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Architecture at Edward Worth Library

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The Royal Palace of Amsterdam

‘Illustrious Founder of the World’s Eighth Wonder,
With so much stone raised high and so much timber under,
With so much splendour wrought so artfully,
And so much grandness given such utility.’

Constantyn Huygens ‘Felicitations to the Honourable Lords Regent of Amsterdam upon their New Town Hall’, 1655 (translated by James S. Holmes).


Architecture, peinture et sculpture de la maison de ville d’Amsterdam (Amsterdam, 1719), plate 1 (front elevation).

This image shows the front elevation of the Stadhuis of Amsterdam, opened in 1655 and now known as the Royal Palace on the Dam. The Stadhuis had been rebuilt in the mid-seventeenth century at a time when Holland’s power was at its height. The population of Amsterdam had grown four-fold during the first half of the seventeenth century and, with the signing of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the Eighty Year’s War between Holland and Spain had come to an end, leading to a period of further growth and prosperity. The decision was taken to build a new Stadhuis which would reflect Amsterdam’s vital role not only in Holland but in the wider world.

The authors of a 1982 exhibition on the Royal Palace inform us that just a few days after the Peace of Westphalia was officially proclaimed, a design for the new Stadhuis was officially approved. This was by Jacob van Campen (1596-1657), a famous architect and artist of the Dutch Golden Age. He is regarded as the founder of Dutch Classicism in architecture and was heavily influenced by Vitruvius, Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) and Vincenzo Scamozzi (1548-1616). The influence of Scamozzi in particular is apparent in the van Campen’s choice of ornamentation and in the harmonic proportions of the rooms. Van Campen designed what proved to be the largest town hall in Europe – it was on a monumental scale and, unlike many medieval town halls, free standing. Though the Amsterdam Stadhuis (now the Royal Palace of Amsterdam) was his best known work he is also famous as the architect of the Mauritshuis in The Hague.

The front elevation of the Stadhuis/Royal Palace of Amsterdam is described by the early eighteenth-century authors of Architecture, peinture et sculpture de la maison de ville d’Amsterdam in the following terms :

This plate represents the front of the Town Hall as seen from Dam Square. It is 282 wide and 116 feet in height. There is no one who does not admire the grandeur, majesty and beauty of its superb front, which presents to our eyes the most beautiful piece of architecture one could ever see. There are two orders of columns, one above the other, the first of Roman pilasters or composites to the number of 30, which, including their ornamentation are 36 foot high ; and the second is composed of Corinthian pilasters of the same height and symmetry. The Capitals, Architraves, Frises and Cornices are perfectly regular, ornamented as everything else, with festoons, garlands, and bunches of fruits, which together present the most beautiful object in the world. Above, there is a magnificent pediment, ornamented with a very beautiful bas-relief, and surmounted by three bronze statues…

More information about the bas-relief on the pediment may be found below but the actual authorship of Architecture, peinture et sculpture de la maison de ville d’Amsterdam is less clear. This was a French edition of Bouw schilder en beeldhouwkonst, van het Stadhuis te Amsterdam (c. 1706) and was comprised of a large number of plates which had first been published in Jacob van Campen’s Afbeelding van’t Stadt Huys van Amsterdam (1664) and Hubert Quellijn’s Prima (secunda) pars praecipuarum effigierum ac ornamentorum, amplissimae curiae Amstelrodamensis (1655-63). Hubert Quellijn’s brother Artus Quellijn the elder (1609-1668) had been the principal sculptor at the new Stadhuis and had produced wonderful baroque sculptures which were immortalised by his brother in a highly influential publication. The initials and signatures of both Hubert Quellinus (1619-1687) and his brother Artus may be found on a number of plates in the Architecture, peinture et sculpture de la maison de ville d’Amsterdam, including an enormous foldout plate of the sculptures in the tympanum (see below).


Architecture, peinture et sculpture de la maison de ville d’Amsterdam (Amsterdam, 1719), plate 4 (section).

In this plate we see a section view of the building. According to the accompanying explanation of the plate the three floors housed different elements : the first contained, among other things, the bank, prisons and the caretaker’s residence, with a surrounding gallery and was lighted from windows overlooking the courtyards. On the second floor was the Great Hall, and the normal municipal offices. This second level included a mezzanine, while the third floor housed galleries and other apartments.


Architecture, peinture et sculpture de la maison de ville d’Amsterdam (Amsterdam, 1719), plate 37.

Here we see the northern Gallery of the Great Hall. The inclusion of figures was deliberate as it gives us a sense of the scale and perspective of the Gallery. The same is true of the inclusion at the base of the image of a scale of measurement. On the wall at the back of the Gallery is a bas-relief sculpture of Saturn eating his son. A strange relief to have in a municipal building but Saturn’s scythe and the surrounding grain and vegetables were no doubt meant as a reminder of his role as a god of agriculture.


Architecture, peinture et sculpture de la maison de ville d’Amsterdam (Amsterdam, 1719), foldout plate 13 of Tympanum (being held by Mr Antoine Mac Gaoithín and Mr Tony Kelly).

The size of this plate, held by Mr Antoine Mac Gaoithín and Mr Tony Kelly, Trustee of the Edward Worth Library, demonstrates not only the enormous size of the plate in the book but is also a 1719 attempt to sufficiently display all the elements of what was quite a complex marble tympanum. As befitting a Town Hall, the central figure is the goddess of Trade, who wears on her head Mercury’s helmet (Mercury was the titular god of merchants). At her foot she has a vessel and the ancient arms of Amsterdam and beside them two river gods representing the rivers Y and Amstel. On either side of the central figures are representations of people from all over the world (representing Amsterdam’s position as a major centre of world trade). These offer the goddess of Trade the fruits of their labours. As the authors of the 1982 guide to the Stadhuis remind us, the Stadhuis was conceived as a physical manifestation of Amsterdam’s position as the most important trading centre of the world.


Architecture, peinture et sculpture de la maison de ville d’Amsterdam (Amsterdam, 1719), plate 31 (floor of the Citizens’ Hall).

A similar theme was explored on the famous 1661 mosaic floor of the Citizens’ Hall. Made of white and black marble, it holds within three spheres: the outer two representing the known world, the inner the cosmos, displayed here by star signs. On entering from the staircase (on the right of the plan) one was met with the representation of the terrestrial globe, depicting Europe, Asia and Africa and a continent entitled ‘New Holland’. The latter was of course Australia, which had been given the name of New Holland by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1644, just a few years before the building was designed. On the other side of the globe depicting the celestial world was a sphere depicting North and South America. All of the spheres, in contrast to the stark black and white of the surrounding marble, were delineated by precious stones and were 22 foot in diameter and 66 in circumference.


Anon., Architecture, peinture et sculpture de la maison de ville d’Amsterdam (Amsterdam, 1719).

Anon., Het achtste wereldwonder. De bouw van het Stadhuis. Nu her Paleis op de Dam. The Eighth Wonder of the World. The Building of Amsterdam Town Hall now the Royal Palace. [Guide for exhibition held from May 28 to August 29 1982, Amsterdam].

Text : Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library.