'De eer des vaderlands te handhaven': Costerbeelden als argumenten in de strijd

in Oud Holland – Journal for Art of the Low Countries
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Two things long stood in the way of the erection of statues in public in the Northern Netherlands, on the one hand the lack of a strong central government and on the other the wrongly interpreted - Calvinist interdict on them (Note 1). The first statue of this kind, that of Erasmus in Rotterdam by De Keyser (1622), was attacked by strict Calvinists, but noted throughout Europe as an early paradigm (Note 3). Not until the 19th century did the Netherlands join in the nationalistic 'statue craze', which was just breaking out then, with two monuments to the supposed Dutch inventor of printing, Laurens Janszoon Coster. These statues of a private citizen had a predecessor in the 18th century, while a statue had already been demanded in the 17th-century eulogies of Coster. Cities had long honoured their famous inventors as important contributors to civilization and praise of the inventor was also a fundampental ingredient of the history of learning (e.g. in Pliny). In the Renaissance scientific inventions acquired a special emphasis, modern inventors being held up as evidence that the model of Antiquity could be not only equalled, but also surpassed, while both Christian civilization and the northern countries could also gain credit here (cf. Johannes Stradanus, Figs. 2, 3, Note 9, and Francis Bacon, Note 10). The significance of the invention of printing for Christianity was soon recognized, so that it was lauded above other inventions as 'divine', an attitude that was certainly also strengthened by its decisive role in the Reformation. In the Netherlands in particular, where religious and political developments were so closely interwoven, printing was regarded as an important aid to both (Notes 14, 15), while the young Dutch Republic, in which printing played such an important part, could claim the honour of counting the inventor of this important art among its citizens. This 'pious fraud' (Hellinga) is fundamental to the discussion of the history of the statues. The Coster tradition can only be traced back to about a century after the supposed invention, acquiring its definitive form at the end of the 16th century in Hadrianus Junius' Batavia Illustrata of 1598. The further enlargement on the merits of Coster also necessitated a portrait of him which, in de fault of an authentic one, had to be fabricated for the purpose, the features of the statue of Erasmus being taken over for a full-length portrait (Fig. 5), which served as a 'graphic monument'. A fictitious bust of Coster was also cited in the 17th century (Fig. 7) and this, like the early sculptural marks of honour to him (Fig. 16), belongs to the iconography of printing, the practitioners of the craft evoking their inventor. Such representations - a more or less life-size statue of Coster is still to be seen on the house of the Haarlem printer Enschedé - were not yet very public in character. The statue of Coster projected from the end of the 17th century for the garden of the Hortus Medicus in Haarlem did acquire greater publicity, however. This humanist garden of a bourgeois learned society (Note 28), reflected not only nature, but also the world of learning, as a microcosm of the arts, with sixteen busts of connoisseurs and scholars under the leadership of a full-length statue of Coster, since it was he who by his art had made the dissemination of learning possible, although he owed his place here largely to his Haarlem origins, of course. The designs made by Romeyn de Hooghe for this statue (Note 29) were only realized in 1722 in a statue by Gerrit van Heerstal, which tried to unite historical and classical features (Figs. 8-13). In the years thereafter, up to the tercentenary of the invention, the poems, medals and a weighty commemorative publication (Fig. 14, Note 35) celebrating the Haarlem inventor of printing all referred to this statue in his birthplace. Meanwhile Germany too had honoured her inventors of printing - Fust in addition to Gutenberg, initially - in 1640 and 1710 by centenary festivities often of a Protestant cast. Privileges relating to public statues may have been one of the reasons why no monuments were erected on these occasions. These privileges were, however, annulled by the French Revolution, just as the Enlightenment and political renewal furthered the cult of honouring leading civic 'geniuses'. Two Gutenberg cities under French rule took pride of pace here, but only in 1840 did Strasbourg acquire a statue of Gutenberg by David d'Angers, which illustrated his role as the enlightener of all mankind (Figs. 15-18, Note 39). In Mainz a private initiative of 1794 came to nothing (Note 40), as did a Napoleonic rebuilding plan centred on a Gutenberg Square with a statue. Not until 1829 was a semi-public statue by Joseph Stok set up there (Note 41), while in 1837 the Gutenberg monument designed by Bartel Thorwaldsen was unveiled with great ceremony (Fig. 19). The two last-mentioned statues in Mainz, like the many others erected after 1814, were the products of the nationalistic pride in the country's past history that flared up after the defeat of Napoleon. This pride in the past generally took on a nostalgic cast and served to compensate for the failure of current political ambitions: The unity of Germany long a dream, while the hoped-for great changes in the Kingdom of the Netherlands were dealt a bitter blow by the breakaway of the 'southern provinces' in 1831 (Note 44). This last event marked the start for the Northern Netherlands of a long-lasting rivalry with their Belgian neighbours, which was pursued by means