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Cornelis de Bruijn

Cornelis de Bruijn, after a painting by Godfrey Kneller.
Cornelis de Bruijn
painting by Godfrey Kneller (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
Cornelis de Bruijn (c.1652-1727) was a Dutch artist and traveler. He is best known for his drawings of the ruins of Persepolis, the first reliable pictures of this palace to be accessible for western scholars, but his visits also included the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, Jerusalem, Russia and the East Indies.
This article is dedicated to my Iranian friends,
Mohsen Afshar, Mohamad Talebzadeh and Hessam Rahimi.

Holland in the Seventeenth Century

When Cornelis de Bruijn was born, probably in 1652, Holland was one of the leading powers in Europe. The Peace of Westphalia had put an end to the wars of religion and as a consequence, trade and commerce were increasing. As the world's first truly capitalist country, Holland benefited; its ships were seen on every ocean and Dutch merchants made huge profits. Everywhere, the Dutch founded colonies: Batavia in the eastern Indies, Kaapstad in south Africa, Nieuw Amsterdam in northern America - towns that are now known as Jakarta, Cape Town, and New York.

The leader of the Dutch republic was a man named Johan de Witt, "the foremost statesman of our century", according to the English ambassador William Temple, who was hardly exaggerating. Although De Witt was unable to keep the Dutch out of every military conflict, his policy created and maintained the most important condition for intercontinental commerce: peace. It comes as no surprise that in his own country, he was supported by the rich merchants, and was opposed by the rich but jobless prince William of Orange, who had military ambitions.

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The Dutch Republic in 1672. Design Jona Lendering.
The Dutch Republic in 1672

Cornelis de Bruijn was born in The Hague, the political center of the Dutch republic, the residence of prince William, and a very cosmopolitan town. Young Cornelis must have seen the international visitors of the prince, may have witnessed exotic ambassadors arriving, and must have spoken to sailors who had visited the ports of Japan, Brazil, and Persia. It is easy to imagine that already as a boy, Cornelis wanted to travel, and he later claimed that it was because of this ambition that he took drawing and painting lessons. His teacher was Theodoor van der Schuer (1634-1707), who had traveled to Sweden and was to become famous for his paintings in the magnificent Tręveszaal ("room of the truce"), where the Dutch Estates General received important guests.

It is unlikely that De Bruijn was not involved in Van der Schuer's largest commission in these years, the central room of the town hall of Maastricht. This means that between 1667 and 1671, De Bruijn learned the tricks of his trade in the deep south of the Netherlands, and may have visited a nearby city like Cologne.

The dead bodies of Johan de Witt and his brother Cornelis.
The dead bodies of Johan de Witt and his brother Cornelis

The year 1672 marked the beginning of the end of the Dutch prosperity. The French king Louis XIV attacked the Republic. It was well-known that he hated the Dutch protestants, whose republic offered an alternative political model to French absolutism. Even worse, Dutch printers produced books that were forbidden in France. That France would one day attack the Dutch republic was not surprising; that England joined them was like "a thunder on a cloudless summer day", as William Temple said. After all, the English would hardly benefit if the French controlled the opposite shore of the North Sea.

The Dutch were hysterical and a man named Cornelis de Bruijn tried to assassinate Johan de Witt. The artist later claimed that "with this man I have, thank God, nothing in common but the name", and there is no real evidence to the contrary. Yet, it must be noted that ten years later, it was still believed that the wandering artist was the would-be murderer and, as we will see in a moment, there is something suspicious with De Bruijn's first voyage and his finances.

William III, king of England, prince of Orange, stadthouder of Holland, in 1677. Detail of a portrait by Peter Lely.
William III in 1677
Painting by Peter Lely (detail)

However this may be, the Dutch were at war with England, France, and two German bishops; Louis XIV occupied the eastern provinces of the Dutch republic; Johan de Witt was lynched by the mob of The Hague; and prince William was made stadholder, which meant that he was commander of the Dutch army. He was still inexperienced, but admiral Michiel de Ruyter was able to prevent a British invasion from the west, and in 1674, a peace treaty put an end to the Third Anglo-Dutch war.


At that moment, Cornelis de Bruijn was no longer in The Hague. On 1 October 1674, he and his colleague Pieter van der Hulst (1651-1727) had left Holland and had traveled to Italy. Because the Franco-Dutch war was still continuing, they could not take the road along the Rhine, but had to make a detour. After visits to Leipzig and Vienna, the two men were in Venice on 6 December, the day of Saint Nicholas that is celebrated by Dutchmen of all confessions.

