MAURITSSTAD AND THE GOLDEN AGE – ATHENS – JUNE 2018

In order to write the account of this exhibition, Mauritsstad and the Golden Age (Recife 1630-1654), we had to overcome a major challenge. We wanted to be faithful to the historical facts concerning the Dutch rule of parts of Brazil during the 17th century. However, if we used too many sentences to simply describe the historical facts, we would not be truthful to the strong sentimental aspects, and also to the real legacy, concerning this colonial occupation. There is one material  used in this exhibition to represent the sentimental link that continues to exist between the 17th century and today: wood. It is through the specific use of “jacaranda” (rosewood) that we can represent the historical wounds of the city of Recife in 1654, when the Dutch left. Moreover, we found, through the use of wood, a way to talk about the city’s open wounds, that have still not yet healed. This exhibition should be a focal point for crossing between history, art and life. It is often said by critics that the overuse of adjectives in a piece of writing is not recommended; they say that we should absolutely avoid this occurring so as not to compromise the quality and the veracity of the text. However, in this specific instance, it would be a challenge to refrain from doing so in order to recount the true story of the history of this Dutch adventure in northeastern Brazil.

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The exhibition showcases the artworks of four Brazilian artists from the Pernambuco area: Eudes Mota, Jeims Duarte, Kilian Glasner and Marcio Almeida. Each one of them evokes a different aspect of the period of Dutch colonisation.

 

Jeims Duarte is an artist who has a strong background in architecture. For many years he has been producing drawings depicting the old architecture of his city, Recife, combining architecture, pragmatism, poetry and humour. Jeims’s work always possesses a touch of nostalgia. We chose his work to depict the Dutch architecture of the period, and the urban achievements left by them, in Recife.

 

Eudes Mota uses wood in his work as a living material, which both breaths and conveys the witnesses to the history of the city. He selects wood from the doors and windows of abandoned colonial houses in Recife and transforms them into sculptures. These old dwellings are often demolished to give way to new, profitable skyscrapers, but Eudes allows the history of Recife to stay alive, breathing and speaking to us through the use of this old, colonial wood.

 

Kilian Glasner is an artist with a strong background in landscape. His method of working involves visiting locations, gathering information, photographing and investigating the different aspects of his chosen landscapes in order to reproduce them in his artwork. In this exhibition, Kilian makes a contemporary “revival” of the landscapes of the Dutch painter Frans Post, the first artist to represent the wild Brazilian landscapes in the 17th century.

 

Marcio Almeida, who works extensively in the fields of installations and performance, uses sugar to evoke the story of the Dutch period of occupation in Brazil. The production and trade of sugar was the main reason why the West India Company (WIC) invaded the coasts of Brazil. Sugar is indicative of the memories of this time; it also conveys the glories, the battles, the victories and the losses.

 

Brazil was a colony of Portugal from 1500 to 1822. However, between 1630 and 1654, parts of the Brazilian possessions of the Portuguese crown fell into the hands of the Dutch WIC, and were incorporated into the Dutch Republic. These included cities such as Frederikstadt (Joao Pessoa), Nieuw Amsterdam (Natal), Saint Louis (Sao Luis), and Fort Schoonenborch (Fortaleza), with the capital being formed in Maurisstad (Recife).

 

The WIC was established in 1621. It was created with the aim of trading in the new “Americas”, and of challenging the dominance of Spanish and Portuguese trade in both North and South America.

 

The Dutch were at war for eighty years with Spain (1568-1648), and were struggling for independence. In 1579, the seven united provinces of the northern part of the Low Countries were separated from the southern part (which remained faithful to Spain), creating the Dutch Republic, known as the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. This form of state was unique in Europe, which at the time was almost entirely composed of monarchies. The centre of economic power moved rapidly from Antwerp to Amsterdam.

At the time, Amsterdam was the wealthiest city in Europe, and was the most important port for trade in north-western Europe. Urban development of the city happened very fast, with the construction of bridges, warehouses and canals to facilitate the international trade of goods. This economic and urban progress, together with religious tolerance, attracted people from all over Europe. The main religion in Netherlands was Calvinism, a major branch of Protestantism. However, the Dutch had complete tolerance towards people freely practicing all faiths: Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Mennonites, Remontrants and Jews. This period became known as the Dutch Golden Age, a celebration of wealth, growth, progress and tolerance.

