During the Dutch Golden Age, the Netherlands was the world’s strongest economic power, and leader in international trade, innovative art, and scientific discovery. To prospect for some of this 17th century gold, we visited the three historical South Holland cities of Delft, The Hague, and Leiden.
The origins of the Dutch Golden Age can be traced back to William I, Prince of Orange, who resided in Delft. Known as the “Father of the Fatherland”, William of Orange led the Protestant Dutch revolt against the Catholic Spanish Hapsburgs that eventually resulted eighty years later in Dutch independence.
Fueled by a Protestant work ethic and cheap energy from windmills and peat, the Dutch built the largest merchant fleet in Europe. By monopolizing the international spice trade, the Dutch East India Company became the first multi-national corporation. In today’s dollars, its market capitalization would be $7.9 trillion, more than the world’s current top ten corporations combined.
Operating principally in Asia, the merchant vessels of the Dutch East India Company returned with exotic imported goods, including highly-prized Chinese porcelain. In the workshops of Delft, a cheaper tin-glazed earthenware was created using a characteristic blue and white color scheme. Delft Blue pottery, still produced at the Royal Delft factory, remains a fashionable Dutch icon.
Just a mere five miles (8 km) north of Delft is The Hague and Huis Ten Bosch Palace, home of King Willem-Alexander and his royal family. Prior to the king assuming the throne in 2013, the Dutch monarchy was led by three consecutive queens (Wilhelmina, Juliana and Beatrix) whose rein spanned a total of 123 years.
During the Golden Age, the Dutch seat of government was also established in The Hague. Situated in the city center is the Binnenhof, a Gothic castle complex that includes the office of the Prime Minister and the chambers of Dutch Parliament.
The Dutch Golden Age was a period of religious tolerance that liberated and inspired artists. Free of church influence, Dutch painters mostly produced landscapes, portraits, and realistic everyday scenes. We found a varied collection in The Hague at the Mauritshuis Museum, which included works by Dutch masters Johannes Vermeer, Jan Steen, and Rembrandt van Rijn.
Rembrandt was born in the town of Leiden, just ten miles (16 km) from The Hague. He is considered the most important Dutch artist and one of the greatest visual artists in history. To see Rembrandt’s birthplace, apprentice studio, and other boyhood sites, we followed a self-guided walking tour of Leiden.
Leiden is a college town known as the “City of Discovery”. Founded by William of Orange, Leiden University was home to the Dutch mathematician and inventor Christian Huygens and the “Father of Microbiology” Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. In the 20th century, Albert Einstein was a special professor, teaching at Leiden University for one month each year.
The religious tolerance of the Dutch Golden Age also attracted to Leiden a band of English Calvinists. A decade later, these same puritanical protestants sailed to Plymouth Massachusetts aboard the Mayflower, and are now known simply as the Pilgrims. Their now-famous feast of thanksgiving, following their first successful harvest, was based on a festival commemorating the Seige of Leiden.
In the province of South Holland, we discovered the history and grandeur of the 17th century in the three influential cities of Delft, The Hague, and Leiden. By traveling back in time to when the Netherlands was a world superpower, we unearthed a treasure trove of insights into the Dutch Golden Age.
Featured Image: “The Girl with a Pearl Earring”, by Johannes Vermeer
Blogger’s Note: All paintings pictured in this post were photographed at the Mauritshuis Museum, The Hague