FURTHER AFIELD: Afternoon in Antwerp

You may expect to see nature photography here, but please bear with me as I detour to share a stimulating afternoon in Antwerp that I enjoyed earlier this year.

While staying in Gent, Belgium, last April we decided to visit Antwerp, which is only an hour away by train. It wouldn’t be a see-the-sights day – that’s not our style. I had read about an unusual museum there, the Museum Plantin-Moresus. It was the residence and workshop of a great printer-publisher of the Renaissance era, and we were both intrigued so we made that our goal for the day.

I was having one of those travel days when it takes all morning long to pull myself together. Checking the train schedule, we saw there was time for a leisurely late morning coffee at the cafe across the street from our airbnb apartment. Good, we needed it! Then it was a quick tram ride to Gent Sint-Pietersstation where we lined up for tickets, grabbed fresh sandwiches to eat on the train, and boarded.

The ticket taker looked a little worse for the wear but was keeping up appearances with his cap, tie and jacket. Verdant fields flowed past the window and before I knew it, we had arrived at Antwerpen Centraal, one of Europe’s most beautiful train stations. The bustle reminded me of New York’s Grand Central Station, which I used to commute through. Here though, everything was more ornate, ceilings were higher, the architecture grander. Throwing any semblance of not-a-tourist-coolness aside, I gaped, craned my neck, and clicked that shutter.

1. “Morning” coffee at 12:40pm; Illy Espresso Shop, Gent, Belgium
2. Ticket taker, Belgian Railways

3. Antwerpen Centraal. The high ceiling was designed with steam engine smoke in mind. It sustained heavy damage in WWII bombing raids, and was fully restored in 1986 using clear polycarbonate instead of glass for better stress tolerance.

5. Antwerpen Centraal

Consulting a Rome2rio app for directions, we headed for the museum. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is the original workshop and residence of Christophe Plantin, an influential 16th century printer, publisher, and humanist. The museum is housed in a series of centuries-old buildings with a dizzying array of rooms (34 of them!) that ramble around a central courtyard. The quiet, softly lit rooms are packed with extraordinary early printed matter, old printing presses and family artifacts. Immersion in the world of early printing appealed to me; I have fond memories of a day spent at a small printing house helping fine-tune a run of brochures I designed for a specialty bakery business years ago.

6. Printing presses, Museum Plantin-Moretus
7. Stairs worn smooth from hundreds of years of footsteps.

Exploring room after room, occasionally getting lost in dim corridors as I stepped up and down stairs and across creaking floors, I perused hefty religious texts embellished with gold, precious illuminated prayer books, important botanical reference texts, an “early modern ode to women”, almanac illustrations, maps and more. I was deeply impressed not only by the workmanship, which is beautiful, but by the variety of subject matter. Seeing the breadth of topics that rolled off the presses here 450 years ago, I felt an inkling of how exciting it must have been to be alive during a time of such intellectual fervor. The era’s enthusiasm for knowledge was right there on those delicate pages, shining a light across the centuries.

9. Script flows across the page with grace and finesse.
11. The uses of almanacs, explained by a museum label.

Plantin was born in France about 500 years ago. He started a bookbinding business there but relocated with his wife to the commercially vibrant town of Antwerp in 1548. He set up shop and joined the Guild of Saint Luke, where painters, sculptors, engravers and printers apprenticed and connected with clients. He was industrious and produced impeccable work; before long he and his son-in-law Jan Moretus were running one of Europe’s top publishing houses. The Plantin-Moretus family continued the tradition another three hundred years, finally selling the building where it all began to the city of Antwerp in 1876. The museum opened the following year.

12. A painting portrays the prevailing enthusiasm for scientific inquiry.

The Low countries in Plantin’s era were the center of western culture; by 1560, Antwerp was the richest city in Europe. It was also the site of religious conflict. In 1523 two monks had been taken away and burned alive for refusing to recant their heretical Lutheran beliefs. The powerful King Phillip II of Spain put immense pressure on Lutherans and Calvinists, and the printed word played an important part in the struggle. Plantin published all sorts of things, including Calvinist pamphlets. He is described as a Protestant sympathizer, a very dangerous position to take. Savvy person that he was, he found his own middle ground in the creation and publication of a major work, the “Plantin Polyglot” (Biblia Polyglotta or Biblia Regia). This complex, impressive multi-lingual bible satisfied the needs of scholars – but it also pleased King Phillip II.

