This extensive book, written largely by Krista De Jonge and Konrad Ottenheym, with contributions by Joris Snaet, Gabri van Tussenbroek, and Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, is an important contribution to the literature on Netherlandish architecture of the early modern period. Although it takes as its principal subject the architectural relations between the southern and northern Low Countries, it is one of the best overviews of Netherlandish architecture during this period.
The book has two main arguments: first, that disparity between southern and northern Netherlandish architecture did not really exist before the second third of the seventeenth century, that the traditional accounts are severely compromised by the nationalist agenda of the later nineteenth century that coincided with the birth of architectural history as an academic discipline; second, that the period 1530 to 1700, north and south, is better understood as a sequence of interpretations and applications of an ancient or “antique” ornamental vocabulary. The introduction by Konrad Ottenheym sets out these arguments effectively. Yet so much of the value of this book is in the details, the individual cases that support the central arguments despite their great variety.
The authors demonstrate that the old model of a dichotomy between a baroque southern Netherlands and a classicist northern Republic is of little use. Through the early seventeenth century the approach to architectural ornament was remarkably similar throughout the Netherlands. Certainly no real distinction can be made between the early adoption of an antique vocabulary during the earlier sixteenth century. Similar artistic uses of classical architecture can be observed in the area of Utrecht and Breda as in territories to the south. Microstructures such as tombs, mantelpieces, triumphal portals and the like were noticeably instrumental in introducing new features. In particular, the sculpture of Jean Mone (active in the Netherlands after 1520) was particularly important in spreading a highly decorated species of the orders.
Krista De Jonge authors this first section on the early reception of the antique manner, appropriately questioning the historical use of Italian structures as a measure of Netherlandish achievement. The “antique,” as she rightly notes, was considered the proper legacy of all European lands; Italian buildings helped Netherlanders interpret their common past but were not the acknowledged object of attention and research. Much fanfare accompanied archeological finds of Roman artifacts in northern Europe.
The second section on architectural theory of the later sixteenth century is co-written by De Jonge and Ottenheym. Ottenheym alone covers theory in the early seventeenth century, particularly regarding the attitudes of Hendrik de Keyser, Peter Paul Rubens, and Constantijn Huygens. A major turning point occurs beginning in 1539, when Vitruvian and Serlian treatises were published by Pieter Coecke van Aelst. Coecke’s editions effectively disseminated standards for the design of the orders and their extrapolation in other species of furnishings. His Serlian editions were important references for Cornelis Floris and Willem Paludanus at the beginning of the 1560s when the two designed the façade for the Antwerp Town Hall. Yet I would temper the emphasis on a resulting “standardization” asserted by the authors; the authority of Coecke’s works was mitigated by a wave of theorists and pattern designers during the final third of the sixteenth century, most notably Hans Vredemann de Vries. As the authors point out, Vredemann de Vries insisted on the need to adapt the given classical language to local circumstances in the Netherlands. The high price of city land, for instance, necessitated tall buildings on narrow plots, with classical ornament adapted to the new proportions. And the ubiquitous strapwork, developed from precedents at Fontainebleau and championed in Antwerp at the Triumphal Entry of Philip II in 1549, was as important a contribution to architectural ornament in the Netherlands and northern Germany as any traditional interpretation of the classical orders. By the end of the sixteenth century Netherlanders had begun adopting aspects of Michelangelo’s ornamental language in their own architecture. In the south, Wenzel Coebergher was the principal agent of this movement; in the north, architects followed Hendrick de Keyser, many of whose inventions were published in 1630.
From the late 1630s and 1640s a distinction begins to appear between the architectural forms of north and south, but even here traditional frames of reference are of little use. Much of the difference derives from the different categories of building favored in the two lands. In the south church building led the way. Palace architecture could not compete in importance. In the north the palaces of the Nassau, civic buildings, and urban houses for the new lords of commerce set the terms. Although significant church building took place as well, these protestant structures were not really comparable with the Catholic edifices erected in the south. The Protestant church was generally seen as a sort of school building, a place for the word of God rather than a site for the administration of the sacraments and the recitation of the liturgy. Distinctive forms of architecture arise for these purposes, but there was little attempt to match the ecclesiastical magnificence of Catholic churches. Yet this is not the entire story, since Amsterdam’s Westerkerk and Norderkerk are quite large and display Hendrick de Keyser’s distinctive ornament. Joris Snaet supplies a useful chapter on church building, covering the early construction of centralized protestant churches in the south and the development of a distinctive urban church architecture in the north. He also notes the diversity in Catholic church building in the south, the promotion of ascetic design for certain orders and the continuation of Gothic manners of construction and ornamentation well into the seventeenth century, despite the opprobrium leveled against the Gothic by Rubens and other proponents of Vitruvian models.
Part four, by Gabri van Tussenbroek, examines the trade in building materials and changes in the building industry during this extensive period. And an essay by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann concludes the book, placing both the architecture and the scholarly arguments in a European context. Kaufmann sets the Netherlandish assimilation of classical architectural forms along side developments in central Europe and Spain, as well as the Americas, adducing general cultural trends in the sixteenth and seventeenth century.
In all, this is a remarkable study, an effective collaboration of the several authors under the editorship of De Jonge and Ottenheym. The appended bibliography is prodigious and equips the interested scholar with the tools for further research.
Ethan Matt Kavaler
University of Toronto