Étiquette : Flanders
Rembrandt H. van Ryn, was born on July 15, 1606, as the son of a not so poor miller living in the revolutionary city of Leyden in the Netherlands.
Today (2006), four hundred years later, even without any knowledge of the specific historical context, few are those that remain indifferent to his artistic message and skill. Why Rembrandt? What particular quality of his paintings, engravings and drawings gave him the power to reach over centuries of time?
As we will document here, Rembrandt, a precocious intellectual, became already quite « universal » as a young adult. But let’s try to find out what « universal » means.
The Revolt of the Netherlands
The revolt of the Burgundian Netherlands (Note 1) against the tyranny the Fuggers, bankers at the helm of the Spanish and Austrian Habsburg empire, resulted in the tragic break-up of this « nation-state in the making » between the north (today’s Netherlands) and the south (the territory that today includes Belgium and part of northern France).
The Habsburg empire, while brutally sticking to the rich southern part (Flanders), cynically offered the « insurgents » that, if they wished to have a country, they could settle in the malaria-infested swamps of the North, where 75% of the territory lies below sea level, but nevertheless an area slowly domesticated by generations of hardworking farmers thanks to a vast system of canals, dikes and locks, patiently erected since the end of the thirteenth century.
But Charles V, and even worse, his son Philip II of Spain, didn’t believe in the power of mind or that of work. Instead, they believed in the power of the sword and the terror of the Inquisition. After a long war and much unnecessary bloodshed, their policies had reached an impasse, and on April 9, 1609, the semi-bankrupt Habsburgs were forced to sign a twelve-year truce with the new Republic of the Netherlands.
That same year, Rembrandt, hardly 3 years old, entered basic school, where girls and boys learn to read, to write and to calculate. School opens at 6 a.m. in the summer, at 7 a.m. in winter, and finishes only at 7 p.m. Classes start with prayer, the reading and discussion of passages of the Bible and the singing of psalms. Here Rembrandt develops an elegant handwriting and more than rudiments of the Bible.
The Netherlands want to survive. Its leaders wisely used the 12 year truce (1609-1621) to fulfill their commitment to the general welfare. This way, early XVIIth century Holland became maybe the first country of the world where everybody got the chance to learn how to read, write and calculate.
That universal school system, whatever its inadequacies, offered to both poor and rich alike, was the secret of the Dutch « Golden Century ». It’s schooling will also create the generations of Dutch immigrants that will participate a hundred years afterwards in the American Revolution
Others would enter the secondary school at the age of 12, but Rembrandt precociously enters Leyden’s Latin School at the age of 7. There, pupils generally, besides rhetoric, logic and calligraphy, learn, not only Greek and Latin, but English, French, Spanish or Portuguese. Then, in 1620, at the age of 14, since no age limit in the Netherlands bridled young talents, Rembrandt inscribed at the Leyden University. His choice is not Theology, Law, Science, nor Medicine, but Literature.
Did Rembrandt want to add to his knowledge of Latin, the mastery of Greek and Hebrew philology and perhaps Chaldean, Coptic or Arabic? After all, Leyden was already publishing Arabic-Latin dictionaries, while the Netherlands were increasingly growing to become the book printing centre of the world.
From its foundation in 1585, after a historic battle for the city’s freedom, Leyden University became a rallying point for humanists worldwide and a center for new discoveries in optics, physics, anatomy and cartography, offering the world such famous scientists as Christian Huygens (1629-1695) and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), both correspondents of Leibniz.
People flocked in from Flanders, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, England and even Hungary. By 1621, over fifty Frenchmen were teaching in Leyden. In a desperate effort to pollute this source of creativity, in 1630, René Descartes registered as a « mathematician » at the University of Leyden. (Note 2)
But the big trouble had already started way before. A disastrous theological « debate » degenerated into a conflict akin to civil war. On the one side, Jacob Arminius, founder of the « Remonstrant » current upholding the Erasmian-Rabelaisian concept of man endowed with a free will although that free will remained to be fine-tuned with the grace of God. This view was also held by the elder general and capable national leader, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt (1547-1619).
