Tucked away in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum is a dollhouse. Placed within a carefully carved cabinet, this Lilliputian home boasts nine meticulously decorated rooms, marble floors, specially-commissioned artwork and intricately decorated Chinese porcelain.
The creation of talented silversmiths, glassblowers, artists, basket-weavers and cabinet-makers, this beautiful dollhouse was the vision of Petronella Oortman, the wife of a wealthy seventeenth-century Dutch merchant. A miniaturised version of her own home, the dollhouse was no plaything, but a work of art; the product of meticulous curation and a lifelong obsession with outdoing her rivals. Petronella wanted to create a cabinet so beautiful, so true-to-life, that it would outshine all other dollhouses in Amsterdam. This tiny abode was her status symbol; an indicator of her fabulous wealth and discerning taste, complete with silk drapes and a functioning sink. Just as we flaunt our designer handbags, so the seventeenth-century women of Amsterdam used giant and over-elaborate dollhouses to incite the envy of their peers.
These houses were no place for the Milk Rabbit Sylvanian Family or their picnic set.
I first read about Petronella’s miniature home in Jessie Burton’s book ‘The Minaturist’. Inspired by this lavish little house, the book tells the story of a fictional Petronella, as she moves to Amsterdam to marry a rich Dutch merchant. As her life unravels, Nella is taunted by a local ‘Minaturist’, who sends her tiny replicas of the things and people in her life; some of which begin to prophesise her future. It’s a brilliant book and one I enjoyed for more than just its storyline. Instead, it was its depiction of Amsterdam that stuck with me.
Nella’s city is one of frozen canals, meandering lanes, the smell of freshly baked poffertjes and mysterious symbols. It’s a city drunk on trade, filled with warehouses of Indonesian sugar and coffee; a place where still-life painters worked obsessively, burrowed away in lofty, candle-lit studios. It was a city where handsome canal houses were filled with roaring fires, feasts of exotic foods and weekly dinner parties. In this Amsterdam, Nella never encounters groups of heavily intoxicated men shouting ‘Stag! Stag! Stag!’ or dodges weaving stoned tourists. She never visits a 2 Euro peep show, or waves to the ladies perched on their stools. Nella’s Amsterdam was a captivating one, and one I was jealous of.
As this Amsterdam existed nearly four centuries ago, it’s safe to say that no visit there today would include a chance meeting with Rembrandt or the opportunity to watch the Dutch East India Company’s ships come in. But there was a part of me that hoped that if I made a trip there, I might uncover a bit of what Petronella experienced: a real piece of the Dutch Golden Age. And so, the other weekend, I lurched out of bed at 3am, ready to catch my flight to the city.
We set down in Amsterdam on a freezing November morning. As we made our way into the city centre, the wind swept golden Elm leaves up into the sky and cyclists, wrapped in knitted scarves and hats, wheeled past on their classic ‘Dutchie’ bikes; bells ringing and chirping. In honour of trying to harness the life of a seventeenth-century Dutch woman, I booked us in at the gorgeous Canal House hotel, based on the city’s Keizersgracht (the ‘Emporer’s Canal’). Both the hotel and the canal were built in the seventeenth century, during the same Golden Age that Petronella lived through, and as our taxi turned the corner, we were met with our first sight of this golden city.
It was water-colour pretty. The landscape was dominated by the famous Keizersgracht canal; a now golden pool of leaves that glittered in the morning sunshine. Next to this famous waterway stood Amsterdam’s many canal houses. These narrow homes, despite forming an endless terrace, were every bit as different and distinctive as the next. Whilst all were noticeably narrow (Amsterdam’s seventeenth-century folk were taxed on the width of their homes), each possessed its own personality. From dominating, inky black houses; to shorter, pastel-coloured buildings, each home was a reflection of its owner.
The houses were built to accommodate the city’s ever-growing population of wealthy merchants, artists and political classes during the Dutch Golden Age, and featured large lofts, complete with gable and pully, to transfer and store goods. As a seventeenth-century resident, you could expect to stroll the city’s three main canals – Keizersgracht, Heregracht and Prisengracht – and stop in at these handsome homes to buy anything from flour to exotic fruits. Have a look above each doorway and you can guess what loot each house contained, as the Dutch did not use street numbers, but instead carved symbols above their doorways to represent their wares. From locks to sheep; pineapples to pigs’ heads, hundreds of symbols can be found on Amsterdam’s historic abodes.
We walked quickly up the canal to our hotel; our breath making little clouds in the cold air. I’ll write a fuller review of the Canal House later, but in short, it’s beautiful. With a long, lofty entrance hall, filled with traditional Dutch paintings and portraits, and a winding mahogany staircase, I imagine this is the sort of place where Petronella Oortman and her fancy little house lived.
Having checked in, we immediately headed straight back out to explore more of Petronella’s streets. First up was Amsterdam’s ‘old town’, to browse the famous ‘9 Streets’ (or De 9 Straatjes). The three main canals of the city divide this part of Amsterdam into 9 individual lanes, each brimming with boutiques, restaurants, cafes and independent galleries. Compared to the frenetic central Amsterdam, filled with tourists and Planet Hollywood restaurants, this part of the city is incredibly relaxed. Each lane is confined on both sides by leaning traditional houses; the buildings stooping in their old age, as if holding each other up. During the two hours that we spent walking the 9 Streets, we tried molten hot chocolate; bought a linocut print of Amsterdam; browsed boutiques filled with locally made gifts and purchased two miniature porcelain canal houses. Excellent work.
