Old master’s mansion a work of art
IF a house tells a lot about its owner, then Rubens’ house in Antwerp paints an intriguing picture about the life of this charismatic 17th century Flemish artist.
A visit reveals tales of espionage and diplomacy, and questions how one painter could produce more than 2500 paintings during his career.
We learn that Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) amassed a fortune from his paintings, with a helping hand from many emerging younger artists, before he applied the finishing touches on most paintings that left his studio.
Our volunteer guide tells us Rubens was a versatile and intelligent character who spoke six languages and was a court favourite of powerful kings and queens.
Being a frequent traveller between Belgium and neighbouring political powers sparked rumours that he was a clever spy involved in the religious and political intrigues of this era. He was also a highly regarded scholar, book illustrator and architect.
Rubens’ house, or Ruben huis as it is known in Antwerp, is now located in a delightful pedestrian mall at Wapper 9-11. It is here that Rubens designed and built the most magnificent mansion in Antwerp.
Over the years, many extensions drawing on Rubens’ artistic ideals were added, including a semi-circular sculpture gallery, a large studio and a porch.His love of Italy is captured in the ambiance of an Italian palazzo.
But today, all is not as it seems as there have been many renovations since 1946 when the house and museum opened to the public.
A facade has been built at the main entrance that is opposite a modern reception pavilion with a bookshop and office selling entry ticket and audio guide for six euros.
Step inside the house through the main porchway and into the elegant inner courtyard where you can start your tour with the help of the audio commentary that describes the features and contents of each room.
The porch and the garden pavilion are now the only authentic remains of the house.
However, the restoration work closely follows illustrations and sketches of the original house and it will be a surprise when your guide tells you that the building is really an excellent reproduction. But the present layout and room designations are probably not as Rubens knew them because of a lack of historical details during the reconstruction.
Highlights include the huge collection of canvases displayed in the art room, the dining room that displays a Rubens self-portrait dated around 1630, and the studio where most of the master painter’s artworks were produced with the help of his assistants.
Throughout the tour are many original paintings and sketches hanging in the house along with other works of art that Rubens collected during his life.
Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside.
The garden is a reliable reconstruction of a 17th-century renaissance garden with guidance from sources such as Rubens’ paintings and horticultural and botanical information around this time. It takes very little imagination to bring the house to life again and I leave with a vivid impression of Rubens’ life and a unique insight into his diverse talents.
Rubens lived most of his life in Antwerp and many places pay tribute to his cultural contribution including a statue in the Groenplaats, or green place.
This is the main leisure district and the perfect place to sample the best of this vibrant city with many different laid-back cafes and bars in which to sit and watch everyday life pass by.
Belgians like people to mind their own business, but strike up a conversation and they are quick to respond in a friendly way about the history and focal points of their city.
On the edge of the Groenplaats is the world heritage listed Cathedral of Our Lady with its historic gothic tower, huge stained glass windows and baroque sculptures.
You’ll find a reminder of Australia at the Kookaburra Cafe while the Australian Ice Cream Shop is a popular business. The owner had such a great holiday in Australia he decided on the name even though the delicious ‘home made’ ice cream comes from Italy.
Walk through to the Grote Market to find another beautiful square famous for its city hall building overlooking Brabo’s statue. The statue tells the story about a brave Roman soldier and his battle with the legendry giant Antigoon.
Wander down to the Old Fortress that has been on the banks of the River Scheldt since 1200 and is surrounded by walkways and parks that are popular barbecue and picnic spots for local residents when the weather is good.
Antwerp thrives on the reputation of its most famous citizen. But visitors will also learn much more about why this is one of the most stylish and fashionable cities in Europe.