Sitting on Dam Square, a massive cobbled plaza thronged with tourists, Amsterdam's Royal Palace is often overlooked by those on their way to such attractions as the nearby Madame Tussauds.
After its opening in 1655, the Palace was hailed by poet Constantijn Huygens as the “Eighth Wonder” of the world. A 1668 painting by Jan van Kessel shows it with its limestone exterior still gleaming white, standing behind the dam on the River Amstel that gave Amsterdam its name. It was commissioned as the Town Hall, making the “Royal Palace” name – adopted in 1806 when Louis Napoleon was briefly king of Holland – an incongruous one. The building – right in the heart of the city center – was a tribute to the businessmen who financed it, rather than any monarch.
It was built on 13,659 wooden piles, the same technique used for most of the city. This ambitious undertaking gave rise to a 16th-century riddle by Desiderius Erasmus: “I know of a city where the residents live in the treetops like crows.”
Inside, the furnishings left by Louis Napoleon make an interesting tour for those who like Empire furniture or ormolu clocks but the highlight for me is the vast Citizen’s Hall. A giant Atlas bearing a globe – there is another on the apex of the roof outside – looks down on a gleaming marble floor inlaid with three maps showing the known world of an earlier era. While the west coast of North America is missing, and Australia looks very vague indeed, the rest of the world is shown in detail, a tribute to the reach of the nation’s seafarers.
At the center of both hemispheres – and a third sphere of the universe itself – sits Amsterdam, whose reach literally spanned the globe along the waterways that start nearby. Like Atlas, the city carried a world on its shoulders but one it made itself. From here, a merchant could send out a ship that might come back with a cargo to make his fortune.
This grand space and the city around it, are a manifestation of the saying: “God created the earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.”