hardwood rises up as a banister through impossible spaces, giving the whole space an underwater atmosphere, transporting visitors to the fantasy world of Jules Verne. Here, the idea of the depths of the sea is very believable, with colours and shades of the surface of the sea and sand, and other marine allusions.
The building atrium is an extremely important part of the refurbishment. Gaudí enlarged the light well and covered the walls entirely in relief glazed tiles in varying shades of blue, which are darker in colour at the top and lighter towards the bottom, thus achieving an even distribution of the light. The windows are smaller higher up where more natural light can enter, whereas they get larger as you move further down. Below the windows there are wooden slits which can be opened and closed to ensure good ventilation. In the middle of the light well he installed the lift, with its fine original wooden cabin which still functions today.
The vast central skylight is composed of huge pieces of iron and glass panes, and it spans the large building well which was widened by Gaudí. It is this huge skylight that allows a cascade of light to enter and illuminate the whole building well.
The work as a whole is a marvel of ornamental design thanks to its use of emerging trades. Gaudí worked with the most highly skilled craftsmen in every profession. He had a great advantage over other architects. He came from a family of craftsmen, especially copper and iron smiths, and as a child he was trained to be an iron smith. Later he became familiar with carpentry, iron casting and modeling in plaster. This training enabled him to direct his workmen in logical ways that were easily understood. The transformation of wrought iron, in which curves are not only for rhetorical and aesthetic purposes, but also provide structural support; undulating works in wood such as three-dimensional doors with surprising embossed patterns; colourful stained-glass windows which filter the natural light; raised ceramic tiles; decorative pieces of masonry made from Montjuic sandstone: all of these elements are testament to the skill of the craftsmen of the period.
The loft, which is an area of well-ventilated sweeping spaces reminiscent of Mediterranean architecture, stands out on account of its arrangement of arches. From the main room of the loft, visitors can observe Gaudí’s wonderful and organic world. In it, you can appreciate the structure of ribs and breastbone which create the parabolic arches, the latest in modernist design, which support the roof terrace. The spiral stairs leading to the roof terrace, with their structural minimalism, are also very striking. The iron handrail, with its simple lines, is a 20th century sculpture in its own right.
Moving through the house, visitors are constantly surprised by the details which they discover with every step. The doors of each apartment are labelled in a modernist script specially designed by Gaudí for Casa Batlló. The massive windows on the landings of the communal stairwell, which are translucent rather than transparent, allow light to pass through selectively, while at the same time, depending on how you look at them, distort the shades of blue of the building well into beautiful waves of the sea. The shapes of the door handles, banisters, skylights, etc., are all ergonomically designed. It is the definitive work of art, with the artist encouraging everything to work together: design, space, colour, shape and light.
As can always be anticipated in the works of Gaudí, there is a recurring religious imagery which is achieved almost subliminally. There are embedded and semi-concealed religious images and texts planted in the upper levels of the building, as well as in the small details around the facade. The very tip of the tower sits one of Gaudí’s signature pieces, a four-pointed transverse cross. Gill suggests that the goal was to point out that “religion can embrace humour, fantasy and the absurd.” It can also be interpreted as a message to God that he was building in His name, instead of for fame or glorification of wealth.
Gaudí did not like to draw his designs, but rather to build models. He always used traditional techniques and achieved surprising results with them. In many of his buildings he made use of the bóveda tabicada, or Catalan vault, a timbrel-vault construction system that had been in frequent use since the 15th century, a slender shell vault formed by only two or three layers of brick joined with plaster or mortar at their small faces. Using this method he constructed vaults in the forms of hyperbolic paraboloids or hyperboloids, but also created a sculptural three-dimensionality that was totally new. The chimneys and ventilators as well as the stairways exits of the Casa Milà were built in this way, as were the roofs of Bellesguard and the Casa Batlló.
With its undulating façade and surrealist sculptural roof, Casa Milà, popularly known as ‘La Pedrera’ (the stone quarry), appears more organic than artificial, as if it were carved straight from the ground.
Constructed in 1912 for Roser Segimon and Pere Milà, the building is quite unique. It rode roughshod over any architectural dictat previously laid down. The curves, patterns and spires of Gaudí’s unusual buildings did sit within the Victorian spirit of decoration, but cannot be put into a single style. Casa Milà exemplifies the excitement in architecture around the Victorian period and represents architectural creativity at its finest. A ginger bread house!
The building is divided into nine levels: basement, ground floor, mezzanine, main floor, four upper floors, and attic. The ground floor acted as the garage, the mezzanine for entry, the main floor for the Milàs, and the upper floors for rent. The building surrounds two interior courtyards, making for a figure-eight shape in plan.
On the roof is the famous sculpture terrace. Practically, it houses skylights, emergency stairs, fans, and chimneys, but each function’s envelope takes on an autonomously sculptural quality which has become a part of the building itself.
Structurally, the building is divided between structure and skin. The stone façade has no load-bearing function. Steel beams with the same curvature support the facade’s weight by attaching to the structure. This allowed Gaudí to design the façade without structural constraints, and ultimately enabled his conception of a continuously curved façade. The structure holding up the roof, too, allows for an organic geometry. Composed of 270 parabolic brick arches of varying height, the spine-like rib structure creates a varied topography above it.
Formally, the façade can be read in three sections: the street façade, spanning the ground floor; the main façade, including the main and upper floors; and the roof structure, which houses the attic and supports the roof garden. Made of limestone blocks, the curve of the main façade has a weighty and textured quality of the organic. Above it is a curvaceous mass on which surrealist anthropomorphic sculptures perch. Their presence contributes to the almost flowing dynamism of the building’s aesthetic.
This looks like our kind of room…
The Casa Milà, which was ultimately a controversial building, contributed greatly to the Modernista movement and modernism as a whole. It pushed formal boundaries of rectilinearity and, as Gaudí intentionally drew from natural and organic forms for the building’s shape, significantly inspired practices of biomimicry. Gaudí was a genius of structure and form, and the Casa Milà attests to that.
Gaudí constructed a building integrally, from its foundation and structural framework to the smallest decorative and ornamental detail. He designed furniture, windows, wrought iron accessories and every type of auxiliary element, never repeating any model. Each Gaudí building has its own special characteristics and looks like none of the others. Each was conceived in its integrity and constitutes a unity in which all of the elements are perfectly coordinated and exclusive to that building. You’ll remember that Victor Horta did the same, and he took the design as far as attempting to design the outfits for the family so they could fit in better with the house before the client said enough already! Gaudí also had points of friction with his clients, but not over outfits. Mrs Milà complained that there was no straight wall to place the Steinway piano, which Roser Segimon played often and quite well. Gaudí’s response was blunt: “So play the violin.”
This has been a looooong trip! Very nice of them to make chairs available for little bears to rest…
The last stop is La Sagrada Familia.
Construction of the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família began in 1882, more than a century ago. The temple is still under construction, with completion expected in 2026. It is perhaps the best known structure of Catalan Modernisme, drawing over three million visitors annually. Gaudí worked on the project until his death in 1926, in full anticipation he would not live to see it finished. If you think you might not live to see it finished either (there is no guarantee of completion in 2026) this video attempts to show you what La Sagrada Familia will look like when completed.
Gaudí was appointed architect in 1883 at 31 years of age, following disagreements between the temple’s promoters and the original architect, Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano. He maintained del Villar’s Latin cross plan, typical of Gothic cathedrals, but departed from the Gothic in several significant ways. Most notably, Gaudí developed a system of angled columns and hyperboloidal vaults to eliminate the need for flying buttresses. Rather than relying on exterior elements, horizontal loads are transferred through columns on the interior.
Gaudí was never able to understand why architects based their buildings on the simple geometry of line and plane and on regular solid forms, since such forms either do not exist, or exist only rarely, in nature. Nature by contrast, makes extraordinary structures with fibrous elements that constitute bone, wood, muscle and tendon – a geometry of straight lines in space forming four types of surfaces: helicoids, conoids, hyperboloids and hyperbolic paraboloids. The full development of Gaudí’s greatest geometric refinement occurs in the church of the Sagrada Familia. He reached this stage between 1916 and 1926, working with plaster models to a scale of 1:25 for the entire building and 1:10 for the structure of the naves. The reconstructed models are exhibited in the church museum.
The complex shapes of hyperboloids, parabolas, helicoids and conoids allow for a thinner, finer structure, and are intended to enhance the temple’s acoustics and quality of light. Apart from the plaster models, Gaudí also devised a system of strings and weights suspended from a plan of the temple on the ceiling. From this inverted model he derived the necessary angles of the columns, vaults, and arches. This is evident in the slanted columns of the Passion facade, which recall tensile structures but act in compression.