On the opposing side, one Franciscus Gomarus, defender of the fatalist Calvinist doctrine of « predestination », a doctrine adhered to by Prince Maurits, the young incoming son of the founder of the nation, William the Silent. While leaders were strongly divided, the 1619 « Dordrecht Synod » installed the radical Calvinist doctrine as the law.
But Leyden was mostly « Arminian » and so was Rembrandt. Rembrandt’s 1633 and 1635 portraits of Johannes Uytenbogaert, the main reverend leading the Arminians who was obliged to spent several years of his life in exile to escape from persecution, show how closely Rembrandt was connected to this movement.
So, when Rembrandt entered University, the situation was very hot. Arminian-minded teachers are on the leave and often forced to do so. So was Rembrandt, and after two months, at age 14, he quitted University and went full time into painting and set up his own workshop.
By 1621, the truce had come to an end, and the Spanish army was once again conducting an all-out war against the Netherlands, which was accused, not without reason, of supporting the Bohemian revolt and harboring the leaders of its resistance. (Note 3)
As a young intellectual confronted with injustice and political and religious madness, Rembrandt entered the studio of Jacob Isaaczoon van Swanenburg, a learned Dutch painter who lived in Venice and Naples, where he worked from 1600 to 1617 before running into trouble with the Inquisition, which accused him of « painting on Sundays ».
Few works have survived from this master, renowned for his city views and portraits. But his subjects and style resemble those of the great humanist Hieronymus Bosch. For three long years, Rembrandt learned how to grind pigments, master essences, varnishes, brushes, canvases and panels.
But above all, Swanenburgh made his pupil a master in the art of engraving and etching.
Pelgrims of Emmaus
Rembrandt’s interest in the power of ideas clearly appears in the « Pilgrims at Emmaus », where an atmosphere of astonishment and horror break out when Christ reveals himself to the disbelievers.
Then, before setting up his studio, Rembrandt will spend six months in the workshop of Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam. With Lastman, Rembrandt finally finds a master that departs from the traditional Dutch landscapes, still-lives and boring group portraits.
Building on the theatrical settings of Caravaggio, Lastman paints biblical, Greek and Roman mythology. He paints history! And Rembrandt always desired to become a historieschilder. Now, Rembrandt finally found in painting the literature he was looking for when inscribing in the University.
Also, in Lastman’s workshop, he meets the talented Jan Lievens, with whom he will work for a while.
Knowing how to know thyself
Rembrandts reputation is largely the fruit of the near to one hundred multiform self-portraits, including about twenty engravings, covering the walls of numerous museums around the world. Some pragmatists tell us Rembrandt did that many self-portraits because he just was the cheapest model in town, and probably the most patient one. Others claim he was simply noting down his unending grimaces, the famous tronies, to prepare future dramatic historical paintings.
We think there is more to it and we approve Simon Schama who wrote that, « The reason for the multiplication of his self-image was not a relentless, almost monomaniacal assertion of the artistic ego but something like the exact opposite. »
The self-portrait, an art expression that has nearly disappeared from today’s practice, always throws an extremely daring challenge to the painter looking into the mirror. Is this me? I didn’t realize I look that way. I’ve changed again! What is wrong? The a priori ideas in the mind of the perceiver or the sense perceptions he’s confronted with? Real thinking, in essence, comes down to confronting not just those burning paradoxes, but the joy of overcoming them with self reflexive irony, and a truthful commitment to the permanent discovery and communication of that increasing irony through a Socratic dialogue.
Rembrandt, at the age of 22 starts training his first pupil, Gerrit Dou, only fifteen years old. Samuel van Hoogstraten, who was another young pupil, reported Rembrandt advising him:
« Try to learn introducing in your work what you know already. Then, very soon, you will discover what escapes you and want to discover. »
Hoogstraten’s self-portrait at age 17 demonstrates what a contagious genius Rembrandt became rapidly as a teacher.
But Rembrandt’s main problem was to show movement. Anima means soul and for Rembrandt animating the mind of the viewer was the art of making that viewer conscious of his own quality of moving the soul, i.e. moving the mover. Through this process of teaching and self-teaching Rembrandt works out various ways to tell his-stories.