Times were turbulent enough that Plantin fled to the more liberal Leiden at one point, only to return soon afterward to Antwerp. He seemed to walk a line as fine as the ones he printed: by 1585, Plantin was considered the primary printer-publisher for the Counter-Reformation, while secretly helping Calvinists in Utrecht organize an anti-Spanish printing press. With all this, it amazes me that he managed to live into his late sixties.

14. Portrait of Cosimo de’Medici, by Peter Paul Rubens; Museum Plantin-Moretus


15. Taking the afternoon sun in the courtyard.

The museum has a world-class drawing collection, the oldest printing presses in the world, an extensive library, and more. Over 25,000 books and manuscripts can be searched on its website. If you are ever in Antwerp, it’s worth seeing.

If printing interests you, a well-written, illustrated history of printing from pre-history to 2017 can be found on this site.

The museum was closing but I could hardly tear myself away. We were kindly escorted out with our souvenirs – one was a 12″ x 16″ print of a grotesque face from the 16th century that children are invited to color. We will probably frame ours.

16. Grotesque face

We had time for a look at Antwerp’s Grote Markt, an historic gathering place dating back to the 13th century where Guild houses – ornate and dignified buildings designated for various trades – reflect Antwerp’s prominent position in the 15th and 16th centuries. I took a few pictures with my camera and phone as the sun began to set and museum overload began to take hold. Tired and hungry, we found our way to a Thai restaurant, a good choice for hungry folks on a budget who want food quickly. Later we took a wrong turn on the way to the train station, but that happens when you travel on your own in a country whose language you don’t read or speak. Eventually we got back to Gent and collapsed.

18. A pollarded tree bursting with spring buds has a fitting backdrop in an intricate metal rooftop, now a parking garage by the river Scheldt!

19. Local denizens
20. For Adrian and Harrie….maybe you should meet up here!

21. A last glimpse of Antwerp.

I would have liked more time in Antwerp, but I learned a lot just from seeing the Museum Pantin-Moretus. I could sense how thrilling the acquisition of knowledge must have been to people in 16th century Europe, and I got a better grip on the critical role played by people who printed and disseminated that knowledge. The variety of printed matter that Plantin and Moretus published and changes manifested by the printed word could be likened to the explosion of information we are undergoing by having the internet at our fingertips. Understanding the degree of danger present in the religious struggles Plantin was navigating, coupled with impressions I gathered from the American Pilgrim’s Museum in Leiden bring to mind my own ancestor’s migrations from Europe to the New World. Their arrival from various northern European countries spanned the 17th to the 19th centuries, which means their lives were shaped by the same history I had the pleasure of being immersed in, if only for a few hours.

It goes without saying that religious struggles continue. The same with migrations for a better life. I hope that the humanist ideals Plantin stood for aren’t entirely buried under today’s divisive rhetoric. Travel is all about being moved and changed by your experience, and that minor museum in Antwerp made a day that reverberates.

A Joyful Relation to What Is

A few weeks ago Sigrun Hodne, who writes at the blog Sub Rosa, posted a brief video about the photographer Jeff Wall. You may or may not find Wall’s photography appealing, but maybe you’ll be intrigued by what he says, as I was.

Towards the end of the clip Wall talks about art.

“I think all art is always an expression of the affection for there being a world…

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“…that there’s something to see… that anything even exists.”

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“It’s already a kind of joyful relation to what is. And then everything else becomes a detail…”

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“I think all artists are pretty sympathetic people. They’re sympathetic to being.

And I think that’s why people like art.”

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***

The photographs were made on two afternoons in May, during a trip to the Methow Valley, in north central Washington. Creeks originating from glaciers on some of Washington’s highest peaks drain into the Methow River, which weaves and wends its way through spare, sage green highlands before emptying into the Columbia River, and thence to the Pacific Ocean. The valley is dotted with small towns, and one called Winthrop emphasizes an American West atmosphere enough to resemble a movie set. Along with opportunities to camp, fish, ski, ride horses, and raft the river, the classic western look of Winthrop brings tourists to the area.

Coming in spring, we expected quiet and weren’t disappointed. We stayed outside the town of Twisp at a small farm whose owners work in retail and real estate while caring for a handful of horses and chickens and running an airbnb side business. A patchwork economy works best in the valley, as in so many rural areas. From the riverside we drove high up into the lonely, sere hills, where fires have their way with dry forest land and the views leap across space, and free the soul. The cheerful golden Balsamroot flowers that sprinkle the hillsides with color every spring were fading but no matter – my affection for the world was still an unhesitatingly joyful relation to what is, right there, in that particular place, at that particular time.

