About Belgium – Origin Of The Belgian Towns

THE somewhat heterogeneous country which we now call Belgium formed part of Gaul under the Roman Empire. But though rich and commercial even then, it seems to have been relatively little Romanized ; and in the beginning of the fifth century it was over-run by the Salic Franks, on their way toward Laon, Soissons, and Paris. When civilization began to creep northward again in the ninth century through the districts barbarized by the Teutonic invasion, it was the Frankish Charlemagne (Karl the Great) who introduced Roman arts afresh into the Upper and Lower Rhinelands. The Rhine from Basle to Cologne was naturally the region most influenced by this new Roman revival; but as Charlemagne had his chief seat at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen), near the modern Belgian frontier, the west-ern Frankish provinces were also included in the sphere of his improvements. When the kingdom of the Franks began to divide more or less definitely into the Empire and France, the Flemish region formed nominally part of the Neustrian and, later, of the French dominions. From a very early date, however, it was practically almost independent, and it became so even in name during its later stages. But Brabant, with Brussels, remained a portion of the Empire.

The Rhine constituted the great central waterway of medi�l Europe; the Flemish towns were its ports and its manufacturing centres. They filled in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries much the same place that Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester, and Birmingham fill in the twentieth. Many causes contributed to this result. Flanders, half-independent under its own counts, occupied a middle position, geographically and politically, between France and the Empire; it was comparatively free from the disastrous wars which desolated both these countries, and in particular (see under Ghent) it largely escaped the long smouldering quarrel between French and English which o long retarded the development of the former. Its commercial towns, again, were not exposed on the open sea to the attacks of prates or hostile fleets, but were safely ensconce in inland flats, reached by rivers or canal , almost inaccessible to maritime enemies. Similar conditions elsewhere early ensured p ace and prosperity for Venice. The canal system of Holland and Belgium began to be de eloped as early as the twelfth century (at first for drainage), and was one leading cause of the commercial importance of the Flemish cities in the fourteenth. In so flat a country, locks are all but unnecessary. The two town which earliest rose to greatness in the Belgian area were thus Bruges and Ghent ; they possessed in the highest degree the combined as vantages of easy access to the sea and camparative inland security. Bruges, in particular, as one of the chief stations of the Hanseatic League, which formed an essentially commercial alliance for the mutual protection of the northern trading centres. By the fourteenth century Bruges had thus become in the north what Venice was in the south, the capital of commerce. Trading companies from all the surrounding countries had their ” factories ” in the town, and every European king or prince of importance kept a resident minister accredited to the merchant Republic.

Some comprehension of the mercantile condition of Europe in general during the Middle Ages is necessary in order to understand the early importance and wealth of the Flemish cities. Southern Europe, and in particular Italy, was then still the seat of all higher civilization, more especially of the trade in manufactured articles and objects of luxury. Florence, Venice, and Genoa ranked as the polished and learned cities of the world. Further east, again, Constantinople still remained in the hands of the Greek emperors, or, during the Crusades, of their Latin rivals. A brisk trade existed via the Mediterranean between Europe and India or the nearer East. This double stream of traffic ran along two main routes – one, by the Rhine, from Lombardy and Rome; the other, by sea, from Venice, Genoa, Florence, Constantinople, the Levant, and India. On the other hand, France was still but a half-civilized country, with few manufactures and little external trade; while England was an exporter of raw produce, chiefly wool, like Australia in our own time. The Hanseatic merchants of Cologne held the trade of Lon-don; those of Wisby and L�governed that of the Baltic; Bruges, as head of the Hansa, was in close connection with all of these, as well as with Hull, York, Novgorod, and Bergen. The position of the Flemish towns in the fourteenth century was thus not wholly unlike that of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston at the present day; they stood as intermediaries between the older civilized countries, like Italy or the Greek empire, and the newer producers of raw material, like England, North Germany, and the Baltic towns.

The local Manufactures of Flanders consisted chiefly Of woollen goods and linens; the imports included Italian luxuries, Spanish figs and raisins, Egyptian dates, Oriental silks, English wool, cattle, and metals, Rhenish wines, and Baltic furs, skins, and walrus tusks.

In the early sixteenth century, when navigation had assumed new conditions, and trade was largely diverted to the Atlantic, Antwerp, the port of the Schelde, superseded the towns on the inland network. As Venice sank, Antwerp rose.

The art that grew up in the Flemish cities during their epoch of continuous commercial development bears on its very face the visible impress of its mercantile origin. France is essentially a monarchical country, and it is centralized in Paris; everything in old French art is therefore regal and lordly. The Italian towns were oligarchies of nobles; so the principal buildings of Florence and Venice are the castles or palaces of the princely families, while their pictures represent the type of art that belongs in its nature to a cultivated aristocracy. But in Flanders everything is in essence commercial. The architecture consists, mainly, not of private palaces, but of guilds, town halls, exchanges, belfries : the pictures are the portraits of solid and successful merchants� or the devotional works which a merchant donor presented to the patron saint of his town or business. They are almost overloaded with details of fur, brocade, jewelry, lace, gold, silver, polished brass, glass-work, Oriental carpets, and richly carved furniture. In order to understand Flemish art, therefore, it is necessary to bear in mind at every step that t is the art of a purely commercial people.