One funny way to put faces into motion is to wrap them into clothing, put on jewelry, and choose a specific light setting that generates interesting eye-attracting shadows bringing into light the plastic volumes. Explore facial expressions evoking anger, fear, happiness, self-doubt, laughter, etc.
The real subject is not Rembrandt, but the discovery of human consciousness through self-consciousness. The mirror image permits oneself to look over one’s shoulder down on oneself. Leonardo and others advised artists to view their own work in a mirror, since the « fresh » mirror image offered the artist another « viewpoint », revealing those remaining imperfections that had escaped from his attention.
Also, the compassion and self esteem one is forced to develop in that process becomes a basic ingredient for promethean and agapic character formation. Then, Rembrandt’s joyful process of self-discovery spills naturally over into the portraits done of others.
Look how funny Saskia smiles, when she dresses up « as Rembrandt » with a feathered reddish hat, carrying a golden chain and with her little hand lost in Rembrandt’s large glove.
Then, there are also the self-portraits in assistenza, where the painter’s face pops up uninvited in a larger painting, such as in Velazquez‘ « Las Meninas ».
The Stoning of Saint-Stephen
One of Rembrandt’s grimacing faces appears behind the martyr in the first known painting by the young Rembrandt, The Stoning of Saint-Stephen. Executed at the age of 19, the work powerfully expresses the basis of Rembrandt’s ideas. Loaded with some twenty figures, the subject had previously been treated by Lastman and Adam Elsheimer, a young German Mannerist living in Rome, whose works Rembrandt had admired while contemplating reproductions in Swanenburgh’s studio.
But why Saint-Stephen? Rembrandt’s choice stems directly from the subject. This Greek-speaking Jewish convert, the first Christian martyr, was tried by a court of law for blasphemy. He unabashedly told the Sanhedrin judges that they were « stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears » and that they were people who had « received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it… »
Stephen also told them that God could not be kept « locked up in a temple ». At one point, Stephen,
« being full of the Holy Spirit, and having his eyes fixed on heaven, saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said: ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’.
« And crying aloud, they stopped their ears, and with one accord rushed upon him; and having pushed him out of the city, they stoned him; and the witnesses laid their garments at the feet of a young man called Saul. And they stoned Stephen, who prayed and said: Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And kneeling down, he cried aloud: Lord, do not impute this sin to them. »
The painting leaves the left side entirely in shadow, in a partially failed attempt to evoke the idea of Stephen seeing the « open heavens. » Saul is in the shadows because he is the one encouraging the execution. Later, on the road to Damascus, he would have his own vision of the « heavens opening » and in turn convert to Christianity, since Saul is none other than the future St. Paul.
In short, as we have said, at the age of 19, Rembrandt powerfully asserts the principles for which he wants to live and for which he is prepared to die, ideas that he must have discovered at the age of fourteen during the great Sophist event, the great « theological debate » that was the beginning of the end of the Republic.
Historians might scream there is no space here for political manifestos. They are right. Rembrandt’s ideas go far beyond simple minded militantism, and their political impact is much more profound.
In 1641, an artist, Philips Angel, adressing the painting guild, honored Rembrandt and underscored the artist’s « elevated and profound reflection ». What were these « elevated and profound » ideas all about?
- Truth. Somebody must mobilize the courage to stand up and tell the truth in front of established authorities or misleading public opinion. That theme comes regularly back, notably with « Suzanna and the Elders ». Daniel, a witness of injustice will speak up and saves Suzanna from the death sentence.
- Reason. Faith and religion do not always coincide with religious rites. Look to the angry angel preventing Abraham from killing his own son in « The sacrifice of Isaac ». Think before acting! Reason, love of God and love for mankind must guide any religious practice and on the basis of reason, a dialogue of cultures can enrich humanity.
- Self-perfection. Change, yes. People can find in themselves the means to identify their errors and change for the better. The example of Saint-Paul will stand as a permanent reference for Rembrandt, who painted him several times and even represented himself as the Church father.
- Love, Repentance, Pardon. In a period of permanent danger of « religious wars », Rembrandt strongly identifies with Saint Stephen’s demand « Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. » Rembrandt will paint several times « The return of the prodigal son ». The father gives a great feast for the returning son because he « who was dead came back to life ». The notion of pardon, and acting in the advantage of the other, will become the key concept for the success of the world Peace of Westphalia concluded in 1648 ending the thirty years war, including the recognition of the Netherlands as a sovereign state.
