Belgian stonemasons are one of a kind.
Whereas other countries may count on their landscapes to beguile, this pint-sized jumble of city states falls back with implicit confidence on the flawless artistry of its town centres. Curmudgeons would doubtless point out that the irredeemable featurelessness of the countryside in these parts gives them no choice, but that would be to do a disservice to the sinuous rills of Brugges, to the immaculate conception of Antwerp’s Grote Markt, to the sheer improbability of the thickly forested town hall in Leuven.
Every detail in this all too vulnerable country, which sprouts from the side of Holland and shyly brushes France and Germany, is so lovingly wrought as to call forth little more than a disbelieving shake of the head. If anything could be more satisfying than such aesthetic solicitude, it is the fact that this fragile beauty is built around a distinctly European concept: the market square.
Granted, the sceptred isle from which your author hails is intimately acquainted with the hustle of concentrated commerce. Without squares, it is, delightfully enough, a moot point whether Napoleon would ever have been moved to pass ambiguous judgement on our entrepreneurial instincts. Thomas Hardy might never have given us Far from the Madding Crowd. We would certainly never have had the pleasure of seeing Carey Mulligan in knee-length boots.
But it’s not the same. In our pariah state, such centres of gravity are mostly cobbled together with little thought for appearance, let alone harmony. On the continent, of course, the market square serves a practical purpose, too. But it is, first and foremost, the pride and joy of the populace. Around it cluster, eager to show themselves and each other in a flattering light, the town’s most striking handmade specimens. So it is in Antwerp, where a baker’s dozen of guild halls so ornamental as to call into question their functional relevance offset the highest church spire in the Low Countries and ripple into a compellingly embossed town hall. In the middle of all this, a copper rendition of Brabo catches the Roman soldier in the significant act of casting the hand of the slain giant Druon Antigoon into the River Scheldt. It is to this deed, or so the story goes, that the city owes its name: Antwerp, or ‘hand throwing’ (ant being ‘hand’ and werpen, like the modern German werfen, meaning ‘throw’).
Symbolism, then, is the other distinguishing characteristic of mainland Europe’s public meeting places. That town hall in Leuven, for example, is now crawling with dignitaries and saints to the extent that it seems scarcely credible that it was once so plain as to prompt Victor Hugo to sneer that ‘a civil…building with empty alcoves is like a book with empty pages’. The profusion of scrolls in the hands of the elevated immortals is an unsubtle hint at the academic pedigree of a town with the first university in Northern Europe and an almost extravagant number of schools. The crowns on the heads of others, meanwhile, are those of the Brabantine dynasty and remind us of the paradox in which such buildings specialise. Acquired and inherited status are celebrated equally in posterity, death conveniently erasing the tensions that may conceivably have existed between the established order and those of their contemporaries who made their name by expounding unsettling new ideas. Broad brushstrokes numb the critical faculties; fine lines are merely disturbing.
There is a case that such dizzying creations, even as they appear to defy the mathematical likelihood of human error, are just vulgar showboating. But that’s our curmudgeon speaking. Stand long enough in any remotely well preserved European market square, and it is hard to escape the notion that this is mankind at its very best.