Skip to content

The golden age of Amsterdam


There is very little going on at our student residence on Prinsengracht, as most of us have exams during the following work.  I had not expected a student residence to be so quiet, but I suppose that if it were not for the last minute nothing would get done.  The weather has been overcast and rainy for the most part, and the days get noticeable shorter as we approach winter.  Autumn colours still cloth trees in the Canal Belt, so the proper winter is not with us yet.

There is a carnival at Dam Square, perhaps in preparation for the festive season.  It looks fun, there is a giant Ferris Wheel and a number of other adrenaline fuelled machines.  I can see the top of the Ferris wheel from my window, and hear screams of delight on a quiet evening like tonight.  The Royal Palace on Dam Square is open to the public once more, as it closed for Royal events for a month.  Murphy’s Law dictated that we would be given an essay on it, without an opportunity to visit the interior of the building until the day before the assignment was due.

The building is fascinating one though, filled with Old Testament tropes, as well as neoclassical themes and paintings of the Batavian tribe in their struggle against the Romans.  It may seem like a mass of contradictions in itself, but the building is testament to an evolving state coming into its own in the Golden Age of Amsterdam.  The early Enlightenment is expressed in classical themes such as seven statues of Roman Gods in the Citizens Hall, representing planets in our solar system.  A frieze of maps is inlaid into the floor of the hall, some of which depict new Dutch discoveries in the farthest reaches of the world.  The first stone was laid in 1648, when a Treaty ending the Eighty Years War with Spain.  Building was well under way when Dutch colonists waded ashore at the Cape of Good Hope.

The building was designed at the behest of the burgomasters, and intended to glorify the city of Amsterdam.  It was the largest secular building in Europe of the day, and was a wonder in itself.  The various rooms in the building are also in a wonderful state of preservation, and include a Bankruptcy Chamber as well as a chamber for the administration of orphanages.  The city of Amsterdam was expanding alongside the Dutch economy at this time, and in planning a glorious wealthy city the burgomasters had no objection to a comparison with ancient Rome.  However as an oligarchy of Europe’s most urbanised society, they do deserve credit for the smooth organisation of immense economic and demographic expansion within the city.  Orphanages, schools, almshouses and hospitals were set up whilst the wonderful buildings went up throughout the canal belt.

It is easy to forget how dynamic Amsterdam was at that time, but Dutch names abound throughout the world today, New Zealand, Brooklyn and Cape Hoorn to name but a few.  The hard-nosed business men who controlled trade made every effort to capitalise on these discoveries, seeking the fruits of new discoveries to monopolise trade in new commodities.  These included cloves and nutmeg, and efforts were made to undermine competition which included uprooting trees in the Far East.  Most of the trade lacked the glamour of the exotic spice trade, and this included grain from the Baltic and herring from the North sea.  Much of this was sold on to other European countries at a healthy profit, and these two commodities outstripped the trade in spices.

Much of my studying has been involved in the art and literature which was produced at this time.  Often seen as a by product of the new wealth which abounded in Amsterdam.  However they are an interesting record of socio-economic change in the period.  Much earlier painting was focused on church or royal patronage, and this was evident in the subject matter.  With a burgeoning middle class with an itch for conspicuous consumption saw new paintings abound.  While only the most valuable have survived, inventories from the time show that numerous cheaper paintings were produced for mass consumption.  However the more expensive works were nonetheless status symbols in and of themselves.  Civil guards had their portraits painted, as they were drawn from the citizens, which were a privileged group.  Many paintings were smaller than before, reflecting a more modest patronage in some cases, as well as a greater need to produce more commissions.


Perhaps one reason why painters were so innovative at this time was the competition.  This underpinned efficiency in producing more quickly and cost effectively, but also new tropes and techniques gave unique appeal to some painters.  These may have been moonlit scenes, or new elements to landscapes that had not been produced before.  Some even have Gothic elements in their work, such as ruins, which predate the Romantic movement by over a century.  Studying this subject is fascinating, and even though Rembrandt and Frans Hals are household names, the socio-economic context of the times make it even more so.  That is not to say that I am uninterested in social events of Amsterdam today.  There is an old squat house in the city which has been bought by the community which lives in it. 

The community produces plays and other cultural events and has a bar and restaurant which opens for said events.  It is an interesting form of counter culture, and I visited this afternoon to see their vegan food which they provide on a Sunday afternoon.  The crowd that appeared are an interesting one, and proved very interesting conversationalists.  The city certainly has it’s interesting corners.  While out walking I discovered an interesting street called Tweede Egelantiers Dwarsstraat, which is in the Jordaan.  It boasts a number of restaurants, bars and bakeries which I assume are frequented by locals, as it is quite difficult to find in the warren of narrow streets.  I took a break from studying yesterday to have a beer in De Tuin, a small and very crowded bar with two Norwegian students.  Both experiences were a welcome break from the mainstream tourist scene, and I hope to discover many more.



From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: