Sunday, September 21, 2014

ANTWERP: Solid Magic

Rubens' Bed

This town is exactly the right size—not too large, not too small. The Butchers’ Hall (built in 1501) is one of the most impressive buildings, its small red & beige bricks echoing the colors of bacon. At one side of City Hall, other Guilds are lined up in narrow buildings. The Artists rent a floor in another Guild. Clearly, they are not as important as the Butchers. 

The legend that defines the city is that of Brabo, the mythical hero who decided to fight the giant who lived in the River Scheldt & who’d been terrorizing the inhabitants. After Brabo tore off the giant’s head, he ripped off the giant’s hand & tossed it into the river. The hand is the symbol of Antwerp. Ant = hand. Werp = to throw. You find the hand all through town. Its most delicious form is in small chocolate. Inside the chocolate hand is a mixture of marzipan & liquor of Anvers, which is supposed to have six healing  (& aphrodisiac) qualities. I can’t vouch for that, but I can say that the chocolate hand was exquisite, like much of the chocolate here, including the fantastical creations of the chocolate chef at the Imperial Café who oversees Napoleon’s former kitchen.

Waffles, powdered sugar, & chocolate are Pied Pipers that lead us down the web of cobbled streets. When the stomach is full & satisfied—frites dipped in mayonnaise; mussels; waffles smothered with fruits, chocolates & whipped cream; chocolates, of course; and hundreds of varieties of beer—then, the spirit can soar.

A few of my favorite places:

Plantinus Maretus-- a family dynasty of printers whose house is now a museum that includes the oldest printing presses in the world, dating from 1600. The motto of Golden Compasses, their printing shop, “Work and Persevere,” could be the motto of the entire town. 

The Antwerp Train Station (seen above, at a diagonal)—grand & luminous, reputed to be the most beautiful in the world. The Gothic arches of the cathedral in the heart of the old town. Both rise toward the sky, but both are grounded in solid earth. 

The Mas Museum—an eccentric, eclectic collection of themed art exhibits. From the roof you can see all of Antwerp, from the old town to the port.

St. Paul’s Church, formerly a Dominican monastery (from 1256-1796)—a refuge of complete serenity.

Rubens' house. Rubens himself is the patron saint of Antwerp, the brilliant, lusty human embodiment of Brabo. Here, we see the artist as wealthy investor & prominent citizen of his town. No freezing artist’s garret for our Rubens. His house is enormous—he merged two houses & connected them with a garden—wonderfully organized, yet bursting with fig & orange trees—that echoes the garden at Plantinus Maretus (the printer whose son was a friend of Rubens). The wood in Rubens’ house is dark, the furniture as solid & earthy as the artist. At 53, he married his second wife, the 16 year-old Helena, a widow herself who’d posed nude for him. After Rubens died ten years later, leaving her a wealthy widow with five children, Helena married again—a man ten years younger. I want to know more about her!   

Walking in Antwerp, past the old town & crowded Meir Street with its Esprit, H&M, Starbucks, & the other symbols of Western consumerism, I find a gold & red Chinese archway leading into Chinatown, & smaller markets & streets—women wearing hijabs push children in carriages, men smoke outside Turkish cafes, an African man in a lime-green suit sings in lilting English, “Jesus touched me! Something happened to me today!”

A sudden memory: Charlotte Bronte’s brilliant, tormented novel, Villette, which takes place in Brussels, where she spent a love-agonized year. Who can forget Lucy Snowe’s unrequited passion for her teacher, the mercurial, moody M. Heger, who sees through her plain, subdued exterior to the wild heart bursting to be set free? I remember my professor's dismissive comment: "All this emotion in placid Belgium?"

But all you have to do is wander the cobbled streets & surprising gardens, bite into a chocolate hand, tilt your head back & stare at the luminous roof of the train station or the spire of the cathedral or even the roof of the Butchers' Hall, or stand before Rubens’ sensual & vibrant paintings of the flesh to know there is nothing placid about Belgium. In Rubens' house, the three-headed marble statue of the goddess Hecate watches over the vast underground workshop where he created masterpieces & the tiny red velvet covered bed where he sat up all night & dreamed magic.

The Butchers' Hall

1 comment:

Kit Grindstaff said...

Lovely, Ruth! I now want to visit this inner Antwerp - and, like you, to know more about Helena! Rubens's bed has the exact same feel as his paintings, rich, soft and luxuriant.
I'm imagining that yummy hand as I sip my morning tea over in England.