Gaudí embedded religious symbolism in each aspect of La Sagrada Familia, creating a visual representation of Christian beliefs. He designed three iconic facades for the basilica, the Glory, Nativity, and Passion facades, facing south, east, and west, respectively. The sculpting of the Nativity facade recalls smooth, intricate corbelling and was overseen by Gaudi. The Passion Facade is characterized by the work of Josep Maria Subirachs, whose angular sculptures extend the modernist character of the temple. The sculptor Etsuro Sotoo is responsible for the window ornaments and finials, which symbolize the Eucharist.
The central nave soars to a height of 45 meters, and is designed to resemble a forest of multi-hued piers in Montjuïc and granite. The piers change in cross-section from base to terminus, increasing in number of vertices from polygonal to circular. The slender, bifurcating columns draw the eye upward, where light filters through circular apertures in the vaults. These are finished in Venetian glass tiles of green and gold, articulating the lines of the hyperboloids.
Once completed, La Sagrada Familia will feature eighteen towers composed to present a unique view of the temple from any single vantage point. Four bell towers representing the Apostles crown each facade, reaching approximately 100 meters in height. At the north end, a tower representing the Virgin Mary will stand over the apse. The central tower will reach 72 meters in height and symbolize Christ, surrounded by four towers representing the Evangelists.
Even as construction continues, older portions are undergoing cleaning and restoration. The temple has relied entirely on private donations since its inception, and has seen many delays due to lack of funding. A particularly significant setback occurred during the Spanish Civil War, when Gaudí’s workshop was destroyed, including much of the documentation he left behind.
Subsequent generations of craftsman and architects have relied on the remaining drawings and plaster models to advance the project, adhering to Gaudí’s vision as closely as possible. As a result, the design of the temple is a collaboration spanning centuries. Gaudí himself viewed the project as the collective work of generations. “I will grow old but others will come after me. What must always be conserved is the spirit of the work, but its life has to depend on the generations it is handed down to and with whom it lives and is incarnated.”
Gaudí died on the 10th of June 1926 after being knocked down by a tram while making his way, as he did every evening, to the Sagrada Família from the Church of Sant Felip Neri. After being struck he lost consciousness, and nobody suspected that this dishevelled old man who was not carrying any identity papers was the famous architect. He was taken to the Santa Cruz Hospital, where he was later recognised by the Priest of the Sagrada Família. He was buried two days later in that very church, following a funeral attended by throngs of people: most of the citizens of Barcelona came out to bid a final farewell to the most universal architect that the city had ever known.
When Gaudí died in 1926, the new Bauhaus building designed by Walter Gropius had just been erected. This was the culminating movement of rationalism, of Le Corbusier, Siegfried Giedion and the Congres Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne. This architecture of simple geometric form, of purely abstract conception, was at odds with the work of Gaudí, which was considered baroque and irrational. The next generation of architects continued to understand Gaudian thought in a similar way, and it was not until the Gaudí exhibition of 1952, on the centenary of his birth, that critics and scholarly writers began to discover the value of his architecture.
The area around Amsterdam Centraal was the beating heart of Amsterdam at the start of its golden age. In place of the crenellated Victorian-era towers of the train station (designed by the architect Pierre Cuypers and opened in 1889) was the harbour itself, a thicket of wooden spikes and sailcloth, constantly alive with pumping, hauling, swabbing, jibing, trimming, augering, sawing, climbing, crawling and cursing. Thus the ships of the harbour would have come right up where they would have nudged little Puffles and Honey’s backsides 🙂 Ouch!
The bridge in front of Amsterdam Centraal was the connecting point between the harbour and city, and as of late August 1602 became the financial district: the de facto stock exchange where shares in the VOC were bought and sold.
Founded in 1602, the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC) flourished and survived for two centuries. The company, a combination of commercial organisations in various cities of Holland and Zeeland, traded both in Asia and between Asia and Europe. It was the first public company to issue negotiable shares and it developed into one of the biggest and most powerful trading and shipping concerns. The VOC ran its own shipyards, the largest being in Amsterdam. This spectacular trade with Asia made the Dutch Republic the world’s key commercial hub.
If you wonder around Amsterdam’s fabled canals, especially the Prinsengracht, the outermost central canal, which was specifically designated for commerce, you’ll notice that a lot of the gabled brick buildings that line them have shuttered windows right in the middle of each story. These were warehouses. Indeed, in a sense the whole city became a warehouse. A trader kept his office on the ground floor of his house, the room that connected to the street. His family lived behind. And the upper floors were packed with whatever goods he dealt in. If you turn your gaze upward, you will see a beam jutting right out from the top of each canal house, with a metal hook hanging down from it. Hoist beams are still used, though mostly for moving furniture. In the 17th century, you worked a rope and pulley to haul your crates of goods to the upper floors. Particularly in the case of spices, being able to store quantities kept prices from fluctuating widely which was good for everybody. In 1625, warehouses in the Netherlands contained almost 2 million kg of pepper. The year after, there were nearly 3 million kg of pepper, not to mention warehouses filled with cinnamon, stockfish, tea, whale oil, sugar, salt, soap, sail cloth, silk, beer, tobacco and other goods!
Anyone mentioning the Canal Ring probably thinks of the three canals which are so easily listed in alphabetical and topographical sequence: Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht (gracht is the Dutch word for canal). But in fact the area also includes the Nieuwe Herengracht, Nieuwe Keizersgracht and Nieuwe Prinsengracht (all three to the east of the Amstel), the Singel and the seven transverse canals. The whole area covers some 160 hectares. The total length of these canals is 14 kilometres, crossed by no fewer than 80 bridges! The first phase of the construction was realised from 1610, and the second after 1660.
The city was experiencing its Golden Age in economic, political and cultural terms. The city authorities thus decided to accord the new area an appearance suitable for a rich and powerful trading city. The stately naming of the three main canals was also part of this. The grandeur could be found mainly along the Herengracht (Patricians’ Canal or Lord’s Canal) and Keizersgracht (Emperor Canal). These unusually wide canals with fashionable homes were intended mainly for the prosperous merchants. Industriousness, by contrast, could be found in the transverse streets where shopkeepers were based, as well as on the Singel and Prinsengracht.
Amsterdam’s canal ring, when completed, was the greatest urban feat of the age, a model for cities from England to Sweden. Peter the Great set himself up in the city for a time, studying the engineering and urban planning techniques and then put them to practice in constructing St Petersburg, which was likewise built on marshland. For four centuries Amsterdam’s canal ring has been a wonder, worthy of tourism and imitation, for reasons that UNESCO identified when in 2010 it named the district a World Heritage site: “It is a masterpiece of hydraulic engineering, town planning and a rational program of construction and bourgeois architecture”. In other words, the reason early modern Europeans marveled at Amsterdam’s golden age urban core was that it served people, extraordinarily well. And the people it served were not princes or popes, but merchants and tradesmen.
In the family of European capitals, Amsterdam is one of the younger siblings. Even if we set aside Romulus and Remus, archaeological evidence suggests that Rome started with herders and farmers settling the cluster of hills around the Tiber around 900 BCE. Athens goes back staggeringly further than that, into the Neolithic predawn. Amsterdam, by contrast, with its inhospitable geographic position discouraging human settlement, began life circa 1100 CE, when, in an effort to stop the sea from remaking the shoreline every year, a few hundred farmers set to heaping up earthen dikes along the edge of the marshy wilderness they had chosen to call home.
Early humans, in their migratory roaming, sensibly stepped around the whole corner of Europe known as the Low Countries. What is today Netherlands, is one vast river delta. Three of Northern Europe’s largest rivers – the Rhine (12th largest in Europe – begins in southeastern Swiss Alps, forms part of Franco-German border, flows through Germany and empties into the North Sea in Netherlands), the Meuse (oldest river in the world – begins in France and flowing through Belgium before reaching the North Sea) and the Scheldt (begins in Northern France and flows through western Belgium and southwestern Netherlands) – having swept down from the Swiss Alps, rolled across German plains and twisted through Northern France and the forests of the Ardennes in Belgium, reach here to meet the sea.
Starting around 1100 CE, the early inhabitants of what became the province of Holland began to interfere with nature and set off a never-ending struggle against nature, one that continues today. This – the water, the perils, the bravery, the absurdity of the geographic position and the development of complex communal organizations to cope with the situation – explains much of Amsterdam’s history and provides a backdrop for the development of liberalism.
