Vermeer's Delft Today
A lone biker at the train station gets ready to take a tour of Delft (the leaning spire of the Oude Kerk can be seen in the distance).
While contemplating period paintings of the silent Oude Delft canal, a grizzly hand painted "snapshot" of the Delftse Donderslag, a stately Delft church interior or Vermeer’s View of Delft, the casual viewer may wonder how these places appear today. What has changed in the course of 300 years and exactly what has remained of the past? With an mprovised tour guide composed of paintings, engravings and descriptions of Delft, we stand a fair chance of finding at least a few answers.
First of all, how well is Delft conserved? "In the second half of the 17th century (about the time Vermeer's career was beginning), Amsterdam and Rotterdam, because of their excellent ports, took over more and more of the nation's trade, Delft slowed down. Its famous pottery industry continued to flourish, but other businesses languished. The number of breweries in the city shrank from more than 100 to 15. It became the home of retired people and a stronghold of conservative Calvinism. Gradually the once-vigorous city went into a decline that left it virtually dormant until the 19th Century.
The one lucky result of this misfortune is that the heart of Delft today looks very much as it did in Vermeer's day, since, by the time the town came to light again, men had learned to value and preserve the architectural heritage of the past. Thus Delft still has a few acres of houses, churches, canals and squares which lead us straight into Vermeer's world."1
This detail of Dirck Van Bleyswyck's Kaart Figuratief shows the area around the Groote Markt (Market Place).
Click on the Kaart to view four points of interest concerning Vermeer's life and art.
Unfortunately, the situation is not so bright when it comes to Vermeer. All the original buildings which played significant roles in the life and work of the Master have been demolished even though most of their original locations can be pinpointed with security. The Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), Oude Kerk (Old Church) and City Hall do still stand in all their glory, but the private dwellings of Vermeer and his exteneded family, and the Guild of St Luke where the artist fraternized with his colleagues, have long since been torn down.
The Great Fire
Two dates crucial for the development of the city of Delft must be considered: the first is the Great Fire on May 3, 1536, caused by a bolt of lighting that struck the tower of Nieuwe Kerk. Part of the wooden tower was burned down and the organ, bells and the stained-glass windows were lost. Fanned by a strong east wind, the fire ravaged virtually everything west of the Nieuwe Kerk (houses of the time were mainly built with timber).
Few of these building, which gave Delft its medieval character, withstood the fire. An anonymous painted copy of a map of Delft (below), complete in its details, illustrates the devastation’s extent graphically. This map also serves as an invaluable source for locating cloisters and convents and other public houses whose ruins gradually vanished with the reconstruction of the city. The painting represents nearly every house and church, whether still intact (signaled by the red of the roofs) or as a ruin.
"In the next forty years, the reconstruction of the Nieuwe Kerk and scores of houses in brick and mortar absorbed the energies of the city's citizens and depleted their resources. In the 1540s and 1550s, stately houses went up around the Groote Markt (Great Market Square) near the Nieuwe Kerk, along the Oude Delft canal, and in other neighborhoods where many dwellings had been burned down, These were the new houses, built along tree-lined canals, where rich burgers lived, whom common people said, 'sat on cushions and ruled the city.'" 2
Stedelijk Museum Het Prinsenhof, Delft
Delft's development: significant events
15th April 1246: Delft get city rights by Count Willem II.
1536: The Great Fire
1566: also 1576-8,1580-81: Iconoclastic Fury against Catholic churches
1568-1648: Eighty Years War
1572: Revolt: Anti-Spain and anti-Catholicism
1578: "Alteratie"- purge of Catholic regent class and installation of Reformed Church municipal leaders;Delft turned to the Reformed Church
1609-1621: Twelve Year Truce in the 80 Years War
1654: The gunpowder magazine explosion
1672: Invasion of Netherlands by Louis XIV (rampjaar)
The second catastrophe which shaped the topography and character of Delft was the infamous explosion of the gunpowder magazine, Delftse Donderslag, on Monday, Octobe 12, 1654, in the morning at half-past ten. Cornelis Soetens, the keeper of the magazine, on that fatal day opened the store to make his weekly check a sample of the powder. "Soetens was accompanied by a colleague from The Hague, wearing a red cloak, and by a servant. A lantern was lit, a door to the store was opened, and Soetens's companion handed his fine cloak to the servant so that it wouldn't get dirty and told him to take it home. The two men went in and down the dark stairs to collect their sample. Some minutes passed. It was still an ordinary Monday morning in Delft. Fiver huge successive explosions merged with one another. The earth shuddered and shuddered again. Flames rose and an intense heat fanned out in a searing wave."3
Once again, several parts of the town were leveled to the ground. More than one hundred people were killed and many more wounded. The explosion was so strong that it slammed shut doors in near bye towns and was said to have been heard as far away as the island of Texel, seventy miles north of Delft.
