Rubens as an architect
Rubens was talented in many areas of life. Besides being the gifted painter we all know, he was also a diplomat, a devoted family man, an art collector and architect. Where better to begin this immersion in Rubens’s city than the house in which he lived and worked?
When Rubens returned from Italy in 1608, at the age of 31, he came back with a case full of sketches and a head full of ideas. He purchased a plot of land with a house near his grandfather’s home (Meir 54) and converted it into his own Palazzetto. Take an hour to visit the Rubens House and to breathe in the atmosphere in the master’s house before setting off to explore his city.
Rubens’s palazzetto on the Wapper was not yet complete when the artist was commissioned to work on the Baroque Jesuit church some distance away, at Hendrik Conscienceplein.
On your way to Hendrik Conscienceplein, we would suggest you make a brief stop at another church: St James’s Church (St Jacobskerk) in Lange Nieuwstraat. This robust building dooms up rather unexpectedly among the houses, but its interior presents a perfect harmony between Gothic and Baroque: the elegant Middle Ages and the flamboyant style of the 17th century go hand-in-hand here. This was Rubens’s parish church. It is clear from the pomp and ceremony of the altars and chapels that this church had many other wealthy parishioners. Rubens would be buried here, as would the rest of his family. The painting above the tomb is by the master himself.
The St Carolus Borromeus Church at Hendrik Conscienceplein is the epitome of Italian grandeur. With his knowledge of Italian architecture, Rubens undoubtedly contributed ideas for the façade, but his greatest achievements here are to be seen in the interior. Rubens designed the richly decorated chapel and its impressive marble high altar. Sadly, all that remains of the master’s 39 ceiling paintings are the sketches that are preserved in the church. The paintings themselves perished in a huge fire in 1718. The high altar merits particular attention: behind the enormous painting – it measures 4.0 x 5.35 metres – other works are concealed. An ingenious pulley system is used to rotate the works at fixed intervals. The visible painting is detached and stored away vertically, after which the pulley raises and installs the new one. This unique spectacle has been going on for 400 years! Another feature that deserves attention on the exterior of this remarkable church is the tower, based on a design by Rubens. You will need to go round the block in order to admire it in all its glory.
Time for lunch, at the Hendrik Conscienceplein with its glorious Italian ambience. Especially in the summer months you might easily think that you have arrived in the warm climes of southern Europe. Relax in one of the outdoor cafes and imagine yourself in the company of Rubens, who used to come to this very spot 400 years ago to look at his work.
At home in all corners of the world
Behind the façade adjoining the St Carolus Borromeus Church lies a public secret: the Nottebohm Room, part of the Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library. The Nottebohm Room is one of the most beautiful and oldest libraries in Belgium. Besides its one and a half million books, this atmospheric room contains a celestial and terrestrial globe, each one 68 cm in diameter, made by Willem Jansz. Blaeu, a contemporary of Rubens. Access to the Nottebohm Room is restricted. A guided tour of the heritage library – with the Nottebohm Room as its high point – takes two hours, and can be booked through a link on the site. This visit should be planned carefully in advance; alternatively, it is well worth a return visit!
You are now in the heart of the city. Close to Hendrik Conscienceplein is the market square or Grote Markt, with the impressive town hall where Rubens was often to be found.
Passing through Suikerrui you arrive on Scheldekaaien, from which you can stroll along the promenade that starts at the Steen – the old fortress – and runs upstream, in a southerly direction. Antwerp owes its existence to this river, which has been carrying ships, goods and people into the city centre for centuries.
After getting a breath of fresh air on the bank of the Scheldt, we visit a boyhood friend of Rubens at the Plantin-Moretus Museum. At the Latin school the young Peter Paul met Balthasar Moretus; the two became lifelong friends. Balthasar was the grandson of the printer and publisher Christophe Plantin, whose printing works would also print and distribute prints by Rubens. Well worth looking at in the master printer’s museum is one of Rubens’s sketchbooks, in which he made 44 pen-and-ink drawings, based on the Danse macabre, a series of drawings by the famous 16th-century painter and printmaker Hans Holbein.
Old and new
Nearby Kloosterstraat is a perfect place for a small treasure hunt. This is a street with a special place in Rubens’s heart, not only because it was where his father-in-law, Jan Brant, lived – in a house where Rubens and his bride Isabella lived for a while after their wedding. He would certainly also have enjoyed visiting the street’s many antique dealers. Rubens was a great art lover and collector. Anyone who has space in their suitcase may try to strike a bargain with one of the numerous dealers who sell their wares in the street here from Wednesday to Sunday.