The Night Watch
Misrepresented as a nocturnal scene, the Night Watch is probably one of the greatest intellectual provocations against cold Aristotelian classicism.
The Netherlands was at war. Amsterdam, like most major cities, maintained a considerable militia of archers, crossbowmen and harquebusiers. These small citizen armies had a firing range and a meeting hall, the Kloveniersdoelen, where soldiers could rest after training.
Obviously, such glorious gatherings deserved to be immortalized in vast group portraits, where all the members of the company was presented in such a way that, as van Hoogstraten put it, « you could, as it were, behead them all with a single cannon shot. »
Rembrandt completely overturned this traditional representation. Firstly, apart from the 2 captains and their 16 companions (who each paid for their presence on the canvas), Rembrandt added another third of figures to the original number.
Secondly, the revolutionary concept implemented is the idea of depicting the whole group as « on the march », not just advancing, but raising flags and weapons after passing under a circular arch seen just behind them.
Thirdly, a spectacular sense of movement emanates from the rapid oscillation of a chiaro-oscura, illuminating one part, casting another into shadow.
Finally, the show seems formally a confused, chaotic scene. People enter from all sides. In infinite heteronomy, one loads his rifle, another beats the drum, another raises his spear while another stares at his rifle.
Beyond this apparent hectic confusion, what remains is the spirit of a republican citizenry called to arms and moving from chaos to unity, a subject Rembrandt represented the same year in an allegorical oil sketch, Concord of the State.
Against narrow academic rigor, the spirit of inclusion of the multitude so common to Flemish painters like Bruegel was once again manifesting itself.
Van Hoogstraten, defending Rembrandt against these critics (as usual, those who were jealous of his brilliant performance) commented:
« Rembrandt observed this requirement [of unity] very well… and although in the opinion of many he went too far, making the painting more according to his personal taste than according to the individual portraits he had been commissioned to paint.
Nevertheless, the painting, no matter how harsh the critics, will stand, in my judgment, against all these rivals because it is so picturesque in its conception and because it is so powerful that, according to some, all the other doelen works look like playing cards in comparison. »
We took here just a few examples to demonstrate that Rembrandts universal character derives directly from his ruthless commitment, directed to make us conscious of the creative potential given to all human beings, men and women, old and young, Christians, Jews, Muslims or others, a creative and creating human nature called the soul.
This commitment is once again available in today’s new generation and can therefore be mobilized for great achievements.
From this point of view, Rembrandt is in a good position to become a reference individual capable of leading us out of the current cultural « dark age », where video games teach our children to take perverse pleasure in gratuitous violence and push them to become « naturally born killers ».
In contrast, a Rembrandt who catches life and loves mankind will trace the divine in the slightest spark of light. As some sort of 5th apostel, without ever painting God directly, Rembrandt reveals the harmony of his creation.
Those who took time studying his paintings can tell themselves: « God exists, I just met Rembrandt », since through Rembrandt’s art God’s tender love and blessing power are revealed to us in our human reality.
That « immortal » nature of Rembrandt’s soul will doubtlessly nourish the « immortality » of the creative geniuses he will inspire. Let us not wait another four hundred years to celebrate such a genius, for what he brings us is living and not to be buried in the history of art
- Friedrich Schiller, The revolt of the Netherlands; Karel Vereycken, How Erasmus Folly saved our Civilization; Karel Vereycken, « Rembrandt, bâtisseur de nations » in Nouvelle Solidarité, June 10 and 17, 1985.
- Years earlier, René Descartes, using his own funds, made a trip to Bohemia and in 1620 took part in the battle of Montagne Blanche, leading to the massacre of Prague, the capital of Bohemia. One biographer reports that Descartes, entering Prague, immediately appropriated Kepler’s Brahe scientific instruments.
- For a detailed report on the links between Rembrandt and Comenius and the Bohemian revolt, see Karel Vereycken, The light of Agapê, Rembrandt and Comenius versus Rubens, Ibykus N°85, 2003.