Next on my historical tour was the Spiegelkwartier (the Mirror Quarter); a historical neighbourhood filled with Amsterdam’s best art, antiques and antiquarian stores. With the cobbled lanes suddenly darkening, we ran into a warmly-lit antiques store to avoid the rain. Inside, the sound of ticking grandfather clocks was all that could be heard, and the smell of thick carpets and wood polish clung to everything. We sorted through boxes of traditional Delft tiles, browsed sparkling antique diamond rings and admired still-life art at its best. As I was leaving, I noticed a small shelf, crammed with tiny objects. Kneeling down, I saw that they were miniature pieces of furniture: a chair, a dining room table and a chest of drawers. The little drawers even opened and were lined with midnight blue paper. I grabbed them excitedly, whilst the shop owner stared at me – wondering why a grown woman was so hysterical over tiny furniture. Little did she know that I’d finally found a piece of Petronella’s Amsterdam: a miniature and glittering world, hidden away behind grand paintings and carved chests.
I bought the tiny chair, tucking it away in my pocket as we left.
I’d heard that a few of Amsterdam’s most grand homes had been transformed into museums; allowing you to experience them as they would have been in all their seventeenth-century splendour. Naturally, I had to visit. Whilst the aptly named Canal House Museum (Het Grachtenhuis) and the Willet-Holthuysen Museum are good examples of these, we decided to submerge ourselves in the history of the aristocractic Van Loon family, whose traditional home is partly open to the public. The Van Loon’s were merchants with an awful lot of money; eventually becoming founders of the Dutch Far East Company. Their house, still lived in by later generations of the family, is a testament to this wealth: with walls covered in traditional Dutch paintings. The house is designed to give the feel that the owners have just popped out, with food perched on the kitchen counters and the beds neatly made. Despite scoping out the place, I sadly found no miniature home. Perhaps the Van Loon’s couldn’t compete with Petronella’s infamous creation.
Next on our list was lunch, and what better place than at Amsterdam’s most historic hotel: The Dylan. After heading up the Keizersgracht, we arrived at this spectacular building. Beginning its life in the 1600s as a theatre, part of the building tragically burnt down in 1772, during a live performance. The plot passed over to the hands of the Old & People’s Office – a Roman Catholic Charity – where it was rebuilt and became an almshouse for the poor, elderly, sick and orphaned children of Amsterdam. Remarkably, the building stayed in the hands of the charity for over two hundred years when, in 1998, it was bought and redeveloped into the luxury boutique hotel that it remains today.
Walking through the pretty stone arch into the hotel’s courtyard, The Dylan feels immediately detached from the rest of the city: the ringing bells and chatter fading away. We were lucky enough to be given a full tour of the hotel, peeking in at its most expensive and exclusive suites. From the bright, spacious loft suites – with baths perched on floating mezzanine floors – to dark sumptuous rooms, filled with leather sofas and crushed purples, the hotel offers a range of styles and rooms. The hotel also houses two restaurants: the acclaimed Michelin-starred Vinkeles restaurant, based in the original almshouse bakery, and the Occo Brasserie. We had an incredible lunch in this laid back brasserie, surrounded by warm brick-work and sparkling lights.
Bellies full, we left The Dylan behind for a quick trip around Rembrandt’s House. The building is immediately obvious: a 17th century anomaly on a 21st century street. With bright red shutters and a wooden green door, the house looks like a carefully construed set, shipped in by Hollywood for a historical drama. Rembrandt, his family and students, worked and lived in this building for over twenty years; hidden away behind its thick stone walls and heavy wooden doors. It’s here that the artist painted The Night Watch and where his three children and eventually wife, died. A whole life’s worth of history, contained within four walls.
A nod to Rembrandt done, it was time for the final part of our historical quest: a visit to the Rijksmuseum. Sat proudly on Museumstraat, the museum is housed within a stunning building, originally built in The Hague in 1800 and moved to Amsterdam in 1808. The museum offers its visitors the chance to gaze at over 8,000 objects, all dedicated to Dutch art, culture and history. It’s an incredible place, and one that demands time and attention. However, undistracted by this vast collection, I had just one item that I wanted to see. Moving through the museum’s many halls and corridors, like a woman possessed, I eventually arrived in front of where my Amsterdam obsession had begun: a tiny, opulent house.
Sparkling under the overhead lights, Petronella Oortman’s miniature home was every bit as beautiful and intricate as I had hoped. From the delicate, golden drapes that hung over the canopied bed, to the miniature silver candlesticks, I could imagine Petronella gazing in anxiously at this tiny world, trying to replicate her wealth and enviable lifestyle on a painstakingly minuscule scale. I wondered how many hours she spent, moving those tiny curtains, or straightening the miniature portraits, in anticipation of arriving guests and admirers. Her house represents everything that the Dutch Golden Age was: a place filled with silks shipped in from India; venetian glass; working fountains; opulently dressed individuals and an overpowering sense of wealth and power. A place where women would spend incredible amounts of money, just to have books the size of your fingernail filled with impeccable calligraphy. It’s an Amsterdam that existed over four centuries ago, but one that we can all experience, through the medium of a tiny, miniature home.
Historic Amsterdam still very much lives on in this now leading, liberal city: one that sits shoulder to shoulder with its newest reincarnation. Walk the cobbled streets of the canals, visit Rembrandt’s house, or simply pay a visit to the Rijksmuseum, and you’ll find it.
My reminder of this city now sits proudly on a shelf above my desk: a tiny, miniature chair that represents the aspirations of not only one socially competitive woman, but of an ambitious and glittering Dutch Empire.