Antwerp by Michael Pye — fragile fortunes

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Around 1540, something revolutionary happened in Antwerp. You’re reading one of the results. Before this moment, agents for the dealers who thronged the then Netherlandish port would enclose price lists for goods or loans on the city’s exchange, the Beurs, along with correspondence to their clients.

Now, wrote a clerk for the van den Molen house, such data could be found in stampa — in print — and sold as separate news-sheets, or “currents”. “There may have been sheets like this in Venice,” comments Michael Pye, “but Antwerp had the first that anyone mentioned.” In the teeming port on the Scheldt, anyone could pay a few coins to keep abreast of the financial times.

Antwerp’s spell in the sun as Europe’s de facto capital of trade, communication and ideas did not linger long. Antwerp, Pye’s galloping and flavoursome account of the city’s heyday, begins around 1500. By 1585, it was nearly all over. The Spanish Habsburgs took back control, even as the northern Netherlands broke free of their empire. Peter Paul Rubens’ city, with its more sedate Baroque splendours, rose as “a whole other story was built over the past”.

By this point, upstart Amsterdam “was feeding off the corpse of Antwerp”. Seekers after openness and innovation shifted a hundred miles north to the fledgling Dutch Republic. History, and tourism, celebrates Amsterdam’s golden age. It often forgets Antwerp’s.


Now Pye, author of an acclaimed history of the North Sea as well as works of historical fiction, has balanced the scales with a compact but lustrous gem of a book. Studded with racy anecdotes but firmly embedded in archival research, it shows why the city that nurtured “a pragmatic kind of tolerance” rose so fast — and why, almost as rapidly, it fell.

Pye unrolls a sparkling string of stories rather than a heavy tapestry of contexts, hinterlands and aftermaths: look elsewhere for those. Wary of anachronism, immersed in the flow, he never uses the term “globalisation”. Readers, though, will notice that he more or less writes a recipe for a cosmopolitan hub’s success as a well-connected “turntable” for cash, commodities and culture. And he suggests that such honeypots have reason to fear for “the sheer fragility of their wealth”.

Europe’s expansion made it all possible. English wool had woven much of the fabric of Antwerp’s prosperity. The city ousted Bruges and came by the mid-14th century to serve as a “department store for the wool traders”. Then, after Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama crossed the oceans, “what made Antwerp rich was the change in trade routes: ships going by ocean to Asia and America”. By 1502, Portuguese spice ships carried pepper, aromatics and even diamonds across the Indian Ocean and round the Cape of Good Hope.

Less fragrantly, goods from Antwerp fuelled the Atlantic slave trade: “The price of a human being was brass and copper bangles on the Benin River.” Antwerp never hosted slave markets but did see many free African faces — Albrecht Dürer hauntingly sketched one.

Meanwhile, precious metal from the Habsburgs’ new American domains helped spin the wheels of trade. The imperial overlords exacted a 1 per cent export tax on Netherlandish goods. By the 1540s, Antwerp paid 75 per cent of this revenue.

With the commodity brokers came bankers, speculators, dealers in credit and debt — and in fresh, even heretical, ideas. Pioneer printers and thinkers thronged filthy streets, loud with music. The city became a prime mart not just for things but bills, stocks, news. Assets such as spices with “low weight and high value” gave way to assets with no measurable weight at all. The “financialisation” of life took root here: “a radical change of mind, and Antwerp has to take some of the blame”. It became a one-stop shop, “one single system for humanists, Latinists, wool traders and spice dealers”.

Thomas More’s friendship with the learned town clerk Peter Gillis inspired him to imagine his Utopia. Subversion spread in dockside taverns or merchants’ salons. There were limits. William Tyndale printed his epoch-making translations of the Bible here. In 1535, a spy lured him out of the secure “English House”. At least the authorities strangled him before his body burnt at the stake.

Pye tells all this in swift cameos that pull one fruity figure after another on to his busy stage. Catharina van Hemessen, one of many women active in the booming art business, paints “the first known signed self-portrait of a working artist”.

Dona Gracia, head of the mighty but persecuted banking house of Mendes, helps forcibly converted Jews such as herself to flee the Inquisition in Portugal. They make their way via Antwerp to safety, and freedom of worship, in Italian cities or in Istanbul.

Simone Turchi, Tuscan financier-turned-killer, ends up burnt to death in the same trick chair he used to trap his victim. The crooked, visionary entrepreneur Gilbert van Schoonbeke corners the market in land, fills every gap with cash-cow properties, invents the “vertical firm”. A sidekick says van Schoonbeke didn’t have “a single hair on his body that wasn’t acquired by theft”.

The city’s glory rested on precarious scales. It sheltered Calvinists but suffered when the reformers briefly took charge. It kept emperors (Charles V, then Philip II) at suspicious arm’s length but wilted when their stewardship stiffened into close-up domination. Porosity and ambiguity — unfinished walls, divided councils, hazy rules — incubated invention amid a “particular mix of curiosity, business and dodgy freedoms”.

If Venice modelled a high-regulation globalised society, then Antwerp — “rich and broke all at once” — showcased the weak-governance version. It probably couldn’t last, and it didn’t. In this swarming fresco, which merits a place near Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches or Robert Hughes’ homage to Barcelona, Pye not only rescues Antwerp’s lost “world of liberty”, he leads entranced readers through its grubby, glittering streets.

Antwerp: The Glory Years by Michael Pye, Allen Lane £25, 288 pages/ published in the US as Europe’s Babylon: The Rise and Fall of Antwerp’s Golden Age, Pegasus Books $28.95, 408 pages

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