It’s only a small painting – barely seven inches by nine – yet (though I know such comparisons are invidious) if I were asked to list my ten favourite artworks this would be one of them. Pieter Bruegel’s Two Monkeys is haunting, mysterious and profound.
Two Monkeys is one of two Bruegel paintings that we found in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie – another way-station in our pursuit of Bruegel through the museums of Europe. The other couldn’t be more different: Netherlandish Proverbs is large (4 feet by 5), populated by a vast crowd of people engaged in all kinds of activities and social interactions. One is deeply meditative, even pessimistic, while the other’s vast canvas celebrates the complexity and richness of urban life. Continue reading “In pursuit of Bruegel: Berlin and Two Monkeys in chains”→
On 1 July 1589 at three o’clock in the morning at his house on the Vrijdagmarkt, Christophe Plantin, Antwerp printer, breathed his last, bring to an end an illustrious career. At his bedside would have been Jan Moretus who worked for Plantin since 1557, married his daughter in 1570, and who would now became the owner of his printing company.
A few streets away, at the Catholic school near Antwerp cathedral, twelve year old Peter Paul Rubens was studying Greek and Latin grammar and literature, inspiring a love of classical antiquity that would last his entire life. Only a few months earlier the boy’s mother had brought him to live in Antwerp after the death of his father, an Antwerp lawyer, town councillor and Calvinist, who had fled the city for Cologne in 1568 as the conflict between Protestants and the Spanish rulers of the Netherlands intensified. As he settled into his new life in Antwerp, Rubens acquired a firm friend – Balthasar, son of Jan Moretus, the printer. Their friendship would endure.
That same morning in 1589 another lawyer, 29 year old Nicolaas Rockox would have walked the short distance from his home at number 10 Keizerstraat to the Town Hall to carry out his duties as alderman, a post he had held for a year, and would continue to hold for eight terms. In the following years he would come to play a leading role in the public life of Antwerp, as Justice of the Peace, guild-master of the Cloth Hall, and president of the Arquebusiers’ Guild. Rockox was a humanist and respected antiquary, art collector and patron. The artist who would benefit most from his patronage would be Peter Paul Rubens.
The lives of these three wealthy and influential men – Balthasar Moretus, Peter Paul Rubens and Nicolaas Rockox – would remain deeply intertwined in succeeding decades; the great town houses they established would be places where notable men from the city and beyond met to discuss the latest ideas in philosophy and science, admire paintings and collections of curiosities, and negotiate political and diplomatic agreements. Today, these houses are among the greatest of Antwerp’s tourist attractions, and recently, when we spent a day in the city, we visited all three.
In the century before Rubens and his mother settled in Antwerp, the city had experienced a spectacular economic expansion, experiencing a golden age and becoming richest city in Europe. The economic historian Fernand Braudel wrote that Antwerp became ‘the centre of the entire international economy’. In the Age of Exploration, Antwerp became the centre of trade in pepper, American silver and textiles. It was a cosmopolitan city, with foreign merchants and bankers controlling much of the trade.
In the second half of the 16th century, however, the city’s economy and population went into decline, a consequence of the rise of Amsterdam and the impact of religious conflict and war. Antwerp had been the centre of Dutch Protestant revolt against Spanish rule: the town was sacked by Spanish troops in 1576 and finally reconquered by the Spanish in 1585, causing over half its population to flee.
Nevertheless, the liberal and cosmopolitan atmosphere of the early 16th century had left its mark on the city. Antwerp remained a wealthy city, and one of the most important cultural centres in Europe. An indication of this was the concentration of printers in the city, far outstripping London and other major centres. Antwerp’s printers were noted, not just for the quantity of their work, but also its high quality. Antwerp had been a leading centre for the distribution of Protestant writings and ideas, including the work of English exile William Tyndale. In 1549 Christophe Plantin moved to Antwerp and set up as a bookbinder. In 1555, he opened his own printing shop, which soon became the leading printing establishment in northern Europe.
Under Plantin, and later his son-in-law Jan Moretus, the Plantin-Moretus company became the most prolific printing and publishing house in Europe. The workshop was housed on the upper floor of the house on Vrijdagmarkt that Christophe began, and which Jan and Balthasar Moretus expanded and completed in the Renaissance style. The house – now the Plantin-Moretus Museum and a UNESCO World Heritage site – still stands at the head of the square. With its many rooms filled with period furnishings, books and paintings (many by close friend of the family, Peter Paul Rubens) it represents not only a miraculously intact example of a wealthy private home four centuries ago, but also houses the original printing presses, type-setting rooms, examples of books printed by the company, and precious company archives.
