Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 31, 2008
Krista de Jonge and Konrad Ottenheym, eds. Unity and Discontinuity: Architectural Relationships between the Southern and Northern Low Countries (1530–1700) Turnhout: Brepols, 2007. 436 pp.; 342 b/w ills. Paper $130.00 (9782503513669)
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This ambitious, multi-authored volume brings to fruition nearly ten years of academic effort. The two editors, who are in fact responsible for over two-thirds of the book, set out to question and, ultimately, to discredit a deeply entrenched set of scholarly habits. They argue persuasively that there can be no rigid division between “Dutch” and “Flemish” architecture in the early modern period. As Konrad Ottenheym demonstrates in an impassioned introduction, such a division was only imposed in the nineteenth century, when scholars serving the new states of Belgium and the Kingdom of the Netherlands dutifully invented national architectural traditions. This point is set in broader perspective by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann in an illuminating epilogue. In Europe, art history—and, with it, architectural history—was shaped as a discipline in the searing forges of nineteenth-century nationalism, with all the toxic ideological traces that this implies. The great virtue of the volume, then, is that it is addressed explicitly to this persistent but rarely acknowledged scholarly problem. As a whole, it is a sustained and detailed reexamination of the history of early modern Netherlandish architecture, which eschews nationalist preconceptions.

The book is organized into four sections. The first two focus on what is arguably the most important stylistic aspect of early modern European architecture, the revival of the Classical or Antique formal vocabulary. Section 1, written entirely by Krista de Jonge, is a detailed survey of the first assimilations of the Antique in the Low Countries, found in architectural projects sponsored by the Habsburg rulers and the noble and civic elites. This provides an important foundation for the general argument of the book since these elite groupings operated across all of the Netherlands even if the main centers of activity were usually in the south. Section 2, by both editors although with Ottenheym providing the lion’s share, focuses on Netherlandish architectural theory in the period 1560–1640. Here an important point emerges. In the period covered, Vitruvius and, to a slightly lesser extent, Serlio were increasingly invoked in both the south and the north as the ultimate yardsticks of architectural correctness. However, in practice Vitruvianism was a broad umbrella under which sheltered theorists, practitioners, and patrons as varied as Hans Vredeman de Vries, Simon Stevin, Peter Paul Rubens, and Constantijn Huyghens. For most of the period covered, the Antique formal vocabulary was thus a flexible entity, invoked as a general source of authority rather than as a rigidly defined system. Only toward the 1640s, when the writings of Vincenzo Scamozzi became ever more influential in the northern Netherlands, can one trace the emergence of a stricter “Dutch” Classicism with a coherent relationship between structure and ornamentation.

The third section of the volume shifts away from stylistic and theoretical concerns, focusing instead on the patronage systems that subtended building practices in the Low Countries in the early modern period. Roughly two-thirds of this is written by de Jonge and Ottenheym, who discuss courtly and civic patronage, and there is also a lengthy survey of ecclesiastical architecture by Joris Snaet. Together these contributions develop a point already introduced in the previous two sections, namely that differences between the north and south should be sought not so much on the level of style—there was a shared commitment to Vitruvianism and, at the same time, to the older Gothic style, especially in church buildings—but rather in diverging patterns of patronage and in consequent variations in building types. This, in fact, confirms several well-established notions about the differences between the north and the south, although the core argument remains that such distinctions only came into being gradually and unevenly during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

First, throughout the period, the Habsburg court in the south wielded a weight of political prestige and hence of architectural influence that the Orange court in the north could only begin to match by the very end of the seventeenth century. Second, the Roman Catholic Church played a vital role in the south, and naturally this had a considerable impact on church architecture. In the multi-confessional north, where Calvinism was dominant yet never fully a state religion, this was something that the local theocrats could only dream of. Instead, in this area it was the immensely affluent civic oligarchies of rentiers and great merchants—the so-called Regent class—who took a leading role in architectural patronage. In other words, any differences between the architecture of the northern and the southern Netherlands are here explained through political and religious phenomena, and, contrary to traditional scholarly belief, these phenomena did not have straightforward or predictable stylistic consequences. The short fourth section, by Gabri van Tussenbroek, covers the varying yet continuous trade in stone and other architectural materials between the south and the north. Simply on the level of building materials, there was a steady dialogue across the Low Countries.

As a whole, then, the four sections constitute a timely caution against rigid scholarly categories such as “Dutch” and “Flemish” architecture. For this reason alone, there can be no doubt that this volume is an intelligent and salutary contribution to scholarship. Anachronistic usages of the categories “Dutch” and “Flemish” continue to bedevil not only architectural history but also great swathes of history, art history, and museum practice. It is to be devoutly hoped that de Jonge and Ottenheym’s volume will help to change this lamentable situation.

Since the volume is of such general importance it may seem churlish to point out certain weaknesses in its argument. Yet there are some, none of them fatal but nevertheless structural. To the mind of the present author, the most problematic is that in the southern Netherlands the Counter-Reformatory Catholic Church is made to carry a great weight of responsibility for the distinct style traditionally termed “Flemish Baroque”—that is, for a rich and highly sculptural approach to architectural ornamentation evinced, for example, in the Antwerp Jesuit church. The reason for this, to quote Ottenheym, is that, “Within the traditional building typology, the highest rank of building in the Catholic world was allotted to its churches, since they were God’s residence on earth” (158). This point, however, is contradicted elsewhere in the volume where Snaet points out that in the south the strict architectural rules of the influential Capuchin order sometimes resulted in very plain church buildings indeed (262–65). Other orders, such as the Discalced Carmelites, would follow suit when not beholden to courtly patrons (see ill. 276). So, among Catholics, God was sometimes expected to dwell in extreme simplicity; the Counter-Reformatory Church in the south was not universally committed to opulent buildings. That is not to say that the religious differences between the north and the south were immaterial, merely that their impact must be assessed more thoroughly and subtly.

A related problem lies in the characterization of northern church architecture as “a noble kind of school building, erected solely to spread the Word of God” (335). This hardly squares with the point that, “The Westerkerk [of Amsterdam] was the largest church erected for Protestant worship until the reconstruction of London’s St Paul’s” (256). Moreover, the ornamental vocabulary of the Westerkerk is a match for many a Catholic church; for example, it far outstrips the humble if dignified sanctuary of the Discalced Carmelite nuns in Antwerp. In addition, churches such as the Westerkerk were usually civic projects, built under the control of the local Regents. Indeed, as Andrew Spicer has pointed out, the committed Calvinists who worshipped in Dutch church buildings sometimes ran into conflict with the civic authorities who normally owned and managed them (Andrew Spicer, Calvinist Churches in Early Modern Europe, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007). As such, the great churches of the north were surely not meant to be glorified schoolhouses but rather self-conscious statements of civic prowess and pride.

On a more pedantic note, there are some editing issues. Writing about the Netherlands always poses certain problems of nomenclature, and these have not been dealt with consistently. Sometimes both French and Dutch/Flemish usages are helpfully given, at other times only one or the other. This becomes particularly confusing when Francophone cities such as Arras and Lille, best known in the Anglophone world by their French names, are given only their lesser-known Dutch/Flemish titles of Atrecht and Rijsel.

That said, this is an important book which ought to be read by anybody with a serious interest in the art or architecture of the early modern Netherlands. One does not have to agree with all of its arguments to find it intellectually rewarding. And that in itself is a remarkable achievement, worth a wait of ten years.

Margit Thøfner
Research Associate, Sainsbury Research Unit, University of East Anglia

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.