golden age - I amsterdam

Amsterdam’s Golden Age
The Netherlands enjoyed a Golden Age in the 17th century and
Amsterdam rapidly blossomed into one of the wealthiest cities in
the world. The number of people living in the city tripled from
60,000 in 1600 to 200,000 in 1650, making Amsterdam the third
largest city in Europe, behind London and Paris. Nearly threequarters of Amsterdam residents in the 17th century were born
Canals were a defining feature of Amsterdam as early as the Middle Ages,
with three waterways dominating the city: the Oudezijds Voorburgwal,
Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal and Achterburgwal. These canals were created
parallel to the River Amstel at the heart of the city. Back then,
Amsterdam was enclosed (and protected) by moats that are still present
today – the Singel, Kloveniersburgwal and Geldersekade. A number of
defence towers and city gates have also stood the test of time, such as
the Schreierstoren, Montelbaanstoren, Waag and Munttoren.
The Canal Ring: World Heritage
However, Amsterdam only really shot to fame with its Canal Ring, which
was constructed around the existing city from 1613 onwards. Those in
the know often refer to the Amsterdam Canal Ring as the most
magnificent urban plan to be developed and implemented in 17th-century
Europe. In 2010, the Canal Ring received official recognition when it was
added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
In order to provide sufficient housing for the influx of new residents,
three wide canals were added around the medieval city centre early in
the 17th century. The impressive facades of the prominent houses in this
canal ring reflect the fashion of the day: initially classicist with
subsequent baroque additions. New residential neighbourhoods were built
for the less distinguished immigrants to Amsterdam, concentrated in the
north-west and east of the city (the Jordaan and Nieuwmarktbuurt
respectively). Both neighbourhoods were home to numerous artists,
including Rembrandt. Four hundred years on, 17th-century Amsterdam
surprisingly still looks the part. The spirit of the Golden Age is certainly
very much alive along the city centre’s wide canals and narrow alleys.
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Rapid growth
As a port, Amsterdam’s rapid growth was largely the result of trade with
the Baltic countries. Amsterdam merchants distributed grain acquired
from Prussia and Poland throughout Europe, leading to the city becoming
known as the ‘granary of Europe’. Speculative commercial enterprises
sent explorers based in Amsterdam to all corners of the globe. The Dutch
East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, VOC) was
founded in 1602 – the first ever public limited company. This trading
association provided fully-equipped ships, commodities and funds
(primarily to buy the expensive spices). Subsequent to the success of the
association, the Dutch West India Company was founded in 1621 to focus
on America and West Africa. Back then, the Republic’s merchant navy –
in which Amsterdam had the largest share – was larger than those of
England, Scotland and France combined.
From 1585, the city entered a new phase of whirlwind expansion: in 15
years, the city’s population doubled to 60,000. By 1660, the resident
counter had hit 220,000, making Amsterdam the third largest city in
Europe, behind London and Paris. In order to cope with the population
explosion, major developments commenced in 1610 to expand the city to
the west. It was during this expansion that the fan-shaped canal ring of
the Heren¬gracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht was created –
providing charming residences for the city’s prosperous merchants. Work
was simultaneously conducted on the Jordaan – an industrial area and
home to the less well-to-do city residents. This ambitious expansion
quadrupled the surface area of Amsterdam in what was comparatively an
extremely short space of time.
The Amsterdam Canal Ring is unique: not only in light of its
unprecedented size (160 hectares), but also because of its unusual
layout. The majority of cities with canals are characterised by a rightangled structure, whereas in Amsterdam it’s formed from semicircles
around the medieval core. In retrospect, the design of the Canal Ring is
brilliant in its simplicity. The humanistic ideal of the period was
symmetry, straight lines and a concentric plan. As such, the three main
canals are not actually curved. In fact, each one consists of five kinked
straight sections, which come together to form a half polygon. The
central point of the ‘semicircle’ is Dam Square.
Of the primary canals, the Herengracht and Keizersgracht were destined
to be used exclusively for residential housing. No form of commercial
activity was permitted in these houses. Warehouses and businesses such
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as beer breweries could also be found on the outermost canal, the
Increasing wealth and the influence of international classicism meant
that, primarily after 1660, a large amount of houses were built on double
plots. These houses exude the strict French style, featuring a straight
gable and wherever possible, built completely from expensive natural
stone. The ‘canal-side palaces’ on the Golden Bend of the Herengracht
are prime examples of such buildings.
The trees lining the canals were also a highly innovative idea for the
time. Amsterdam was the first city in Europe to plant trees on such a
large scale: international visitors were impressed to see dual rows of lime
(and later elm) trees line each newly-constructed canal – even before
1600. Visitors to the city often wondered whether to call the Canal Ring a
‘forest in the city’ or a ‘city in the forest’. After visiting Amsterdam in
1664, German author Philipp von Zesen even went so far as comparing
the Canal Ring to paradise.
