The Guardian view on Antwerp: lessons from a crossroads community

Many countries contain a city, sometimes more than one, that has acquired world fame while at the same time being an overlooked destination for busy visitors. に ヨーロッパ, these cities are often places with long histories that morphed into industrial, commercial or trading hubs. Cities like Hamburg, Lyon and Turin can perhaps be seen in this way.

In Belgium, Antwerp is one of the most striking examples of this phenomenon of simultaneous fame and neglect. Antwerp is one of the great historic cities of Europe. In a highly readable new , Michael Pye argues that, during Europe’s ages of discovery, it became one of the earliest genuinely global cities too. For much of the 16th century, it was what Paris, New York or London would become in later times, a place of restless wealth and vigour where, as Mr Pye puts it, anything could happen or at least anything could be believed.

In what he calls Antwerp’s glory years, it was a crossroads city. Albrecht Dürer made the journey from Nuremberg and saw Aztec gold there, bought ultramarine blue dye made from lapis lazuli mined in Afghanistan and drew his first African from life. More black people, many of whom must have arrived in the first instance as slaves, lived in 16th-century Antwerp than in any European city other than Lisbon. Pieter Bruegel used the city as the model for his painting of The Tower of Babel. When Thomas More wrote Utopia に 1515, his imaginary island of reason and justice is first described by a sailor in a conversation that takes place in the garden belonging to Antwerp’s actual town clerk of the time, Pieter Gillis.

The city on the Scheldt has always been a place of economic, cultural and strategic importance to the English, and to London in particular. Antwerp was where English traders went to sell their wool to Europe. Its printing presses produced many of the earliest English books, above all the English-language Bible, smuggled back across the North Sea past the Tudor censors. The translation was by William Tyndale, who worked in hiding in Antwerp until he was arrested and executed in 1536. A century later, Peter Paul Rubens lived in the city even when he was painting the ceiling of the Banqueting House in Whitehall.

Napoleon saw Antwerp’s importance to England too. If a fleet could have been assembled in the Scheldt, he once said, the river would have been “a loaded gun” pointing straight up the Thames to London. Anxiety about that threat ensured Britain played a key diplomatic role in establishing Belgian independence and neutrality in the 1830s – a commitment that would help draw Britain into the first world war.

今日, Antwerp is a sprawling, hectic and intriguing place. It is less than a day’s drive from parts of England. Yet it receives a fraction of the visitors who flock to nearby Bruges. It rarely features on lifetime travel bucket lists. In the age of so-called global Britain, this country seems to have forgotten its ties with global Antwerp. If we understood more about Antwerp, でも, we might understand more about ourselves and our long umbilical links to Europe.

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