Sometime after the year 1200, in order to control flooding, the inhabitants of a region of marshy soil at a juncture of two bodies of water, build a dam on the Amstel river. The dam would ever after mark the center of the city, and it gave the community a name: Amstelredamme. Perched on the far northwestern flank of the continent, soaked by rains, beaten by winds, ravaged by tidal currents, it was destined to remain a distinctly minor urban hub, home to farmers who grew barley and rye to make their porridge and bread and to fishermen who caught pike, eel and carp in the marshy inlets, all of them living in wooden huts with straw roofs and clay floors sloped to let rainwater flow through rather than puddle. Even among other cities of the Dutch provinces it was a, well, backwater. In part because of the rivers connecting Germany and central Europe to the North Sea, other cities had long-held a certain strategic importance. Utrecht was the bishopric of the region; Nijmegen and Maastricht to the east had been population centers since the Roman era.
But in the year 1345 a miraculous change overtook Amsterdam. The adjective should be taken literally, for on a frigid Tuesday night before Palm Sunday in that year, the ordinary circumstance of an old man quietly dying at home took a strange turn. Shortly after the man was given the sacrament of Holy Communion, he vomited, and the women who were attending him were confounded to see that the Eucharist reemerged from his mouth whole. They threw the vomit on the fire, presumably reasoning that flames offered the least sacrilegious way of disposing of its holy contents, but the wafer did not burn. The town’s clergymen processed to the church bearing the wondrous wafer – which seemingly behaved with a supernaturalness akin to the body of Christ that Catholics believed the Eucharist to be – and a miracle was declared. An imposing church was built on the site of the man’s house, and when it later burned to the ground, not once but twice, and each time the wafer survived the fire, the “miracle of Amsterdam” became a medieval phenomenon.
If you were to look at a typical map of Europe circa 1400, you would probably find it traversed by inexplicable meandering lines, which in turn would probably be the most intelligible thing about the map to a person of the time – for holy pilgrimages held more meaning than latitude and longitude (the latter of which of course did not exist then). People did not go on the Grand Tour, they didn’t see the sights or travel for the experience of foreignness. They sought out holy places in search of relief for their suffering and forgiveness of their sins. The rocky hillroads of Wales were dotted with markers guiding the way to Shrewsbury and Llandderfel. The shrine of the murdered saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury was the obvious goal of English pilgrims. People believed that walking prescribed routes to Jerusalem and the holy city of Santiago de Compostela absolved virtually any sin.
The miracle of Amsterdam put the city on the map. Thousands came from all over the continent, bearing their sick. According to one story, the city’s popularity ratcheted up to another level following a celebrity cure: Maximilian of Austria, the ailing son of the Holy Roman emperor (Frederick III) and himself a future emperor (from 1508 to 1519), arrived at the shrine as a pilgrim in 1489 and was healed. Through marriage of his son Philip the Handsome to the eventual queen Joanna of Castile in 1498, Maximilian helped to establish the Habsburg dynasty in Spain which allowed his grandson Charles to hold the throne of both Leon-Castille and Arangon, thus making Charles V the first de jure King of Spain. Since his father Philip died in 1506, Charles succeeded Maximilian as Holy Roman emperor in 1519 and thus ruled both the Holy Roman Empire and the Spanish Empire simultaneously.
Amsterdam grew up around its miracle. Its first canals were dug – to control the ever shifting waters, channeling them into navigable courses, turning a threat to advantage. The still-tiny city, hemmed in from the forbidding sea by its dikes and its dams, filled with religious professionals. The city’s original, modest church, dating from 1306, was rebuilt in 1369 as a lavish, three-aisled Gothic structure and named for St Nicholas. Just four decades later, with the population growing and the number of religious tourists continuing to swell, another parish church was built on the dam in the city centre. It was called, with Dutch practicality, the New Church, whereupon the St Nicholas Church was called (and today is formally known as) the Old Church.
That was only the beginning. A certified miracle in medieval Europe brought on the equivalent of a gold rush. Religious professionals of every stripe flocked to Amsterdam. In little more than a century, no fewer than nineteen monasteries and convents set up shop inside the city, with two others just outside the walls.
In one of those odd twists of history that defy fiction, the site of the miracle – what was once one of Europe holiest spots – is today the home of a hypercheesy tourist attraction called the Amsterdam Dungeon. While the names of the streets in the center of Amsterdam linked with the rise in Catholic piety (Monk Street, Paternoster Alley, Prayer Without End) happen to be in the red light district today. The ‘blood’ in Blood Street does not refer to a street crime, but to the blood of Jesus. Surely few patrons of the prostitute windows in the area realize (or care) that the name of the alley called Kreupelsteeg refers to the crippled pilgrims who came this way, their hearts filled with hope and desperation and prayer – looking for, you might say, a different kind of transcendence.
Talking about Amsterdam’s central red light district, De Wallen, it is a sort of alternate universe Disneyland, noisy and with a certain ragged cheer, visited not only by drunken male tourists, but also couples strolling arm in arm and even families. But not little bears! The city has between 5000 and 7500 licensed prostitutes in a given year, most working in street side windows, the rest in authorized brothels, and if you are nervous and confused as to how to engage a prostitute in the red light district, you can ask one of the police officers on the beat for help! Prostitution is legal and regulated (only EU citizens can prostitute themselves, since, as with any other job, a work permit is required).
Meanwhile, another industry coincided with the rise of religious worship, contributed equally to the city’s growth, and arguably plays a greater role in its culture today than does religion. For centuries prior to the miracle of Amsterdam, Dutch fishermen had plied coastal waters for the rich, oily, strongly flavoured fish of the species harengus and genus Clupea, aka herring. The fish were caught, hauled ashore, gutted and packed in brine to preserve them. The Dutch had no monopoly on the herring trade – it was a common activity in many different northern European lands and the Dutch for a time were regular customers of Swedish-caught herring.
But roughly around the time that the miracle of the fire-retardant wafer took place in Amsterdam, Dutch fishermen developed an innovation that would transform Europe and, in particular, play a role in the rise of Amsterdam. It was the tiniest of things, and it was probably discovered by accident. Fish such as herring have little pouches in their stomachs called pyloric caeca, which contain enzymes that aid digestion. If, instead of gutting the fish entirely, you leave these pouches, as well as the pancreas, in the brine mixture, the result is fish that keeps for a much longer period of time and, as a bonus, has more flavour.
This discovery gave Dutch fishermen – theoretically at least – the ability to move away from the coastlines and into the deep, icy waters of the North Sea. More or less in the middle of that body of water lay Dogger Bank, a broad and relatively shallow region of sea that held a mother lode, for it was thick with the muscular, silvery bodies of shoaling herring.
But such a journey required a new kind of vessel. In 1416, shipbuilders in the town of Hoorn, to the north of Amsterdam, developed a long, stout, eminently seaworthy boat with bulging sides and a cavernous interior. Along with it came modifications that made it possible to do the gibbing (the technique of gutting and curing herring) aboard the ship. Thus the herring buss – essentially a factory that could plow through rolling seas – came into being. Instead of immediately needing to get caught fish ashore, where they then had to be quickly processed and shipped off, the Dutch boats were able to stay at sea for five weeks or more at a stretch, fishing, gibbing and fishing some more, and when they returned to port their hulls were packed with market ready barrels of cured herring that would last for a year and that, to boot, were tastier than the fish that had been cured in the old manner.
Within a few decades, the Dutch had cornered the market. They shipped tons of herring to Poland, to France, up the Rhine into Germany, even as far afield as Russia. At the high point of the industry, fishermen of the province of Holland caught about 200 million herring per year. New wealth came to Amsterdam. And dominance in one field led to success in others. In order to build herring busses, Amsterdam bought timber from Germany and processed it into planks. They city’s sawyers, and later saw mills, produced so efficiently that England’s shipbuilding industry bought processed wood from Amsterdam and the surrounding area. The city’s own shipyards expanded, producing barges for working the region’s rivers as well as seagoing vessels. And the city’s merchants in turn became savvy international traders; they paid top dollar for information about faraway events that they could earn money on and adjusted their cargo accordingly. When harvests in southern Europe failed, the city’s vessels returned from their herring runs to the Baltic port of Danzig laden with rye and wheat, so that Dutch vessels provided Polish grain for tables in Spain and Italy. The ships likewise carried wine from France to the Baltic and brought beer from Germany for Dutch consumption.