Today visitors to the Museum are able to explore the rooms of the family home, as well as the printing workshop on the upper floor which contains two of the oldest printing presses in existence. Exhibits reveal how the Plantin Press came to be regarded as one of the main sources of fine printed books in the 16th century. When Christophe Plantin arrived in Antwerp the city was already an established centre of printing woodcuts, engravings and books. Plantin took on as his assistant, Jan Moretus, who read Latin and Greek, could write correspondence in several modern languages, and became Plantin’s business manager, son-in-law and eventually his successor in managing the Plantin printing press.
It’s remarkable to be able to walk around a complete printer’s establishment as it existed in the 16th and 17th centuries, including the foundry where the dies were cast. The original presses, type-faces and other pieces of equipment are on show: blocks, copper-plates, bundles of corrected proofs, accounts, as well as priceless examples of books produced by the Plantin-Moretus press. It was this extraordinary collection of rare books, maps, printing materials and detailed company archives that led UNESCO in 2005 to designate the building part of its Memory of the World Programme. Part of the UNESCO citation reads:
The rise and the heyday of the Officina in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries coincide with an era in which scholars from the Low Countries – present-day Belgium and Holland – were able to play an extremely important part in the development of Western thought. The history of the Officina Plantiniana is therefore more than an account of the fortunes of a large capitalist enterprise: it also reflects and is part of the great cultural currents of the West. Since the business archives of the house have, providentially, been preserved almost intact it is possible to illuminate three hundred years of book history in all its aspects and problems with an incredible wealth of detailed and accurate data.
Plantin’s work was prized for the beauty of its type and excellence of the paper used (he is renowned in the history of typography for inventing the Plantin font). The greatest work of Plantin’s career, for which the new font was developed, is on display here – the Biblia Polyglotta printed between 1568 and 1573, an edition of the Bible in four ancient languages, Latin, Hebrew, Greek and Chaldean. The project was an example of Plantin’s canniness: suspected of Calvinist sympathies, he developed a plan to prove his loyalty to the Catholic king Philip II of Spain by producing a polyglot version of the Bible, in five languages. Plantin’s friend Gabriel de Cayas got Phillip II interested in the project; the king financed the plan and sent the scholar Arias Montanus to supervise the work which turned out to be a masterpiece of printing.
A strong friendship sprang up between Arias Montanus and the printer. ‘This man’, wrote Arias, ‘is all mind and no matter. He neither eats, drinks, nor sleeps. Never did I know so capable and so kind hearted a man. Every day I find something fresh to admire in him, but what I admire the most is his humble patience towards envious colleagues, whom he insists on wishing well, though he might do them much harm’.
The house on Vrijdagmarkt became more than a print works; here Plantin gathered about him the foremost scholars and artists of his time, making his establishment not merely a printing-office but an institution of learning, a home of the fine arts. Luminaries who were frequent visitors to the house included Justus Lipsius, humanist and lecturer at the universities of Leyden and Louvain; Gerardus Mercator and Abraham Ortelius, the leading mapmakers of the day; as well as a scores of the foremost Flemish artists, employed by Plantin to illustrate his books.
Among the notable books on display alongside the Biblia Polyglotta are the first Dutch Dictionary, one of the first atlases published, a Gutenberg Bible from 1450, and various beautifully illustrated illuminated manuscripts. On the floors below, in the family house, there are rooms lined in gilded leather, and priceless works of art – woodcuts, engravings and paintings, including eighteen by Rubens (more, indeed, than the Rubens House possesses).
One of the paintings by Rubens is a portrait of Christophe Plantin painted for Balthasar Moretus in 1615 after an earlier portrait painted in 1584. Two more are of the men who took over the firm after Plantin died – his son-in-law, Jan Moretus, and his grandson Balthasar Moretus. After Balthasar had taken over the management of the print house, he contracted Rubens to design title pages and provide other illustrations for their publications. He knew Rubens from school days and they were lifelong friends. Apart from the many book illustrations and designs, Balthasar also ordered 19 portraits from Rubens, including these three.
Gallery: Plantin-Moretus Museum
Plantin-Moretus Museum exterior
The press room
The press room
The Ployglot Bible
The Gutenberg Bible
The gilded leather wallcovering
Salon with art works
By the time those portraits were painted, Peter Paul Rubens was at the heart of Antwerp’s culture and politics. After serving his apprenticeship as a painter in Antwerp and spending eight years completing his artistic training in Italy, he had returned to the city and begun to acquire great wealth as he gained numerous commissions for paintings and altarpieces. He moved in the highest social circles and shared with many contemporaries a humanist outlook and cultured and refined way of life. Besides being an appreciated artist, he had a reputation as a bookbinder and collector, and as an indefatigable writer of letters to friends, scholars and artists all over Europe. He had a financial stake in the Plantin-Moretus publishing house on Vrijdagmarkt square, now managed by his old school friend Balthasar Moretus.
