Leyden – Holland

The country between the Hague and Leyden is all one verdant plain, dotted by the vivid red of the roofs and streaked by the blue of the canals; with here and there groups of trees, windmills, and scattered herds of cattle. You move onwards and seem still to be at the same point, gazing at the same objects. The train glides on slowly and almost noiselessly through the silent country; in the carriage no one speaks, at the stations no voice is heard, and gradually the mind settles into a sort of doze, in which you forget where you are and whither you are going. ” And yet,” says Diderot, travelling in Holland, ” and yet people do sleep in this country!” The remark came often to my lips as we sped along, until I heard the cry of Leyden ! ” and alighted at a station, silent and solitary as a convent, Leyden, the antique Athens of the north, the Saragossa of the Low Countries, the oldest and most illustrious of the daughters of Holland, is one of those cities which make you thoughtful upon first entering them, and are remembered for a long time afterwards with a certain impression of sadness.

I had hardly arrived when the chill of a dead city seemed to fall upon me. The old Rhine, which crosses Leyden, dividing it into many islets joined together by one hundred and fifty stone bridges, forms wide canals and basins which contain no ship or boat, and the city seems rather invaded by the waters than merely crossed by them. The principal streets are very broad and flanked by rows of old blockhouses with the usual pointed gables, and the few people seen in the streets and squares are like the survivors of a city depopulated by the plague. In the smaller streets you walk upon long tracts of grass, between houses with closed doors and windows, in a silence as profound as that of those fabled cities where all the inhabitants are sunk in a supernatural sleep. You pass over bridges overgrown with weeds, and long canals covered with a green carpet, through small squares that seem like convent courtyards ; and then, suddenly, you reach a broad thoroughfare, like the streets of Paris ; from which you again penetrate into a labyrinth of narrow alleys. From bridge to bridge, from canal to canal, from island to island, you wander for hours seeking for the life and movement of the ancient Leyden, and finding only solitude, silence, and the waters which reflect the melancholy majesty of the fallen city.

After a long turn, I came out into a vast square where a squadron of cavalry was going through its exercises. An old cicerone who accompanied me, stopped me under the shade of a tree, and told me that the square, called in Dutch the Ruin, commemorated a great disaster to the city of Leyden. ” Before 1807,” he mumbled in broken French, and in a schoolmaster’s tone peculiar to all Dutch ciceroni, ” this great space was all covered with houses, and the canal that now crosses it ran through the middle of a street. On the 12th of January 1807, a ship laden with gunpowder, which lay here, blew up, and eight hundred houses with several hundred people flew up in the air, and so this square was formed. Among the in-habitants who perished was the illustrious historian John Luzuc, who was afterwards buried in the church of St. Peter, with a fine inscription; and among the houses which flew up in the air was that of the Elzevir family, the glory of Dutch typography.” “The house of the Elzevirs ! ” thought I, in agreeable surprise ; and certain bibliomaniacs whom I knew in Italy came to my mind, who would have been but too happy to press with their feet the ground which had once sustained that illustrious house, whence had issued those small marvels of typography which they sought for, dreamed of, and caressed with such warm affection ; those tiny books that seemed stamped in adamantine characters; those models of fineness and precision, in which a typographical error is a portent which duplicates the value of the prize ; those wonders of polytype, of twists and flourishes, and tail-pieces, which they discuss in low voices and with glistening eyes !

Coming out of the square of Ruin I entered the Breede Straat, the broadest and longest of the Leyden streets, which crosses the city from one end to the other in the form of an S, and arrived in front of the City Hall, which is one of the most curious buildings of the sixteenth century. At first sight it has a theatrical appearance and contrasts unpleasantly with the grave aspect of the city. It is a long, low building, of an ash color, with a bare façade, along the top of which runs a stone balustrade, ornamented with obelisks, pyramids, and aerial frontispieces set off with grotesque statues, the whole forming a sort of fantastic embroidery around the steep roof. Opposite to the principal entrance rises a bell-tower composed of several stories, one within the other, giving it the aspect of a very tall kiosk, with an enormous iron crown upon the top in form of a reversed balloon, surmounted by a flagstaff. Above the door, which is approached by two flights of steps, there is an inscription in Dutch, commemorating the famine of 1574, composed in one hundred and thirty-one letters, corresponding to the number of days of the duration of the siege of Leyden.

