By Christopher Brown
Cornelis Floris de Vriendt, the architect of Antwerpen Stadhuis, completed in 1565, with Classical and Renaissance Italian Architecture as his precedent, has been credited with pioneering his own unique style of architecture for the time, dubbed Netherland Renaissance.
The rapid expansion of the city in the middle of the sixteenth century caused Antwerp to outgrow its previous Gothic City Hall built in 1406. With the city becoming a new Metropolis for the time, the city council planned for this next city hall to become the most powerful hub for commerce in the world. They wanted to utilize the Grote Markt and designs from precedents in powerful cities such as Bruges and Venice in order to make the Antwerpen Stadhuis a status symbol of opulence and prosperity.
The original design for this new successor to the 1406 Gothic design was also meant to be Gothic in design in order to strike the sense of power and wealth the city wanted from this building. Ironically, while waiting for funding to start construction, the Gothic style of architecture had fallen out of fashion. Fine arts, master craftsmenship, and higher education were on the rise in the rapidly growing Belgium. Artist and designer Cornelis Floris de Vriendt and his peers became much more interested in the classical and finely crafted arts of the Italian Renaissance. With that admiration in the forefront of the minds of the designers and European society, building began under Vriendt, in a style that would become known as Netherland Renaissance. This study of the Antwerpen Stadhuis will include a formal analysis of the forms and geometry of the building as well as a discussion of the City Hall’s ornamentation and the cultural significance that comes with it. These features of the building will be juxtaposed with the inspirations for them, the Italian Renaissance, as well as with the Grote Markt (or Great Market Square) where the hall is located and some historical events involving this location.
This study aims to see if and how the Antwerpen Stadhuis was a catalyst for Northern European Renaissance coming to fashion in this region in the mid to late sixteenth century. This study will not, however, delve too deeply into the history of this region outside of the Renaissance Era of the thirteenth to eighteenth century nor will it analyze the construction history, technologies and materials.
Organization of Spaces
The Antwerp City Hall has always been a well organized space. The exterior walls, nearly all of its 62 doors, as well as most of the interior features, all adhere to the same regular grid within the space. Each floor exhibits these qualities, and the grid is maintained throughout the upper floors on the interior as well as on the exterior, as it coincides with the bays of the facade and back sides. Even the palace facade, which centers the City Hall on the Grote Markt, adheres to the grid with its crests and inlaid statues falling into rhythm.
Utilization of Space
Only the first floor of the Antwerp City Hall is open to the public as it still serves as mostly a marketplace. In fact the entire town hall stands as the only Unesco World Heritage building still standing and serving this function. The ground floor houses shops while the upper floors offer assembly, ceremony, and service spaces. There is also a bomb shelter in the basement and as one of the only updates to the building, there are a number of spaces designated to serve as exhibits about the building and city’s histories including on the upper floors in case of private tours.
The Palace Facade Portico
The “Palace Facade” of Antwerp City Hall is a brilliantly articulated entrance and portico. It is what frontalizes the building, centers it on the market square, and anchors it’s own significance in the city of Antwerp and all of Belgium. This is also where most of the Rennaisance stylings shine through. It is clear that the palace facade was meant to be a defining feature of the building. As seen on the rhythm diagram of the facade above, the majority of the building is subdued and repeated, where as the palace facade alternates every other bay, with ornamentation between and dramatically increasing ornamentation as the building ascends. Rising from the rustication with natural materials on the ground floor, we have each of the column orders corresponding with each level with the corinthian columns only appearing on the palace facade. It is further ornamented with classical forms like semicircular arches over statues, obelisks ordained with SPQR, and a classical pediment on top.
Classical Orders and Roman Influence
The ornate and highly detailed stone statues and the obelisks marked S.P.Q.A. are celebrations of the building’s influences being rooted in Roman design. This roof level elevates itself beyond the fourth level of The Colosseum by upgrading Corinthian Pilasters to full round columns of the same order and almost creates moments of perspective amongst statues and smaller Doric pilasters in order to bring forth the atmosphere of wealth and power intended for.