Rubens possessed an appealing personality. One account talks of ‘his dignified bearing … eyes that sparkled and a cheerful, gentle, honest appearance’. As well as being held in high esteem in his home town, Rubens also developed a career as a diplomat, His contacts with the royal courts of Europe, his charming character and his erudition (he wrote in Dutch, Italian, French, German, Spanish and Latin) led to his being appointed to act as a secret peace negotiator in conflicts such as that between Spain and England.
‘How fortunate is our city of Antwerp’, wrote the humanist Jan Woverius in 1620, ‘to have as her two leading citizens Rubens and Moretus! Foreigners will gaze at the houses of both, and tourists will admire them’. Indeed so: the house at 9-11 Wapper that Rubens designed himself is now one of Antwerp’s greatest tourist attractions. We joined the throng of people making their way around the building that comprised Rubens’ home and studio, with the Baroque garden that he also planned.
I’ve never much cared for Rubens: too florid, too fleshy, perhaps. It can’t be that simple, though, since I love Lucian Freud’s fleshy canvases. Maybe it’s differences in the brushwork: Freud’s chunky slabs of paint versus Rubens’ Baroque swirls. My friend Frank reckons it’s a sign of my nonconformist upbringing. For me, certainly, paintings of the Baroque era with religious subjects don’t have that much appeal.
But his house was another matter: like the Plantin house it was absorbing and revelatory. It’s a well-worn cliche, but it really did feel like stepping back in time. Rubens bought the house and a piece of land on Wapper in 1610 with his wife Isabella Brant. The artist had the building enlarged after his own design, adding a semi-circular statue gallery, a studio, a portico in the style of a triumphal arch, and a garden pavilion. These improvements gave his home the air of an Italian palazzo and embodied Rubens’ artistic ideals: the art of Roman Antiquity and the Italian Renaissance.
Rubens lived and worked here until his death in 1640. His children were born in the house, and it was here that he produced most of his work. As the years passed, he assembled a collection of paintings and classical sculpture that enhanced the splendour of the house, unparalleled in the Netherlands. The building retained its original appearance until the mid- seventeenth century, but then it was fundamentally altered. Today, the portico and garden pavilion are the only elements that survive intact from the house in Rubens’ time. Virtually all of the pieces that made up Rubens’ art collection are now dispersed around the world.
In the Rubens House today is a canopy bed of the kind that Peter Paul and Isabella would have shared. It’s displayed in an upstairs room that most likely served as the bedroom – in itself a sign of Rubens’ wealth. Until well into the seventeenth century, it was not unusual for beds to be placed in the main room of the house, as close as possible to the warmth of the fireplace. A free-standing bed in a separate room was a luxury reserved for the wealthy few. Bed curtains served to protect sleepers from the cold. The bed is strikingly short by modern standards; at that time people slept in a half-seated position, as this was felt to promote good digestion and circulation.
Notables of the day would meet in Rubens’ house to discuss politics and philosophy, forge alliances and admiring his collection of artworks and books. Among his friends – as well as Moretus the printer and Nicolaas Rockox the alderman – were many of the most famous scholars and statesmen of his time. Rubens was interested in literature and science as well as art in all its branches. In Rubens: his life, his work, and his time, Emile Michel gives us a sense of the painter’s daily routine, and his insatiable interest in matters of all kinds:
Rubens probably did the greater part of his work in the morning. But to avoid over-fatigue, he doubtless varied his labours by a visit to his pupils’ studio, or by interviews with the engravers entrusted with the reproduction of his pictures, who came to show him the proofs of the plates then in course of execution. These employments and his own work brought him to the middle of the day, when he dined simply with his family … to return to his brushes directly after dinner, and remain in his studio until 5 o’clock.
