The rule of capitalism, international trade and high levels of immigration. It sounds much like a contemporary scenario. But this was Amsterdam as it stood 400 years ago, in what it is known as the Dutch Golden Age. By 1615 Amsterdam was not only one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Europe but also one which thrived off a huge economic boom. This was the very reason behind and also a result of the setting that unfolded which saw urban development, boosting of the arts and even a new mentality towards religious tolerance in the city.
The Golden Age is officially dated from 1585 to 1672. It was at the end of the sixteenth century that many well to do individuals from the Jewish community settled in Amsterdam after fleeing the Roman Catholic Spanish and Portuguese allied areas where unlike the northern, independent provinces were not known for their religious tolerance. This northern Dutch region or as it was known ‘De Republik der Zeven Verenigde Nederlanden’ (the Republic of the Seven Dutch Provinces)was recognized in the 1579 ‘Unie van Utrecht’. In the same treaty it was stated the right for every citizen to attain religious freedom, leading to the place being recognized as a haven of tolerance. And that was four hundred years ago!
Coming from a strong economical position these new settlers organised commercial trips to the East which eventually led to the foundation of the Dutch East India company in 1602, successfully trading in menial items such as textiles, tulip bulbs and spices. As its biggest shareholder and due to its strategic geographical position, Amsterdam became the most important point of ship trading in the world. As a result it also became a leading financial centre. Around the same time the Bank of Amsterdam (Amsterdamsche Wisselbank) was founded, facilitating the money exchange between individuals and companies and again boosting the capital in the city. The Dutch West India Company which was founded in 1623 only maximised the profitable trade of goods, slaves and management of the colonies in the American continent. Again, the capital gain of these activities was reflected in the growth of Amsterdam. The city which had grown from 30 000 inhabitants in 1572 to 105 000 by 1622 was a hit not only with wealthy merchants and those fleeing religious persecution but also the unmarried youth from nearby provinces, Germany and Nordic countries, grasping the opportunity of social mobility.
To accommodate these new elite families, a more affluent urban sensibility was called for. So three new expansive canals were born, Herengracht, Prinsengracht, and Keisergracht. More spacious than the medieval Warmoesstraat, these quays were more suited to the elites who necessitated ever bigger ‘town palaces’ to keep and display their material wealth. Others whose profits were smaller, but who were also key players in the Dutch Golden Age such as carpenters, craftsmen, tailors and general suppliers to the high society also settled in the area surrounding the canals, collectively with the three canals known as the Jordaan.
Amongst those living in the not-so-upmarket areas of the Jordaan were artists such as Rembrandt van Rijn,the most famous Dutch painter to have ever lived. Rembrandt is a reminder and proof of the Golden Age’s biggest legacy, a Golden Age of Dutch Art. Also active in Holland around this period were Jan Steen, Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer, all recognised alongside Rembrandt as Dutch Masters. Talent and a pictorial tradition aside, this flourishing of the arts, which also extended to literature was made possible by the rise of the urban upper class. With the capital means to invest in the utmost symbol of power and status this section of society supported the arts like never before. Similar to all the commodities circulating in the market at the time art was also a profitable good, transported and sold across borders through the canals linking the Netherlands and out of the port of Amsterdam.