The photos:

  • 1. Fire-ravaged juniper tree, Thompson Road, Methow Valley
  • 2. Fallen trees and Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) leaves, Gun Ranch Road, Methow Valley
  • 3. Shriveled Balsamroot flower, Thomson Ridge, Methow Valley
  • 4. Lichen on rock, Thompson Ridge, Methow Valley
  • 5. Single boulder in an Aspen grove, Thompson Ridge, Methow Valley
  • 6. Fire-ravaged junipers and dry grasses, Thompson Ridge, Methow Valley
  • 7. Lichen-splotched boulder, Thompson Ridge, Methow Valley
  • 8. Insect on fading Balsamroot flower, Thompson Ridge, Methow Valley

A few more photos from the Methow Valley are here.

Local Walks: North Beach

Endless gray-green silk, swirling, swerving, circling waters.

The lapping of long, shallow waves, a heavy, dull sky above, sand collapsing underfoot.

Bundled in fleece and a long, soft scarf wrapped twice around my neck, I follow the easy hemline of the shore, delighting in the smooth expanse of khaki-colored sand, tide-scattered stones, and giant logs that look like they’re made for clambering.

 

1. North Beach, Deception Pass State Park, seen from the Deception Pass bridge.

 

It’s December. Tourists are just a memory, and right now, no boats fight the channel’s racing currents. A solitary loon fishes in the deeper water while mergansers keep company with golden-eyes and grebes closer in. A seal raises its head just long enough to satisfy curiosity, then sinks back down into the gray-green water.

Aloneness prevails, delicious aloneness….

 

2. Smooth rocks and colored sand reveal what gravity and water working together can do.


3. Looking down at the rock and log-strewn beach from the woodland trail.

4. The tides toss colorful stones onto worn driftwood logs, only to scatter them all over again.

5. December’s rain and mild temperatures are kind to living things, and tiny seedlings are popping up, even at this dark time of year.

Then March: a long month of rain and overcast skies. The first brilliant blooms of spring appear on the woodland trail that follows the shoreline.

 

6. Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) in flower, late March.

7. At the edge of the beach Siberian Spring beauty (Claytonia siberica) opens its delicate, five-petaled flowers.

 

On this Friday afternoon a few days into Spring, people are eager to get outdoors, even if the air feels cool and damp. I see two hikers ahead scrambling over the rocks. Theirs is the quiet joy of an older couple, people who have seen many seasons pass and still feel them deeply.

 

8. When the tide is in, a walk along North Beach requires that you climb over the rocky headlands or retreat into the woods.

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10. The stories these rocks hold stories probably go back 150 million years.

11. Water, sand, rock, and wood are continuously changing, morphing into new forms and shuffling places.

***

May first. Under cerulean skies, a loon in bold breeding plumage forages in the channel, and I can tell that someone enjoyed themselves on this beach over the weekend.

 

12. A carefully constructed Calder-esque driftwood sculpture commands space on the beach today, but it is as temporary as the tides.

                                                                

***

June. Clouds fill the sky, quickly give way to intense sunlight, then scoot back again. The sand is littered with footprints: human, canine, deer, crab. I start my walk at the west end of the beach, dodging waves and gratefully inhaling the fresh, clean air. Soon I’m focused on rocks – from shiny pebbles to a looming, dark cliff, their dense forms and subtle colors rivet me. Some are rough and riddled with fracture lines, others are polished smooth as an egg. So many different shapes, such power and strength, and yet the rocks are always changing, as water and weather have their way. The sculptural shapes and flat backgrounds lend themselves to playful processing – infrared, layers of different types of exposures, bold contrasts, delicate tones. The variety I reveled in at the beach has followed me home.

 

 

13. Most of the land visible from this beach is protected. Where there are houses, they mostly sit back and blend in, so the open view that our eyes and souls so badly need is preserved.

14. North Beach Rock, 1

15. North Beach Rock, 2


16. North Beach Rock, 3


17. North Beach Rock, 4


18. North Beach Rock, 5


19. North Beach Rock, 6


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By the end of the afternoon the clouds have thickened, but the atmospheric unrest lingers in a procession of small clouds suspended over the Salish Sea. The Pacific Ocean lies far to the west, but its vastness is felt even here, in the salty taste of the water and the ceaseless permutations of tides and weather systems.

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This is part of a series called “Local Walks” that describes and pictures just that – walks I have taken that aren’t far from home. This time I included photographs from four walks across three seasons in one location. Stay tuned to see where I wander next.