March 9, 2011
Antwerp is a most cosmopolitan city. There seems to be a certain indescribable ennui throughout much of Belgium- but not in Antwerp. There is a causal sophistication here. Unlike Bruges, which is stuck in time, and Brussels which seems to have lost its identity in its role on the international stage, Antwerp is vibrating through another golden age.
The area has been settled at least since the Roman era, but really rose to prominence in the 1500’s after the Zwin River silted up and Bruges’ economy collapsed. If Bruges was an incredibly prosperous port whose realm of trade stretched throughout medieval Europe and the Levant, Antwerp was a port of intercontinental scale- one of the first such ports in the world. As part of the Spanish Empire, it brought in goods from as far as the Americas and Asia. Some sources say that in the early 1500’s, Antwerp saw up to 40 percent of global trade, and was one of the largest cities in Europe.
This, of course, is where the city’s cosmopolitanism originated. Merchants from across Europe set up shop in Antwerp, and the spirit of tolerance inherent in most port cities attracted a large population of orthodox Jews. And, as always, wealth attracted the arts, including some of the most prominent painters and musicians of the Northern Renaissance.
Despite this boom period, there was a great underlying tension rising. The Low Countries became swept up by the Protestant Reformation and by a growing resentment of Spanish rule. Violence erupted in 1566, with the Iconoclastic Fury, in which Protestants ransacked towns and churches, destroying Catholic icons. A reason why many Medieval churches in Belgium have interiors adorned in the style of the Renaissance and the Baroque is that so many of the items made before 1566 were lost. The fiercely Catholic Spanish came down hard, and thus began the Eighty Years’ War which resulted in the independence of the Netherlands.
As a city at the heart of the Dutch Revolt, Antwerp suffered mightily. In November of 1576, Spanish troops sacked the city, plundering property and killing 6,000 residents - an event which became known the “Spanish Fury”. In 1585, Spain took full control of Antwerp and expelled the Protestants to the north. The population was reduced by half, and Amsterdam became the new center of international trade.
After this, the city fell into a long period of decline and was revived only in the early 19th century, when Napoleon invested in upgrading the long-neglected port (which the British attempted to capture in a disastrous campaign). In the 1890’s, Antwerp hosted a World’s Fair, and in 1920, the Olympics. The city was heavily damaged by German bombs in WW2, but today is on the rise once again- today ranking among the top 20 of busiest ports in the world- certainly larger than the port of New York. Standing on the bank of the River Scheldt, one can see shipping facilities stretching to beyond the horizon.
And once again, Antwerp is a cosmopolitan place. There is a diverse immigrant community, the arts have returned, and the city is taking a seat among the most prominent fashion centers of the world. 80 percent of the world’s rough diamonds pass through its diamond markets (unfortunately though, this includes many blood diamonds).
In short, there is a lot of action here. By day, the streets bustle with a certain vibrancy and lust for life. By night, bars and restaurants host a sophisticated conviviality. It feels like a new city.
It’s interesting how history works though. Walking at dusk through the Grote Markt, with its magnificent Golden Age houses of trade, under the sublime carillon of the Cathedral, you realize that, though the faces and much of the cityscape have changed, it is, in essence, the same city it was half a millennium ago.