- Ernst van Wetering, director of the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP), on the basis of scientific examinations of Rembrandt’s works, estimates that the master required his models to pose for three hours a day for at least three months.
- Karel Vereycken, Leonardo, painter of movement, Fusion N°108, 2006.
In autumn 2017, a major exhibit organized at the University library of Leuven and later in Arlon, also in Belgium, attracted many people. Showing many historical documents, the primary intent of the event was to honor the activities of the famous Three Language College (Collegium Trilingue), founded in 1517 by the efforts of the Christian Humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam (1467-1536) and his allies. Though modest in size and scope, Erasmus’ initiative stands out as one of the cradles of European civilization, as you will discover here.
Revolutionary political figures, such as William the Silent (1533-1584), organizer of the Revolt of the Netherlands against the Habsburg tyranny, humanist poets and writers such as Thomas More, François Rabelais, Miguel Cervantes and William Shakespeare, all of them, recognized their intellectual debt to the great Erasmus of Rotterdam, his exemplary fight, his humor and his great pedagogical project.
For the occasion, the Leuven publishing house Peeters has taken through its presses several nice catalogues and essays, published in Flemish, French as well as English, bringing together the contributions of many specialists under the wise (and passionate) guidance of Pr Jan Papy, a professor of Latin literature of the Renaissance at the Leuven University, with the assistance of a “three language team” of Latinists which took a fresh look at close to all the relevant and inclusively some new documents scattered over various archives.
“The Leuven Collegium Trilingue: an appealing story of courageous vision and an unseen international success. Thanks to the legacy of Hieronymus Busleyden, counselor at the Great Council in Mechelen, Erasmus launched the foundation of a new college where international experts would teach Latin, Greek and Hebrew for free, and where bursaries would live together with their professors”, reads the back cover of one of the books.
For the researchers, the issue was not necessarily to track down every detail of this institution but rather to answer the key question: “What was the ‘magical recipe’ which attracted rapidly to Leuven between three and six hundred students from all over Europe?”
Erasmus’ initiative was unprecedented. Having an institution, teaching publicly Latin and, on top, for free, Greek and Hebrew, two languages considered “heretic” by the Vatican, was already tantamount to starting a revolution.
Was it that entirely new? Not really. As early as the beginning of the XIVth century, for the Italian humanists in contact with Greek erudites in exile in Venice, the rigorous study of Greek, Hebraic and Latin sources as well as the Fathers and the New Testament, was the method chosen by the humanists to free mankind from the Aristotelian worldview suffocating Christianity and returning to the ideals, beauty and spirit of the “Primitive Church”.
For Erasmus, as for his inspirer, the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla (1403-1457), the « Philosophy of Christ » (agapic love), has to come first and opens the road to end the internal divisions of Christianity and to uproot the evil practices of greed (indulgences, simony) and religious superstition (cult of relics) infecting the Church from the top to the bottom, and especially the mendicant orders.
To succeed, Erasmus sets out to clarify the meaning of the Holy Writings by comparing the originals written in Greek, Hebrew and Latin, often polluted following a thousand years of clumsy translations, incompetent copying and scholastic commentaries.
Brothers of the Common Life
My own research allows me to recall that Erasmus was a true disciple of the Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life of Deventer in the Netherlands, a hotbed of humanism in Northern Europe. The towering figures that founded this lay teaching order are Geert Groote (1340-1384), Florent Radewijns (1350-1400) and Wessel Gansfort (1420-1489), all three said to be fluent in precisely these three languages.
The religious faith of this current, also known as the “Modern Devotion”, centered on interiority, as beautifully expressed in the little book of Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471), the Imitation of Christ. This most read book after the Bible, underlines the importance for the believer to conform one owns life to that of Christ who gave his life for mankind.
Hence, in 1475, Erasmus father, fluent in Greek and influenced by famous Italian humanists, sends his son to the chapter of the Brothers of the Common Life in Deventer, at that time under the direction of Alexander Hegius (1433-1499), himself a pupil of the famous Rudolph Agricola (1442-1485) which Erasmus had the chance to listen to and which he calls a “divine intellect”.
