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Belgian And Dutch Renaissance - Architectural Character

( Originally Published 1921 )

The general character of Renaissance architecture in Europe has already been described (p. 542), and when we turn to Belgium we find buildings of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, which, though similar in type to those of France, are characterised by greater freedom, often amounting to riotous extravagance in design, which produced a picturesque result, largely aided by the use of brick in conjunction with stone. The dwelling-house, its fittings and furniture, all alike received special attention, so that there is uniformity and completeness of treatment unknown in the Gothic period. Dutch Renaissance buildings reflect the matter-of-fact character of the people, and north German influence is visible, while the carrying trade with China and the East at the end of the seventeenth century introduced certain Oriental features, such as the bulbous dome. The Spanish occupation (A.D. 15561712) added a further foreign element of richness as in the tower roofs, to a style otherwise severely regular and plain. Some large buildings were erected during the Renaissance period in this north-west corner of Europe, but more especially in Belgium, while many Gothic buildings received Renaissance additions and alterations, notably in the churches of Holland, which were converted to Protestant use ; and when one wanders through the streets and along the canal-sides of these old-world towns, one comes upon many charming bits of street architecture in bright-red brick with large window openings, stone courses, and gracefully designed iron ties (p. 671 c). Much originality was displayed in gable design, which possesses a characteristic quaintness and is thoroughly suited to the use of brick. These fiat-fronted and gabled buildings stretch harmoniously along the water highways in which they are reflected.

The Baroque style (p. 545) was introduced in the seventeenth century, but one realises that the Protestant Dutch had little toleration for a style that was at one and the same time sensuous and Catholic. It is true there are a few towers, such as those of Haarlem, Amsterdam, and Middelburg, which are in the Baroque style, but for the most part the chief foothold of this style in the Netherlands was in Catholic Belgium. Here architecture had never been free from that coarse and realistic humour which characterises all Flemish art. Restraint too had previously been so largely disregarded that there was hardly any opportunity for revolt from a correct style ; for in a country where all Renaissance architecture is exuberant and ornate it is more difficult to differentiate between indigenous Belgian fancy and the imported Baroque style. Nevertheless the Baroque was brought to Belgium from Italy with the velvets of prosperous Genoa, and, in Belgium as elsewhere, was pressed into church design by the Jesuits, who travelled from country to country as agents of Roman Catholicism. There is indeed no doubt as to the Baroque nature of the seventeenth-century churches of the Jesuits (p. 665 B), such as those at Antwerp, Bruges, and Namur, and the Beguinage church at Brussels. Catholicism at that period always brought Baroque architecture in its train, and thus in Malines, a great pilgrimage centre, the churches and their confessionals and choir stalls, with their opulently ornate interiors, supply splendid examples of Baroque architecture. Just as churches adopted the new style so did buildings for commerce and industry, and those stately guild houses of Antwerp and Brussels still stand, in spite of the savagery of modern war and of German occupation, as silent symbols of the enterprise of this small country. To Belgians the style was a natural method of architectural expression, and by the same token it soon fell with fatal facility into the unarchitectural forms of rococo ornament in the eighteenth century.

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