 

Attracted by the prospect of the production of sugar, and control of its trade, the Dutch decided to invade the coasts of Pernambuco in 1630. Sugar was a rare and expensive commodity in Europe from the Middle Ages up to the 16th century; at that time, it was produced in the East. During the 17th century, it became a very popular product throughout Europe, with Pernambuco being the main centre of production. There were more than 140 sugar mills established in the region, with an annual production estimated at 700,000 “arrobas”. On 25th November 1631, the Dutch burned the city of Olinda to the ground and moved their administrative headquarters to Recife. The reason they chose Recife as their capital was because that it had a port. The city begun to grow vertically; tall, thin buildings with three-story “sobrados” townhouses were constructed, in the Dutch style. Although the capture of Olinda and Recife was relatively quick and straightforward, the WIC did not succeed in securing the entire area of Pernambuco, and the Portuguese remained a threat, attacking the Brazilian Dutch territories on a regular basis.

 

In search of more stability in the area, the WIC appointed Johan Maurits, Count of Nassau-Siegen, as the first governor of the Dutch colony. On 23rd January 1637, the Count arrived in the city of Recife; he would remain there until 1644. In only seven years he transformed Recife into the Amsterdam of the New World. He was a man with military skills but was an enlightened and innovative governor. He hired the architect Pieter Post to draw up a new urban map for Recife. This plan was made up of geometrically positioned streets and canals, which had the purpose of giving access to both goods and people through boats, canoes and botels. The Count built his residence on the island of Antonio Vaz, which became known as Mauritsstad (ie, the city of Maurits). He also built two palaces between 1642 and 1643, in Freiburg (Friburgo) and Schoonzicht (Boa Vista). However, his greatest achievement was the construction of the first bridge in the New World, connecting Mauritsstad to Recife. He gave the commission to build this colossal wooden structure to the architect Baltazar de Affonseca. However, the project became very expensive, so much so that the Count ended up supporting the construction with his own money. A number of artists, scientists and craftsmen worked towards the progress of Mauritsstad. A zoo, botanical gardens, a library, a museum, hospitals and the first observatory of the Americas were all created there. Mauritsstad became the cultural centre of the New World, and the most cosmopolitan city in the Americas. It certainly was the Golden Age! Nassau-Siegen referred to Mauritsstad as “Beautiful Brazil without equal under the heavens.”

 

The Dutch tenet of religious freedom and tolerance was also applied in the colony. It attracted Jews, living under Portuguese domination in the different areas of Brazil, to come to Recife. However, these Jews were obligated to convert to the Christian faith, becaming known as the “new Christians”. Most of them retained their desire of practising their own faith; however, they were afraid to do so, even in the privacy of their own homes because of the Inquisition. Many Jews joined the Dutch “Portuguese” Jewish community in Recife, and the first synagogue of the New World was built there. Jews played a major role in Dutch economic development, and were involved in the medical profession, property brokerage, printing, sugar refining and the tobacco industry. They also played a very important role in the conquest of Brazil by the Dutch. Those Jews venturing from the Dutch Republic were Sephardic in background, and were originally from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain-Portugal). They escaped the Inquisition in Spain in 1492, going to Portugal where they were forced to be baptised in 1496. The subsequent generations of these Jews immigrated to the Dutch Republic at the end of the 16th century and throughout the 17th century in order to avoid persecution, attracted by the possibility of practising their religion freely. These Jews played a pivotal role during the Dutch conquest of Pernambuco because they commanded the two key languages, Dutch and Portuguese. They were the spokesman of the Dutch in Brazil during this new adventure.

 

Of all the areas of progress and legacies left by the Dutch in Recife, were not freedom and tolerance the most important? This exhibition wants to encourage you to think about this. Would the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century have been the same without this freedom and tolerance, which was the main reason that people of all faiths were attracted to establish their homes in the Dutch Republic and in Mauritsstad. We believe that this tolerance was the base for so much growth and progress, culminating in the Golden Age. Our politic leaders, the religious leaders of all faiths, all citizens of this world should look back at the Dutch 17th century to follow this example of religious tolerance as the base for a society of mutual respect, economic growth and general progress. May the history of the Dutch Golden Age at the 17th century could be studied with more details in the schools by the young generation throughout the 5 continents.

 

Welcome to Mauritsstad!

Andréa Pastore.

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