While the cities of Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges in the so-called southern Netherlands (today Belgium) were among Europe’s glittering jewels, cornering the refined trades in spices and rare fabrics, their great artists – from Jan van Eyck to Hieronymus Bosch – as fully a part of the Renaissance as Italian masters, Amsterdam came of age by pursuing an altogether rougher market. While the later city would have a high gloss of luxury to it, the late-medieval Amsterdam was still one of rough wooden houses swirling with the acrid smoke of open-pit fireplaces.
Circa 1500, at the high point of Renaissance, as Michelangelo was beginning to work on his David statue and Copernicus was getting serious about astronomy, Amsterdam was both a lively shipping center and one of the most intensely Catholic cities in Europe: a grittily holy place of fish guts and church incense, of bilge, tar, dung, and sour beer; a town of narrow alleys and slanting rainfall, of cursing seamen and scheming abbots.
About 20 years before Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, Saxony, Desiderius Erasmus was born in Rotterdam, about 70km south of Amsterdam. The exact year of his birth is debated, with most biographers citing the year as 1466, and although there is no sufficient record confirming this, it is generally believed he was born in Rotterdam. He is known to history as Erasmus of Rotterdam, though he spent only his first four years in the city. He studied in France, Italy and England, and became the great Latin stylist of the Renaissance Church. His fame however came from substance, not style. While he remained an obedient Catholic all his life, Erasmus mounted a sustained assault on the structures of the Catholic Church, insisting that the essence of Christianity was not be found in observance of the sacraments, or in the power of the Vatican, or even in the person of the pope, but in the individual: in the study and awareness of the holy scripture.
His brand of Christian humanism – a learned, honest, individual approach to faith – became a sensation in his homeland. The Dutch were, and are, a practical, no-nonsense people, traits that Dutch writers have linked to their involvement with water and the need for a society in which strong individuals cooperate with one another to get things done on their own, as opposed to the medieval model that prevailed elsewhere in Europe, in which a nobleman ruled an estate and serfs. What struck Dutch Christians most deeply was Erasmus’ focus on the application of individual human reason. The Dutch were among the earliest adopters of a new technology – the printed book – and it proved to be an ideal instrument for advancing this new focus on the individual.
Dutch editions of Erasmus’ works were best sellers at bookshops in Amsterdam, Leiden, Antwerp and other cities and became the basis for a whole new curriculum in Dutch schools. Erasmus himself had a term for this new approach to learning, he called it liberal studies. He never intended it to be anything but a means for correcting faults within the Church. But other people felt differently. In 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five These to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, he set off a tidal wave that rolled west and crashed head-on into the medieval town walls of Amsterdam. It was the era in which popes issued business licenses to brothels (from which they then received revenue), openly fathered illegitimate children and were so flagrant in manipulating their power that Sixtus IV appointed an eight-year-old as bishop of Lisbon. As a major centre of Catholic worship, Amsterdam was as steeped in the excesses and corruption that Erasmus railed against as anyplace.
Like other Europeans, Amsterdammers had become fed up with such activity. If Erasmus, the great Dutch theologian who had inspired them, was not willing to take the full step and sever ties with Rome, his German colleague was. Great numbers of Dutch Christians were ready to follow Luther in breaking away from the Church. It all happened in the course of a few years. The Church moved quickly to combat the challenge to its authority. Luther was excommunicated in 1521. Church officials in the Dutch provinces issued orders to city officials to crack down on dissent. The Dutch provinces were also part of the Holy Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Emperor (Charles V) also issued orders along the same lines. The phrase “slap on the wrist” might have been invented to describe Amsterdam’s official crackdown on Protestant dissent. The municipal leaders paid lip service to the commands of higher authority to punish dissent and continued to tolerate a wide variety of nonstandard behaviour in the streets – including behaviours that directly challenged the authority of church and monarchy. At the same time, in 1523, in Brussels, two Augustinian monks who had followed Luther’s teachings that forgiveness of sin is a power not of the Church but of God, were burned at the stake – the first of what would be a long line of Protestant martyrs.
As a trading city, the leaders did not want to disrupt the flow of business. The city was used to things foreign – accents, tastes, beliefs. People made money on differences, so to speak. The Dutch provinces were relatively complacent components of the empire, however they contributed a large percentage of the taxes that kept the empire afloat. The Dutch people had no national identity as such, they related not to a sense of ‘being Dutch’ but rather to their province, seeing themselves as Hollanders or Zeelanders or Friesians.
The geography of the Low Countries ensured that they would develop in a crucially different way from the rest of Europe – a difference that would lead eventually to violent and world-historic upheaval. One of the defining elements of medieval Europe was the top-down structure of society, called the manorial system, which had a lord who oversaw an estate and peasants who worked the land and paid rent in the form of labour or produce. The lord provided protection and served as the court of law for his peasants, so that the manor was a complete economic and political unit. The Dutch provinces did not become manorial, and the reason, as with everything else, related to water. Since much of the land was reclaimed from the sea or bogs, neither Church nor nobility could claim to own it. It was created by communities (hence the Dutch saying “God made the earth, but the Dutch made Holland”). Many Amsterdammers owned land just outside the city, which they farmed or rented out for extra income. Therefore it was individuals at all levels of society who were invested in the land. This situation meant that ordinary Dutchmen were less inclined to adopt the posture of obedience that serfs and peasants elsewhere were forced into. The Dutch of the 16th century were their own bosses.
This independence was a factor in how rapidly the Dutch took to the liberal humanistic approach to renovating Catholicism, and ultimately to the Protestant Reformation. A people largely independent of the main social organisation through which Catholicism dominated became the most eager to bolt from Catholicism.
The lack of fealty together with a theology of independent thinking in a vigorous trading city resulted in a culture of tolerance, through a policy of looking the other way. This has a lot in common with the modern Dutch notion of gedogen, or toleration of illegal activity. The marijuana trade falls under the Dutch classification of gedogen, which means “technically illegal but officially tolerated”. If you want marijuana, you go to a ‘coffee shop’ (as opposed to a café), where you order marijuana and hashish from a menu, and where products may be divided into categories such as Indoor, Outdoor, and Foreign, and from there into varieties with names like Shiva, White Widow, and Elephant. Owners must apply for permits and pay taxes just like any other business owners, even though the product they sell is technically illegal. Marijuana was legalised in 1976, and there is the logic that says it is better to legalize and regulate activity that will happen anyway. No one claims that the approach has been entirely successful.
In the 16th century, tolerance in Amsterdam was more about “putting up with”, a concept born of necessity and practicality. The Dutch notion of tolerance – which would have such a broad influence on history, colouring the thinking of men like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson – would come into its fullest form a century later.
A crisis between the Catholic authorities and the Protestants built up in the ensuing decades, which would give people in various Dutch provinces a national identity and would transform Amsterdam into the most powerful city in the world. But the crisis was not just about religion, it was equally political and economic.
Another event came into play on October 25, 1555, in Brussels. Dozens of European nobles had gathered to witness Charles V, perhaps the most powerful man in the world, whose titles included Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain, abdicate the throne in oder to live out his days in the warmth of the Spanish sun. Charles had modeled himself and his reign on ancient Rome (his court followers referred to him as Caesar) and he wanted to orchestrate his departure from the world stage as a kind of classical drama. He would not live long enough to appreciate how well he succeeded.
Before Charles stood his replacement, his 28-year-old son, Philip, who was about to be known as Philip II and who was about to unleash systematic torture and violence on thousands of people through the Spanish Inquisition. Also present at the gathering was Willem of Nassau, who, through a twist of fate, had become one of the richest noblemen in Europe. When his cousin, René of Châlon, Prince of Orange, died childless in 1544, the eleven-year-old Willem inherited all Châlon’s property, including the title Prince of Orange, on the condition that he receive a Roman Catholic education. Willem’s uncle and Charles had been childhood friends and when 11-year-old Willem inherited all the wealth from his cousin, including large land holdings in France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Low Countries, Charles had him brought to his court at Brussels. The move was not out of kindness to the family, but as a strategic move on the chessboard of Europe. Willem’s German parents had converted to Lutheranism, and Charles wanted to raise the boy himself and so personally take him, and his wealth, out of the play for the Protestants and make it a part of his empire. Willem dutifully grew up Catholic, regal and “Spanish”.
As Philip began his reign, he quickly discovered that his adventurous, war-loving father had left vast problems behind. Foremost among these was money. The interest payments on the government’s debt were crippling and Philip had to raise money. The Dutch cities – money producing engines without parallel in Europe – were the only option. Needless to say, the Dutch provinces were less than thrilled with the plan.
