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!