Thu 29 October 2020

Mike Stuchbery on how a terrible moment of devastation did nothing to stop the creativity of the Dutch Golden Age.

We often stress and angst over what the future will bring; how choices and decisions we may not be aware of are quietly shaping coming events.

What about those sudden, devastating events, however, that wipe the slate clean? How should we consider them when thinking about the future? 

This was not theoretical for the people of the city of Delft, in the modern Netherlands. 

A City Unaware

The morning of 12 October 1654 was a bright, clear one for the prosperous trading city and administrative centre of Delft.

Anyone walking the streets would have heard the sounds of artisans and church bells, taken in the riot of scents of traders’ wares and woodsmoke. The streets would have seemed a little empty – much of the townsfolk were off at a nearby fair – but everything else suggested wealth and prosperity. 

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Around 11am, Cornelia Soetens, one of the city’s Watchmen, went to check on the city’s gunpowder store, housed in an old, disused convent. As a young nation that had been struggling against the might of Catholic Spain for close to a century, every Dutch city was required to hold enough gunpowder to see off a prolonged siege. 

We’ll never exactly what happened next – any evidence was utterly obliterated – but it is obvious that a stray spark ignited the 30 tonnes of powder stored there. 

The explosion in Delft. Egbert Leavens van der Poole, Painting, 1654

Gone in a Flash

People hundreds of kilometres away heard the explosion. Buildings were shaken and windows shattered for many miles.

Much of the city itself was flattened; the site of the explosion a moonscape centred on a large crater. 

It’s impossible to know how many were killed or injured in the blast.

Some figures say 100 people died instantly, but accounts suggest that many bodies were recovered from the rubble for weeks afterwards. What is for certain is that many thousands were horribly maimed or deafened by the blast. Still more lost their homes and were forced to leave the city. 

Carel Fabritius, A View of Delft, 1652, National Gallery, London

We don’t know much about individual victims either, but we do know at least one of them.

Carel Fabritius was a student of Rembrandt, full of promise as a painter. Today he is known as the painter of ‘The Goldfinch’. He was working on a portrait in a Delft workshop at the time of the explosion and died in the blast. He was 32 years old.

Carrying On

In the aftermath of the explosion, the survivors struggled with the devastation wrought upon their city.

Some left, others ruminated on the causes. Many turned to religion and, for decades after, furious sermons and pamphlets blamed the decadence and wanton living of the Dutch people for God’s supposed wrath. 

Personally, I see a more healthy approach in the reaction of painters such as Egbert Van Der Poel.

A citizen of Delft, he was out shortly after the blast, capturing the devastation in a series of clear, sober paintings – observations, rather than explanations. 

Egbert van der Poel, A View of Delft after the Explosion of 1654, oil on canvas, around 1654

Delft was by no means the only city lost to a devastating explosion in the 17th Century, nor the only Dutch city. However, it did capture the popular imagination in ways other incidents did not. 

People eventually returned to Delft and it would be re-built. Life carried on – it had to.

In time, the city became prosperous again and today stands as a living symbol of the Dutch Golden Age. 

Tabula Rasa? 

Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft circa 1660-1661

In the 21st Century, we’re far more accustomed to the idea of sudden obliteration. Indeed, sometimes it seems like there are more potential causes of such an event than ever before. Could this be a good thing? 

Perhaps we should keep events such as ‘The Delft Thunderclap’ in mind. Perhaps there’s value in the understanding that everything we have can be lost in an instant. Perhaps the idea of sudden devastating loss is a useful counterweight to the knots we tie ourselves in, plotting out our futures. 

If nothing else, we should hold onto the knowledge that Delft recovered from a moment of widespread destruction – similarly, we can too. 

Come and meet Mike and other Byline Times writers at this summer’s Byline Festival

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