In 1559, Philip appointed Willem as governor of the provinces Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht. In June, Philip sent Willem to France as part of a delegation of three ‘royal hostages’ to negotiate a peace treaty with Henry II, the King of France, following the Hispano-French war. During a royal hunt in the Chantilly forest, Henry started to speak of the future. Like everyone else, he had taken a liking to Willem, and of all those in King Philip’s delegation, he preferred to discuss the matter with him. What had brought the French and Spanish kings to the negotiating table was the foolishness of the situation, in which two Catholic kingdoms were at war with each other while the faith itself was being undermined across Europe. As the king talked, Willem realised he was speaking of ideas that Philip and his closest advisers were in the process of hatching, which had been kept from him, but about which Henry assumed he knew. The plan was for a full-scale suppression of Protestantism in the Low Countries – in particular Calvinism, which had overtaken Lutheranism in just a few years to become the main threat to the Catholic faith. Under the oak canopy of the forest, the French king prattled on – systematic torture, mass beheadings, an impressive preview of coming attractions – and Willem kept his alarm hidden, pretending he was already aware of the plan, playacting that would result in the nickname history has given him: William the Silent.
Willem became convinced that Philip was ready to take measures against the Dutch provinces that could not be tolerated, and he determined to take action.
In late July 1559, King Philip appeared in Ghent at a meeting of the representatives of all the Dutch provinces to announce that he was leaving the Low Countries, moving his court to Spain, and stationing his soldiers in the provinces for their protection. During an adjournment, the Dutch representatives prepared a response – unless the king withdrew the Spanish soldiers, they would suspend payment of the nine years’ tax. Philip was furious, but he also had no choice. He was desperately short of funds and he had to relent. He needed the money and he needed it at once. Among the surprises to Philip in this affair was a signature that stood out prominently in the formal complaint: Willem, Prince of Orange.
Willem tried to unite the various provinces in the struggle against Spain; that was his dream. Eventually he succeeded in 1576 – for a short while. That year, when the Spanish soldiers had again not been paid their wages, they went on the rampage in Antwerp, killing and plundering. Even die-hard Spanish supporters withdrew their sympathy. This was the height of the prince’s diplomatic success. In the States General, all seventeen provinces combined against Spain. Willem was the hero of the day, he was welcomed in triumph, even in Antwerp. Yet that unity was short-lived. Three years later, the seventeen provinces broke apart into a Catholic south and a Protestant north. The North continued under the prince of Orange, and the Spanish army launched a new campaign to subdue the secessionist provinces.
More years of religious and political struggle ensued until, on the 26th of May 1578, Amsterdam’s Catholic leadership finally caved in. Technically, it was the day the city became Calvinist, but it might be more pertinent to say it was the day the city became liberal. Ahead was staggering growth, a stock market, a harbour bristling with masts, streets filling with immigrants from all points of the compass, and the separation of the Northern and the Southern Netherlands. Amsterdammers refer to this day as the Alteration.
Two years later, Amsterdam celebrated this rite of passage with a thoroughly medieval ceremony. The ‘princely entry’ had been a staple by which monarchs knitted control and loyalty via pageantry. The last ruler to enter Amsterdam in state had been Charles V. In March of 1580, Willem of Orange resuscitated the tradition, standing on the foredeck of a galley draped with his noble colours (orange has been the Dutch national colour, used for everything from the annual Queen’s Day and King’s Day celebration to the national soccer team’s jerseys, ever since), at the head of a flotilla that entered the harbour and sailed majestically into the city centre. That same year the Spanish king declared him an outlaw.
The city’s civic guard, its mayors, and its real nobility – the merchants and shipping magnates – greeted Willem in front of the City Hall, on Dam Square, the spot where the dam had been built that gave Amsterdam its name. In the evening there was a performance of flaming arrows, and, as a climax, a mock battle between two wooden citadels representing the fortresses of the Prince of Orange and the Duke of Alba, which culminated with Alba’s burning to the ground. It may have felt like an armistice celebration, but the fighting was far from over. Eventually history would come to know it as the Eighty Years’ War. The Netherlands’ struggle for independence would carry on through much of its golden age. Willem himself would die four years later, at his headquarters in Delft, from an assassin’s bullet (the supposed bullet holes are still lodged in the wall), after King Philip, with whom he had once cavorted as a boy, offered a financial reward for any good Catholic who could eliminate the man he called the “sole head, author, and abettor of the Revolt”. Willem is the founder of the branch House of Orange-Nassau and the ancestor of the monarchy of the Netherlands.
We’ll skip any details of the war and fast forward to 1648 when despite many misgivings, the Dutch Republic decided to enter the Peace of Westphalia talks. This was a series of peace treaties signed between May and October 1648 in Osnabrück and Münster. These treaties ended the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) in the Holy Roman Empire, and the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648) between Spain and the Dutch Republic, with Spain formally recognizing the independence of the Dutch Republic. The treaties involved the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand III, of the House of Habsburg; the Kingdom of Spain; the Kingdom of France; the Swedish Empire; the Dutch Republic; the Princes of the Holy Roman Empire; and sovereigns of the free imperial cities.
On 30 January 1648, Spanish and Dutch representatives signed the Peace of Münster, which was officially ratified in Münster on 15 May 1648. For the Dutch Republic this represented more than just an end to the Eighty Years War, it meant a definitive recognition of national sovereignty. When news of the peace broke, exuberant celebrations were held around the country.
The great cities of the southern Netherlands – Ghent, Bruges, Brussels and especially Antwerp – lost money and influence during the war. After the Spanish soldiers sacked Antwerp in 1576, they laid siege to it in 1580. By the time the siege was over, the city that had once been the center of European finance was a shell. Its wealth, and more importantly its professions – the bankers and merchants and artisans – left by the tens of thousands, in one of history’s great brain drains, and headed to the new power center in the north.
By the 17th century, the Dutch economy was flourishing. The centre of economics had shifted north from Antwerp to Amsterdam, and trade with the West Indies and East Indies brought spices, gold, ivory, silk, porcelain and sugar to the lively port city. The hugely successful East India Company (VOC), established in 1602 and with markets in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and America, employed a significant proportion of the population. Closer to home, the Dutch relied on industries such as fishing, the processing and export of herring, and the production of fine textiles and ceramics. The Dutch economy, based on trade and industry, gave rise to a modern, mostly urban society in contrast with the predominantly rural social structure of the rest of Europe.
The merchants, burghers, traders and government officials – the middle classes – of this modern society developed a seemingly insatiable demand for paintings and decorative arts to fill their homes, often as status symbols. An English visitor to Amsterdam observed in 1640. “As for the art off Painting and the affection off the People to Pictures, none other goe beyond them … all in general striving to adorne their houses, especially the outer or street roome, with costly pieces… Such is the generall Notion, enclination and delight that these Countrie Natives have for paintings”.
While the Dutch society generated an environment that encouraged a thriving arts industry, Dutch painting of the 17th century reflects that society with an accuracy rarely equalled in any other period. The people, the interiors, the country and the city sights are recorded so completely that the paintings provide us with a window to a world that existed over 300 years ago.
Dutch painting of the 17th century is often referred to as the Golden Age of Dutch art. It was the age of Rembrandt van Rijn, Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer. These great artists are household names, but behind them is an extraordinary number of artists of exceptional quality, painting in such diverse areas as portraiture, landscape, seascape, genre, still life, flower pieces, cherries 🙂 and architectural interiors. This varied and energetic artistic tradition flourished in the particular political, economic and religious conditions that defined the unique phenomenon of the Netherlands in the 17th century.
The specific political and economic conditions created an art market and conditions of patronage unique in Europe at that time. Living in a republic, the citizens and not the nobility were in charge. In contrast to the rest of Europe, where the church, wealthy cardinals and the aristocracy were the major patrons of the arts, in the Netherlands the growing upper and middle classes bought paintings on an unprecedented scale. In particular the urban governing class of each city – the mayor, city councillors, leading merchants and manufacturers, known as the “regents” – commissioned works and were the subject of a great many portraits.
The Dutch Republic relied on trade by sea for its exceptional wealth, had naval wars with Britain and other nations during the period, and was criss-crossed by rivers and canals. The genre of maritime painting was enormously popular, and taken to new heights in the period by Dutch artists.