Then he mounted a spirited Andalusian horse and rode along the ramparts, or outside the city. He devoted the rest of the day to his family and to his friends, whom he often kept to supper. His table was suitably served without luxury, ‘for he was a declared enemy of all excess, whether in wine, viands, or play’. Conversation was one of his greatest pleasures, and with his receptive and cultivated mind he never lacked subjects. Setting aside art, he was interested in everything, and it seemed that there must be several men in him, so perfectly competent was he to talk on an infinitude of subjects. But, as in his reading, he had a horror of frivolity or gossip, and keeping in all subjects to what seemed to him its essentials, he united to admirable good sense and lofty views, a simplicity and charm which delighted his interlocutors.[…]
His society was eagerly sought by all conditions of men. … With the Romanists he talked over his reminiscences of Italy, its buildings and masterpieces; with his intimate friends, especially Rockox and Gevaert, he discussed books and archaeology, or the affairs of Antwerp. The study of his collections, the arrangement of his engraved stones and medals, provided the opportunity for learned or ingenious commentary. If he had made a new purchase, he delighted in showing it to his friends, and was pleased at their appreciation. Ecclesiastics, scholars, amateurs, statesmen, enjoyed his society; he spoke to each in his own language.
The money accruing to him for the drawings made in his leisure moments for the Plantin Press, was used to purchase books, and we learn from the registers of the firm the importance of Rubens’s library and the titles of the works that formed it. The list again testifies to the master’s universal and insatiable desire for knowledge.
There’s an exhibit in the house which illustrates Rubens’ standing as a celebrated artist and diplomat. It’s a portrait medal of Christian IV of Denmark – just one of the many gifts which Rubens received as a result of his high-level international connections. When he was knighted by King Charles I of England in 1630, for instance, he was given a sword, a diamond ring and a gold chain. The Danish medal was probably presented to Rubens by King Christian IV of Denmark.
Just as in the Platin-Moretus house, Rubens brought his business under the same roof as his private rooms. In the studio Rubens and his assistants executed many of the works for which Rubens is famous. He established a well-organised workshop to meet the demands of his numerous commissions from England, France, Spain and Bavaria and elsewhere. He relied on students and collaborators to carry out much of the actual work. Rubens himself, however, guaranteed the quality and often finished paintings with his own hand. In a separate private studio he made drawings, portraits and small paintings without the assistance of his students and assistants.
Soon after Rubens established his studio in Antwerp, international demand for his work rose considerably. Assistants now became indispensable if he was to meet the constant flow of orders. When a commission came in, Rubens usually produced the preparatory oil sketches, which were then executed on a large scale by assistants. Rubens would add the finishing touches to the painting, retouching key elements such as the figures and the flesh parts. For the most important commissions, however, he would do the entire work himself.
On display is one of only four self portraits painted by Rubens (his contemporary Rembrandt painted around forty). The painting in the Rubens House was probably intended for use in the studio, as a model which his assistants could copy. This painting has been dated to around 1630 when Rubens was 53.
In 17th century Antwerp, prosperous citizens accumulated large collections of art, and devoted dedicated rooms to their display. Rubens’s collection was the largest in the city in his time. In his art room today is displayed an elaborate painting by Willem van Haecht which gives some idea of what an Antwerp connoisseur’s art room would have looked like.
The canvas shows the collection of the wealthy Antwerp merchant, Cornelis van der Geest. A large salon is populated with important people admiring art. It records the visit in 1615 of Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella, co-regents of the SpanishNetherlands, to Van der Geest’s town house. Rubens is present, shown third from the left, after the Archduchess Isabella and the Archduke. The host, Cornelis van der Geest, is depicted pointing to a picture. What is remarkable about the painting is the enormous number of canvases that are displayed in the room, together with other objects such as sculptures, drawings, coins, books and measuring instruments.
There are hints in the house of the life which Rubens’ shared with his family whilst living here. A painting by an unknown artist portrays Rubens and his eldest son Albert. The boy studied classical languages and both had a love of antiquity.
There were sorrows, too: in 1626, three years after the death of his daughter, Rubens was struck by a second tragedy when his first wife, Isabella Brant, died at the age of thirty-four. He expressed his feelings in a letter to his friend Pierre Dupuy dated 15 July 1626:
In truth I have lost an excellent companion, and one worthy of all affection, for she had none of the faults her sex. Never displaying bitterness or weakness, her kindness and loyalty were perfect; and her rare qualities, having made her beloved during her life, have caused her to be regretted by all after her death. Such a loss, it seems to me, ought to be deeply felt. I must undoubtedly look to time for consolation.
In December 1630 he married a second time. Of his second marriage to Helena Fourmerit, Rubens wrote to the French scholar Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Blush in 1634:
I resolved to marry, as I did not consider myself suited to the abstinence of celibacy. I have therefore taken myself a young wife, born to an honest burgher family, even though many tried to persuade me to marry into the nobility, but I feared the vice of pride that often accompanies high birth particularly in the case of the women. So I have preferred a person who would not blush at the sight of me taking my brushes in my hand, and, to tell you the truth, it seemed hard for me to trade the precious treasure of my freedom for the embraces of an old woman.