Going into the palace, I wandered from room to room without encountering a living soul or hearing a sound that indicated habitation, until at last I came across an usher, who placed himself at my side, and making me cross a large room where sat some clerks, as motionless as images, he conducted me to the hall of curiosities. The first object that attracted my attention was a disjointed table, upon which, if the tradition is true, the famous tailor, John of Leyden, worked ; he who, in the beginning of the sixteenth century, turned the country upside down, as had been done five centuries before by Tankelyn, of obscene memory; that John of Leyden, the leader of the Anabaptists, who held the city of Munster against the Count Bishop of Waldeck, and was there elected king by his fanatical partisans ; that pious prophet, who had a seraglio of women, and who cut off the head of one of them because she complained of hunger ; that John of Leyden, in short, who, at the age of twenty-six, died, torn by red-hot irons, and whose body, enclosed in an iron cage on the top of a tower, was devoured by crows. He did not succeed, however, in exciting the fanaticism which was raised by Tankelyn, to whom women prostituted themselves in the sight of their husbands and mothers, persuaded that they were doing what was grateful to God; and men drank, as a water of purification, the water in which he had washed his filthy person.

In other rooms there are paintings by Hinck, Francis Mieris, Cornelius Engelbrechsten, and a ” Last Judgment” by Luca von Leyden, the patriarch of Dutch painting, the first who seized the laws of aerial perspeetive, a valiant colorist and engraver of, great fame, to whom, it is to be hoped, will be forgiven in the next world the ignoble ugliness of the Marys and Magdalens, the burlesque saints and convulsive angels, with which he has peopled his canvas. He also, like almost all the Dutch painters, had a most adventurous life. He travelled about Holland in a boat of his own ; in every city he gathered the painters together at a banquet. He was, or believed himself to be, poisoned by some slow poison administered by his rivals. He kept his bed for years, and painted in bed his chef d’oeuvre, “The Blind Man of Jericho cured by Christ.” He died two years afterwards, on a day memorable for a prodigious heat, which killed many, and produced much illness.

Coming out of the City Hall, I went up to a castle posted upon a small hill which rises in the midst of the city, between the two principal branches of the Rhine; the most ancient part of Leyden. This castle, called by Hollanders the “Burg,” is no other than a great round tower, quite empty, built, according to some authorities, by the Romans; according to others by one Hengist, Duke of the Anglo-Saxons; and recently restored and crowned with battlements. The hill is covered by tall oak trees, which hide the tower and prevent the enjoyment of the surrounding view; only here and there, looking through the branches, can glimpses be caught of the red roofs of Leyden, tine plain streaked with canals, the downs, and the bell-towers of the distant city.

On the top of that tower, under the shadow of the oaks, it is usual for the stranger to evoke the memories of that siege which was ” the most dismal tragedy of modern times,” and which seems to have left an indelible trace of sadness upon the aspect of Leyden.

