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History of Holland > Dutch architecture > Renaissance period
It was in the sixteenth century that the influence of the Renaissance gained ground in Holland, and with it came new canons and new impulses, revived interest in classical literature and art. And in connection with it, it is significant to note that Erasmus, one of the most distinguished of the Humanists, was born at Rotterdam in 1466; during a life of much travel and varied residence he was often in the Low Countries, prosecuting his own self-culture and advocating his doctrines. The Transitional period lasted long and the real significance of the revolutionary Renaissance art was not grasped or understood.
The Gothic form of house long held its own and to it was added the heavy Dutch interpretation of the newer style, a rendering showing French rather than Italian feeling. But nevertheless, however well or ill applied, the use of Classic motifs in architecture became a firmly-established and general practice.
But the great changes in religious and intellectual thought that transpired during the sixteenth century did not so quickly influence the domain of architecture as might be supposed. No sudden breach with the inherited style occurred, although the ancient life and faith were passing.
The Gothic tradition, which had been handed down from generation to generation, continued on. The national temperament was opposed to innovation, and the Dutch people clung to that which had been evolved through long years of experiment; they were unwilling to give up those forms that had been satisfying to their forefathers.
So the new fashion in architecture was at first but tardily accepted and made little headway against the olden practices. Early tentative efforts were confined to novelties of detail introduced in gable ornaments, window-heads and doorways; the traditional forms of building remained unaltered, and fresh types of ornament were simply added to them for no very definite or intelligent reason.
As time went on the Renaissance influence gradually became more established, but there was evidently no unanimity of opinion on the merits of it. Some looked upon it with favour; others viewed it with suspicion and preferred to keep to that which had served so well for preceding generations. As a consequence, the development was not uniform throughout the country. Thus a house at Alkmaar, bearing the late date of 1673, has arched window-heads and step gable terminated with a pointed arch quite in the Gothic manner; while a facade erected at Zwolle one hundred and two years earlier unmistakably betrays its Classic origin by the details with which it is adorned.
After a changeful period, during which the architectural impulses were halting between the acceptance of the new and the retention of the old, men who directed public taste eventually adopted what they understood to be the Renaissance ideas.
Behind them was a strong tide of inherited tradition which continued to flow on. To it they brought their own interpretation of the new movement, and the two forces ran side by side for many years. Foremost among the earlier architects who turned to classicism for fresh inspiration were Lieven de Key, Hendrik de Keyzer and Cornelius Danckerts. Hendrik de Keyzer was born at Utrecht in 1565 and died at Amsterdam in 1621. He was appointed architect to the city of Amsterdam in 1594, and his name is connected with buildings both in that town and elsewhere. One of Hendrik de Keyzer's most notable works is the monument erected at Delft to the memory of William the Silent.
Cornelius Danckerts was associated with de Keyzer and lived from 1561 to 1631. Born at Ghent about the year 1560, Lieven de Key worked principally at Haarlem and Leiden. He was the author of the celebrated Meat Market at Haarlem, a remarkable building which has evoked both praise and disparagement; it was completed in 1603. He was responsible for the design of other civic buildings as well as numerous private dwellings. Such men as these had their followers and founded schools of architecture in the places of their professional activities. There was thus a vigorous body of men working at Haarlem; while Amsterdam, which had become virtually the political and commercial capital as well as the centre of the arts, had its own assembly of architects who were particularly energetic in the city and exercised great influence in the adjacent districts.
The results of their accomplishments are still apparent, and the many large and sober gabled houses suggest to the imagination the comparative splendour of seventeenthcentury Amsterdam. The buildings of this period are quaint and charming. If somewhat lacking in serious architectonic qualities, they are inseparably connected with the national sentiments; they stand as lasting evidences of human emotion expressed through the medium of brick and stone. The streets lined with ancient houses are witnesses of a great past, and bring to remembrance those strong and earnest men who honoured hearth and threshold and fought to save their fatherland from tyranny and threatened ruin. Above all, the structures bear upon them the impress of the intellectual life which was concerned with their production.
The work itself is thoroughly Dutch in character, full of suggestion, and the materials are well handled. That of the early Renaissance is the best, and in it the two streams of thought medieval and classic are seen harmoniously blended. A good example from Leiden, by Lieven de Key, is illustrated opposite; signs of the new influence are obvious in the details, yet it has the traditional form of stepped gable; while there is a freedom of handling discernible in the disposition of the ground floor features which was dictated by convenience rather than symmetrical arrangement. All the work, however, was not so reasonable as this. Gables of extraordinary and curious outline began to appear, remarkable certainly for fertility of invention, but often lacking in delicacy and restraint.
Isolated stone ornaments, unconnected with constructive principles, were applied to vacant wall spaces. They were decorated with lion-heads, armorial bearings, strapwork, cartouches, winged heads and panels in relief, all vigorously carved. Many of the subjects were seemingly derived from published pattern books and decorative designs, and lack that independence of conception which distinguishes all inspired craftsmanship. Evidence goes to prove that the men who made the designs for the buildings had not yet become detached from the building trades. They were not architects within the present meaning of that term. They were described as masons, stonecutters, and the like, and no doubt were masterbuilders who, in addition to supplying the design, had a personal hand in the execution of the work of their own particular craft. The idea that a trained director should conceive the work as a whole, and marshal all the supplementary arts to proper subjugation, had not yet been evolved. Architecture as a separate force was not recognised.
Results automatically grew out of the united efforts of the sculptors, bricklayers, carpenters and masons who were engaged on the same production. So de Key, in addition to acting as a designer, was the city mason of Haarlem; H. de Keyzer was sculptor to the city of Amsterdam; and these are typical instances of the conditions then prevailing. It is also not surprising to find in this country, where government by municipalities was so well developed, that the architects were often official servants of the towns. Two such are mentioned above; Dryfhout was town architect of Middelburg, and Ambrosius van Hanenberch held a similar position at 's Hertogenbosch. The demand for qualified men to protect and guide the public artistic needs was appreciated.
With the advancing seventeenth century came a keener desire for the employment of purer forms of Renaissance art. Architects turned their thoughts to the Italian ideal, which they modified, yet preserved in its essential characteristics. Chief among the exponents of the developed style were Jacob van Campen and Phillippus Vinckboons, both of Amsterdam; and Pieter Post of Haarlem. The massive Town Hall of Amsterdam - now the Royal Palace - by van Campen, is one of the most important buildings of this period. It was erected between the years 1649 and 1655.
But the severe classic ideas, directing towards uniformity and symmetrical arrangements, were never really at home, nor did they displace the weakening influence of inherited tradition. In the general mass of work the Dutch national genius continued to assert itself. Up to the time when the native architecture became devoid of character and personality, the houses and trade buildings in which the people lived and worked even if of strange appearance or sometimes fantastic beyond description retained an unmistakable flavour of the vernacular and owned something of that playfulness and quaint invention that were the heritage of mediaeval times.