The importance of Dutch exploration and trade emerges from portraits celebrating individuals involved in these fields, while the organisation of urban society in the Republic of Netherlands is reflected in portraits of groups or individuals in connection with their position or work. Portraits of silversmiths, ship builders, preachers and doctors were produced alongside portraits of the more powerful magistrates, signalling the uniquely democratic nature of this society. So the nature of 17th century Dutch society is found in the portraits of the very people who created it – the burghers, local government officials, the explorers and the traders, expressing both their individual and corporate identity.
The word ‘genre’, originally a French word, in the context of 17th century Dutch art, refers to ‘scenes of everyday life’. No society had focused on itself, painting scenes of domestic life, interiors and tavern scenes, to the extent that the Dutch did in the 17th century. Scenes of daily life had been painted before, but not for their own sake – more often they were used to illustrate a moral or an allegory, or the cycle of the seasons. Dutch genre painters, and the public with its intense demand for these works, were fascinated with their own world. These paintings celebrated the textures and colours of the possessions which they valued – their tiles, pewter, glass, carpets and the clothing they wore.
The 17th century was also the time of the tulipmania. While tulips were introduced in the Netherlands in the 16th century, the tulip’s popularity reached unprecedented, even excessive, heights, in the 1630s. This gave rise to a veritable tulipmania, which held many Dutchmen in its grip in 1636 and 1637. If the flower had initially roused largely scientific interest, from around 1630 on tulips became attractive financially. Tulips and tulip bulbs were bought and sold actively, frantically in fact, and this trade deteriorated into speculation in 1637. Countless people jumped on the bandwagon buying options they could pay later, some even putting up their homes as collateral. The market crashed suddenly in February 1637; prices plummeted and many investors were left penniless.
In the course of the 17th century, special vases were even designed for tulips. They were usually round with small spouted openings on the top; sometimes the vases had more extravagant shapes. Each opening could hold only a single flower. The full bunches of tulips found nowadays were unimaginable in earlier times.
Amsterdam is famous for one thing (besides canals, cannabis cafes and prostitutes): the tattered, ancient, much-misunderstood word liberalism. Amsterdam is by most accounts the most liberal place on earth. It is often laughably liberal or shake-your-head-in-disbelief liberal. In this instance liberal is synonymous with free, open and permissive.
Liberal comes from liber, the Latin word for free, which also underlies liberty, libertarian, and libertine. Liberal is one of those words that through history have been mercilessly pulled in various directions. A difficulty that the word suffers today is that it has seemingly opposite meanings in the US and Europe. That is because its root meaning – free – can apply to different things. The 19th century Europeans who took to using liberalism as a term for their politics were businessmen who wanted freedom from tariffs – that is, limited government involvement in public affairs. In the US, it was more vigorously and specifically applied to social causes and individual freedoms and so meant more government involvement to enforce those freedoms. The free-market platform of the Dutch Liberal Party would thus be considered more or less the opposite of liberal in the American context.
Add the -ism to the word and it becomes something broader still, an umbrella of grand ideas each of which ties to other, no less grand concepts. What all uses of liberalism go back to is the centrality of the individual. The word describes our break with the Middle Ages and from the philosophy that has knowledge and power centered on received wisdom from the Church and the monarchy.
A remarkable number of forces came together in Amsterdam in the century or so beginning in the late 1500s that would spawn a new way of thinking about people and their relationship to one another and the state. The story of the city’s golden age is one of history’s classics, on the same level with the classical period of ancient Greece. The city’s rise was so sudden, it startled even those living through it. The elements and individuals that constituted it are iconic, but more than that they are linked: there are natural tendons connecting the founding of the world’s first stock market, the development of secular art with Rembrandt and his contemporaries, the crafting of a groundbreaking official policy of tolerance, the fostering of an atmosphere of intellectual freedom that brought thinkers from all over Europe and that created the world’s most dynamic publishing center, and the physical transformation of the city: the digging of Amsterdam’s famous canals.
Underlying all these various breakthroughs – conceptual or physical – is the unleashing of the individual, which has its origins in the Protestant Reformation and the first wave of scientific experimentation and which relates as well to Amsterdam’s geographic and social conditions. These ingredients went to make up a new kind of place: a breeding ground for liberalism.
These forces coalesced in the mind of a young Amsterdam Jew of the 17th century. Probably more than any other major philosopher, Baruch Spinoza is looked to as a guide by serious thinkers today: theologians, computer scientists, philosophers, people who dare to grapple with the really big questions. Just as Shakespeare could only have emerged at his time – after the English language had absorbed the Latin of the High Middle Ages, the medieval French of the Norman invasion and other influences that made it so richly expressive – so too Spinoza’s revolutionary philosophy, which has influenced modern political thought, ethics and theology, could arise only in the Amsterdam of the late 17th century, after the city had forged its principles of tolerance, of the placement of secular powers over church powers and of the first truly modern free-trading culture. Spinoza took part in the philosophical debates that raged in the coffee shops and bookstores, he was fascinated by public anatomical demonstrations, by the sight of the bending lines of fluyts and yachts beating sail from the harbor toward all points of the globe, by the idea of popular representation. All of this was boiled, condensed and distilled into his philosophy and from there, and other sources, it made its way into the wider world.
The breadth and importance of Spinoza’s work was not fully realized until many years after his death. By laying the groundwork for the 18th century Enlightenment and modern biblical criticism, including modern conceptions of the self and, arguably, the universe, he came to be considered one of the great rationalists of 17th century philosophy. His magnum opus, the posthumous Ethics, in which he opposed Descartes’s mind–body dualism, has earned him recognition as one of Western philosophy’s most important thinkers.
Amsterdam’s prosperity declined during the 18th and early 19th centuries. The wars of the Dutch Republic with England and France took their toll on Amsterdam. During the Napoleonic Wars, Amsterdam’s significance reached its lowest point, with Holland being absorbed into the French Empire. However, the later establishment of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815 marked a turning point.
The end of the 19th century is sometimes called Amsterdam’s second Golden Age. Rijksmuseum (1885), Stedelijk Museum (1895), the Centraal Station (1889) and the Concertgebouw (1888) were built. Also built was the Stelling van Amsterdam, a unique ring of 42 forts and land that could be inundated to defend the city against an attack.
The Museumplein is the public space between the three major museums – the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and Stedelijk Museum – and the concert hall Concertgebouw. The area was the location of the International Colonial and Export Exhibition in 1883. The Museumplein was reconstructed after a design by the Swedish/Danish landscape architect Sven-Ingvar Andersson in 1999. In the winter, the pond can be transformed into an artificial ice skating area.
Today it was the location for a pleasant stroll to admire the Baubles Parade, a mosaic exhibition…
We couldn’t leave Amsterdam without another visit to our favourite place, De Vier Pilaren, Stadhouderskade 11, for our favourite desert, poffertjes!
We LOVED Amsterdam, definitely a very beary place!
This time, little Puffles and Honey are right at the centre of the action and at the centre of the Rijksmuseum! And everyone else, very politely, moved out of the way! Make way, make way, little bears are out to play!
Besides allowing visitors to take photos, the Rijksmuseum has made available some 172,000 high-resolution images for download via its Rijksstudio webplatform, with plans to add another 40,000 images per year until the entire collection of one million works is available. You can use the images to create other works, so next, Puffles and Honey will be in The Night Watch painting 🙂
The Rijksmuseum was founded in The Hague in 1800 as the National Art Gallery and moved to Amsterdam in 1808, where it was first located in the Royal Palace and later in the Trippenhuis. It received its present name in 1815 from the Dutch King Willem I. The Trippenhuis turned out to be unsuitable as a museum and the historical objects were split between the Mauritshuis in The Hague, and the Paviljoen Welgelegen in Haarlem, while more suitable accommodation was sorted out.
In 1863, there was a design contest for a new building for the Rijksmuseum, but none of the submissions was considered to be of sufficient quality. Pierre Cuypers also participated in the contest and his submission reached the second place. In 1876 a new contest was held and this time Pierre Cuypers won. The design was a combination of gothic and renaissance elements. The construction began on 1 October 1876. On both the inside and the outside, the building was richly decorated with references to Dutch art history. Another contest was held for these decorations. The winners were B. van Hove and J.F. Vermeylen for the sculptures, G. Sturm for the tile tableaus and painting and W.F. Dixon for the stained glass. The museum was opened at its new location on 13 July 1885, in the presence of members of the Dutch royal family.
