Europe’s Babylon: The Rise and Fall of Antwerp’s Golden Age

Written by Michael Pye
Review by Susan Lowell

Antwerp? Great city of the Renaissance? Yes, as important in its own way as Florence, Venice, and Rome. In this engaging, deeply researched, and beautifully illustrated book, historian Michael Pye makes an excellent case for Antwerp’s special significance.

The Renaissance came late to northern Europe, so Antwerp experienced its golden age, not in the Quattrocento but the 16th century, and largely because of booming international trade. But Antwerp’s key location on the Scheldt River in Flanders (now Belgium) also meant that it was a plum, a city-state that managed temporarily to maintain an uneasy neutrality amidst warring powers: France and the Holy Roman Empire, as well as Catholics and Protestants. For a brief shining moment, Antwerp was a tolerant and cosmopolitan place, a Babel of many foreign languages, rapid real estate development, comparative freedom, Sin City behavior, and money, money, money.

For sale or trade: Portuguese spices, English wool, costly tapestries, rare plants, printed books (sometimes banned elsewhere), and fine art by Bruegel, Bosch, Rubens, Van Eyck, Van Dyck, among others. It was a hub of, and distribution center for, new ideas as well as goods.

Fiction writer alert: Pye reveals a trove of lesser-known historical treasure – Renaissance characters, particularly female, and dramatic, even operatic events (see Verdi’s Don Carlo) simply demanding to become novels. For example, two women, Margaret of Parma and Mary of Hungary, who actually governed the region. Also, the many Jewish refugees in Antwerp which included the brilliant international banker Dona Gracia, whose flight from Portugal to Istanbul via Antwerp is a novel in itself. Then there’s the story of Catherina von Hemessen, who painted probably the first self-portrait of a professional woman artist at work. So be quick, fellow writers. Read this book and discover Antwerp, before Hilary Mantel beats you to it.