Follower of the cardinal-philosopher Nicolas of Cusa (1401-1464), enthusiastic advocate of the Italian Renaissance and the Good Letters, Agricola would tease his students by saying:
“Be cautious in respect to all that you learned so far. Reject everything! Start from the standpoint you will have to un-learn everything, except that what is based on your sovereign authority, or on the basis of decrees by superior authors, you have been capable of re-appropriating yourself”.
Erasmus, with the foundation of the Collegium Trilingue will carry this ambition at a level unreached before. To do so, Erasmus and his friend apply a new pedagogy. Hence, instead of learning by heart medieval commentaries, pupils are called to formulate their proper judgment and take inspiration of the great thinkers of the Classical period, especially “Saint Socrates”. Latin, a language that degenerated during the Roman Empire, will be purified from barbarisms.
With this approach, for pupils, reading a major text in its original language is only the start. An explorative work is required: one has to know the history and the motivations of the author, his epoch, the history of the laws of his country, its geography, cosmography, all considered to be indispensable instruments to put each text in its specific literary and historical context and allowing reading, beyond the words, the intention of their author.
This “modern” approach (questioning, critical study of sources, etc.) of the Collegium Trilingue, after having demonstrated its efficiency by clarifying the message of the Gospel, will rapidly travel over Europe and reach many other domains of knowledge, notably scientific issues! By uplifting young talents, out of the small and sleepy world of scholastic certitudes, this institution rapidly grew into a hotbed for creative minds.
For the ignorant reader who often considers Erasmus as some kind of comical writer praising madness which lost it after an endless theological dispute with Martin Luther, such a statement might come as a surprise.
While Belgium’s contributions to science, under Emperor Charles Vth, are broadly recognized and respected, few are those understanding the connection uniting Erasmus with a mathematician as Gemma Frisius and his pupil and friend Gerard Mercator, an anatomist such as Andreas Vesalius or a botanist such as Rembert Dodonaeus.
Hence, as already thoroughly documented in 2011 by Professor Jan Papy in a remarkable article, the scientific renaissance which bloomed in the Netherlands and Belgium in the early XVIth century, could not have taken place if it were for the “linguistic revolution” provoked by the Collegium Trilingue.
Because, beyond the mastery of their vernacular languages (French and Dutch), hundreds of youth, by studying Greek, Latin and Hebrew, suddenly got access to all the scientific treasures of Greek Philosophy and the best authors in those newly discovered languages.
At last, they could read Plato in the text, but also Anaxagoras, Heraclites, Thales of Millet, Eudoxus of Cnidus, Pythagoras, Eratosthenes, Archimedes, Galen, Vitruvius, Pliny the elder, Euclid and Ptolemy whose work they will master and eventually correct.
As the books published by Peeters account in great detail, during the first century of its existence, the Collegium Trilingue had a rough time confronting political uproar and religious strife. Heavy critique came especially form the “traditionalists”, a handful of theologians for which the Greeks were nothing but schismatics and the Jews the assassins of Christ and esoterics.
The opposition was such that Erasmus himself never could teach at the Collegium and, while keeping in close contact, decided to settle in Basel, Switzerland, in 1521.
Despite all of this, the Erasmian revolution conquered Europe overnight and a major part of the humanists of that period were trained or influenced by this institution. From abroad, hundreds of pupils arrived to follow classes given by professors of international reputation.
27 European universities integrated pupils of the Collegium in their teaching staff: among them stood Jena, Wittenberg, Cologne, Douai, Bologna, Avignon, Franeker, Ingolstadt, Marburg, etc.
Teachers at the Collegium were secured a decent income so that they weren’t obliged to give private lectures to secure a living and could offer public classes for free. As was the common practice of the Brothers of the Common Life in Deventer, a system of bursa allowed talented though poor students, including many orphans, to have access to higher learning. “Something not necessarily unusual those days, says Pr Jan Papy, and done for the sake of the soul of the founder (of the Collegium, reference to Busleyden)”.