In 1573 the Spaniards, led by Valdez, laid siege to Leyden, In the city there were only some volunteer soldiers. The military command was given to Van der Voes, a valiant man, and a Latin poet of some renôwn.Van der Well was burgomaster. In brief time the besiegers had constructed—more than sixty forts in all the places where it was possible to penetrate into the city by sea or land, and Leyden was completely isolated. But the people of Leyden did not lose heart. William of Orange had sent them word to hold out for three months, within which time he would succour them, for on the fate of Leyden depended that of Holland ; and the men of Leyden had promised to resist to the last extremity. Valdez sent to offer them pardon in the name of the King of Spain, if they would open their gates. They replied with a Latin verse : “Fistula dulce canit, volucrem dum decipit anceps,” and began to make sorties and to attack. Meanwhile, within the city provisions began to grow scarce, and the circle of the besiegers grew tighter from day to day. William of Orange, who occupied the fortress of Polderwaert, between Delft and Rotterdam, seeing no other way to succour the city, conceived the design of raising the siege of Leyden by breaking the dykes of the Issel and the Meuse, and driving out the Spaniards by water, since it could not be done by arms. This desperate design was forthwith put in action. The dykes being broken in sixty places, the sluice-gates of Rotterdam and Gonda were opened, the sea began to invade the land, and two hundred barges were in readiness at Rotterdam, at Deftshaven, and other points, to carry provisions into the city as soon as the great rise of the waters should take place which comes with the autumnal equinox. The Spaniards, startled at the first news of the inundation, were reassured when they understood the purpose of the Hollanders, holding it certain that the city must surrender before the waters could arrive at the first fortifications, and pushed on the siege with redoubled vigor. In the meantime, the people of Leyden, who began to feel the pressure of famine, and to despair of succour arriving in time, sent letters by means of pigeons to William of Orange, who was sick of fever at Amsterdam, to lay before him the sad condition of the city; and William responded, encouraging them to protracted resistance, promising that as soon as he was better he would fly in person to their aid. The waters advanced; the Spaniards began to abandon the lower fortifications; the inhabitants of Leyden continually climbed the tower to watch the sea, now hoping, now despairing, and never ceased to work at the walls, to make sorties, and to repulse attacks. At last the Prince of Orange got well, and preparations for the deliverance of Leyden, which during his illness had gone on but slowly, were now resumed with vigor. On the 1st of September the people of Leyden, from the top of their tower, saw appear upon the distant waters the first Dutch vessels. It was a small fleet, commanded by Admiral Boisot, and carrying eight hundred Zeelanders, savage men, covered with scars, accustomed to the sea, disdainful of life, fierce in battle, wearing in their caps a crescent on which was inscribed ” Rather Turks than Papists,” and forming a phalanx of strange and terrible aspect, resolute to save Leyden or to perish in the waters. The ships advanced to within five miles of the city, against the outermost dyke, which was defended by the Spaniards. The battle began with the assault upon the dyke, which was taken, cut, the sea broke in, and the Dutch vessels floated triumphantly through the breach. It was a great step, but it was only the first. Behind this dyke there was another. Again the battle began ; the second dyke was taken and cut, and the fleet passed on.

All at once the wind changed to the contrary quarter, and the ships were constrained to stop; it changed again, and they went on; it shifted once more, and again the fleet was arrested.

Whilst this was going on, within the city there began to be a scarcity even of the disgusting animals on which the citizens had been constrained to feed ; people threw themselves on the ground to lick up the blood of the slain ; women and children searched for scraps of food among the refuse in the streets; an epidemic broke out ; the houses were full of corpses; more than sixteen thousand citizens died; every hope of relief had perished. A crowd of famishing people rushed to the burgomaster Van der Werff, and demanded the surrender of the city with loud cries. Van der Werff refused. The people broke into threats. Then he made a sign with his hat that he wished to speak, and in the midst of the general silence, cried : ” Citizens of Leyden ! I have sworn to defend the city unto death, and with the help of God, I will maintain my oath. It is better to die of hunger than of shame. Your threats do not move me. I can die but once. Kill me, if you will, and satiate your hunger on my flesh ; but while I live do not ask me to surrender Leyden ! ” The crowd, moved by his words, dispersed in silence, resigned to death, and the defence went on. At last, on the night of the 1st of October, a violent tempest of wind burst out ; the sea rose, overwhelmed the ruined dykes, and furiously invaded the land. At midnight, when the tempest was at its height, in profound darkness, the Dutch fleet once more set sail. Some Spanish vessels came to meet them. Then began a terrible battle among the tops of trees and the roofs of submerged houses, by the light of the cannon-flashes. The Spanish ships were boarded and sunk; the Zeelanders jumped overboard and pushed their vessels forward with their shoulders ; the Spanish soldiers, seized with terror, abandoned the forts, fell by hundreds into the sea, were killed with daggers and grappling-irons, precipitated from roofs and dykes, destroyed, dispersed. One more fortress remained in the hands of Valdez; the besiegers wavered yet a little between hope and despair; then this fortress was abandoned; the Dutch fleet entered the city.

