November 30, 2010

The Little Béguinage.

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In the middle of Gent stands a refuge, secluded from the bustling city by the Neerschelde and a high wall and various other structures surrounding it. The main point of entry is a Neoclassical gate, dating back to 1819, its narrow alleys eventually opening up on a courtyard lined with beech and lime trees. The courtyard itself is dominated by a large church, which overlooks some 100 small houses, a small chapel, an administrative building, a hospital, and remnants of a farm — all bearing the name of a saint. This is the béguinage of Onze-Lieve-Vrouw Ter Hooyen ("Our Lady of Hay"), more commonly known as Klein Begijnhof, or "the Little Béguinage", one of the best preserved of its kind.

It's one of three such complexes in Gent, one of eighteen in Belgium, all of which are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. (The other Heritage Site entry in Gent is the city's belfry, which is listed with 55 others in Belgium and France.) Though originally laid out in the 13th century on the meadow known as Groene Hooie ("green hay"), from which the béguinage derives its name, most of the current structures date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Its main church, named for the same "Lady of Hay" as the surrounding béguinage, was built between 1654 and 1658, with a new façade added in 1716.

Most likely named for the priest Lambert le Bègue (Lambert the Stutterer), a self styled Catholic reformer who lambasted the abuses and vices of fellow clergy from his Liège parish, béguinages were semi-monastic religious communities, established across the Low Countries as well as parts of Northwestern Germany at the beginning of the 13th century. Unlike regular monasteries or convents, béguinages didn't require those who sought refuge there to take vows or withdraw from the world. Nor did they have to surrender their property (if they held any), or pay the exorbitant admission fees demanded by other "spiritual" institutions, and they were free to "return" to the world at large whenever they wished.

Perhaps because of this, béguinages tended to attract single women in particular; unmarried or widowed by the various religious wars and crusades that were shattering their communities at the time, or perhaps simply choosing a life of attending to the poor, prayer, and charity after their own fashion. In fact, it's tempting to suggest that béguinages may have provided a viable alternative for women who wanted more out of life than simply becoming some man's chattel. Particularly as the béguines initially supported themselves through manual labour rather than through alms.

Many came to teach the children of town folk, the low nobility from which many of the béguines themselves were drawn — the very segment of society that would one day become the middle class. However, as time wore on, the béguines and beghards (their male counterparts) began relying on begging or rich sponsors to sustain their communities. Soon too, their "unregulated" lifestyle (no to forget the profits they were diverting) sparked the ire of Catholic Church, which set about branding them heretic and — as is its wont — persecuting them.

Despite the church's attempts to stamp them out, the béguinages continued to exist and function well into the 20th century, with the last béguine in Belgium, Sister Marcella, the last béguine of Kortrijk, currently living out her nineties in a rest home. In fact, the Little Béguinage by the lower Schelde endured not only the impounding of religious real estate that followed in the wake of the French Revolution, but also being pawned off on a duke in 1862, before becoming the property of a private organisation in the mid-1920s — with the last remaining béguines inhabiting their modest domiciles well into the 1990s.

Today, the lay sisterhoods little houses have been largely converted into condominiums, offering one story with an attic, sometimes a basement and a small back garden, enclosed by high whitewashed walls. Some of the larger structures, except the church and chapel, have also been utilised as ateliers and galleries. A "gated community" of sorts, the little béguinage is now a semi-cloistered environment for people who wish to retreat from inner city life after 10PM, when it's main gate closes to non-residents.

November 10, 2010

Rubens House.

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In 1610, after returning from Italy and marrying artist's model Isabella Brandt (1591 — 1626), Flemish diplomat, painter, graphic artist, designer, and collector Peter Paul Rubens (1577 — 1640) purchased a property on what was then Vaartstraat (now the Wapper) in Antwerpen (Anvers). Having specifically received permission from the sovereigns of the Spanish Netherlands to establish his studio in his ancestral home town rather than at the court in Brussel (Bruxelles), Rubens set about altering the residence in subsequent years. Though famous in his own time for his paintings of various religious and mythological subjects, portraits, landscapes, tapestries, and scenes inspired by historical events, he's perhaps now more readily associated with "rubenesque" figures, given his penchant for painting mature, fully-developed women, rather then abnormal, starved wretched wenches of the sort widely idealised today.

In accordance with his artistic ideals, Rubens added a "fully-developed", Baroque portico and studio, a semi-circular 'Pantheon' to house his art collection (one of the largest in Antwerpen at the time), and laid out a garden, all inspired by Greco-Roman antiquity and the Italian renaissance. The new structures gave the otherwise quite traditional 16th century residence the resemblance of an Italian palazzo, and were unequalled in Antwerpen at the time. The façade of the studio (where some 2,500 paintings were produced with the help of the artist's colleagues, assistants, and pupils) in particular demonstrates how the Rubens' stay in Italy influenced not only his paintings but also his ideas about architecture.

