Antwerp City Hall on the city's market square (Photo: Andreas Husemann)

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Antwerp City Hall
By Jan Lampo

20 April 2005: Antwerp City Hall was constructed between 1561 and 1565 under the supervision of the master builder Cornelis II Floris de Vriendt, with the collaboration of the Italian Nicolo Scarini, among others. It is in the Flemish-Italian Renaissance style, also known as the Floris style, a conspicuous innovation in the Netherlands of the sixteenth century that was imitated as far away as Scandinavia.

Mutinying Spanish sailors torched the building during the Spanish Fury of 1576, but it was rebuilt in 1579. The city hall originally had an open-air inner courtyard. A roof was added during a thorough renovation in the nineteenth century. Most of the present interior, including a large number of wall panels, dates from that period.

The Architecture
The Aldermen of Antwerp were given a building—het Schepenhuis—for the city’s administration and their meetings around 1406. The Lakenhal was situated next to the Schepenhuis. 

Antwerp’s economy grew fast in the years following its construction. Around 1450 the city’s population was 20,000 or so, but by the middle of the sixteenth century Antwerp was home to around 100,000 people and the largest city north of the Alps after Paris.

The workload of the Mayors and Aldermen increased progressively and the old Schepenhuis became far too small. It was also felt to be too undistinguished for such a large city.

Around 1540 the architect Dominicus de Waghemakere was commissioned by the Mayor and Aldermen to design a Gothic city hall to rival those of Leuven and Brussels, but the plans were shelved. It would be another 20 years before the burghers dared raise the subject of a new city hall again.

In 1560 the magistrate decided to build a city hall on the broad western side of Grote Markt, the main market square, which was owned by the city. That meant that no money would have to be spent on purchasing the land and shops could be developed at street level, generating rents that would cover some of the construction costs.

This time there was a clear preference for a building in the new Renaissance style. The city managers set up a committee of ten experts, who came to agreement on a design. The Antwerp members included the sculpture, architect and designer Cornelis II Floris (1513–1575), and the artists Jan Metsys and Lambert van Noort. Florentine master builder Nicolo Scarini was one of the committee’s foreign members. The inauguration took place on 27 February 1565, four years after the first stone was laid.

Present Day
The City Hall still accommodates the Mayor and Aldermen of the city. That means that the reception rooms continue to host meetings, press conferences, weddings and receptions. The City Hall is open to the public, as are the monthly council meetings. Its continued administrative function makes it difficult for the building to operate as a museum. The doors, however, are opened to the general public a couple of times during the year, including the ‘open companies day’ and the ‘open monuments day’. Group access is restricted but it is possible with a guide.

The Art Treasures
Office of the Mayor
This room was given its present form in 1822. Pieter Coecke van Aelst designed the fireplace in around 1550. It actually came from another building. Antwerp’s architect Pierre Bruno Bourla had it moved to the City Hall. Above the fireplace is a scene from the Old and New Testaments. Together they embody the idea of the Redemption. The office is adorned with the portraits of various Mayors painted by August Delfosse (1832–1899), Opsomer (1878–1967) and Betty Frantzen-Leys, who painted Antwerp’s first lady Mayor, Mathilde Schroyens.

Trouwzaal
Victor Lagaye (1825–1896) painted the five murals of weddings performed in different historical periods: the era of the Ancient Belgians; the Roman epoch; a Christian ceremony celebrated by Saint Willebrord in 650; the aristocratic wedding of Philip the Beautiful and Johanna of Castilla in 1497; and a civil ceremony of the 17th Prairal of 1796 (in accordance with the law of the 17th Prairal of the year IV in the French revolutionary calendar).

There are two allegorical wedding tableaux by Lagaye beside the fireplace. On the left is The Union of Trade and Industry; on the right The Union of Science and Literature.

Cornelis Floris designed the fireplace and he sculptured two caryatides in alabaster himself. In 1886 Saldis and Amfitrite, the bas-relief by G. Geefs, was placed above the mantelpiece. It symbolises the river Scheldt and the Sea.

Wandelzaal
The Wandelzaal was given its present appearance in 1930.

The ceiling is decorated with the coats of arms of Hanseatic towns and other places Antwerp traded with. The blazons of prominent Antwerp families adorn the supports of the balcony. The stained glass contains depictions of contemporary events.

One of the consuls of Iran made a gift of the two gigantic vases in luxurious Sèvres porcelain.

After the passing of Queen Astrid (1905–1935) in a car accident in Küssnacht, Switzerland, King Leopold III bequeathed the dress and hat his wife wore for their entry into Antwerp.

Collegezaal
The Collegezaal is the chamber in which the Mayor and Aldermen convene. The oak fireplace is the work of the sculptor Alfons Peeters. He depicted the old Schepenhuis in the shell. The recesses contain sculptures of Duke Henry I of Brabant, Maria of Burgundy, Godfried of Bouillon, Philip the Good and Duke John I of Brabant.

Red and white lampshades on the ceiling represent the red and white roses in the city’s coat of arms, symbols of Antwerp’s free status.

Raadzaal
The chairs and desks of the majority face those of the opposition. The Mayor and Aldermen are seated on a raised platform on the south side of the chamber. The Mayor’s seat is in the centre, distinguished by its higher back.

The copper panels list the name of every Mayor of Antwerp since 1409 in chronological order. 

The eastern wall is decorated with a series of royal portraits. In 1855 Wappers painted the portrait of Leopold I’s queen, Louise-Marie of Orleans.
 
Since 1884 Belgium’s first royal couple has been flanked by Leopold II and Marie-Henriette by Louis Gallait (1810–1887). These copies were made by Eward de Jans (1855–1919), a teacher at the Academy.
 
Four of the medallions above the five doors are portraits of the Austrian emperors that ruled over the Southern Netherlands 1713–1794. Eugeen Joors painted Charles VI and Leopold II; Maria Theresa and Josef II are by Emile Claus (1894–1924). Claus also painted the fifth portrait - that of William the Silent, otherwise known as William of Orange.

The Raadzaal’s ceiling is decorated with six large tableaux. Four of them are by Jacob de Roore (1686–1747) and date from 1713. In that year the Treaty of Utrecht brought the Southern Netherlands under Austrian rule. The panels reflect the hope at the time that Austria would end the closure of the Scheldt.

The other two paintings are by Frans Vinck (1827–1903). They illustrate the blossoming of the port of Antwerp at the end of the nineteenth century.

Leyszaal
Hendrik Leys and the city’s keeper of the records Pieter Génard conceived a whole scenario for this showpiece room. The portraits of the dukes and emperors that had granted Antwerp privileges are hung above the doors. The large tableaux on the walls illustrate the freedoms of the city before 1794. Leys began work in 1864. He had completed eleven portraits and four large tableaux by the time of his death five years later.

Salon of the Mayor
This is where the Mayor receives distinguished guests. The nineteenth-century salon and dining room furniture gives the room a less formal character. The most striking work of art is The Antwerp Polder by the sixteenth-century landscape artist Jacob Grimmer (ca 1526–ca 1590). In the foreground is a village with a country party; the fertile polders stretch out behind it and in the distance we can see Antwerp. This room is also home to the Portrait of Princess Charlotte, the sister of King Leopold II and the Empress of Mexico, by Niçaise de Keyser, and the Portrait of Maria, Countess of Flanders by Joseph Delin (1821–1892), a pupil of Wappers, who made his name as a portrait artist. The fireplace and the authentic marble doorframe are also noteworthy.


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