I was drawn to this very personal item: a walnut and leather chair made in Antwerp in 1633. Chairs like this one, with a rectangular, upholstered seat and back, were known as a ‘Spanish chair’, since the design was based on sixteenth-century Spanish models. The use of ornamental copper nails around the upholstery also indicates an Iberian influence. Rubens had this chair made when he became honorary dean of the Guild of St Luke, the Antwerp painters’ guild. His name is imprinted on the back in gold lettering: PET. PAVL RVBENS.
From the cool of the house we emerged into the bright sunlight of the garden. There is no record of exactly what Rubens’ garden looked like . What we see today is a reconstruction of a 17th-century Renaissance garden, referencing contemporary visual sources, horticultural data and botanical works. The pride of the garden was undoubtedly the pavilion, which has remained more or less intact. Rubens would certainly have recognised the layout, with the central fountain, divisions into sections, the small wooden gates and the leafy pathway.
It’s more than likely, too, that newly discovered plants were present in the garden, such as sunflowers, tulips, fritillaries and potato plants, which were being imported in Rubens’ day as decorative plants from the New World. Orange, fig and other fruit trees were also likely to have been planted here. All the plants that grow here today existed in Rubens’ time: they all appear in the luxurious botanical volumes that Rubens had in his library.
The pavilion and the portico are original features of the Rubens House. The inspiration is classical and Italian.
One item displayed in the house is a silver chain of the Arquebusiers’ Guild. According to the inscription on the reverse, it was given to Rubens by the lawyer, classicist and collector, Nicolaas Rockox in 1614. The following year, Rubens completed his monumental Descent from the Cross for the Guild’s altar in Antwerp Cathedral. He was then made an honorary member of the guild which Rockox headed at the time. The arquebusiers were one of several municipal militias which had moved on from using crossbows to the more effective early firearm, the arquebus. Rembrandt’s 1642 painting, The Night Watch, is a portrait of a similar militia in Amsterdam.
And so we come to the third great 17th century house that we visited on our day in Antwerp: the house on Keizerstraat owned by the wealthy lawyer, classicist and collector Nicolaas Rockox. Born in 1560, Rockox was one of the most prominent figures in seventeenth-century Antwerp, a great humanist, Burgomaster of Antwerp nine times in the first half of the 17th century, and friend and patron of Rubens. Together with contemporaries such as Rubens, Plantin, Moretus, Jacob Jordaens and Frans Snyders, Rockox was one of the key figures who helped define the spirit of his times, the height of the Baroque period in Antwerp.
The painting above is the earliest known portrait of Rockox, painted by Otto van Veen, Rubens’s last and most influential teacher, in 1600. In 1609 Rubens came back to Antwerp after the years spent studying art in Italy. Burgomaster Nicolaas Rockox soon became his friend and patron, providing many important commissions – alterpieces for new churches being built in the city following the conflict and destruction of previous decades, and portraits. In 1613 Nicolaas Rockox commissioned a triptych from Rubens for the sepulchre chapel where he and his wife were to be interred. The central panel of this altarpiece depicted the ‘Incredulity of Thomas’, while the side panels displayed portraits of Rockox and his wife.
Rockox had been born into a wealthy, bourgeois family and had studied law at Leuven, Paris and Douai. He had married Adriana Perez who hailed from an old and wealthy merchant family of Spanish origin. As well as being one of the most powerful men in Antwerp, he had also gained an exceptional reputation as a patron, antiquarian, humanist and numismatist, Crucially, he was instrumental in the success enjoyed by Rubens during the second decade of the seventeenth century, commissioning a number of important works from the artist, including the Adoration of the Magi for Antwerp Town Hall, and the The Elevation of the Cross and Descent from the Cross in Antwerp cathedral.
In 1603, Rockox bought the house at number 10 Keizerstraat, together with the one next door, and had them converted into a single residence. There, he dedicated himself to building up his collection. An inventory of the contents of his house, drawn up after his death, revealed that he possessed 82 paintings, a collection in which the most important painters of his time were represented, including Rubens, van Dyck and members of the Brueghel dynasty. He had also accumulated a collection of over a thousand coins, including Greek and Roman from the fifth century BC to the second century AD. The house also contained over 200 books (the archives of the Plantin Moretus Museum indicate that, at that printers’ alone, over a period of 31 years, Rockox bought 162 books, including fine botanical and historical works and religious books).
After Rockox’s death, the house passed to his nephew, with the stipulation that, if there were no descendants, it should be sold for the benefit of the poor. This occurred in 1715, when a new owner came to live in the house and had the Renaissance façade converted into the style then current, which explains the date 1715 on the façade. Subsequently, the house passed from one owner to another before being converted into a museum after the Second World War.