While visiting Leuven and contemplating the worn-out steps of the spiral staircase (wentelsteen), one of the last remains of the building that had a hard time resisting the assaults of time and ignorance, one can easily imagine those young minds jumping down the stairs with enthusiasm going from the dormitory to the classroom. Looking at the old shopping list of the school’s kitchen one can conclude the food was excellent with lots of meat, poultry but also vegetables and fruits, and sometimes wine from Beaune in Burgundy, especially when Erasmus came for a visit! While over the years, of course, the quality of the learning transmitted, would vary in accordance with the excellence of its teachers, the Collegium Trilingue, whose activity would last till the French revolution, gave its imprint in history by giving birth to what some have called the “Little Renaissance” of the first half of the XVIth century.
In France, the Sorbonne University reacted with fear and in 1523, the study of Greek was outlawed in France.
François Rabelais, at that time a monk in Vendée, saw his books confiscated by the prior of his monastery and deserts his order. Later, as a doctor, he translated the medical writings of the Greek scientist Galen from Greek into French. Rabelais’s letter to Erasmus shows the highest possible respect and intellectual debt to Erasmus.
In 1530, Marguerite de Navarre, sister of King Francis, and reader and admirer of Erasmus, at war with the Sorbonne, convinced her brother to allow Guillaume Budé, a friend of Erasmus, to create the “Collège des Lecteurs Royaux” (ancestor of the Collège de France) on the model of the Collegium Trilingue. And to protect its teachers, many coming directly from Leuven, they got the title of “advisors” of the King. The Collège taught Latin, Hebrew and Greek, and rapidly added Arab, Syriac, medicine, botany and philosophy to its curriculum.
Also celebrated for the occasion, Dirk Martens (1446-1534), rightly considered as one of the first humanists to introduce printing in the Southern Netherlands.
Born in Aalst in a respected family, the young Dirk got his training at the local convent of the Hermits of Saint William. Eager to know the world and to study, Dirk went abroad. In Venice, at that time a cosmopolite center harboring many Greek erudite in exile, Dirk made his first steps into the art of printing at the workshop of Gerardus de Lisa, a Flemish musician who set up a small printing shop in Treviso, close to Venice.
Back in Aalst, together with his partner John of Westphalia, Martens printed in 1473 the first book in the country with a movable type printing press, a treatise of Dionysius the Carthusian (1401-1471), a friend and collaborator of cardinal-philosopher Nicolas of Cusa, as well as the spiritual advisor of Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy and thought to be the occasional « theological » advisor of the latter’s court painter, Jan Van Eyck.
If the oldest printed book known to us is a Chinese Buddhist writing dating from 868, the first movable printing types, made first out of wood and then out of hardened porcelain and metal, came from China and Korea in 1234.
The history of two lovers, a poem written by Aeneas Piccolomini before he became the humanist Pope Pius II, was another early production of Marten’s print shop in Aalst.
Proud to have introduced this new technique allowing a vast increase in the spreading of good and virtuous ideas, Martens wrote in one of the prefaces: “This book was printed by me, Dirk Martens of Aalst, the one who offered the Flemish people all the know-how of Venice”.
After some years in Spain, Martens returned to Aalst and started producing breviaries, psalm books and other liturgical texts. While technically elaborate, the business never reached significant commercial success.
Martens then moved to Antwerp, at that time one of the main ports and cross-roads of trade and culture. Several other Flemish humanists born in Aalst played eminent roles in that city and animate its intellectual and cultural life. Among these:
—Cornelis De Schrijver (1482-1558), the secretary of the City of Aalst, better known under his latin name Scribonius and later as Cornelius Grapheus. Writer, translator, poet, musician and friend of Erasmus, he was accused of heresy and hardly escaped from being burned at the stake.
—Pieter Gillis (1486-1533), known as Petrus Aegidius. Pupil of Martens, he worked as a corrector in his company before becoming Antwerp’s chief town clerk. Friend of Erasmus and Thomas More, he appears with Erasmus in the double portrait painted by another friend of both, Quinten Metsys (1466-1530).
—Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502-1550), editor, painter and scenographer. After a trip to Italy, he set up a workshop in Antwerp. Pieter will produce patrons for tapestries, translated with the help of his wife the works of the Roman architect Vitruvius into Dutch and trained the young Flemish painter Bruegel the Elder who will marry his daughter.