Here a horrible spectacle awaited them. A population of bony spectres, almost dead with hunger, crowded. the banks of the canals, staggering, and falling, and stretching out their arms towards the ships. The sailors began to throw bread to them, and then ensued among these dying men a desperate struggle; many were suffocated; others died in the act of eating; others fell into the canals. The first rage of hunger satisfied, the most crying need of the city provided for, citizens, Zeelanders, sailors, civic guards, soldiers, women, and children, and all that glorious and wasted crowd rushed to the cathedral, where they sang, in voices broken by sobs, a hymn of thanks and praise to God.

The Prince of Orange received the news of the safety of the city at Delft, in church, where he was present at Divine service. He sent the message at once to the preacher, and the latter announced it to the congregation, who received it with shouts of joy. Although only just recovered from his illness, and the epidemic still raging at Leyden, William would see at once his dear and valorous city. He went there ; his entry was a triumph ; his majestic and serene aspect put new heart into the people ; his words made them forget all they had suffered. To reward Leyden for her heroic defence, he left her her choice between exemption from certain imposts or the foundation of a university. Leyden chose the university.

The festival of the inauguration of the university was celebrated on the 5th of February 1575 with a solemn procession. First came a company of the burgher militia, and five companies of infantry from the garrison of Ley-den, behind whom came a car drawn by four horses, in which was a woman dressed in white, who represented the Gospel, and around the car the four Evangelists. Justice, with her eyes bandaged, followed, carrying the scales and sword, mounted on a unicorn, and surrounded by Julius, Papinius, Ulpius, and Tribinius. After Justice came Medicine, on horseback, with a treatise in one hand and in the other a garland of medicinal herbs, and accompanied by the four great doctors—Hippocratus, Galen, Dioscoridus, and Theophrastus. Minerva followed, armed with lance and shield, and escorted by four horsemen who represented Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Virgil Between all these came warriors in ancient armour; and the procession ended with halberdiers, mace – bearers, music, officials, the new professors, the magistrates, and a great crowd. It passed slowly through streets strewn with flowers, under triumphal arches, between hangings and banners, until it reached a small port on the Rhine, where it encountered a large vessel, splendidly decorated, upon which, under a canopy of laurel and orange boughs, sat Apollo, playing on the lute, surrounded by the nine muses singing, and Neptune, saviour of the city, who acted as helmsman. The vessel approached the shore; the golden-haired god and the nine sisters landed, and kissed one after another the new professors, saluting them with Latin verses; after which the procession went onwards to the building destined for the university, where a professor of theology, the Very Reverend Gaspar Kolhas, pronounced an eloquent inaugural address, preceded by music and followed by a splendid banquet.

How this university answered to the hopes of Leyden, it is superfluous to say. Everybody knows how the States of Holland with their liberal offers drew learned men from every country; how philosophy, driven out of France, took refuge there; how Leyden was for a long time the securest citadel for all men who were struggling for the triumph of human reason; how it became at length the most famous school in Europe. The actual university is in an ancient convent. One cannot enter without a sentiment of profound respect the great hall of the Academic Senate, where are seen the portraits of all the professors who have succeeded each other from the foundation of the university up to the present day. Among them are Lipseus, Vossius, Heinsius, Gronovius, Herastuhuys, Ruhneken, Valckeneer, the great Scaliger, whom the States of Holland invited to Leyden through the intervention of Henry IV.; the two famous men, Gomarius and Arminius, who provoked the great definite religious struggle of the synod of Dordrecht ; the celebrated physician Boerhaave, at whose lessons Peter the Great attended, to whom came invalids from all parts of Europe, and who received a letter from a Chinese mandarin with the simple direction : ” To the illustrious Boerhaave, physician in Europe.”

Now this glorious university, although it still has illustrious professors, is declining. Its students, who in the old time amounted to two thousand, are now reduced to a few hundreds. The instruction which is given there cannot any more rival that of the universities of Berlin, Munich, or Weimar. The principal reason for this decadence is to be found in the number of Dutch universities. Besides that at Leyden, there is one at Utrecht, one at Groeningen, and an Athenaeum at Amsterdam ; whence it follows that the libraries, museums, and eminent pro. fessors which gathered in one city would form an excellent university, are now scattered about, and are unequal to their task. Yet Holland is none the less convinced that one single excellent university would serve her better than four inferior ones. And why is it not done ? O reader, all the world is one country. It is the same in Holland as elsewhere. The three university towns cry out together, ” Let us suppress them ! ” and each one says to the other, “You begin”; and so they go on.