Notable among the rare paintings on display throughout the house are Adam and Eve, one of Rubens' earliest known works, finished before his departure for Italy in 1600, and his acquisition of his more familiar expressive style, as well as Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry, one of his last — and unfinished — paintings, revealing the technique and collective effort dedicated to its creation. Equally notable is one of only four self-portraits Rubens painted, dated to around 1630, when the artist was in his early fifties. Apart from its rarity, it also differs from, say, the many self-portraits of Rubens' contemporary Rembrandt, in that Rubens chose to present himself in the guise of the distinguished gentleman diplomat he mainly appeared to have thought himself as, rather than the painter — the Flemish Baroque master — which became his distinction.

After Rubens passed away, his second wife, Hélène Fourment (1614 — 1673) continued to live in the house, even renting it out between 1648 and 1660 to William and Margaret Cavendish, refugees of the English Civil War, who established a riding school there. Once the Cavendishes moved on, the residence was sold by Rubens' heirs. Largely ignored and subjected to various renovations, it was acquired by the city of Antwerpen in 1937 and, after a thorough restoration, opened as a museum in 1946. The reconstructed Baroque garden, restored in the 1940s, was completely relaid in 1993, leaving the portico and the garden pavilion as the sole authentic parts of the 17th century complex — though all the plants currently grown in the garden were known in Rubens' time, including sunflower, tulips, fritillaries (misionbells), and potato plant specimens imported from "the New World" as decorative plants.

A glass pavilion, designed by Stéphane Beel (with Maur Dessauvage and Laurent Ney), housing visitor facilities — such as reception, cloakroom, and shop — separate form the actual residence itself, was constructed on the Wapper in 1999. This elegant solution to the type of space-related problems similar museums face (most historically important residences not having been designed with streams of visitors in mind) allowed the Rubens' residence to remain largely unaltered. The elaborate style of the courtyard, with its myriad of symbolic details, also make it quite clear the the exterior of the residence — facing the Wapper — was of little interest to Rubens. The residence rather gives the impression of being inhabited by someone who enjoyed living surrounded by art and beautiful objects, but had little need or desire for obvious ostentation, and who certainly didn't fit the stereotype of a struggling artist.

(More images of Rubens House.)

November 5, 2010

The Count's Castle.

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Practically at the centre of Gent stands what for all intents and purposes is a medieval castle: the Gravensteen ("Count's Castle"). The original structure was constructed in 1180, on a site by the river Leie (Lys) that fortified structures had occupied since the 9th century. Yet whether the fairytale building that can be seen and visited here today in any way resembles the original is hotly debated, mainly due to the extensive — some claim "imaginative" — restoration undertaken by the city of Gent in the late 1800s.

Having been constructed by the order of the then Count of Flanders, Philip I (1142 — 1191), the original Gravensteen was modelled on the crusader forts the Count had encountered during the fiasco later known as the Second Crusade. The castle then served as the seat of the Counts of Flanders until formally abandoned in the 14th century, though they rarely spent much time there to begin with, possessing many other castles and houses between which they frequently travelled.

In 1353 the castle housed the city Mint, between 1407 and 1778 the Raad van Vlaanderen (the Council of Flanders, the regions highest legal college) and a prison, before finally being turned into a cotton mill in 1807 — likely the first example of industrial repurposing of any building in Gent. New buildings were erected along the former castle's crumbling walls, parts of which were even recycled as building material for new structures. Inescapably, the decaying Gravensteen became a symbol of abusive power, feudal oppression, horrendous incarceration, and torturous inquisition.

Yet despite calls for its removal, it survived and, beginning in 1894, was subjected to a "romanticizing" restoration, considerably altering the castle to suit 19th century ideas of what the Middle Ages should look like. (Though a decent slice of the real thing can be seen in the torture museum housed in the castle since 2002.) However, as the only remaining medieval castle in Flanders, with a virtually intact defense system, the Gravensteen is among the most visited sites in Gent — if one of the scientifically least examined ones, with no serious archeological research conducted on the structure prior to the 1950s.

The castle is said to have succumbed to invaders only once, in November 1949, when students incensed by the rising price of beer (and the change of policemen's caps from white to blue making them indistinguishable from mailmen and taxi drivers) entered and occupied the Gravensteen. Alas, their siege — now notorious as the Slag om het Gravensteen ("The Battle of the Count's Castle") — proved unfruitful, with prices for the coveted beverages continuing to climb even as the defeated (and presumably quite thirsty) scholars filed out of the Count's old keep. Like so many disillusioned crusaders before them.

(More images of the castle.)

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