A walk through Baroque and Contemporary
Antwerp, the Belgian city with a Catholic and Baroque soul, is home to a series of exhibitions, restorations and events during the Antwerp Baroque 2018 event.
Rubens Inspires, in order to celebrate the role this city held between the 16th and 17th centuries. The heart of these events is the exhibition of Pieter Paul Rubens, organized in the Rubenshuis, a private home but also a workshop, laboratory, offices and a small private museum of the painter, who was an illustrious citizen of this city.
Rubens was one of the greatest interpreters of Baroque style, and translated the doctrines of Catholicism into powerful and seductive images. His figures, made with fluid and quick brushstrokes, show impetuous movements, the colour is dense and brilliant and the strong contrasts between light and shadow underline a dynamic strength.
Baroque was the figurative language used by the Catholic Church as a means of propaganda against heresies. In the Roman-Catholic variant, we find an illusionistic and theatrical style where reality and fiction merge, manipulating the observer-believer at the unconscious level instead of appealing to reason, as we had seen in the Renaissance.
Rubens, the first “European” intellectual and curious traveller, came to Italy in 1600, playing an important role for the mediation between the Northern European and the Roman figurative language. He worked a great deal in Rome and once he had returned to his homeland, he brought the taste and style typical of Italy, so much so that even the Rubenshuis is inspired by the Italian palaces.
Rubens’ footprints are found almost everywhere in the city. Not far from the Rubenshuis, in the same district that in the 17th century was inhabited by the finest of Antwerp, you can find the Church of Saint James, a beautiful building between Gothic and Baroque, adorned with luxurious tombs including that of Rubens, who personally chose the canvas to be placed on the altar: the Madonna Surrounded by Saints painted in 1634. An interesting fact is that the church is still today the starting point for pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela.
Another interesting place to visit is the Cathedral of Our Lady, a splendid seven-aisled gothic building that dominates the city with its 123-meter-high tower. Inside there are several works by Rubens, including altarpieces and 4 other masterpieces. The medieval windows are also noteworthy. In these two churches the Monumental Churches event will be held (until 31/12/2018), offering visual art, dance and musical performances.
Another place connected to Rubens is the Plantin-Moretus Museum, a UNESCO heritage site. Located in a medieval palace, it was the printing house and private abode of Christophe Plantin, founder of one of the oldest and most active publishing houses in Europe with which Rubens himself collaborated. Inside you will find, in addition to manuscripts, ancient presses and sets of original matrices.
If you want to see how people lived at the time of the painter, visit Rockox House, a home from the early ‘600 with period furniture, which belonged to Nicolaas Rockox, the burgomaster of the city but also an enlightened patron and collector. In fact, inside there are works by important artists, including two by Brueghel. Do not forget to talk a walk around the internal courtyard, a typical example of a Dutch 17th century courtyard-garden.
However, Antwerp is not stuck in its past and boasts daring experiments in contemporary architecture. Among these, the Diamond” Port House, the new headquarters of the port authority designed by the British-Iraqi architect, Zaha Hadid. This is a truly unique addition of the past into the present, surely to make a name for itself.
In fact, the integrity of the historical building has been maintained, over which the artist suspended a prismatic structure in alternating transparent and opaque triangular glass slabs that, reflecting the variable conditions of the sky, gives the feeling of continuous movement. The effect is suggestive and the shape alludes precisely to the diamond, an allegory to one of the most flourishing businesses in the city.
Another place you shouldn’t miss is the aan de Stroom Museum (an ethnographic, anthropological and maritime museum), an original 60-meter tower made up of 10 superimposed and 90° rotated stone parallelepipeds. The blocks recall the shape of the old port warehouses in which stone walls alternate with large undulating sheets of glass offering a spectacular view of the city.
Also visit the medieval fortress Het Steen Het Steen (the Stone) in the historic centre. The original construction was greatly modified in the 19th century, yet it still retains the charm of an ancient castle.
One last piece of advice, if you can arrive in the city by train, you will be able to fully appreciate the Centraal Station (1895-1905), a monumental building with eclectic style, counted among the most beautiful European stations with its spectacular dome in iron and glass.