Antwerp: Tracing the legacy of Rubens

Painter, businessman, diplomat and Antwerp's favourite son - Clare Thomson traces the legacy of Peter Paul Rubens
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The Independent Travel

Rubens is back in the frame this autumn, with the National Gallery in London hosting a huge retrospective, "A Master in the Making" (from 26 October to 15 January 2006), devoted to his formative years in Italy and, of course, Antwerp. The Flemish city was the making of him; and in return, he led Antwerp through a cultural Golden Age whose legacy can still be seen today.

Given the scope of his achievements, we can surely forgive the self-satisfied look on the face of his statue, which stands proudly at the centre of Groenplaats in the shadow of the Cathedral's spire.

The Cathedral (Handschoenmarkt, 00 32 3 213 9951; open 10am-5pm daily, Sat to 3pm, Sun 1-4pm) is an apt place to pick up the Rubens trail, as it houses one of his most impressive works, The Descent from the Cross. You will find it on a baroque altar, surrounded by cherubs and saints. Although the subject matter is sombre, the painting is shot through with his inimitable energy and optimism.

Despite Christ's deathly pallor, he is still depicted as the source of light. "His is not the quiet, introspective devotion of a former age," wrote the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl. "It has all that sense of the dramatic, all that joyous vehemence and assertiveness which characterised the Church victorious after the shock of contradiction and conflict."

It was with the proceeds from this ambitious painting, commissioned in 1611 by Burgomaster Nicolaas Rockox and the guild of arquebusiers, that Rubens bought the land on which he built his magnificent Italianate mansion (of which more later). In characteristic fashion - and to the apparent dismay of his clients - he far exceeded his brief, producing an entire triptych when they had wanted only a portrait of their patron saint, Christopher. The Elevation of the Cross triptych, in the northern transept, is another muscular baroque masterpiece.

For further insights into Rubens' dramatically different style, take tram 8 south to the Fine Arts Museum (Leopold de Waelplaats, 00 32 3 238 7809, museum.antwerpen.be/kmska; open 10am-5pm daily except Mondays; €6/£4.40). Most of the works on show were commissioned to hang in Antwerp churches, among them a desolate Christ on the Cross, The Adoration of the Magi and Christ Crucified Between Two Thieves.

Portraits of Rockox and his wife, Adriana, hang on either side of The Incredulity of St Thomas, while there are splendid pictures by Rubens' most talented protégés, Van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens. Though the many occupiers of Flanders were swift to plunder the region's art treasures, most of Rubens' larger works have remained in Antwerp, for the simple reason that they were not so easy to ship abroad. His best-known self-portrait, depicting a dandyesque figure with a twirling, sandy moustache, is in the royal collection at Windsor Castle.

When you've had your fill of Rubens the artist, follow in the footsteps of Rubens the public figure. He was a fervent advocate of the Counter-Reformation (his father fled Antwerp because of his Protestant sympathies, which is why the city's most famous citizen was born in Germany, in 1577). The most eloquent expression of his religious zeal is the church of Carolus Borromeus (1614-21). This fantastically elaborate baroque structure dominates Hendrik Conscienceplein, a delightful Italianate square.

The heart of Jesuit life in the city, it was known as "Little Rome". Rubens had a hand in designing the church, as well as the pretty baroque tower. Sadly, none of the 39 ceiling paintings he created has survived, for they were all destroyed by fire; however, the light, bright, opulent interior is uplifting enough to make up for it. Devout as he was, Rubens wasn't afraid to get stuck into secular affairs, as you'll discover at the Rockox House, on Keizerstraat 12 (00 32 3 201 9250; open 10am-5pm daily except Mondays; €2.50/£1.80), home of the mayor, patron and close friend of Rubens.

It's built in Flemish Renaissance style, with gleaming black-and-white tiled floors, splendid fireplaces and a fine collection of paintings. In these handsome surroundings, Rockox entertained Rubens and a host of other intellectuals. Ask to watch the English-language video, a lively account of life in 17th-century Antwerp that also tells you about Rubens the diplomat.

Like so many Antwerpenaars, Rubens longed for peace after the turmoil of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and that meant peace with Spain. The cosmopolitan artist's linguistic and diplomatic skills helped secure a 12-year truce between Catholic Spain and Protestant England, earning him a knighthood from Charles I (and, handily, commissions from both sets of royals). He failed, however, in his greatest quest: to unite the southern and northern Netherlands.

Back to church now - there's hardly a church in town that hasn't been touched by the great man's presence. The artist is buried in Sint-Jacobskerk, at Lange Nieuwstraat 73-75 (00 32 3 225 0414, Apr-Oct, 2-5pm daily except Sundays), a vast and rather chilly church, replete with swirling explosions of baroque stone sculpture. It has seen better days: centuries back, Ignatius Loyola stayed here, and it was the place to be laid to rest. Perhaps surprisingly, there is little fuss around the painter's tombstone: Rubens lies in a small rear chapel, with a modest explanation (in Dutch only) accompanying a picture of the artist on a small easel.

Antwerp has little reason to celebrate Rubens' demise, for in some ways the city died with him. Just eight years after his death, the Treaty of Münster (1648) led to the closure of the Schelde, Antwerp's life force, and the city was plunged into an economic slumber that lasted 150 years.