of monumental art, from the statue of Rembrandt (1852) as an answer to that of Rubens (1840) to the Rijksmuseum (1885). The great importance attached to Coster in the 19th century was already manifested in 1801 by the removal of the statue in Haarlem from the Hortus Medicus to the marketplace (Note 45). National pride is abundantly evident in the prizewinning treatise published in 1816 by Jacobus Koning, who is a weighty investigation confirmed Coster's right to the invention and with it that of the Netherlands to a leading place among the civilized nations. The quatercentenary, fixed surprisingly early, in 1823, comprised every imaginable type of public entertainment and demonstration of scholarship. It is, however, striking that these expressions of national pride were still balanced by references to the elevating effect of the invention (Note 56). The most lasting mark of honour of the celebration of 1823, the abstract monument by the Haarlem sculptor D. Douglas, also looked back to the sensibilities of the 18th century in its placing on the spot where the invention had come into being in the Haarlem Wood (Fig. 23, Note 59). After this Haarlem monument of 1823 had been adduced in the discussions about the statue in Mainz before 1829, Thorwaldsen's statue, which attracted great international attention, became a greater source of annoyance to the Dutch adversaries of Gutenberg after 1829 than the statue to the Belgian inventor Dirck Martens in Aalst (Note 63) or the projected monument to William Caxton in England. Jan Jacob Frederik. Noordziek summed up this dissatisfaction in his call in 1847 to 'uphold the honour of the fatherland', in which he pleaded for a monument that would surpass the Gutenberg statue and thus serve as an argument that would establish the Dutch claim for good (Note 64). The erection of this statue was further expressly intended to be an exclusively national affair: the citizens of the Netherlands must raise the money and only Dutch artists be charged with the execution. The general discussion about the statues appears to have been less virulent than was usually the case in the preliminaries to other monuments (Note 66), Coster's merits evidently being little contested within the country itself. There were two notable critical voices, however (see Appendix). Professor M. Siegenbeek rang the changes on an old Calvinist argument in refusing a seat on the preparatory committee: in addition to the fact that there were certainly more people who deserved statues, he pointed out that the great expense involved merely evinced ostentation and that the money would be better spent on social ends. The Neo-Classicist Humbert de Superville, on the other hand, did express doubts as to Coster's right to the title, repeating aesthetic arguments which had been adduced before: statues ought, in his view, to be made in the form of durable stone herms, but he thought there was as little chance of that in this 'age of modish lay-figures' in the bronze of melted-down coins, as that the statue would be made by a Dutchman (Note 67). A typical Romantic historical controversy threw the organizers into turmoil, namely the authenticity of the representations of Coster. In particular Westreenen van Tielland unmasked the idealizing and forged portraits, arguing against the erection of a historicizing representational statue. But the defenders of Coster's honour opted for the usual historical realism (Note 68). The tenor of these polemics is found again in the conflict over the 'historical or allegorical' nature of the composition, which can be seen in the designs. Louis Royer, to whom the commission was given in 1848, wanted to show Coster walking with a winged letter A in his hand, as if on his way to show people his discovery, which was soon to wing its way round the world (cf. Fig. 22). However, this allegorical element disappeared completely in the final version, in which the choice fell on a realistic portrait, albeit Coster was still shown walking like a classical predecessor, Archimedes, who could not keep his discovery to himself (Fig. 23, Note 69). The architect H. M. Tetar van Elven was commissioned to make a base in the style of 'the last era of the Middle Ages'. The inscriptions also presented problems, but were finally agreed on in September 1855. The ceremonies, which after all manner of altercation between Royer and the main committee (Note 70) and various financial problems, were finally able to be staged from 15 to 17 July) 1856, included, in addition to the actual unveiling of the statue on the marketplace ( Van Heerstal's statue being returned to the garden again) , pageants, meetings, an exhibition and all sorts of popular entertainments. Everything was on a grander and more extensive scale than 33 years before and little remained of the motif of enlightenment through printing which had been so important then. Nalionalistic merry-making now predominated, along with expressions of devotion to the House of Orange. Less emphasis was also given to the 'darkness' of the Middle Ages, which were now beginning to be valued as part of the nation's history. The most monumental homage to this monument was a 360-page account of the events by the indefatigable Noordziek. His dream of the recognition of Coster and the nation as a whole seemed to have become a reality. But it was not to be so for long. Only fifteen years after the unveiling A. van de Linde unmasked the' 'Haarlem Coster legend' and called for the demolition of the statue, again in the interests of the nation (Note 81).

'De eer des vaderlands te handhaven': Costerbeelden als argumenten in de strijd

in Oud Holland – Journal for Art of the Low Countries



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