The cultural climate
In classical cities such as Rome, Venice, Madrid, Vienna and Paris,
Amsterdam was viewed as something of an upstart: a city with more
money than taste. After all, it was the capital of a burgeoning bourgeois
republic, sandwiched between two esteemed monarchies. This is partly
why, from the outset, Amsterdam invested heavily in public cultural
institutions such as the Stadsschouwburg (theatre), the Athenaeum
Illustre (what we now know as the University of Amsterdam) and the
Hortus Botanicus (botanical gardens). By investing in making the city an
architectural work of art, the city council succeeded in raising
Amsterdam’s international standing.
The most renowned example of this approach is perhaps the then City
Hall (now the Royal Palace), a building for which no trouble or expense
was spared. And in general, all governmental buildings built in
Amsterdam in the 17th century were more expensive and refined than
was strictly necessary, while always catering to the latest architectural
Tolerance and care of the underprivileged
Compared with other European capital cities, 17th-century Amsterdam
stood out from the pack in at least two regards: the tolerance of other
cultures and religions and the unusually extensive level of care offered to
the socially underprivileged. The notion of tolerance in the city aligned
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with Amsterdam’s traditional, encompassing immigration policy. The
Roman Catholic Church played a central role in other countries, but
Amsterdam was home to a large number of Protestant churches. As such,
Amsterdammers were accustomed to religious diversity in urban society.
This tolerant attitude was also extremely pragmatic: immigration was
ultimately required to allow continued economic growth.
As a result of its rapid growth, the lion’s share of Amsterdam’s population
in the Golden Age consisted of immigrants. Writing in 1688, the French
author Hortense de Jardins aptly summed up the city’s climate of
tolerance: “Amsterdam is a beautiful city. (…) Large numbers of people
are arriving from an enormous range of countries; the multiplicity and
diversity conjures up images of ancient Babylon. (…) Amsterdam is the
most welcoming place in Europe and there’s surely no Persian or
Armenian who would feel less at home here than in their native country.”
Dutch philosopher Spinoza wrote: “We can count ourselves lucky to live
in a republic in which everyone’s opinion is free and unrestricted, in
which everyone is free to serve God as they see fit and in which freedom
is, above all else, a cherished and precious commodity.”
Amsterdam was also a shining light when it came to the care offered to
the socially underprivileged. Pragmatic considerations also supported this
approach: good community spirit and social care were a precondition of a
peaceful and safe city. The authorities provided not only for orphans, the
sick and elderly from the reformed bourgeoisie, but also for the masses
without links to the city or a church – another aspect that set Amsterdam
apart from all other cities. This wasn’t only seen as a Christian duty, it
also helped avoid social problems and unrest. Amsterdam’s prison system
was even socialised in the form of ‘work houses’, designed to prepare
inmates for their reintegration into society.
European centre of culture
In the 17th century, Amsterdam became an important European centre
for intellectuals and artists, in part thanks to the generous intellectual
and religious freedom the city afforded them. The prosperous merchants
and governors had sufficient funds to supply architects, painters and
sculptors with plenty of work. Of the artists working in the period,
Rembrandt van Rijn arguably became the most famous.
Amsterdam as part of the Grand Tour
Amsterdam’s Canal Ring rose to international fame throughout the 17th
century and visitors came from far and wide to experience the marvel
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first hand. At the time, Amsterdam was the only city in the world with
such clear and consistent spatial planning, opulent construction and
integrated waterways, residential houses, trees and bridges. Amsterdam
became a staple port of call for well-to-do travellers during their ‘Grand
Tour’ of Europe.
A surprising amount of the city’s Golden Age opulence has stood the test
of time, as you’ll see in this voyage of discovery past the ‘canal-side
palaces’ of the Golden Bend, numerous other richly-decorated buildings,
the web of canals surrounding Dam Square and the countless paintings
and other works of art within the walls of Amsterdam’s museums.
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Amsterdam’s Golden Age architectural highlights
A wealth of buildings, churches and canal-side properties still bear
testament to Golden Age affluence, as do the paintings and other works
of art housed at Amsterdam’s famous museums. However, what few
tourists know is that some of the most notable Golden Age treasures are
concealed within several buildings on or near Dam Square: the Royal
Palace, De Nieuwe Kerk, the Westerkerk and the Amsterdam Museum.
Dam Square
As the main city square, ‘De Dam’ (as it’s known locally) was the beating
heart of Amsterdam. This was where the pride of the Amsterdam
governors – City Hall – was located, alongside De Nieuwe Kerk – the
church of choice for the city’s nouveaux riche.
The Royal Palace
What is now the Royal Palace was built on Dam Square between 1648
and 1655 as the Amsterdam City Hall. The impressive building became
the symbol of power and standing of Amsterdam in the Golden Age,
surpassing all other European city halls both in terms of size and
Highlights inside the building include the detailed sculptural work in the
Citizen’s Hall, the Galleries and the Tribunal, from the hand of Artus
Quellijn and his apprentices. The paintings in the Council Chamber and
the Throne Room are by Govert Flinck and Ferdinand Bol, both students
of Rembrandt. The wealthy interior provides a sharp contrast with
Rembrandt’s eventual bankruptcy, which was actually made official here.