In 1970 the house was restored to its former splendour and furnished with art works and furniture which could have been found in a patrician house in the 17th century. The result is an outstanding example of a Flemish interior of the 17th century, displaying the best that Flemish artists and craftsmen of the period had to offer.
We had not known any of this before entering the house, having been drawn there in our quest to see the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts is closed for the next four years for renovation work, but many of the paintings from the collection are now on show at the house of Nicolaas Rockox – including Bruegel’s Proverbs, as well as works by paintings by Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling, Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck. Since we had somehow overlooked the Memling Museum in Bruges, I was pleased to be able to see Memling’s Man with a Roman Coin (1473), a splendid Renaissance portrait of an unknown man (possibly the Venetian humanist Bernardo Bembo who had an important collection of antique coins).
In late medieval times, wealthy men like the Venetian Bembo or our three Antwerp notables, would cram the walls of their homes with art works and assemble collections of precious furniture, marble busts, books of engravings, and shells. This year the Rockox House has been transformed into a ‘Golden Cabinet’ – enhanced by the pieces on loan from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, the aim is to reconstruct the luxurious art rooms where Rockox, like many 17th century Antwerp collectors, displayed paintings, along with drawings, sculpture and coins. The inspiration has come from Frans Francken the Younger’s painting The Art Cabinet of Nicolaas Rockox which now hangs in Munich.
As we had already learned when looking at Willem van Haecht’s The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest on display there, the kunstkammer or art cabinet was a unique product of Antwerp’s Golden Age, when wealthy local citizens would devote themselves to building inspired collections of art to show off to and share with their peers. The spice merchant Van der Geest used his wealth to support Antwerp artists, including Rubens, and to establish his art collection. Like his fellow burgomaster Nicolaas Rockox, he compiled an impressive art cabinet.
Smaller objects in these collections – jewellery, coins, letters or sea shells – would often be housed in painted cabinets of curiosities of expensive wood decorated with miniature paintings of scenes from classical antiquity or the Bible. Several were on display in the Rockox House; we had seen examples too at Rubens’ House and the Palntin-Moretus Museum.
This video, though the narration is in Dutch, gives a very good sense of the Golden Cabinet exhibition at the Rockox House.
Balthasar Moretus, Peter Paul Rubens and Nicolaas Rockox: three cultured, wealthy and influential men; three close friends whose houses still remain, almost as they were nearly 400 years ago. All three died within a year of each other: Rubens on 30 May 1640, Rockox on 12 December 1640 (two days before his 80th birthday) and Balthasar Moretus on 8 July 1641. With their passing, Antwerp’s Golden Age was drawing to a close.
In my last post I mourned the destruction in Brussels of a neighbourhood of working class conviviality and the suffocation by the tall buildings of rapacious international finance of a green sanctuary in the city. In this one I want to celebrate that most civilizing element of urban life – the city square.
I arrived in Antwerp with no particular preconceptions. But what I hadn’t expected was to fall in love with a city that – in the warm sunshine of a Sunday during the heatwave that spread across Europe this July – felt relaxed and easeful as people strolled and cycled through its streets and squares.
We had come primarily for the art so, from the stunning railway station, we first made our way to the Rubens House. Walking down Meir, the pedestrianised main shopping street, I experienced a curious sensation of being back in Liverpool, walking along Church Street and Lord Street. The street angled in the same way, and there was the same mix of older buildings with ones erected after the Second World War to replace those damaged or destroyed in the war. (In a period of of nine months in 1944, night and day, seven days a week, V1 or V2 missiles struck Antwerp every twenty minutes or so – echoing the destruction brought to Liverpool during the blitz of 1940-41).
As we wended our way through the town – from the Rubens House to the waterfront, and back to the Rockox House – I began to appreciate the importance of town squares, small ones especially, for creating a sense of urban well-being. For Antwerp is full of these little squares; in the late afternoon we ended up in Vrijdagmarkt, having just discovered on one side of the small square the wonderful house of Christoffel Plantijn the printer, contemporary of Rubens the painter and Nicolaas Rockox, humanist, alderman and art collector.
Vrijdagmarkt (top) is a 16th century square, created in 1547 as a market for the sellers of second-hand clothes. The square was named Vrijdagmarkt (Friday market) since that was the day when the stallholders sold their wares. At the time, buying and selling used clothes was common; even the clothes of Pieter Paul Rubens were auctioned here after his death.
Much of the Vrijdagmarkt was destroyed in 1945 after a German V1 bomb hit the square. But, after the war it was restored in its original condition and today, after more than four centuries, a second-hand market is still held every Friday morning.