Corinthian Order is elevated in class and order. The Antwerpen Stadhuis respects this by only using the Corinthian Order at the highest points and among motifs and sculpture with the classic intricacies of the capitals complimenting the details of the motifs well.
The Ionic Order, with its scrolled volutes and squared cornices, is very emblematic of the rise from classical architecture due to its balance of the artistic and the practical. They are placed at a level above the ground just as in the temples and other classical monuments did. The Ionic Order rests just above the common and connects the people to artisinal and the divine.
The Doric Order is the lowest, most classic, simple, and strong of the column orders making them so foundational for everything above and beyond it. The Doric Column was meant to hold simple lentils but often holds stories of higher orders above it at ground level. The City Hall does not have these on ground level however. They begin above the street level shops and the heavily rusticated, brick arcade of the building’s forty-five entrances.
The Renaisance as a movement was meant to elevate the masses through new innovative concepts and a revival of the purity of classical forms. Skills were being refined to masterful levels and new methods of organization were sought as solutions to civic and design problems. These organization methods ranged in scale from city-scale urban plans to means of heightening a single facade. When the upper levels of a facade are both lighter in color and materials used as well as more intricate in design, the presence of the entire building is elevated. The ground level becomes dense and pure while the upper levels become precious and articulate. The intricacies of these upper levels and the pure lower forms, in the sense of the Renaissance, can all come from the classical forms that came before in the great ancient buildings. The procession of these forms, exclusive from the lightening of materials, can also come from antiquity in the form of Column Orders. The orders of Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian have always been in sequence heightening in intricacy as seen on the Roman Colosseum. Both this ancient classic and the Antwerpen City Hall use these orders to divide up a columnade and to heighten the aesthetics of each level above the last.
Commerce and Fashion
The Moment that Defined Netherlands Renaissance
With the Antwerpen Stadhuis built as a historic exemplary juxtoposition of Roman Classical Order and the Belgian way of life and commerce, what can we determine about this building’s impact on Northern European Renaissance as an art style. While some buildings that came before it in this region exhibit some Renaissance features, those features are infrequent or even overshadowed by gothic features at times. Afterward, we see the Grote Markt built around the Stadhuis with a number of guildhouses being erected. Not only did these guildhouses embody the spirit of the Renaissance in the refining of ones craft and breaking commercial ceilings, their facades each had their own take on the Renaissance style. Soon after the completion of the 1565 Antwerpen Stadhuis, there was a sudden concentration of Renaissance architecture 360 degrees around this newly formed square. Each new facade embodying the Renaissance in spirit and form, but with unique features and designs that also embody the individual spirit of each guild housed within as well as the spirit of Belgium with their love of nature and pride in commerce. These uniquely Belgian personalizations to each Renaissance design are exactly what defined this flamboyant style as Northern European Renaissance and specifically Netherlands Renaissance.
Style as a Timeline
With the advent of the printing press, Belgium, and more specifically, the City of Antwerp saw a massive influx in wealth. Individual trades formed guilds and hosted masters of their crafts. The population was rapidly increasing, the city was well planned, and the city rose to the status of commercial capitol within Europe. More buildings needed to be built and expanded to house these guilds, new citizens, and tourists. Gothic buildings still stood proudly in the region like Antwerp’s own Cathedral of Our Lady, but the style was beginning to fall out of fashion with the rise of the Renaissance in other countries like Italy. By the time Antwerp needed to build so many new buildings, the Renaissance had reached a period of Mannerism, a High but late form of the style that was both intricate and classic. The majority of construction following that of the Antwerp City Hall was influenced by its own style as well as the wealth and creativity of the master craftsmen that now resided within the city.
The turn of the 17th century saw the commercial regions of the city filled with new and unique Netherlands Renaissance designs, but Renaissance began to fall out of fashion globally during the 17th century. Within the first few decades of the century, new buildings further abandoned Gothic design principles and found more classical ways to ornament a significant building, thus ushering in the Romanesque style, notably seen in the St. Charles Borromeo Church of Antwerp, built just 50 years after the City Hall. Those exact 50 years, 1565 – 1615, mark a commercial and creative peak for the City of Antwerp, and its a history that be read on the architecture seen on a short walk of a few blocks through the center of the City of Antwerp.