Gloomy stuff, but a pick-me-up is on hand in the form of a visit chez Rubens himself. Well, sort of: little of the Rubens House, at Wapper 9-11 (00 32 3 201 1555, museum.antwerpen.be; open daily, Tues-Sun, 10am-5pm; €6/£4.40), is original, and not all of it is faithful to his designs, but it is atmospheric and the audio guide sheds light on the artist's private life, covering topics such as his love for his family - and, of course, women. You enter via a large courtyard, then proceed to the dining room, to be greeted by the famous, rather foxy self-portrait with pointy beard and floppy hat.

Rubens lived in this handsome mansion for 25 years. He designed it following his eight-year stint in Italy, importing all kinds of architectural, as well as artistic ideas, from that progressive land. The resulting "Italian island in a sea of Flemish brick" was the talk of the town. In the kitchen, with its gothic fireplace and shiny copper pots, we discover that his parties often degenerated into binge-drinking. Upstairs, you can see the room where Rubens died (1640), after an attack of gout, no doubt induced by all that carousing, and portraits of his first wife, Isabella Brandt, and second and much younger wife, Hélène Fourment (she was16 when they married), the model for many of the female figures in his mythological works.

Downstairs, you can visit the Great Studio, with its tall, Italianate windows and learn how Rubens successfully ran a "medium-sized business", with apprentices and other masters adding to, completing and copying his work. (Not unlike Damien Hirst, really, though Brit Art's bad boy can't call on Van Dyck, Jordaens or Jan Breughel.) How much input you got from the man himself depended, unsurprisingly, on how much you paid.

Thankfully, there are original paintings here now. At first glance, you may prefer Rubens's depiction of Adam and Eve (painted in traditional Flemish style before he visited Italy in 1600) to the swirls and curls of The Anunciation, created on his return and crammed with chubby, flush-cheeked cherubs. Look closely, however, and you can appreciate the dynamism and dramatic play of light and dark that make his pictures so delicious.

End your visit in the garden, familiar from countless Rubens canvases. It was used as a stable by exiled English royalists in the 1650s, but has been re-created with diagrams and books owned by the painter, who was also a keen botanist. You can imagine him strolling with VIP visitors, flaunting a rare tulip, fig tree or potato plant from the New World. It's a good place to take our leave of this remarkable artist: a product of the Counter-Reformation, for sure, but also a true renaissance man.

Clare Thomson is author of the forthcoming 'Footprint Guide to Antwerp'

Antwerp's architectural treats

Vleeshuis

The "streaky bacon" style may not sound elegant, but the Butchers' Hall, completed in 1503, shows how deliciously delicate this late-gothic construction method can be. A meaty, marbled effect was achieved by alternating layers of brick and sandstone, though it was probably less serene in its heyday as an abattoir. Next October, it reopens as a music museum; until then, the building is closed.

Grote Markt

As in so many Flemish towns, the main square boasts a handsome array of gabled gothic and Flemish Renaissance guildhouses - but here, all that glistens is not gilt. Few of the buildings are original; some are post-war reconstructions. On the north side, however, the third building along from the western corner - No 7, the "High House" - was erected in 1582. The bows carved in stone indicate that this was the home of the archers' guild.

Centraal Station

First-time visitors stepping off the train here invariably gasp at the sumptuous glass and iron structure that greets them. The terminus was built in 1905, on the whim of the megalomaniac monarch, Leopold II. Its opulence verges on the ludicrous. Turquoise wrought-iron loops fan out around the clock like a peacock's tail; the loggias, columns and gilt decor lend it a truly palatial feel.

Boerentoren

Europe's first serious skyscraper, the 26-storey "Farmers' Tower" is an endearingly doughty Art-Deco edifice that turns a pleasing shade of pink at sunset. It was built in 1932 for the Antwerp Bank Association, and its name refers to the Farmers' Union, one of its shareholders.

Volkshuis

The "People's House" (Volkstraat 40) is a glorious example of Jugendstil artichitecture, dating from the 1890s. The bluish facade is essentially all curvy ironwork, with a graffitied fresco and a delightful half-oval window at its heart. Built as the meeting place for the liberal party's co-operative bakery, it now houses a Rudolf Steiner school.

Justitiepaleis

Long before completion, the city's new, eco-friendly law courts, designed by Lord Rogers, had acquired an array of nicknames, some less flattering than others. Most locals have settled on "the mohican", on account of its distinctive sloping white funnels. Whatever, it's a new city landmark, at its best viewed from Leopold de Waelplaats.

Cogels-Osylei

Southeast of the centre, in a peaceful district known as the Zurenborg, lies some of Europe's most astonishing residential architecture. It's hard to imagine what possessed the architects who designed the eclectic villas and mansions on Cogels-Osylei and Transvaalstraat, or the wealthy clients who agreed to their plans. Some are art nouveau, with glittering mosaics and swirling wrought-iron balconies; others mock-Grecian, with pillars and statues of sea gods. All were erected in the second half of the 19th century; most are enormous. Post-war plans to demolish the lot were foiled by artists and intellectuals.

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