At one of the bars that inhabit the square I sat over a Chimay watching the life of the square unfold: the barman in his apron attending the outdoor tables, locals of all ages cycling leisurely through the square, strollers greeting their neighbours or stopping to sit with beer and chat in the Sunday scene. This must be what life is made for.
Groenplaats, where we later had an evening meal, is a much larger space, one of Antwerp’s most prominent squares, with a statue of Rubens at its centre. Today Groenplaats is lined mainly by cafés and restaurants, popular with both tourists and locals. But its use and appearance has changed over time. Until the 18th century, the Groenplaats was Antwerp’s main cemetery. But cemeteries were abolished inside the city walls, it was converted into a square.
In the 1990s, moves began to improve the square’s appearance: an underground car park replaced an ugly multi-storey one, and a derelict 1920 building which had once housed a large department store was renovated to become a Hilton Hotel. Today, the square is vibrant and full of life, a place where ordinary folk mingle with the tourists ambling through on their way to the the Cathedral, which borders the Groenplaats to the north.
Outside the Cathedral, in brilliant afternoon sun, passers-by stopped to listen to a string quartet play.
Here the Cathedral faces a small, triangular cobbled square lined with 17th century merchants’ houses. At street level there are cafes, market stall and small shops.
Along the outside wall of the Cathedral I noticed this monument to the 14th century stone masons who built the cathedral.
Around the corner is the Grote Markt, Antwerp’s main city square dominated by the magnificent 16th century town hall and lined with beautiful 16th century Guild houses, lavishly decorated and gold encrusted.
We went down to the river Scheldt, where the story had, apparently, been the same as that of Liverpool: a city that turned away from its river in the 1950s and 1960s, but where, more recently, the river front has been opened up and become an attractive place to stroll and sit and watch the world go by.
Wandering through Antwerp’s squares and pedestrianised spaces, confirmed in my mind that attractive, well-designed urban squares encourage people to congregate, mingle and linger. As Ken Worpole and Katharine Knox put it their report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, The Social Value of Public Spaces:
Public spaces offer many benefits: the ‘feel-good’ buzz from being part of a busy street scene; the therapeutic benefits of quiet time spent on a park bench; places where people can display their culture and identities and learn awareness of diversity and difference; opportunities for children and young people to meet, play or simply ‘hang out’. All have important benefits and help to create local attachments, which are at the heart of a sense of community. The success of a particular public space is not solely in the hands of the architect, urban designer or town planner; it relies also on people adopting, using and managing the space – people make places, more than places make people.
‘People make spaces’. While we were in Belgium, events in a square in Istanbul dominated the news. Police had used tear gas and water cannons to disperse a crowd that gathered in Taksim Square to protest against its redevelopment as a shopping precinct. The project has been approved by the city and the government, but locals are concerned that one of the few central places where people could congregate outdoors was being given over to yet more shops, and ridding the square of the trees under whose branches they had enjoyed the shade.
Henri Lefebvre, the French Marxist philosopher, observed in the late 1960s that there are no neutral places in the city; that the different threads of power find their way into every crack of the metropolis, constructing a cartography of exclusions and barriers. … For Lefebvre, the city was both the problem and the solution to the quandaries of our everyday lives. Within this political perspective, the people have a common right to utilise city space without restriction. Lefebvre argues that viewing those spaces as the theatre for everyday life changes our sense of belonging: being part of the city is no longer determined by ownership or wealth, but by participation. In consequence, our actions change and refine the city. […]
Hollis observes that geographer David Harvey, in his book Rebel Cities (2012), argues that the creation of common spaces within the city – public areas where we can congregate without fear, or without the constant demands of the market – is stalling: ‘Enclosed places free of CCTV, private security, Starbucks, gates, or regulations are becoming increasingly rare. The privatisation of public space is proliferating and is often too subtle to notice’. Hollis continues:
We have lost many of the public spaces of the city without knowing it. As the journalist Anna Minton notes in Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the 21st-century City (2009), the ‘urban renaissance’ of many city centres has resulted in regenerated zones ‘designed purely with shopping and leisure in mind’. These new ‘malls without walls’ are in the hands of private owners who want maximum returns on their investment and, as a result, extinguish much that makes the city human. There are few places left in the city where you can sit down without first having to buy a coffee.
Leo Hollis’s essay is illustrated with this photo of a demonstration in Brussels in June this year to ‘reclaim the streets and public places’: the Brussels which I found so soul-less when we visited. But what of my own home town Liverpool? The city has many fine buildings, but few public squares and spaces that really work, as in Antwerp.