The tons of the Netherlands' gunpowder that had exploded were stored in barrels in a magazine in a former Clarissen convent (Poor Clares) in the Doelenkwartier district. Luckily, many citizens were away, visiting a market in Schiedam or the fair in The Hague. But Carel Fabritius, Vermeer’s colleague and Rembrandt’s most talented pupils, who had lived with his family in the Doelenstraat nearby the gunpowder magazine, died at his easel while painting a portrait and with him perished a part of his slim artistic production. A baby girl was rescued after 24 hours. She was still sitting in her high chair, holding an apple and smiling. After the initial Herculean effort to remove the rubble and save those who were trapped under the debris, but only a few survived. The recriminations came later. A protestant preacher blasted out at the city authorities saying too much freedom had been given to Catholics.
The powder magazine contained some 90,000 pounds of gunpowder. The dubious honor of storing such a frightening amount of explosive material had fallen to Delft because it was protected by firm ramparts. At the time Delft boasted walls, 8 gates and 24-26 turrets for its defense system. Only the Oostpoort, tdating from the fourteenth-fifteenth century, survives in its picturesque setting. The powder magazine (it was one of five in Delft) also called 't Secreet van Holland, as it was partly underground and hidden by trees and bushes and was more or less unknown to Delft's citizens.
Delft After the Explosion of the Gunpowder Arsenal in 1654
Gerbrand van der Eeckhout
probably late 1654
Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
News of the event spread rapidly throughout the country. The States General sent a note of condolence; Elizabeth, queen of Bohemia, paid a visit; and many other people came to survey the devastation.
And with the city's reconstruction, opportunities to make much money abounded. Aside from the work of reconstruction and repair, illustrated pamphlets dedicated to this tragedy were sold to the curious. A close neighbor of Fabritius, the painter Egbert van der Poel, miraculously survived but lost his daughter and most likely other family members. Van der Poel would furnish in the coming years at least 20 views of the disaster as a sort of souvenir of the even though we do not know if the artist had personally witnessed the event. He eventually became known as the painter of brandjes (little fires), "the best painter of fire in all of the Netherlands."4
of the Town Hall showing two variations of the Delft coat of arms.
The dark beam in the middle symbolizes the Oude Delft canal, the origin of the city
Art + Travel Europe: Step into the Lives of Five Famous Painters
Museyon Guides, 2010
Van Gogh. Munch. VERMEER. Caravaggio. Goya. Five iconic artists whose inspirational works have been obsessed over by art lovers and travelers for years.
Curated by industry experts, Art + Travel Europe is the first guidebook to feature detailed walking tours of the five cities where these artists lived, loved and labored. Readers will discover the sights and stories behind such iconic works as Starry Night and The Scream, go on the run to retrace the steps of Caravaggio in exile, plus much, much more. You know their art; now step into their lives.
Walking tours of five cities as seen through the eyes of five iconic artists: Van Gogh's Arles, Munch's Oslo, Vermeer's Delft, Caravaggio's Rome, Goya's Madrid
Contributors: Kristin Hohenadel (The Los Angeles Times), Lea Feinstein (SF Weekly), Sandra Smallenburg (Arts Editor NRC Handelsblad), George Stolz (ARTnews), Barbie Latza Nadeau (CNN Traveler)
Meticulously researched articles curated by local experts.
Chapters loaded with useful sidebars, travel tips, and suggested itineraries with easy-to-read maps.
Comprehensive index of artworks and museum locations around the globe.
Listings of books, films and music inspired by or about each artist.
Over 100 color photographs.
Appeal for both the armchair traveler as well as the get-up-and-go traveler.
Original cover illustrations by Tiny Inventions.