But, although fallen, the Leyden University is still the most flourishing in Holland, more especially for the numerous and rich museums which belong to it. Neither of these, however, nor of the libraries, nor of the admirable botanic gardens, would it be proper to treat, as I should have to do, lightly and hastily. I cannot forget two very curious things in the Museum of Natural History, one ridiculous and one serious. The first, which is in the anatomical cabinet (one of the richest in Europe), is an orchestra formed of fifty skeletons of very small mice, some erect, some sitting on a double row of benches, all with tails in the air, arid with violins and guitars in their paws, music-books before them, cigars in their mouths, handkerchiefs and snuff-boxes beside them ; and the leader gesticulating from an elevated seat. The serious thing consists of some pieces of corroded wood, full of holes like a sponge, fragments of piles and sluice-gates, which recall an immense danger run by Holland towards the middle of the last century. A shell-fish, a species of wood-worm, called taret, brought, it is believed, by some ship returning from the tropics, and multiplying with marvellous rapidity in northern waters, had so corroded and gnawed the wood of the dykes, that had it gone on for a short time longer without discovery, the sea would have broken in and flooded the whole country. The discovery of this danger threw Holland into dismay, the people rushed to the churches, and the entire population set to work ; they lined the sluice-gates with copper, they fortified the injured dykes, they strengthened the piles with nails, with stone, with sea-weed, and with masonry; and partly by these means, but especially by the rigor of the climate, which destroyed the terrible animal, the horrible calamity, feared at first as irreparable, was avoided. A worm had made Holland tremble; triumph denied to the tempests of the ocean and the anger of Philip of Spain.

Another precious ornament of Leyden is the Japanese museum of Doctor Siebold, a German by birth, physician to the Dutch colony in the Island of Detsima; who, ac-cording to a romantic tradition, first obtained permission from the Emperor of Japan to enter his mysterious empire in reward for having cured his daughter ; or, according to a more credible tradition, he got into the country in disguise, and did not come out again until he had paid for his temerity with nine months of imprisonment, and caused the loss of their heads to some mandarins who had aided him in his enterprise. However this may be, Doctor Siebold’s museum, is, perhaps, the finest collection of the kind that is to be found in Europe. An hour passed in the rooms is a voyage to Japan. There you can follow a Japanese family through-out the entire day ; from the morning toilet to the dinner, from the theatre to visiting, from the city to the country. There are to be found houses, temples, idols, port-able altars, instruments of music, household utensils,. agricultural tools, costumes of laborers and fishermen; bronze candle-sticks formed of a stork standing on a tor-toise ; vases, jewels, poignards wrought with exquisite delicacy; birds, tigers, rabbits, buffaloes in ivory, reproduced feather by feather and hair by hair, with the patience peculiar to that ingenious and patient people. Among the objects which impressed me most, was a colossal head of Buddha, which at first made me recoil, and which is ever before me, with its monstrous contraction and inexplicable look between laughter, delirium, and spasm, which excites at once both disgust and terror.

Behind this face of Buddha I saw the puppets of the Java theatres, real creations of a delirious brain, wearying the eye and confounding the mind ; kings, queens, and monstrous warriors, mixtures of man, beast, and plant, with arms ending in leaves, legs finished with ornaments, leaves spreading into hands, breasts in a state of vegetation, noses opening into flowers, faces full of holes, squinting eyes, eyeballs in the back of the neck, limbs turned hind part before, dragons’ wings, Sirens’ tails, hair like snakes, fishes’ mouths, elephants’ teeth, gilded wrinkles, zig-zag necks, and attitudes which no tongue can describe, nor any memory retain. Coming out of the museum, I seemed to awaken from some fever-dream in which I had seen something, I knew not what, continually changing with furious rapidity into some other nameless thing.

