Literary Review: Antwerp: The Glory Years by Michael Pye

What’s in a name? Antwerp, it was said, derived from the words werpen and hand, meaning ‘throwing’ and ‘hand’. In this telling, a Roman soldier named Brabo cut off the hand of a giant, Druon Antigon, who stood on the banks of the Scheldt and demanded payment of a toll. Even in its foundation myth, Michael Pye notes in his exhilarating new account of Renaissance Antwerp, the city stood for free trade.

But at its height, which for Pye is roughly the first six or seven decades of the sixteenth century, the name Antwerp meant much more than a mere location. It was an idea of what a city could be. There were models for that kind of thing, it was true. Was Antwerp a second Venice in the north? The Venetians certainly thought so. “There is in Antwerp the trade of the whole world,” its ambassador wrote home enviously in 1546. Venice had the Mediterranean; Antwerp had everywhere. Ships from India, from Brazil and the Americas came to its quaysides up the tidal Scheldt. Goods came in and out of the city – from Germany, from the Alps, from Northern Italy – through the tributaries of the Rhine, or across the North Sea or the Baltic. It was “the market all Europe had in common” another ambassador said in 1563. The Medicis bought their horses here; the king of Sweden shopped for singers and musicians. If you couldn’t buy it here, where could it be bought?

Then again, perhaps Antwerp was another Rome. The city seemed to think so: the letters SPQA were inscribed, somewhat self-consciously, on a tablet in its new exchange, the Beurs, built in 1532. Others had the same notion. Antwerp was a new Rome rising on the Scheldt, the English diplomat Daniel Rogers said visiting in 1565. It was intended as a compliment, but Antwerp wasn’t without Roman flaws either. Pye quotes Juvenal: “what respect for the law, what shame or fear, can you expect from a greedy man in a hurry”. And the city didn’t have Rome’s army, either – or its empire – and only seems to have started building its own ships rather grudgingly. Antwerp’s was the empire of capital, the Jerusalem of the deal. Land didn’t matter that much: it was just another asset to raise money against, another commodity to trade.

Antwerp wasn’t really like other cities; it was an alchemical process, transforming not just goods into money, but trade itself. People got rich trading on the relative value of goods they never owned, or trading in credit, in money itself. It took some kind of alchemy to make a commodity out of what you used to buy other commodities with. The banker Erasmus Schetz tried to explain how it worked to his namesake, the great humanist Desiderius Erasmus. After a year, Schetz gave up. “I would prefer that you were more capable of grasping this matter than I see you are,” he wrote. One man, Gaspar Ducci, a Tuscan who came to the city with an Italian trading house aged 20, got so rich from arbitrage that in the autumn of 1540 he managed to corner all the solid cash – the gold and silver – in Antwerp and brought the city to a standstill. Light touch regulation had its drawbacks, even then. The city banned Ducci from the Beurs for three years. But he was only doing what everyone in the city was doing: trying to work out the limits of what was possible.

It’s that genius for trade that made Antwerp what it was: in Pye’s phrase, a city “trying to invent itself and the future at the same time”. Perhaps you might say it was a city imagined by the idea of free trade, by Brabant’s decision early in the 14th century to establish two annual free-trade fairs in the city. Or perhaps it was imagined when the first Portuguese spice ships docked in the harbour at the turn of the fifteenth century, bringing black pepper, cinnamon, cloves and ginger; diamonds from Golconda; Chinese porcelain, Chinese silk. Low weight, high-value luxuries, Pye notes. What merchant doesn’t love those? But really, Antwerp was a city imagined by an almost impossible confluence of factors, including luck.

And Antwerp needed luck. In the late 1480s, Archduke Maximilian of Austria was at war with nearby Bruges, the region’s mercantile powerhouse. He parked an army at its gates and ordered all its foreign merchants to move to Antwerp; they were only too happy to oblige. The city was lucky too that its putative overlords, the Habsburgs, were preoccupied fighting the Ottomans for most of the sixteenth century. Antwerp dealt quite happily with the Ottomans. The Habsburgs they lent money to; Philip II of Spain paid 24% for the privilege.

It wasn’t just free trade that made the city different, however. There was also its attitude to heresy. The Duke of Alba summed up the imperial view well enough: Antwerp was “a confusion and a receptacle of all sects indifferently”. It was a question of categories, really. What looked like a city mired in moral chaos to Alba was in fact a city governed by one simple principle: if you had goods to trade or money to buy, Antwerp’s markets were open to you. As a result, the city absorbed some 2,000 immigrants a year: catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Jews. These were not, of course, all wealthy merchants. But the wealthy brought everyone else in their wake: the Portuguese traders were followed by barbers, apothecaries and musicians, Pye says; the Italians brought tailors and booksellers. Artists, craftsmen, printers, mapmakers, teachers, brewers, gardeners: whoever you were, the city had something for you – even if that something was freedom from fear. It was an entrepôt for people, as well as goods.