The building has also played a tragic role in other aspects of Rembrandt’s
life. It was primarily those he once taught who received the honourable
task of supplying work to decorate the City Hall – a fact that would have
surely been hard for Rembrandt to swallow.
In 1661, the city council finally commissioned Rembrandt himself to paint
a gigantic work: The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis. However, this
painting was removed within a year of it being installed; its ‘heathen’
imagery not in line with the taste of the governors at the time.
Rembrandt subsequently cut the work into pieces. The artist could
perhaps take scant comfort from the fact that a fragment of his Claudius
Civilis is now one of the highlights of Stockholm’s Nationalmuseum.
Jurriaan Ovens (another of Rembrandt’s pupils) was commissioned to
produce a work to fill the empty space where Rembrandt’s painting had
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hung. Ovens completed his painting in 1663 – a work widely regarded as
being of poor quality.
And as if that wasn’t enough, in 1715, the City Hall was the scene of
another ‘crime’ against Rembrandt: his now world-famous The Night
Watch was to be moved to the Small War Council Room. When it became
apparent that it wouldn’t fit through the door, large chunks of the left and
lower sides of the painting were simply chopped off.
Visitors to what is now the Royal Palace are often astounded by what
greets them. The 30-metre-high Citizen’s Hall is certainly impressive, as
is the Tribunal, where death sentences were handed out until the 18th
De Nieuwe Kerk
Built on Dam Square in the late Middle Ages, most of De Nieuwe Kerk
was ravaged by fire in the 17th century. The building has the fire to
thank for its current interior, which is a glorious example of Golden Age
affluence. The highlights include the finely-carved pulpit – the product of
15 years work by Albert Janszoon Vinckenbrinck and his colleagues – the
copper choir screen produced by the renowned silversmith Johannes
Lutma, and the tomb of Admiral Michiel de Ruyter, located where the
high altar once stood.
The Westerkerk
The Westerkerk is without doubt one of Amsterdam’s Golden Age gems.
The masterwork of architect Hendrick de Keyser, the church was built
between 1620 and 1631 and is one of the country’s most impressive
Dutch Renaissance buildings. The interior is simple, but has impressive
three-dimensional detailing. The Bentheim sandstone floor was given a
new lease of life during restoration works, which also saw the
reintroduction of the 17th-century brass candelabras, complete with the
red and black Amsterdam city arms.
Other highlights of the church include Rembrandt’s memorial stone. The
artist was buried here in 1669 in a poor man’s grave and the exact
location of his resting place remains unknown. Built in 1680 by Roelof
Duyschot, the Westerkerk’s huge organ is hard to miss. The organ-case
dates to 1682 and is decorated in biblical scenes, painted by Gerard de
Lairesse. You’ll also notice several chambers (pothuizen) around the
perimeter of the church – now home to tiny shops selling illustrations,
antiques and curiosities.
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Golden Age residential properties
Many Golden Age properties were adapted in the subsequent century in
accordance with the prevailing fashion. As such, a lot of Amsterdam’s
17th-century properties feature an 18th-century facade in the Rococo or
Louis XVI style. However, there are also plenty of houses that have
remained largely untouched.
Houses built in the period 1600-1625:
Singel 140-142: De Vergulde Dolphijn (The Gilded Dolphin),
designed c. 1600 by architect Hendrick de Keyser.
Herengracht 120: De Coningh van Denemarken, 1615.
Herengracht 170-172: Huis Bartolotti, 1617.
Keizersgracht 123: Huis met de Hoofden (The House with the
Heads), 1622.
Oudezijds Voorburgwal 249: Huis op de Drie Grachten (House
on Three Canals), 1610.
Kattegat 4-6: De Gouden en Zilveren Spiegel (The Golden and
Silver Mirror), 1614.
Houses built in the period 1625-1660:
Herengracht 168, designed in 1638 by architect Philips
Vingboons. Features Amsterdam’s first neck-gable.
Herengracht 364-370: Cromhouthuizen, designed in 1662 by
Philips Vingboons.
Keizersgracht 319: designed in 1639 by Philips Vingboons.
Keizersgracht 387, 1668.
Prinsengracht 92, 1661.
Singel 83-85: Veerhuis De Zwaan, 1652.
Singel 460: Odeon, designed in 1662 by Philips Vingboons.
Oudezijds Voorburgwal 187, 1663.
Oudezijds Voorburgwal 316: De Ladder Jacobs (Jacob’s Ladder),
designed in 1655 by Philips Vingboons.
Oude Turfmarkt 145, designed in 1642 by Philips Vingboons.
Kloveniersburgwal 29: Trippenhuis, designed in 1662 by Justus
Bloemgracht 87/91, built in 1642.
Amsterdam, January 2015
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