Clement X by Gianlorenzo Bernini
Bust of Clement X by Gianlorenzo Bernini

How did De Bruijn finance this tour? This is an unsolved riddle. He may have saved some money and had several wealthy friends, but there are no indications that they paid this trip. Nor was he on the payroll of the Dutch East-Indian Company (VOC). We know that the artist sold drawings and made some money by painting portraits, but it is unclear whether this was enough. Even more surprising is that on his return, he was able to invest a lot of money in the publication of a book about his travels, Reizen door de vermaardste Deelen van Klein Asia ("Travels in the Principal Parts of Asia Minor").

Perhaps he had, like that other famous traveler, Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798), sometimes a job on the side as intelligence operative. These assignments were well-paid and not unusual; they implied no real espionage, but merely gathering of information in foreign countries. Still, it was better not to speak too much about it. (Casanova mentions a few of these assignments, but is likely to have had more.) Missions like these may explain some odd silences in De Bruijn's books (e.g., his disappointing description of Constantinople), his unexplained stay in Leghorn, the unusually warm welcome he received in Smyrna (below), and his remarkable contacts with the court of William of Orange (below). 

De Bruijn and Van der Hulst continued to Florence and reached Rome just before Christmas, in time to witness how pope Clement X celebrated the beginning of the Holy Year 1675, which was, according to De Bruijn, one of the reasons for his tour. This is odd, because he was a Lutheran and not a Catholic. However this may be, the young artist was impressed by the ceremony and was proud that he had obtained a part of the Sacred Doorway, the stone door of Saint Peter's Basilica that is removed during a Holy Year.

The Temple of Bacchus (S. Costanza).
The "Temple of Bacchus" or Santa Costanza

De Bruijn liked Rome and was to stay there for almost two and a half years. Many artists spent some time in what was still one of the most important cultural centers of Europe, but as foreigners they could not easily join the painters' guild or the Accademia di San Luca (for example, because one had to be a Catholic). Yet, there were societies in which foreign painters met and could support each other. The Dutch group, known as the Bentveughels (which means something like "flock of birds"), was one of the most notorious. Its members gathered in a building they believed to be the ancient Temple of Bacchus, the god of wine. Although it was in fact the mausoleum of a princess named Constantia, the artists did what true devotees of Bacchus had to do.

On the walls of the Mausoleum, you can still see the pseudonyms of the bohemians, but Adonis and Sunflower (Cornelis de Bruijn and Pieter van der Hulst) are not among them. Still, we know they were inaugurated and in fact, De Bruijn's description of his "baptism" is one of the main sources for the history of the Bentveughels.

It is also interesting to see that in this part of his narrative, he mentions several types of wine (Montefiascone, Castelli Romani), but has almost nothing to say about the artistic climate of Rome. Nor has he included illustrations of the eternal city in his book. He might have given an account of the conclave of the election of pope Innocent XI in 1676, but he did not tell this interesting story. In fact, we do not know where De Bruijn lived, how he earned his living, or why he fell out with Pieter van der Hulst. In short, his description of his stay in Rome is remarkably uninformative. It is possible that he had something to hide but it is more likely that he was simply a young man enjoying life.

De Bruijn's first trip. Design Jona Lendering.
De Bruijn's first trip

In April 1677, De Bruijn, about twenty-five years old, left Rome. He briefly visited Naples (commenting on the Lacrimae Christi and Falernian wines), returned to Rome, said good-bye to the Bentveughels "with whom I had lived pleasantly during the greatest part of my stay", and reached Leghorn in June. This is one of the greatest mysteries of his life. He could have settled in an important artistic center like beautiful Florence, Lucca, Pisa, or Siena, but he preferred to stay a year in what is arguably the most boring town of Italy. A possible explanation is espionage: Leghorn was the best spot in Italy to observe movements by the French navy. Although peace negotiations had started, France and Holland were still at war and the Tyrrhenian sea was one of the remaining theaters of operations.

In the spring of 1678, when the war was over, De Bruijn decided to visit the Greek and Turkish cities of the Aegean Sea, and boarded a ship to the east. Passing along the erupting Stromboli volcano and through the Strait of Messina, he reached the Ionian Sea. After brief stops on Cythera, Melos, Delos, and Chios, he arrived in Smyrna on 18 July.

to part two

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