Holland, Amsterdam and the Golden Age
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In the 17th century Holland, and the city of Amsterdam, had risen to considerable importance. A number of emigrants from Antwerp and Flanders had been cordially received by the inhabitants, and turning their energy and business knowledge to good account, had become useful and prominent members of the community.
More fortunate than some of her sister-cities, Amsterdam had escaped those horrors of war which had devastated the cities of Alkmaar, Leyden and Haarlem. She had temporised for a considerable time before finally throwing in her lot with the States General in 1578, and having dismissed the Spanish clergy and magistrature practically without bloodshed, she quietly awaited the issue of the struggle behind the shelter of her dykes.
But she had contributed actively to the success of the naval operations. Fleets were built at Amsterdam, which sailed from her harbour to assert the Dutch
supremacy at sea, and to win immortal fame for her hardy sailors, admirals, and colonists. Among her navigators and adventurers were heroes such as J. van Heemskerk, Van der Does, Linschoten, Gerrit de Veer, Barentsz, Pieter Hein, Van Tromp, the De Ruyters, Jan Pietersz Coen, and his lieutenant Pieter van den Broeck, the founder of Batavia. A period of comparative security, following on the long contest, gave opportunities for the extension of commerce, and the acquisition of foreign territory.
On April 2, 1595, four vessels set sail for the East Indies from Amsterdam. They were the first Dutch ships that had approached those shores. Two years later, three returned, leaving behind them settlements and counting-houses in latitudes to which none but the Portuguese had penetrated hitherto. Emboldened by these successes, ship-owners equipped other vessels. Various independent companies were formed, and amalgamating in 1602, became the great East India Company (V.O.C.). The foundation of the West India Company in 1621 gave a fresh impetus to the trade of Holland.
Half the mercantile marine of the world sailed under her flag, and her ships were found in every sea. From Java, Borneo, and Brazil her vessels came laden with coffee, spices, rare woods, plants, animals, and precious merchandise of every sort, which she distributed among the nations of Europe. As commerce developed, the facilities for barter increased, and banks were founded to aid the circulation of funds. Money poured steadily into Amsterdam; her Bourse was a centre of very lucrative financial operations, regulating the rate of exchange throughout the world. Under conditions such as these, the need for exact information as to politics, the markets, and other matters of public interest became evident. Journalism sprang into being; and the Gazette of Holland, circulating throughout Europe, inaugurated the power of the periodical press.
Amsterdam was the heart of such energy and development. Strangers were deeply impressed by its activity, as Descartes, whose position gave him every opportunity for observation, duly records. The philosopher visited Holland for the first time in 1617, and afterwards lived there for ten years. His first sojourn, then, was at Amsterdam, from 1629 to 1632. Delighted with the facilities afforded him for his studies, he lived in absolute retirement, giving himself up to abstruse speculation and scientific research. Anatomy occupied him for a whole winter, and his butcher furnished him with
portions of animals "to dissect at leisure." On other occasions he made friends with the manufacturers of spectacle-glasses, and devoted himself to the study of optics. He exchanged ideas with savants on the subject of acoustics, or collected seeds of exotics from the botanical gardens of the neighbouring Universities for transmission to France.
As her wealth increased, Amsterdam was gradually transformed. Like most mediaeval towns, she had found it necessary to prepare for attack by circumvallation. But new exigencies arose with the development of her commerce. Instead of demolishing the ancient gates and towers of the enceinte which successive extensions of the boundaries in 1585, 1593, 1609 and 1612 had brought within the city, the municipal architect, Hendrick de Keyser, utilised them as entrepots, or offices for the Customs and other administrative functions. In adapting them to new requirements, he practically restricted himself to the introduction of a scheme of decoration more in accordance with prevailing taste. The Montalban Tower was thus modified in 1606, and the Haarlem Gate in 1615. In the one, the Mint was established in 1619; the other was used for the packing of herrings. The St. Anthony's Gate became the Standard Weights bureau, and its three flanking towers were assigned to the Guilds of painters, tailors, and surgeons respectively, for their periodical meetings. Such adaptations served a double end. They preserved ancient relics, and saved the expense of new buildings.
The same practical sentiment governed the transformation of disused Catholic churches and cloisters into temples of the reformed faith. Buildings specially designed for the new worship also rose in various quarters. They were generally plain rectangular halls of uniform construction, crowned by a belfry. Such were the Zuyderkerk, on the south-east, built between 1607 and 1614; the Noorderkerk, its interior in the form of a Greek cross, with a pulpit in the centre, begun in 1620, and finished three years later; and the Westerkerk, a three-aisled basilica with a transept, the building of which occupied eighteen years from 1620 to 1638.
In addition to these public buildings, a large number of private dwellings in every style of architecture had risen to modify the original aspect of the city. If treasure flowed abundantly into Amsterdam coffers, it was spent no less lavishly. The merchant princes, after amassing their great fortunes, were, like their prototypes in Venice and Florence, ambitious to distinguish themselves by the refinement of their tastes. Many of them were leaders of the
intellectual movement; they dabbled in letters, and became patrons of art. On questions of public polity they brought to bear the same honourable intelligence that had marked their business transactions. A deep sense of solidarity united all classes in labours for the common weal. Municipal authority was no exclusive appanage of patrician birth; it was open to all whose merits claimed the suffrages of their fellow-citizens.