(photo: Robert Scarth)
Name: Paleis op de Dam (Royal Palace on Dam Square)
Architect: Jacob van Campen
Style: Dutch Classicism
The construction of the Royal Palace was begun in 1648 and completed in 1665. The building was designed to serve as a town hall. Jacob van Campen is the architect responsible for the overall design, while Daniël Stalpaert, the city architect, was put in charge of the technical realisation. After Van Campen’s quarrel with the city administrators, he left the city. In 1654 Stalpaert was appointed project manager in charge of the entire operation. Artus Quellijn, the Flemish sculptor, and his associates completed the sculptures. However, at the time of the opening ceremony, in 1655, the project had not been fully completed yet. It would take another ten years to finish the entire operation, whereas the internal decoration was an ongoing process that continued till well into the 18th century.
There were several good reasons to replace the old Gothic town hall. The administration of the rapidly growing city had outgrown its accommodation. Moreover, the condition of the medieval building had deteriorated to the point where it became dangerous to enter the premises. A new, larger town hall was badly needed. While the construction of the new town hall was still in progress, the old one burned down.
Apart from the practical reasons for embarking on the project of building a new town hall, the growing self-confidence of the city, which mainly resulted from the successful negotiations of the Münster Peace Treaty in 1648, needed an outlet. A project which comprised the planning and construction of the largest government building in 17th century Europe proved the ideal public relations effort for the rich and powerful and above all republican city of Amsterdam. The general euphoria induced the city administrators to choose the most prestigious design from several plans submitted by the leading architects of the day.
The city was proud of its town hall. Generations of school children where taught the symbolic significance of the number of wooden poles making up the foundation (13,659 poles, one for each of the days of the year with a one in front and a nine behind). The eighth Wonder of the World - a popular nickname in praise of this remarkable achievement - was designed to reflect the prosperity and power of Amsterdam. Brick was considered too pedestrian a construction material. A yellowish sandstone from Bentheim in Germany was used for the entire building (the stone has darkened considerably in the course of time, see the pictures below), while only marble was considered good enough for the interior. Jacob van Campen drew inspiration from the public buildings of Rome. A new Capitol was built for the Amsterdam burgomasters who thought of themselves as the consuls of the new Rome of the North. The glory of the Dutch Republic in general and the city of Amsterdam in particular yielded the most important historic and cultural monument of 17th century Holland. The building can be seen on many old drawings and paintings.
Until 1808 the building was used as a town hall. Subsequently, king Louis Napoleon turned it into a royal palace. The galleries were provided with wooden partitionings to create additional rooms. A balcony was added to the facade to meet royal public relations requirements. Splendid Empire furniture - still part of the collection of the palace today - served to modernise the interior decoration. In the course of the 20th century much work was done to the building. Louis Napoleon’s modifications were reversed and the palace was restored to its original state of a government building based on classical models. Since the 1960 restoration the building has been open to the public, though on a limited scale.
Jacob van Campen designed a well-balanced building in a style we call Dutch Classicism. He exercised a considerable amount of restraint as far as the basic shapes and decorative schemes were concerned. These starting points resulted in a set-up characterised by perspicuity of design. Nowhere does the decoration distract one’s attention from the overall structure. The facade is a harmonious composition based on the proportions advocated by the champions of classical architecture. The prominent plinth supports two pilaster zones, each of them corresponding with a large and a smaller window (i.e. 1.5 storeys). Corinthian pilasters articulate the upper and Composite pilasters the lower section, a scheme promoted by Vincenzo Scamozzi. The middle ressault and fronton as well as the corner pavilions slightly project beyond the building line. Capitals, festoons and other sculptural elements are of the very best quality without drawing too much attention to themselves. The festoons were copied by many designers of canal houses. Especially impressive are the large sculptured marble pediments and the bronze statues on top of the frontons.
The central dome afforded a fine view of the IJ and the arrivals and departures of the many ships. A notable aspect of the building is the lack of a conspicuous main entrance. Seven unadorned arches at street level (no steps) give access to the building, indicating that the town hall belonged to everybody.
Whereas the exterior of the building is austere and reticent in character, its interior may well be called dazzling. Jacob van Campen’s town hall, now the royal palace, should therefore be a priority on every sightseer’s list.
The dome is crowned by a weather vane in the shape of the oldest version of the Amsterdam coat of arms, the cargo ship. The original plan of the dome included eight sculptures representing the points of the compass. However, this plan was never realised.
The Burgerzaal (Citizens’ Hall), the proportions meet the ideal requirements of classical architecture: length 120, width 60 and height 90 Amsterdam feet (an Amsterdam foot measures 28.3 centimetres).
View of the floor of the Burgerzaal (Citizens’ Hall), the decoration in the centre of the marble floor depicts the eastern and western hemispheres and the starry sky of the northern hemisphere. Its southern counterpart, designed to adorn the ceiling, was never realised (the present paintings date back to the early 18th century). In the Citizens’ Hall man literally finds himself in the centre of the universe, from where he can roam the seven seas like the ships which called in at the port of Amsterdam.
The personification of the city of Amsterdam, holding olive branches and palm leaves, sits enthroned above the doorway with lions at her feet and personifications of Wisdom and Strength by her side.
The western entrance gives access to the rooms reserved for legal proceedings such as the Magistrates’ Court. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that this entrance is guarded by Justice trampling on Avarice and Anger (their attributes are ass’s ears and snakes respectively) flanked by Death (depicted as a cloaked skeleton) and Punishment (carrying a torture instrument which served to crush kneecaps). Above them Atlas carries the world on his shoulders.
The corners of the hall are the location of the entrances to the galleries. The four elements, the building blocks of the universe (earth, water, air and fire), are depicted twice. The decorative scheme of the entire room is based on the universe, with Amsterdam at its centre.
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