Some of Liverpool’s ‘squares’ (as in Bloomsbury) originated as private, residential squares and gardens for the wealthy mercantile class: elegant squares in the Georgian quarter, such as Abercromby and Falkner squares. These are not squares in the sense of an urban community spaces, open to a variety of uses.
In the centre of town, Liverpool has old city squares such as Williamson Square, Queen Square, Derby Square, and Exchange Flags, as well as new spaces, such as Concert Square intended to be a symbol of the city centre’s regeneration. But none of these really flourish in the way that Antwerp’s squares do. Concert Square, planned as a European-style piazza with a variety of uses – somewhere where people could mix during the day and a high quality night-time destination – soon deteriorated, known simply for bars making cheap drinks offers, and the resultant drunkenness and disturbances.
There are plans to implement a new vision for the square to attract families back during the day time and vary the crowd in the evenings. But Concert Square is a new creation; it has no past, no tradition of communality like Antwerp’s Vrijdagmarkt. Maybe that can evolve, but it will surely take time.
The architectural historian Gavin Stamp wrote in 2007, ‘It’s difficult not to conclude that, in its relentless post-war economic decline, Liverpool became consumed by a hatred of its own past’. Arriving in the city as a student in the sixties, I caught glimpses of disappearing cobbled streets and squares like those in Antwerp that had been dedicated to trades long since died out (like the Old Haymarket being swallowed up by the St Johns Precinct development). In Antwerp I bought an ambrosial frozen yoghurt from one of those Moochie places that we ought to have here; it was on Eiermarkt, a now-pedestrianised thoroughfare that was once the egg market. Just around the corner was the linen market (Lijnwaadmarkt) and the milk market (Melkmarkt).
In my time in Liverpool, the only square that came close to behaving like a square was Williamson Square. This YouTube video recalls the square as a vibrant place with lots going on and as ‘a place where you could sit and watch the world go by’.
But the soul of Williamson square was destroyed, first by the construction of an elevated walkway along the north side, then – after the walkway was demolished in the 90s – by unsympathetic new buildings. Today, as a Seven Streets post on Williamson Square puts it:
Look out from the space-age drum of the Playhouse bar and you see a square with a severe personality disorder. Bookies, jobcentre, fenced off bin store, part-time fountains and sorry-looking street traders. We thought rule #1 of geometry was that a square should have four equal sides. Not here. No two elevations are even close to approaching symmetry.
But it wasn’t always like this. Until 1965, the north side of the square was home to the Theatre Royal – its elegant Queen Anne-style facade complementing the stucco of the Playhouse (pic top r). Now it’s the monstrous New Look and LFC store. Who thought this building would complement the square? And can we have their address, please? […]
City squares still have a major role to play as decompression zones: places where the city can pause, relax and socialise. A place where all paths merge, where office workers, lunching ladies and map-wielding tourists collide at coffee shops, pavement cafes or cultural centres. Most city squares started life as market places, surrounded by grand civic buildings. An at-a-glance status report of a city’s wealth and ambition. It’s a job our cities usually leave to John Lewis these days.
But, as I observed in a post earlier this year, rather than preserving or developing communal spaces in our towns and cities, we are witnessing a creeping privatisation of public space. As in the Liverpool One development, streets and open spaces are being defined as private land after redevelopment. These are the new privatised public spaces in towns and cities across Britain.
Civic spaces are an extension of the community. When they work well, they serve as a stage for our public lives. If they function in their true civic role, they can be the settings where celebrations are held, where exchanges both social and economic take place, where friends run into each other, and where cultures mix. They are the “front porches” of our public institutions – post offices, courthouses, federal office buildings – where we can interact with each other and with government.
That was what I found in Antwerp, and it impelled me to return – soon.
For a while now we have had the idea of pursuing Pieter Bruegel by visiting cities where his works are exhibited – particularly Brussels, Antwerp and Vienna. We were inspired by Robert L Bonn’s, Painting Life, in which the author does the same. So, when a bargain offer came our way for a package comprising three nights in Brussels plus Eurostar travel, we grabbed it.
Details of the life of Pieter Bruegel the Elder are sketchy. He was born in a small town north of Brussels some time between 1520 and 1525, but the rest of his early life is lost, undocumented, in the mists of time. But the records do show pretty conclusively that he lived in Antwerp between 1548 and 1563 (apart from a two year sojourn in Italy in the early 1550s), where he worked as an illustrator of prints and completed some of his greatest paintings. It’s also documented that he spent the last six years of his life in Brussels, where he completed another 27 of his 36 major paintings, and where he died in 1569. Continue reading “In pursuit of Bruegel in Brussels and Antwerp”→