Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Traveling Through Space and Time Along the Waterways of Holland and Belgium

Before the Amadolce left the Ij-side docking location in Amsterdam, I knew our river cruise would cover a lot of geographic and historic ground. Yet, I had not imagined that we would so thoroughly cover the Dutch and Flemish past with introductions to the Batavians, the Vikings, the Burgundians, the Hapsburgs, the Netherlandish city regents, and assorted Willems! We managed to experience more than 2000 years of history in a little over one week.

On our first full day of touring, we visited the recently renovated Rijksmuseum where we got the rare chance to view the largest painting ever completed by Rembrandt. The canvas, on loan from Stockholm, shows a dramatic scene from the Batavian Revolt against the Romans during the 1st century C.E. In Rembrandt’s rendering of the golden twilight gathering, the one-eyed Batavian leader, Claudius Civilis, meets with tribal leaders from the Betuwe to swear an oath to fight for freedom. As legendary founders of the Netherlands, the Batavians were regarded as powerful forerunners to the Dutch citizens of the 17th century who were fighting their own battle for independence from the Spanish Hapsburgs. It was an appropriate theme to decorate one of the lunettes in the Amsterdam Town Hall in Dam Square that had just been completed in the 1660s; however, Rembrandt’s unidealized depiction and rough rendering resulted in the rejection of the work. Luckily for us, the painting ended up in a Swedish collection by the mid-18th century. While looking at the thick, gestural application of oils on the surface of the canvas and hearing the vivid story of the Batavians gathered for battle, we could easily imagine the tension and excitement of this early fight for freedom for territory we were about to explore by water.

According to Tacitus, the Batavians gathered in the forests of the Betuwe, an area of the Netherlands that borders present-day Germany, where we headed next to visit the Kröller-Müller Museum and Nijmegen, the oldest city in the Netherlands. Traveling along the Waal, Rhine, and Lek Rivers, we navigated waters that were favored by the Vikings in the Middle Ages. An evening presentation gave us a good idea of how these raiders and traders followed these same waterways in their long, shallow wooden ships outfitted with sails and oars. Like contemporary travelers, the Vikings were looking for treasures, including rare spices, glass and ceramics, wool and silk, and beer and wine. In exchange, they brought furs, fish, and highly prized amber.

Following the paths of the Norse predecessors, the Burgundians were also engaged in trade and although the ducal courts moved from city to city in the area now called Belgium, the appropriately named rulers (John the Good, Philip the Bold, John the Fearless, Philip the Good, and Charles the Bold) led with prosperity in mind. During the 14th and 15th centuries, the extravagant Burgundian court, enriched by banking and commerce, was the envy of all Europe. Whether in Bruges, Brussels, Ghent, or Lille, the dukes, especially Philip the Good, commissioned the leading artists, musicians, and writers to create sumptuous works that reflected the wealth and sophistication of the Burgundian leadership. After an evening presentation introducing the Burgundian love of luxurious fabrics, rare gems, illuminated manuscripts, and refined products from foreign lands, we were ready to explore the often diminutive paintings produced by Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, and Hans Memling in the museums of Bruges. Meticulous painted details of brocaded robes and sparkling jewels glowed from the panels and reflected the taste and refinement of the chivalric courts of the Burgundian dukes.

Death and marriage brought an end to Burgundian rule and the Low Countries passed to the Hapsburgs in the 16th century. As a political and mercantile center, Antwerp on the Scheldt River replaced Bruges on the Zwin, a circumstance that we understood by comparing the two cities during our tour. While Bruges retains the charm and intimacy of a court city, Antwerp still feels like the major metropolis it was during its Golden Age. In the mid-16th century, Antwerp was the second largest city north of the Alps and it become the center of trade in spices, especially pepper, silver from the recently discovered Americas, and textiles. No wonder the booming economy supported artists, such as Pieter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck; cartographers, such as Abraham Ortelius who produced the first world atlas; and printers, such as Christophe Plantin and Jan Moretus who published dictionaries, liturgical books for both Roman Catholics and Protestants; and classical texts in Latin and Greek. After a driving tour along the old city walls, we were able to spend a sunny day exploring the Cathedral of our Lady with famous triptychs by Rubens and hanging out in the Grote Markt enjoying some frites below the odd statue of Brabo. Visscher's WindmillDepicted as a man throwing the large hand of a giant, Brabo liberated the city from this tyrant who had demanded tolls from ships on the Scheldt. (At least according to legendary accounts!)

With the Dutch Revolt against the Spanish, Antwerp came under siege and was destroyed as a commercial center. The leading Protestant merchants left for the northern Netherlands where the new center of commerce, Amsterdam, was located. We were able to vividly imagine the critical role of water to this history while we cruised the rivers and canals toward the windmills of Kinderdijk and the storm surge barriers, dams, and locks of the Delta Works. These old and modern construction projects intended to drain water to create land and to protect land from the encroachment of the sea and rivers underscored the strong relationship of the Dutch to water. Walking along the dikes and pumps, we were reminded of the 17th-century Dutch emblem from Roemer Visscher’s Sinnepoppen that depicts a windmill with the motto “Ut Emergant.” As part of its symbolism, the windmill alludes to the emerging creation of a Dutch state under the leadership of the father of the nation, Willem the Silent.

By the time we returned to Amsterdam, we were ready to experience the city that initially prospered during the Golden Age of unification and liberation. With the defeat of the Spanish Hapsburgs, the city merchant class gained political as well as commercial power. These so-called regents, who are so easily identified in Dutch portraiture by their sober black clothing and pristine white collars and cuffs, established the tolerant Dutch backdrop for an astonishing period of commercial and cultural flourishing beginning in the 17th century and enduring to our own time. On our last day in Amsterdam, the Dam Square was closed for Remembrance Day to honor the citizens who had fought and died during World War II. At 8:00 p.m. the city fell silent as two minutes passed in tribute to those who lost their lives. The present royal leader, King Willem-Alexander and his queen, Máxima, laid wreaths at the war memorial in Dam Square. We had traveled through the geography of the Low Countries and through the history of the region, too.