When it was first unveiled in 1885, it was regarded with horror. Cuypers’ choice of a highly decorated mixed Gothic/Renaissance style proved controversial. The enemies’ view was that the result was far too Gothic, which meant also far too Catholic – how Catholic with its stain glass windows … its resemblance to a cathedral. The decoration depicts an extraordinary range of historical and emblematic subjects, as well as artists and artisans, and its various materials, scope and prominence vividly illustrate two things. Most obviously, it demonstrates Cuypers’ belief that different forms of art should be united in their service to architecture; concerned at the lack of skilled craftsmen at this time, Cuypers opened the Quellinus School of Applied Arts in 1879. But more generally it was an outward and visible statement of the redefinition of the Netherlands as a nation, in which groups like the Catholics themselves (however much others might demur) were now integrated.
If you look high up on the right side of the museumplein entrance, you can see the architect Pierre Cuypers looking furtively around the corner – I’m a Catholic in a Protestant world. Have I got away with it?
The Rijksmuseum houses the largest collection of Dutch artwork, with many treasures from the country’s 17th century Golden Age and beyond. The museum has on display 8,000 objects of art and history, from their total collection of 1 million objects from the years 1200 – 2000, among which are some masterpieces by Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer. The unique position Rijksmuseum has gained in the world throughout the centuries, comes not only from the possession of these many masterpieces but also from the collections of antique objects of Dutch culture, of prints, of drawings and of classic photography.
In December 2003, the main building of the museum closed for a major renovation. During this renovation, about 400 objects from the collection were on display in the ‘fragment building’ (or Philips Wing), including Rembrandt’s The Night Watch and other 17th century masterpieces.
The restoration and renovation of the Rijksmuseum was based on a design by Spanish architects Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz. The renovation would have initially taken five years, but was delayed and eventually took almost ten years to complete, at a cost of €375 million.
The tortuous story of the renovation of the Rijksmuseum is too long and tedious to revisit here, involving unbelievably mad negotiations with the Dutch cycling lobby (who have preserved their right to freewheel across the main atrium of the building, at least until – as the local black joke goes – the first Japanese tourist is mown down); several million euros spent diverting tracts of the sea, not to mention moving a couple of canals to enable below-sea-level expansion; and protracted arguments with the architects from Spain. So protracted, indeed, that at certain times in the past decade some have feared a second outbreak of Dutch-Hispanic animosity: another Eighty Years’ War.
After the renovations to the main building were complete, all 400 works were moved back from the Philips Wing. The same group of art handlers who had removed The Night Watch more than a decade earlier, when the Rijksmuseum was closed for renovation, had been rehired for the occasion – all of them working for different companies, some in different jobs. Rembrandt’s painting was winched through the roof of Cuypers’s 19th-century architectural masterpiece and it was hung in pride of place in the newly restored Night Watch Gallery.
On 13 April 2013 the main building was reopened by Queen Beatrix.
During the ten years, from 2003 to 2013, the museum has been reimagined and reinvented. The 19th century building’s red-brick exterior, which resembles a fairy-tale castle, has been restored but left intact.
Inside, twin central courtyards that had been gradually filled with extra floors as the museum grew over the years have been reclaimed. The clutter has been stripped away to let natural light flood into the center of the museum. Despite reopening the courtyard, the museum preserved as much exhibition space as before by reclaiming some areas which had been used for offices.
From hand-painted details on every pillar, to newly laid mosaic floors and stained glass windows, to revitalizing the displays themselves, every part of the museum has been restored or rethought. Every single one of the 8,000 artifacts and pieces of art on display is in a different spot — with one exception: The Night Watch itself. The floors are now organized chronologically by era, the displays have been crafted to integrate artwork with artifacts that tell the story of the country’s history and culture at the same time. The relationship between different art objects is used to tell the story of the Netherlands. Before the renovation there was one room for paintings, a room for glass, a room for silver, and so on, while in the new museum, you take a walk through the period. The intention is to create a feeling for beauty of Dutch art and a feeling for the time. The displays were arranged by French designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte, who also helped design the interior of the Louvre in Paris.
Visitors approach Rembrandt’s painting through the cathedral-like entrance hall, filled with jewel-toned stained glass and extravagant wall decorations, and the restored Gallery of Honor, home to the Rijksmuseum’s collection of 17th century works.
The Gallery of Honour is an extended corridor directed towards a clear focal point: the Night Watch Gallery. The Gallery of Honor is a kind of basilica that ends not with a Christian display, but a civilian display: Rembrandt’s Night Watch. The symbolism is that there is no one king that has the power, that the Netherlands is a country where an early republic decided a group of people would have power in their hands. On view in the side alcoves are masterpieces by the great artists of the seventeenth century. Framing the alcoves are cast iron beams inscribed with the names of the famous painters of the age. Semi-circular wall sections above display the coats of arms of the eleven provinces of the Netherlands and their respective capital cities. In the original building, the side alcoves were screened off with heavy curtains that served – akin to a church – to draw visitors towards the ‘high altar’ of The Night Watch at the end. This shows how important this painting is to the Dutch nation. It is THE national treasure. And there’s another hint as to just how well-loved the priceless painting is on the floor beneath it: the outline of a trap door. The Night Watch is the only picture in the gallery to have its own “escape slide”, designed in 1934, to allow it to be swiftly moved out of danger in case of fire, or other threats.
The Gallery of Honor is a who’s who of Dutch masters, from landscape masters to portraitists. Highlights include Vermeer’s delicate, quiet “Milkmaid”, in which the act of pouring milk becomes an almost religious act; as well as larger and more raucous works like Steen’s ” The Merry Family” and Frans Hals’s “The Merry Drinker”.
And of course it includes paintings and sketches by Rembrandt, including several self-portraits and masterpieces such as one of his most-loved works, “The Jewish Bride” (1669), which shows a tender couple lightly touching.
In the two antechambers, located to the left and right of the museum’s Night Watch Gallery, are two artworks featuring complex patterns with more than 47,000 thousand hand-painted black stars on a white background, inspired by the by the original 19th century decorative wall and ceiling paintings designed by Pierre Cuypers. They are the work of Richard Wright, the British Turner Prize-winning artist, and they will be a permanent feature, unlike the artist’s earlier paintings, which are often short-lived, only surviving the length of an exhibition and then painted over.
The Night Watch Gallery was specially designed to showcase Rembrandt’s famous civic guard portrait – a painting that has gone down in history as marking the turning point in his career and as the superlative example of his creative genius. The sculpture in this gallery, which includes several gilded female figures – known as ‘caryatids’ – surmounting the columns that support the vault, allude to Rembrandt’s masterly depiction of light and dark. The frieze commemorates key moments in Rembrandt’s life. The painting’s placement reflects Dutch history, a crowning achievement of the Golden Age when the Netherlands was a major naval power and Amsterdam was one of the world’s most influential and wealthy cities.
The room of the ship models also displays the stern of HMS Royal Charles which was captured in the Raid on the Medway, and the Hartog plate.
In keeping with the ethos of the new-look museum, The Night Watch is surrounded by other militia portraits of the era, giving the piece context but also showing just how innovative Rembrandt’s work was. In the same gallery are Militiamen of the Company of Captain Roelof Bicker and Lieutenant Jan Michielsz Blaeuw (Officers and other Marksmen of the VIII District in Amsterdam before the De Haan Brewery at the Corner of the Lastaadje) by Bartholomeus van der Helst (1639) and Militia Company of District XI under the Command of Captain Reynier Reael, Known as ‘The Meagre Company’ by Frans Hals and Pieter Codde (1637). A commission for a civic guard portrait was rarely granted to a painter from outside the city. Quite exceptionally, Frans Hals – from Haarlem – was asked to paint this group portrait. However, he soon found himself at odds with the guardsmen, and the Amsterdam painter Pieter Codde had to step in to finish the seven figures on the right. Known for his small-scale, very smoothly and finely executed works, Codde nevertheless imitated Hals’s loose style as best he could.
The most frequently produced professional group portraits of the time represent officers of civil militia companies. With origins in the 15th century, these organisations of male citizens, commanded by members of the urban elite, helped patrol and defend their cities. To this end, each company had the right to carry firearms. All men who could afford the dues served in these civic guards. In the 17th century, companies were still mobilised in times of peril, but they rarely performed actual military services. They continued to fulfill significant social functions in their neighbourhoods, where they met in company halls, most of them decorated with portraits and insignia related to the militia’s history and privileges. The portraits of these companies, or rather their officers, are different from the professional guild portraits, as militia members could have any type of respectable job. Militia portraits could be more celebratory, even swaggering, in keeping with the guards’ military and festive roles.