Another point which differentiates Flemish painting from .he painting of Italy during the same period s the complete absence of any opportunity for the display of frescoes. In the Italian churches, where the walls serve largely for support, and the full southern light makes the size of the windows of less importance, great surfaces were left bare in the nave and aisles, or in the lower part of the choir, crying aloud for decoration at the hands of the fresco-painter. But in the northern Gothic, which aimed above all things at height and the soaring effect, and which almost annihilated the wall, by making its churches consist of rows of vast windows with intervening piers or buttresses, the opportunity for mural decoration occurred but seldom,. The climate also destroyed frescoes. Hence the works of pictorial art in Flemish buildings are almost confined to altar-pieces and votive tablets. Again, the great school of painting in early Italy (from Giotto to Perugino) was a school of fresco-painters; but in Flanders no high type of art rose till the discovery of oil-painting. Pictures were usually imported from the Rhine towns. Hence, pictorial art in the Low Countries seems to spring almost full-fledged, instead of being traceable through gradual stages of evolution as in Italy. Most of the best early paintings are small and highly finished : it was only at a comparatively late date, when Antwerp became the leading town, that Italian influence began to produce the larger and coarser canvases of Rubens and his followers.

Very early Flemish art greatly resembles the art of the School of Cologne. Only with Hubert and Jan van Eyck (about 136o�1440) does the distinctively Flemish taste begin to show itself � the taste for delicate and minute workmanship, linked with a peculiar realistic idealism, more dainty than German work, more literal than Italian. It is an art that bases itself upon truth of imitation and perfection of finish : its chief �hetic beauty is its jewel-like colour and its wealth of decorative adjuncts. The subsequent development of Flemish painting � the painting that pleased a clique of opulent commercial patrons � we shall trace in detail in the various cities.

Whoever wishes to gain a deeper insight into Flemish painting should take in his port-manteau Sir Martin Conway’s ” Early Flemish Artists,” a brilliant and masterly work of the first importance, to which this Guide is deeply indebted.

The political history of the country during this flourishing period of the Middle Ages has also stamped, itself, though somewhat less deeply, on the character of the towns and of the art evolved in them. The Counts of Flanders, originally mere lords of Bruges and its district, held their dominions of the Kings of France. Their territory included not only Arras (at first the capital, now included in France) with Bruges, Ghent, Courtrai, Tournay, and Ypres, but also the towns and districts of Valenciennes, Lille, and St. Omer, which are now French. From the time of Baldwin VIII. 1191), however, Arras became a part of France, and Ghent was erected into the capital of Flanders. In the beginning of the thirteenth century, two women sovereigns ruled in succession; under them, and during the absence of the elective Counts on crusades, the towns rose to be practically burgher republics. Bruges, Ypres, Ghent, and Lille were said to possess each forty thousand looms; and though this is certainly a medi�l exaggeration, yet the Flemish cities at this epoch were at any rate the chief manufacturing and trading centres of northern Europe, while London was still a mere local emporium.

In the fourteenth century, the cities acquired still greater freedom. The citizens had always claimed the right to elect their count; and the people of Ghent now made treaties without him on their own account with Edward III. of England. To this age belongs the heroic period of the Van Arteveldes at Ghent, when the burghers became the real rulers of Flanders, as will be more fully described hereafter. In 1384, however, Count Louis III. died, leaving an only daughter, who was married to Philip the Bold of Burgundy; and the wealthy Flemish towns thus passed under the sway of the powerful princes of Dijon. Brabant fell later by inheritance, to Philip the Good. It was under the Burgundian dynasty, who, often held their court at Ghent, that the arts of the Netherlands attained their first great development. Philip the Good (1419� 1467) employed Jan van Eyck as his court painter; and during his reign or just after it the chief works of Flemish art were produced in Bruges, Ghent, Brussels, and Tournay.

Charles the Bold, the last Duke of Burgundy, left one daughter, Mary, who was married to Maximilian, afterward emperor. From that date forward the history of the Flemish towns is practically merged in that of the dynasty of Charles V., and finally becomes the story of an unwilling and ever justly rebellious Spanish province. *he subsequent vicissitudes of Belgium as an Austrian appanage, a part of Holland, and an independent kingdom, belong to the domain cf European history. For the visitor, it is the period of the Burgundian supremacy that really counts in the cities of Belgium.

Yet the one great point for the tourist to bear in mind is really this � that the art of the Flemish towns is essentially the art of a group of burgher communities. Its frankly commercial, neither royal nor aristocratic. In its beginnings it develops a strictly municipal architecture, with a school of painters who aimed at portraiture and sacred panel pictures. After the Reformation had destroyed sacred art in Holland, painting in that part of the Netherlands confined itself to portraits and to somewhat vulgar popular scenes: while in Belgium it was Italianized, or rather Titianized and Veronese’d, by Rubens and his followers. But in its best days it was national, local, and sacred or personal.

Take Conway’s ” Early Flemish Artists ” with you in your portmanteau, and read over in the evening his account of the works you have seen during the day.