Invention of pocket books
In Antwerp, Martens became part of this milieu and his workshop became a meeting place for painters, musicians, scientists, poets and writers. With the Collegium Trilingue, Martens opens a second shop, this time in Leuven to work with Erasmus. In order to provide adequate books to the Collegium, Martens proudly became, in the footsteps of the Venetian Printer Aldo Manuce, one of the first printers to concentrate on in-octavo 8° (22 x 12 cm), i.e. “pocket” size books affordable by all and which students could take home !
For the specialists of the Erasmus house of Anderlecht, close to Brussels,
“Martens innovated in nearly all domains. As well as in terms of printing types as lay-out. He was the first to introduce Italics, Greek and Hebrew letter types. He also generalized the use of ‘New Roman’ letter type so familiar today. During the first thirty years of the XVIth century, he also operated the revolution in lay-out (chapters and paragraphs) that gave birth to the modern book as we know it today. All this progress, he achieved in close cooperation with Erasmus”.
Thomas More’s Utopia
In 1516, it was Dirk Martens who printed the first edition of Thomas More’s Utopia. Among the hundreds of editions he printed mostly alone, 61 books and writings of Erasmus, notably In Praise of Folly. He also produced More’s edition of the roman satirist Lucian and Columbus’ account of the discovery of the new world. In 1423, Martens printed the complete works of Homer, quite a challenge!
In 1520, a papal bull of Leo X condemned the errors of Martin Luther and ordered the confiscation of his writings to be burned in public in front of the clergy and the people.
For Erasmus, burning books didn’t automatically erased their their content from the minds of the people. “One starts by burning books, one finishes by burning people” Erasmus warned years before Heinrich Heine said that “There, were one burns books, one ends up burning people”.
Printers and friends of Erasmus, especially in France, died on the stake opening the doors for the religious wars that will ravage Europe for the century to come.
What Erasmus feared above all, is that with the Vatican’s brutal war against Luther, it is the entire cultural renaissance and the learning of languages that got threatened with extinction.
In July 1521, confronted with the book burning, the German painter and engraver Albrecht Dürer, who made his living with bible illustrations, left Antwerp with his wife to return to his native Nuremberg.
Thirty years later, in 1552, the great cartographer Gerardus Mercator, a brilliant pupil of the Collegium Trilingue, for having called into question the views of Aristotle, went into exile and settled in Duisbourg, Germany.
In 1521, at the request of his friends who feared for his life, Erasmus left Leuven for Basel and settled in the workshop of another humanist, the Swiss printer Johann Froben.
In 1530, with a foreword of Erasmus, Froben published Georgius Agricola’s inventory of mining techniques, De Re Metallica, a key book that vastly contributed to the industrial revolution of Saxen, Switzerland, Germany and the whole of Europe.
If certain Catholic historians try to downplay the hostility of their Church towards Erasmus, the fact remains that between 1559 and 1900, the full works of Erasmus were on the “Index Vaticanus” and therefore “forbidden readings” for Catholics.
If Thomas More, whom Erasmus considered as his twin brother, was canonized by Pius XI in 1935 and recognized as the patron saint of the political leaders, Erasmus himself was never rehabilitated.
Interrogated by this author in a letter, the Pope Francis returned a polite but evasive answer.
Let’s rebuild the Collegium Trilingue !
With the exception of the staircase, only a few stones remain of the historical building housing the Collegium Trilingue. In 1909, the University of Louvain planned to buy up and rebuild the site but the First World War changed priorities. Before becoming social housing, part of the building was used as a factory. As a result, today, there is no overwhelming charm. However, seeing the historical value of the site, we cannot but fully support a full reconstruction plan of the building and its immediate environment.
It would make the historical center of Leuven so much nicer, so much more attractive and very much more loyal to its own history. On top, such a reconstruction wouldn’t cost much and might interest private investors. The images in 3 dimensions produced for the Leuven exhibit show a nice Flemish Renaissance building, much in the style of the marvels constructed by architect Rombout II Keldermans.
Every period has the right to honestly “re-write” its own history, without falsifications, according to its own vision of the future.
It has to be noted here that the world famous “Rubenshuis” in Antwerp, is not at all the original building, but a scrupulous reconstruction of the late 1930s.