As the unofficial party capital of Europe, it’s hard to imagine that Amsterdam was once one of the richest and most influential places in the entire world. Yet during the Dutch Golden Age, it was just that. Not only was it the capital of the Golden Age, but it was also the financial capital of the planet at that time.
It’s hard to imagine from your holiday apartments in Amsterdam Central, preparing for a night out, but four hundred years ago the place would have been teeming with merchants and businesspeople.
Like the beginnings of many new ages, the rise of Amsterdam coincided with changes being made in other parts of the world. There was a revolt against the King of Spain which resulted in a huge increase in immigration to the Dutch Capital.
Jews fled directly from Spain and Portugal, fleeing persecution by the Spanish authorities. Amsterdam was perceived as having a fairly relaxed and tolerant view of religion so was selected as an ideal destination.
They were followed by refugees from the Flemish cities around Amsterdam where the Spanish had tightened their grip on power.
These two groups followed the natural immigration to a thriving city. Amongst them were the well connected, the intellectuals and the established merchants who would be at the forefront of taking Amsterdam and Holland into its most successful period.
Before the rise of Amsterdam, nearby Antwerp was the region’s busiest trade centre, but as Dutch ships spread out around the world, Amsterdam quickly overtook it.
As the ships traded with major ports in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India, back home the city opened the world’s first ever stock exchange. Trading in goods from around the world saw the city’s wealth grow exponentially.
The ships began to fall under the control of one company, the first multinational company the world had ever seen, the legendary Dutch East India Company. This was followed by the Dutch West India Company and the range of items that were being traded increased greatly.
By 1600, the population in the capital had doubled from what it had been thirty years previously. Seventy years later the population had increased again by nearly 400%.
During this time the canals were built and developed, urban areas were increased and improved. The city became one of the most sanitary in Europe, after previously being considered the most unsanitary! Amsterdam was considered an architectural gem.
The freedom that Amsterdam sold itself on also went a long way to establishing it as the city that people wanted to live and work in. Not just religious freedom but the freedom to think and say what you felt.
This freedom to think made it a haven for artists and intellectuals. Painters produced some of the greatest works ever completed and scientists made breakthroughs previously thought impossible.
The money that flowed into the city helped this process too. The Dutch Republic had been formed after the revolt against the Spanish which meant that the Catholic church had less wealth and influence. The wealth now lay with the ordinary citizen and it was they who were commissioning and funding great works of art.
The topic of the artwork also changed too. As it wasn’t being commissioned by anyone associated with religion, the subject matter no longer needed to be religious in content. More palatable worldly subjects were instead requested.
Rembrandt led the change in producing paintings of still life and seascapes. The latter was a particularly popular subject matter given the Dutch dominance of the seas.
Also popular were group portraits. The meticulous organisation of Amsterdam meant that there were now plenty of associations such as guilds, guards and bureaucrats who naturally wanted themselves immortalised in a painting.
Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’ is the most famous example of this kind of commission.
Although the Golden Age of Amsterdam was over after around a century, the successes it brought the city are still evident today and have made the city what it is.
It is no longer the financial capital of the world and the Netherlands is less of a dominant force, but the tolerances and freedoms that Amsterdam became famous for are still very much evident.
Other physical reminders exist too. The Portuguese Synagogue, built by the Jews who fled the Iberian region in 1675, is still open for visitors.
The seafaring successes of the Dutch are also celebrated in the National Maritime Museum. The Museum also has a life-size replica of a trading ship that would have been used by the Dutch East India Company.
The architecture from the age is evident all around you and the art can be seen across the city in places such as the Rijksmuseum, where you can view Rembrandt’s famed ‘The Night Watch’.
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