In the 17th century, Amsterdam experienced unprecedented growth and affluence. The city developed into a metropolis in just a few years, becoming the world’s staple market.
Around 1600 trade, shipbuilding and industry were flourishing in Amsterdam as never before. This attracted new immigrants. People who were persecuted for their religion in their own country found refuge in the Republic. Many of these migrants contributed to the growing affluence of the country.
All these people needed somewhere to live. Amsterdam still retained its late mediaeval shape and area, surrounded by a perimeter canal. It was not permitted to build beyond this, although of course some houses were constructed. The city was bursting at the seams; there was no space for more. In 1613, the city launched a series of expansions and renovations, extending its boundary. Three major canals were built around the old city, one after the other. This was the how Amsterdam’s famous ring of canals was formed and how the city acquired its familiar half-moon shape.
Amsterdam in all its glory. The map shows how the expanded canal ring gave the city a wide harbour front. Towards the west, the Jordaan district was built, an area of cheaper housing for the working classes. Here the narrow streets and canals follow the line of the original fields, with their drains and ditches.
The canal ring was designed to attract the wealthy. Of the three, Herengracht was the most expensive canal on which to build; the plots sold by the city were widest on this canal. Some of the richest buyers acquired two or three adjacent plots and built truly palatial houses.
Herengracht, pictured here, is the shortest of the three, and it curves round sharpest at what became known as the Golden Bend. This was where the crème de la crème of Amsterdam’s elite built their homes. Despite its name - Keizersgracht means emperor canal - the next concentric canal was slightly less posh. The longest canal, Prinsengracht, was perhaps less exclusive, yet this too was home to the city’s affluent classes.
Amid the residential houses, there were warehouses where goods were loaded and unloaded by barge along the canal. Since the design of houses was left entirely to the taste and purse of the builder, a diverse mix of styles emerged, with height and width also varying. Artisans and small businesses settled in the narrow streets that connect the canals.
It was on Dam Square, the bustling centre of the city, that the town hall stood. It was a charming mediaeval building that had expanded over the centuries to include various additional structures beside and behind. Chaotic perhaps, but above all in dire need of repair. For Amsterdam’s ruling burghers it had become an eyesore.
It was resolved that the powerful city of Amsterdam should have a suitably grand town hall. And so work began: in 1648, construction started on the new building beside the old town hall (which later conveniently caught fire). After seven years, work had advanced sufficiently for councillors and bureaucrats to move in. The building was unprecedented in size and contemporaries marvelled at it, both Dutch and foreign. Inside and out, sculpture emphasised the wealth and fame of the city and the probity of its patrician rulers. The paintings specially commissioned for the town hall were by some of the finest artists of the 17th century.
In this period, artists often depicted Amsterdam in allegorical settings as a woman. She appears in sculptures high on the front and back facades of the new town hall. These show off Amsterdam’s tremendous influence and power on land and at sea. On the pediment at the back, people from the four known continents bring their produce to the city.
A similar depiction appears on the lid of the clavichord. Surrounded by her wealth, a triumphant Amsterdam regards the rest of the world. Portrayed in the centre is a group of ships representing Amsterdam’s commercial fleet which traded with the East – a major source of the city’s prosperity.
Amsterdam owed its wealth in this period above all to its well-organised staple market and its shipping industry. Products from around the world were brought to Amsterdam, packed in the city’s many warehouses, bought and sold on the exchange and eventually sent elsewhere.
The bourse played a vital role. The building, which stood near Dam Square, had a central square surrounded by a colonnaded gallery. Strict rules applied. No cursing, shouting or violence was permitted; beggars and children were excluded. Particular products were traded at certain columns at specific times.
Amsterdam’s merchants met traders from far and wide here. They kept abreast of new products and prices in news-sheets issued by the bourse, which circulated throughout Europe.