Our trip to Delft corresponded with a clear, crisp, brutally cold day: ideal for retracing the footsteps of Vermeer, the master of light, who was born and died in Delft in the 17th century.
Despite trendy shops that occupy old merchants’ quarters and hotels and hostels in Delft that have replaced travelers’ inns, the carefully preserved old town has not changed much.
A View of Delft, then and now
The Oude Kerk (Old Church) dates to 1246 and is famous for its leaning tower. It also houses the grave of Johannes (Jan) Vermeer.
A Delft street today…
… and then.
Delft City Hall (Rathous) in the Markt (Market Square) was constructed during Vermeer’s lifetime.
The Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) – that’s “new” as in 1396 – seen to the far left here in the Markt, or Market Square, is most famous for its carillon bells. At least 18 of the 48 bells were around in Vermeer’s time.
Take a listen to their gorgeous sound by pasting this url into your browser: http://www.essentialvermeer.com/music/carillon/soundfiles/Van%20den%20Ghein-Preludium%20V.mp3
Interestingly, when Vermeer painted his famous “View of Delft” he excluded the bells: you can see straight through the bell tower (lit by sunshine on the right) to the sky beyond. Landscapes were not very popular during this time, but this painting is remarkable for other reasons: It is incredibly detailed and provides a painstaking study of light, and exhibits the technique of pointillism – small dots which create brilliance and depth – centuries before it became fashionable.
Who was Vermeer?
We know that he was born in 1632 and died just a few decades later of a heart attack, in 1675. We know he lived in Delft the majority of that time, even when many others left due to financial strife (he was blessed with a couple of benefactors, one of them being his mother-in-law).
He had 15 children (some speculate that he produced few paintings because he was such a busy man), and the family was left destitute at his sudden passing and was forced to sell off each and every one of his masterpieces. There are currently only 34 known works by Vermeer in existence, and the authenticity is questioned on a couple of those.
Oh, yes. And he was fascinated by light.
And that’s about all we know. No journal. Not a single drawing. We don’t know who he apprenticed with, or what he looked like.
The artist’s nebulous biography is but one enigmatic facet of his work. He used only about 10 pigments, yet created works of extraordinary color and luminosity. His use of symbolism often leaves open several possible interpretations. His decisions are mysterious (Why leave the bells out of the bell tower?) as are his subjects (Just who was the Girl with the Pearl Earring, the subject of his most popular work today?)
Things to do in Delft
How did I learn most of the above? Most comes from The Vermeer Centre. While the Centre doesn’t have any Vermeer originals, it does have museum-quality reproductions of each painting. The chance to see his entire oeuvre at once is a unique gift. The interactive museum is a mini art-history class, providing information on Delft, Dutch culture at the time, and his technique and imagery.
When it comes to cute shops, Delft has it covered. Here are some of my favorites:
- Knotten (Voldersgracht 23, next to the Vermeer Centre) – If you’re a knitter, you’ll want to make this your new home. Fantastic yarns and a big common table for sharing tips or company.
- Verkade & Jacques Cheese Shop (Brabantse Turfmarkt 75) – Literally hundreds of varieties of cheeses, and nearly as many samples. Not to be missed!
- De Delftse Pauw – (Delftweg 133, Rijswijk) – Last but not least, that which draws most shopping enthusiasts to this corner of the world: Delft pottery (or “Delftware”). The detailed hand painting and famous “Delft blue” color have fascinated monarchs and laypeople for centuries. This factory, located just outside of Delft, offers tours, a shop, and worldwide shipping.
Take a walking tour
The thing I love about self-guided walking tours is that you’re free to detour into any bakery, sale, or photo-worthy distraction at a moment’s notice. The tourist information center offers a downloadable city map online as well as themed self-guided walking tour maps at their office near the New Church.
Eat Indonesian food
Indonesian food is prevalent in The Netherlands due to colonial ties, but nowhere does this history seem closer than in Delft, ex-headquarters of the Dutch East India Company. It seems there is one Indonesian restaurant on every street in old city Delft, so locating one will not be difficult.
For something different, wander out of the northwest corner of the Markt to find the fusion restaurant that made me do a double take:
*Special thanks to Ben for the new wide-angle camera lens. A great Christmas gift!
Hop over to fellow bloggers and Netherlands residents Gayla and Mike’s site to learn about what to eat in Delft (rijsttafel) and where to stay.