For those who prefer fashion to antiques, there is the fashion museum, the Modemuseum, just round the corner. Careful scrutiny of the Rubens statue at Groenplaats and of his self-portraits reveals that he was always immaculately dressed. Still, Antwerp’s place on the world map of fashion owes more to the modern designers known as the Antwerp 6, although the connection with the 17th-century Old Masters is never very far away. Dries Van Noten draws inspiration from Rubens and Van Dyck. The Modemuseum is the temple of fashion in Antwerp and a modern ode to the metropolis.
For dinner we head for the city’s southern district. The Museum of Fine Arts (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten) is closed for a face lift until 2019, but we have come here for the numerous restaurants in one of Antwerp’s trendiest neighbourhoods. If you decide to walk to Vlaamse Kaai you will find the water gate, a monument built after a design by Rubens and once an entrance to the city. Enjoy the atmosphere and the wide range of choices. And enjoy the city.
A tip for those who may feel like doing something after dinner: look on the site www.lastminuteticketshop.be. Every Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. onwards, this site offers tickets at 50% off box office prices for all sorts of shows and performances in Antwerp that same evening. Definitely worth keeping an eye on.
Art among the trees
Today’s quest for the great master starts outside the city centre in a park full of art. Rubens was a painter, collector, architect and art lover, but he left sculpture to others. He did have sculptors in his entourage to make the frames for his works and sculptures for his palazzetto gallery – such as Lucas Faydherbe, who trained in Rubens’s workshop. You have already encountered him there. His sculpture of the Roman demigod Hercules is displayed in the Rubens House. If he had lived today, the master would certainly have been a fan of the Middelheim Museum. The park does not have any antique busts; instead it has a collection of 100 years of art in a unique setting. You can have lunch in one of the adjoining parks, surrounded by greenery, either in MIKA museum café or out in the woods with a picnic that you can order at the café.
After lunch we return to the city centre to pay a brief visit to a good friend. Nicolaas Rockox was the burgomaster of Antwerp and the single person who was in a position to keep Rubens in Antwerp for good. After Rubens returned from Italy in 1608, when his mother was on her deathbed, Rockox secured several major commissions for him. For instance, it was thanks to the burgomaster that he painted one of his best-known works, the Raising of the Cross. Rubens was a frequent visitor to the burgomaster’s home. So if you enter the Rockox House, you will be literally treading in the master’s footsteps. But that is not the only reason to include it in your tour. The house also gives an authentic picture of the lives of 17th-century patricians. Rockox was an art connoisseur and collector, and his house is full of items he collected, including works by Anthony van Dyck, Frans Snyders, and of course Rubens.
Entering the Rockox House, you find yourself in between the city’s Old and New Exchange. The ‘new’ exchange came into use in 1531, to replace the old one, which had become too small. It is currently undergoing renovation and conversion into an event hall, and is therefore not open to the public. The ‘Old Exchange’ lies in the other direction and merits a small detour. After the new, larger exchange came into use, the old exchange itself was demolished and a new patrician residence in Gothic style was erected in its place. That traditional style was not to Rubens’s taste, but the beautiful courtyard with the ‘Pagadder tower’ has a southern ambience and doubtless appealed to him. On the ground is an interesting feature: the cobblestones are arranged in a circle that is exactly the same size as the dial on the cathedral clock.
Shop till you drop
After a large dose of culture it is time for Meir. Yesterday’s expedition started at the Rubens House on Wapper, a side street leading off from this spectacular shopping boulevard. In between the outlets of the best-known retail chains, which will quicken any keen shopper’s pulse, you will find, at number 54, the house of Rubens’s grandfather, Jan Pijpelinckx. When the Rubens family returned to Antwerp after a period in Germany, they briefly moved in here. Be sure to look up at the frieze on the top, where you will see a famous name on the façade.
Take the time for a wonderful shopping spree, or carry on right up to the station, on the way enjoying the 19th-century and 20th-century architecture, for which you will need to look up above the shop fronts. You will not have any difficulty finding Central Station: it is known – not just to the people of Antwerp! – as the most beautiful station in the world. Go and have a look – both outside and inside!
On the way to the station you could make a detour in the direction of the city park. In Rubens’s day, Antwerp was a city dominated by water. Covered canals and other waterways took care of the defences of the growing city and facilitated the transport of goods. With the passage of time, however, they also became open sewers, in which all the city’s waste gradually collected. Since the tides moved the water back and forth in these canals, low tide would often spread a foul odour around the city. To escape from the stench, Rubens went off for daily rides on his horse, either on the city walls or beyond them. There he could breathe in some essential fresh air, which was so scarce in Antwerp’s packed inner city. Inhale the fragrance of the trees in the city park as Rubens would have done, and take a seat on a bench to count the passing joggers.