There is nothing else to be seen at Leyden. The mill where Rembrandt was born is no longer in existence. Of the houses where were born the painters Dow, Steen, Metzu, Van Goyen, and that Otto van Veen who had the honour and the misfortune to be master to Peter Paul Rubens, there is no trace or record. The castle of Endegeest may still be seen, where Boerhaave and Des-cartes sojourned, the last for several years, during which his principal works of philosophy and mathematics were written. The castle is on the road from Leyden to the village of Katwijk, where the old Rhine, uniting its various branches into one, throws itself into the sea.

The second time I was at Leyden I went to see the death of the marvellous river. The first time that I crossed the old Rhine, I had stopped on the bridge, asking myself whether that small and humble stream of water was really the same river that I had seen rushing in thunder over the rocks at Schaffhausen, spreading majestically before Mayence, passing in triumph under the fortress of Ehrenbreitstein, beating in sonorous cadence at the foot of the Seven Mountains reflecting in its course Gothic cathedrals, princely castles, fertile hills, steep rocks, famous ruins, cities, groves, and gardens; everywhere covered with vessels of all sorts, and saluted with music and song; and thinking of these things, with my gaze fixed upon the little stream shut in between two flat and desert shores, I had repeated, “Is this that Rhine ? ”

The vicissitudes which accompany the agony and death of this great river in Holland, are such as really to excite a sense of pity, such as is felt for the misfortunes and inglorious end of a people once powerful and happy. From the neighbourhood of Emmerich, before reaching the Dutch frontier, it has lost all the beauty of its hanks, and flows in great curves through vast and ugly flats, which seem to mark the approach to old age. At Millingen it runs entirely in the territory of Holland ; a little farther on it divides. The main branch shamefully loses its name, and goes to throw itself into the Meuse ; the other branch, insulted by the title of the Dannerden canal, flows nearly to the city of Arnehm, when it once more divides into two branches. One empties into the Gulf of Zuyder-Zee ; the other still called, out of compassion, the Lower Rhine, goes as far as the village of Durstede, where it divides for the third time; a humiliation now of old date. One of these branches, changing its name like a coward, throws itself into the Meuse near Rotterdam ; the other still called the Rhine, but with the ridiculous surname of ” curved,” reaches Utrecht with difficulty, where for the fourth time it again divides ; capricious as an old man hi his dotage. One part, denying its old name, drags itself as far as Muiden, where it falls into the Zuyder Zee; the other, with the name of Old Rhine, or simply the Old, flows slowly to the city of Leyden, whose streets it crosses almost without giving a sign of movement, and is finally gathered into one canal by which it goes to its miserable death in the North Sea.

But it is not many years since even this pitiful end was denied it. From the year 839, in which a furious tempest had accumulated mountains of sand at its mouth., until the beginning of the present century, the Old Rhine lost itself in the sand before reaching the sea, and covered a vast tract of country with pools and marshes. Under the reign of Louis Buonaparte the waters were collected into a large canal protected by three enormous sluice-gates, and from that time the Rhine flows directly to the sea. These sluices are the greatest monument in Holland and, perhaps, the most admirable hydraulic work in Europe. The dykes which protect the mouth of the canal, the walls, pillars, and gates, present altogether the aspect of a Cyclopian fortress, against which it seems that not only that sea, but the united forces of all seas, must break as against a granite mountain. When the tide rises the gates are closed to prevent the waters from invading the land; when the tide recedes they are opened to give passage to the waters of the Rhine which have accumulated behind them; and then a mass of three thousand cubic feet of water passes through them in one minute. On days when storms prevail, a concession is made to the sea, and the most advanced of the sluice-gates is left open ; and then the furious billows rush into the canal, like an enemy entering by a breach, but they break upon the formidable barrier of the second gate, behind which Holland stands and cries, “Thus far shalt thou go, and no farther ! ” That enormous fortification which, on a desert shore, defends a dying river and a fallen city from the ocean, has something of solemnity which commands respect and admiration.

Again I look upon Leyden as I saw her on the evening of my return from an excursion, dark and silent like a deserted city, and speak a reverent farewell, with my mind already cheered by the thought of Haarlem, the city of landscapes and flowers.