Maintaining a city of ambiguity and ambivalence in a century of absolutes was no mean feat. In March 1540 the emperor sent a marshal to hunt heretics in the city; the city promptly arrested him for infringing its privileges. Those privileges – seemingly a mix of common law, customs and habits of mind – were secure as long as no-one codified them; nothing provoked the Habsburgs more than seeing their authority being flouted in black and white. But elision and evasion, those were things the city excelled at. When the emperor demanded death for those who printed heretical works, Antwerp with its customary alchemy transmuted the penalty to banishment, and a notional one at that.

Printing – putting things in black and white – was something else the city’s latitude allowed to flourish. There were some sixty presses in the city, printing every kind of work: histories, popular songs, books explaining the mysteries of compound interest, vernacular bibles, hymnals, missals, books about commodity prices and rates of exchange, maps. It was western Europe’s centre for language books, multi-language dictionaries being another kind of commodity exchange. Noel de Berlaimont’s best-selling book of French-Dutch conversations begins with small talk over dinner but ends with lending, borrowing and debt collection; money was the city’s true vernacular. Most of the books circulating in England were printed here. Printers offered the same discrete service to radical protestants under Henry VIII and Mary as they did to recusants under Elizabeth I.

And it was a clearing house for that most precious of commodities, information. The Swiss alchemist, Paracelsus, who came here in 1519, said he learned “more at the marketplace than in any German or foreign schools”. News from Antwerp was an imprimateur, a mark of authority. When, in 1541, the English were worried that the emperor might be planning to attack, it was to Antwerp, not the imperial court, they dispatched a man to find the truth. As the English military commander Lord Wyllughby wrote home in 1587: “The particuliarities of your secrets be more particularly published at Antwerp than… the most of yourselves know them there.” The trade in global commodities brought the trade in information on its tail. It was all connected. “One can discover or even follow the nature, habits and customs of many nations,” the Florentine merchant Ludovico Guicciardini wrote. “It is because of this accumulation of foreigners that there is always news from all over the world in Antwerp.” This is city-as-synecdoche; “a whole world bustles in this small world”, the English diplomat Rogers said.

You could say the name of the city itself was information: to be in Antwerp, or associated with it, stood for something, for a wider horizon than elsewhere, a more generous sense of the possible. Thomas More visited Antwerp in 1515 and set the opening of Utopia, published the following year, in the city’s streets; he dedicated it to his friend, Peter Gilles, the town clerk. The mathematician and astrologer John Dee certainly visited Antwerp in the early 1560s, drawn by its unparalleled marketplace for esoteric texts. He said he wrote his Monas Hieroglyphica, about alchemy, maths and magic, here in January 1564, when, Pye notes, he was still in Padua. The name Antwerp had an alchemy all of its own: it was somewhere to be seen – even when you weren’t, in fact, there. It was magical, for a while.

For this reader, what Antwerp: The Glory Years recalled most wasn’t another history, it was Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino’s fictional re-imagination of Venice. Pye has refracted Antwerp’s greatest decades through the lives of some of those who lived or visited it. It is a mosaic of character studies, of stories and vignettes, of buildings and books, of dizzying ambitions, pieced together with great skill and art. The effect is dazzling. If you want a linear history of 16th century Antwerp, stay away. But if you want a sense of the city’s splendour, the exhilarating moment it contained, its potent, unsustainable originality, then Antwerp: The Glory Years is the book for you. Pye seems to conjure exactly the glamour that drew people to its gates in its pomp: the city as idea; the city as improvisation; the city as possibility. In places, the book is rather moving, too; Pye writes eloquently about the conversos, the Portuguese Jews forced to flee their homes, who came to Antwerp as a place of safety from which they could reach the greater safety of the Ottoman Empire.

Antwerp wasn’t so much an invisible city, as an indivisible one. The different elements that made it great – the free trade, the money market, the religious ambiguity, the immigrant communities, and so on – were all mutually supportive. When the city stopped being able to elide its contradictions, it stopped being itself. For Pye that moment of rupture came with the outbreak of Calvinist iconoclasm in August 1566, which the mapmaker Ortelius said left the city’s churches looking “as though the devil had been at work there for one hundred years”. In an age of rising zealotry, the ambiguity that Antwerp traded on was a commodity in steep decline. Over the next two decades, the city had to submit repeatedly: to the Duke of Alba; to the unpaid Spanish soldiers who mutinied and ransacked the city; to the Calvinists; to the Duke of Anjou. When Alexander Farnese took the city in 1585, after a 14-month siege, half its population left. The city needed open roads and open seas to trade; war shut off its life-blood.

When another English diplomat Sir Dudley Carleton came in 1616 he admired the orderliness of the city’s buildings and streets, but marveled at how quiet it was. “In the whole time we spent there… none of our company… saw one penny-worth of ware either in shops or in streets bought or sold,” he wrote. No longer city-as-idea, Antwerp was no more than the idea of a city just like any other, the alchemy of its name rubbed away, lost.

This piece first appeared in the August 2021 issue of Literary Review.

Read more of Mathew’s reviews here.

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