When I stroll around the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, I am struck by the portraits from the 17th-century Dutch “Golden Age.”
The era started with the Treaty of Munster in 1648, the close of the Eighty Years Wars that ended Spanish rule over the Netherlands. A very large portrait of the banquet celebrating the treaty dominates one hall of the largest museum in Amsterdam, showing a group of wealthy militiamen. Despite their wealth and the desire to have their own selfies, it is remarkable how somber their clothing is. Bright white collars are the only relief from their sedate black clothes.
“Unlike most of Europe,” says the caption, “the new country was a republic and not a kingdom. Power was in the hands of the burghers.” A nearby model of an impressive 74-gun ship, typical of the ships of the Dutch East India Company, illustrates how much power that was.
As these merchants opened up the East and West Indies, they brought home untold wealth that was spent on the Delft porcelain and masterpieces by artists such as Rembrandt, Vermeer and Frans Hals that fill the rest of the museum.
The burghers shaped the Amsterdam we know, building the canals so the goods of the world could be unloaded right at their door from the port, the real focus of the canal system long before Centraal Station was built. They taxed this precious canalside land by width, so narrow houses built on piles sunk deep into the unstable ground grew upwards into the familiar wobbly cityscape of today. They built the world’s first stock exchange.
But even this building was done in a sedate style, a modesty that extended to the city’s naming after a dam on the River Amstel. Walk around and you see New Church (Nieuwe Kerk), West Church (Westerkerk), Dam Square, New Square or Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal, which is literally “Front defense moat on the new side”.
The Dutch did the same with the countries they settled on their trading routes: New Holland (now Australia), New Zealand, New Amsterdam (now New York, which still retains its “Haarlem” and Brooklyn district) and South Africa, with its capital Cape Town.
This laconic habit continues with more recent names such as Centraal Station or Amsterdam Forest. Who knows what giddy madness gripped the city planners when they decided to name a square after Rembrandt?
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