Rembrandt’s largest painting (4.35m wide and 3.79m high), the Night Watch of 1642, represents an Amsterdam company in a ceremonial role, gathering for a procession. It was one of six group portraits painted between 1639 and 1645 of militia companies that shared a prestigious, recently expanded assembly hall, Kloveniersdoelen. The decoration of this social space, opposite the street from the shooting range, constituted the most significant public commission in Amsterdam before the new town hall. The central man in The Night Watch is Captain Frans Banning Cocq (1605 – 1655). His family album records the painting’s theme: the captain summons his lieutenant… to order his company of citizens to march. Banning Cocq indeed has his mouth open and hand extended in a speaking gesture. The shadow of his hand significantly falls onto the golden costume of his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch. Both men stride ahead, and the company is starting to follow. Behind them, the company’s colours are carried by the ensign, Jan Visscher Cornelissen. Strikingly, the caption in Banning Cocq’s album focuses on the painting’s momentary action, rather than its portrait status. The remarkable hierarchy of portrayal, with its emphasis on the captain and the lieutenant, led later observers to believe that the other 14 sitters had been dissatisfied, but Rembrandt was paid full price, each sitter paying a share depending on his prominence in the painting. The myth does indicate Rembrandt’s departure from the militia portrait norm, in which the highest officers stand out but never condemn the others to oblivion. Rembrandt subordinated the likeness to a central action that expresses the ceremonial function of the civic guard. The nuanced pattern of light and dark unifies the company, in a pictorial metaphor for its harmony. His masterful use of light reveals that indeed Rembrandt is the Shakespeare of painting. Like Shakespeare he breaks all the rules and what breaks through the surface is the profound, unruly, raucous sense of humanity. He is the painter of human beings.
Two small, spotlit girls and a helmeted youth stride to the right, against the company’s flow, and their divergent path marks their allusive significance. The most prominent maiden has a fowl suspended from her belt, a curious ornament to her brocaded dress. Its noticeable claw refers to the company’s traditional emblem of a claw. The helmeted character fires a musket, to the surprise of the guardsman between the captain and the lieutenant. That officer’s restraining gesture evokes the company’s rules governing the exercise of its muskets: unlike the rogue figure, the company officers know when to wield their arms. Rembrandt visualised the company’s command of musketry by letting two officers handle weapons: at left one primes his musket, and at right another blows the pan after firing. Together with the central firing, these actions demonstrate the firearm’s use. Arms drill was a highly developed practice, elucidated in a manual first published in 1607 and illustrated by Jacques de Gheyn II. Rembrandt may have referred to its prints as he painted the figures wielding muskets, for their poses conform strikingly with those in the illustrations.
By structuring The Night Watch as one action in the company’s history and by articulating its tradition and rights, Rembrandt blended the conventions of portraiture and history painting. The Night Watch seems an almost deliberate synthesis of the two genres that formed the backbone of his career. The painting also has a theatrical look.
For much of its existence, the painting was coated with a “dark varnish” which gave the incorrect impression that it depicted a night scene, leading to the name by which it is now commonly known. This varnish was removed only in the 1940s.
In 1715, upon its removal from the Kloveniersdoelen to the Amsterdam Town Hall, the painting was trimmed on all four sides. This was done, presumably, to fit the painting between two columns and was a common practice before the 19th century. This alteration resulted in the loss of two characters on the left side of the painting, the top of the arch, the balustrade, and the edge of the step. This balustrade and step were key visual tools used by Rembrandt to give the painting a forward motion. A 17th century copy of the painting by Gerrit Lundens at the National Gallery, London shows the original composition.
For all things Rembrandt, one must go to the Rembrandt House Museum.
Rembrandt van Rijn was born on 15 July 1606 in Leiden. His family was quite well-to-do; his father was a miller and his mother was a baker’s daughter. Religion is a central theme in Rembrandt’s paintings and the religiously fraught period in which he lived makes his faith a matter of interest. His mother was Roman Catholic, and his father belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church. While his work reveals deep Christian faith, there is no evidence that Rembrandt formally belonged to any church, although he had five of his children christened in Dutch Reformed churches in Amsterdam: four in the Oude Kerk (Old Church) and one, Titus, in the Zuiderkerk (Southern Church). Titus is the only child who survived, and Rembrandt outlived him by a year.
As a boy he attended Latin school and was enrolled at the University of Leiden, although according to a contemporary he had a greater inclination towards painting; he was soon apprenticed to a Leiden history painter, Jacob van Swanenburgh, with whom he spent three years. After a brief but important apprenticeship of six months with the painter Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam, Rembrandt stayed a few months with Jacob Pynas and then started his own workshop. Rembrandt opened a studio in Leiden in 1624 or 1625, which he shared with friend and colleague Jan Lievens. In 1627, Rembrandt began to accept students.
In 1629 Rembrandt was discovered by the statesman Constantijn Huygens, the father of Christiaan Huygens (the Dutch mathematician and physicist), who procured for Rembrandt important commissions from the court of The Hague. As a result of this connection, Prince Frederik Hendrik continued to purchase paintings from Rembrandt until 1646. In a letter to Huygens, Rembrandt offered the only surviving explanation of what he sought to achieve through his art: the greatest and most natural movement, translated from de meeste en de natuurlijkste beweegelijkheid. The word “beweechgelickhijt” is also argued to mean “emotion” or “motive.” Whether this refers to objectives, material or otherwise, is open to interpretation; either way, critics have drawn particular attention to the way Rembrandt seamlessly melded the earthly and spiritual.
At the end of 1631 Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam, then rapidly expanding as the new business capital of the Netherlands, and began to practice as a professional portraitist for the first time, with great success. He initially stayed with an art dealer, Hendrick van Uylenburgh, and in 1634, married Hendrick’s cousin, Saskia van Uylenburgh. Saskia came from a good family: her father had been a lawyer and the burgemeester (mayor) of Leeuwarden. In the same year, Rembrandt became a burgess of Amsterdam and a member of the local guild of painters.
When Rembrandt signed on the dotted line to buy the large, impressive town house in the smart Breestraat area of Amsterdam, it seemed life could not get any better. It was 1639 and his work was celebrated throughout the city. He earned good money, but the purchase price of 13,000 guilders was still an enormous sum for the day and he arranged to pay it off in installments.
Rembrandt lived and worked in this house at Jodenbreestraat 4 between 1639 and 1658. His own work and that of other artists hung on the walls, as he also worked as an art dealer. He used a large, airy room chosen for its unchanging light as his studio and here produced many of his finest works, aided by assistants preparing paints and canvases. Today, the house is a museum devoted to recreating his life within its walls and celebrating his art – many of the fine etchings he created here are on display and the museum offers etching demonstrations and etching workshops. The studio is set up as he might well have had it, as are rooms such as his bedroom and a refined anteroom where he received clients as a dealer.
During the 16th and 17th century in the Netherlands, closet-beds were very small indeed. Lying down was associated with death, and therefore sleeping was done in a half-upright position. These closet-beds held two people, and beneath them were often drawers “rolkoetsen” that pulled out and provided beds for the children.
Sadly, Rembrandt’s fortunes turned. His beloved wife, Saskia, died prematurely in 1642, probably from tuberculosis. She was only 29 years old. Defeated partly by poor money management, Rembrandt slid into bankruptcy. Rembrandt had lived beyond his means, buying art (including bidding up his own work), prints (often used in his paintings), and rarities, which probably caused a court arrangement to avoid his bankruptcy in 1656, by selling most of his paintings and large collection of antiquities. The sale list survives and gives us a good insight into Rembrandt’s collections, which apart from Old Master paintings and drawings included busts of the Roman Emperors, suits of Japanese armor among many objects from Asia, and collections of natural history and minerals. The prices realized in the sales in 1657 and 1658 were disappointing forcing Rembrandt to sell his house and his printing-press and move to more modest accommodation on the Rozengracht in 1660. The authorities and his creditors were generally accommodating to him, except for the Amsterdam painters’ guild, which introduced a new rule that no one in Rembrandt’s circumstances could trade as a painter. To get around this, Hendrickje and Titus set up a business as art dealers in 1660, with Rembrandt as an employee.
For the next 200 years, his former grand home was occupied by a succession of families. In the early 1900s it was purchased by the City of Amsterdam and opened as a museum in 1911. Work to restore the house to its original 17th century glory was not completed until the late 1990s. Researchers used his own paintings together with the sale list from the auctions as their main source of information.