Herbal tea with some friends
After this intermezzo, let’s go and visit a few other friends. Rubens did not work alone in his studio, but sometimes enlisted the assistance of his friend Jan Brueghel the Elder. Painters often collaborated, especially if they complemented each other as well as Jan and Peter Paul. The Mayer Van den Bergh Museum has dedicated one of its rooms to the Brueghel family. Jan Brueghel the Elder was a friend of Rubens, but Rubens also greatly respected the work of Jan’s father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. If you want to see the latter’s work in Flanders, you will need to visit this museum. There you will find one of his best-known works, Dulle Griet (also known as Mad Meg), of which – in contrast to many of Pieter Bruegel’s other paintings, no copy exists. Given our principle that ‘Rubens’s friends are our friends’, we cannot leave this museum out.
After your museum visit, if you go through Elzenveld you will end up in the city’s botanical gardens. Over the past two hundred years the city has collected over 2,000 plant species here, selected for their medicinal or other unique properties, to be used in the adjacent Elisabeth Hospital. Although Rubens never visited Antwerp’s herbal garden, he did study a great many gardens during his Italian trip – examples that helped him plan the gardens of his Palazzetto. You will be struck above all by the meticulous planting and an air of sublime tranquility.
The most beautiful farewell sight
All those herbs and plants may well have made you hungry. The city centre is a perfect place in which to conclude your two-day visit to Antwerp.
We have left the city’s most beautiful sight to the end. Behind the gate on Oude Koornmarkt 16 opens up another, secret world. The city’s poorest inhabitants once lived in Vlaeykensgang. Today, this mediaeval alley is an oasis of peace in the city centre and a perfect place from which to listen to the carillon. We might ponder whether the great Peter Paul would ever have wandered through here: in his lifetime, the alley would certainly not have looked as charming as it does today. There are two exits from the alley aside from the one through which you entered.
When you pass out of the alley into the busier streets beyond, it is time for dinner. Choose at leisure, wandering around the small streets, across Grote Markt or Suikerrui. Once you have relaxed into an appealing spot with your favourite aperitif, you may want to propose a toast to your new friendship with Peter Paul Rubens. Rubens loved Antwerp so much that he settled here and did not return to Italy. We hope that the many treasures you have seen during this tour have persuaded you too of the magic of Antwerp.
We hope to see you again soon!
Stops during this tour
- Rubens House - Wapper 9-11 – Open daily except Mondays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed on Mondays and on New Year’s Day, 1 May, Ascension Day, 1 November, and 25 December. - www.rubenshuis.be - €8/6 - Combiticket Rubens House and Museum Mayer van den Bergh costs €10.
- St Jacobskerk – Lange Nieuwstraat 73/75 - Open 7 days a week from 2 to 5 p.m. Closed from 1 Nov. to 31 March. - www.sintjacobAntwerpen.be - €4.
- St Carolus Borromeuskerk - Hendrik Conscienceplein – Open 7 days a week from 10 a.m. to 12.30 and from 2 to 5 p.m. On Sundays and public holidays open only for services. - www.mkaweb.be - admission free of charge.
- Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library / Notebohm Room – Korte Nieuwstraat - www.consciencebibliotheek.be.
- Museum Plantin-Moretus – Vrijdagmarkt 22 - www.museumplantinmoretus.be - Open daily except for Mondays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed on Mondays. - €8/6.
- Modemuseum – Nationalestraat 28 - www.momu.be - Open daily except for Mondays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed on Mondays. - €8/6/3.
- Middelheim Museum - Middelheimlaan 61 – Open daily except for Mondays from 10 a.m. to 5, 6 or 7 p.m. depending on the season. Closed on Mondays - www.middelheimmuseum.be - admission free of charge.
- Rockox House – Keizerstraat 10-12 - www.rockoxhuis.be - Open daily except for Mondays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed on Mondays and on 1 and 2 Jan., Ascension Day, and 25-26 Dec. - €8/6.
- Oude Beurs – Hofstraat 15.
- Museum Mayer van den Bergh – Lange Gasthuisstraat 19 - Open daily except for Mondays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed on Mondays and public holidays - www.museummayervandenbergh.be - €8/6 – Combiticket Museum Mayer van den Bergh and Rubens House costs €10.
- Botanical Gardens - Leopoldstraat 24 - Open 7 days a week from 10 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. – admission free of charge.
- Vlaeykensgang - Oude Koornmarkt 16.
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Text: Rubens House