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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. (The first part of this article can be found here.)

The Aegean Sea

When De Bruijn arrived in the important port of trade Smyrna, in the summer of 1678, he was immediately accepted in the circles of the European diplomats. The Dutch consul offered him lodgings, and the English consul invited him for a visit to Selçuk and the ruins of ancient Ephesus. This was more than the young man could reasonably have expected. The consulship of Smyrna, one of the most important offices in the Dutch diplomatic world, was occupied by a nobleman who was not likely to receive any wanderer. De Bruijn was not a well-known artist and could not yet entertain his hosts with stories about countries they had not visited. The hospitality of the consul is even more remarkable when we take into account that he believed that his guest was the man who had tried to kill Johan de Witt.

De Bruijn stayed in Smyrna for about half a year, and in December, he traveled by land to Constantinople, where he was to stay for a year and a half. His description of the capital of the Ottoman empire in Travels in the Principal Parts of Asia Minor is even less informative than his account of Rome. Because he wants to tell his readers something about the city, he offers excerpts from what he has read in several other books. Back then, this was not an uncommon practice (and in fact, even today, many guide books copy each other), but one wonders why De Bruijn adds almost nothing from his personal experience. There's not even a Turkish equivalent of an anecdote like his tale about the Bentveughels of Rome.

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The Aegean Sea
The Holy Land
Syria, Turkey, Italy
Home again
The East Indies
Last years



Cornelis de Bruijn's panorama of Constantinople. From Reizen van Cornelis de Bruyn door de vermaardste Deelen van Klein Asia (1698).
De Bruijn's first trip. Design Jona Lendering.
De Bruijn's first trip
A possible explanation is that he had not yet decided to write a book, and made not many notes. Alternatively, he had other business to attend, but it must have been difficult to make a living as a painter. The Sunna Islam opposes the representation of human beings, and De Bruijn's art can hardly have appealed to the Ottoman taste of what is called the Tulip Period. Perhaps he was on a Casanova-like secret mission (it is interesting to note that Casanova gives no description of his first stay in Constantinople either). This may seem far-fetched, but at least the Dutch ambassador at the Sublime Porte was convinced that the wandering artist had political contacts, because he did not take steps against him, even though he believed that the painter had attempted to kill Johan de Witt. An easier, albeit partial, explanation for De Bruijn's omission is that for eight months, he suffered from a serious illness.

In July 1680, De Bruijn sailed back to Smyrna. He interrupted his voyage to visit the site that was believed to be the ruin of ancient Troy, and went ashore in Mytilene on the isle of Lesbos. In Smyrna, he spent the autumn and winter and planned a visit to the Holy Land, where he wanted to celebrate Easter.

De Bruijn left when the sea became navigable again in February 1681. In his company was his compatriot Rogier van Cleef, who was to gain some fame when William of Orange built a palace called Het Loo. William ordered the fountains to spout higher than those of Louis XIV at Versailles, and Van Cleef was able to do this. But this was still in the future when the two Dutchmen reached Rhodes, where they spent three weeks.

They continued their trip and sailed to Tyre. Currents make it hard to sail directly to the south, so a detour was made to Damietta, a famous port on one of the eastern mouths of the Nile. Unfortunately, adversary winds made it impossible to go to Palestine. Never at a loss what to do, De Bruijn decided to stay in Egypt.


Not many Dutchmen visited the eastern part of the Mediterranean; few of those who did, ventured beyond the Aegean, and if they did, they went to the Holy Land. Although De Bruijn was not the first Dutchman to visit Egypt, he realized how exceptional his stay was. From this point on, Travels in the Principal Parts of Asia Minor becomes more detailed and offers information that was new and useful for scholars. And the scholars were fortunate that De Bruijn was an artist: although his drawings are not the most beautiful works of art, they contained much information and were better than anything that was known in Europe.

Alexandria Cornelis de Bruijn's drawing of Alexandria. From Reizen van Cornelis de Bruyn door de vermaardste Deelen van Klein Asia (1698).

Cornelis de Bruijn's drawing of the interior of the Great Pyramid at Giza. From Reizen van Cornelis de Bruyn door de vermaardste Deelen van Klein Asia (1698).
The "Great Gallery" of the Great Pyramid of Giza

After a fortnight in Damietta, De Bruijn proceeded to Cairo, where he fell ill. Still, he could leave his house and attempted to buy a mummy, but could not reach an agreement about the price. In the last week of May, he made two short excursions. He visited Matarieh (where Joseph, Mary and Jesus were supposed to have lived) and joined an excursion to the pyramids of Giza that was organized by the consul of Venice. Most members of the little company of tourists preferred to picnic, but De Bruijn was one of the fanatics who entered the great pyramid. It was not easy. He had to creep "like a serpent" through the artificial hole that was the entrance, and in his book, he warns "any person that is fat and bulky" not to do what he had done.

Once inside the pyramid, he was able to prepare some drawings and make measurements. He was really trying to return home with useful information. And successfully so: his drawing of the Great Gallery was the first ever picture of the interior of a pyramid. From now on, no one could claim that the pyramids were granaries, an old theory that was still popular in Europe.

Cornelis de Bruijn's drawing of the pyramids and sphinx of Giza. From Reizen van Cornelis de Bruyn door de vermaardste Deelen van Klein Asia (1698).

After returning through the narrow entrance, and being (to the amusement of the other members of the tourist group) rather dirty, the indefatigable De Bruijn climbed to the top of the pyramid. After he had returned, the consul suggested to go back home to Cairo, but a visit to the sphinx was of course not to be despised, although the monument was for a large part covered with desert sand.

De Bruijn's drawing of Giza is interesting, because it tells a thing or two about the way his book was produced. In the first place, the men and ass in front of the sphinx resemble a Christmas crib, and are probably an addition by the engraver who made the etching for the book. The second detail is, of course, that compared to the real monuments, De Bruijn's pyramids are too pointed. 

Joseph in Egypt. Mosaic in San Marco's basilica in Venice.
Joseph in Egypt. Mosaic in San Marco's basilica in Venice

This is easy to explain. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, artists had not been able to visit the ancient country along the Nile and had believed that the pyramids looked like the Pyramid of Cestius in Rome. For example, the mosaics in the San Marco in Venice, which illustrate the Biblical story of Joseph, show pointed granaries. De Bruijn, who had seen the Pyramid of Cestius in Rome and knew the mosaics of the San Marco, must have started to doubt about the drawings he had hastily made in Giza when he was preparing his book.

In June, De Bruijn made a third excursion: sailing down the western branch of the Nile, he reached Alexandria, where he made new drawings, including one of the Obelisk of Cleopatra, which is now in New York's Central Park.

He returned to Cairo and Damietta, and on 14 July, he left Egypt, where he had been for three and a half months. It had changed him considerably. He now had the ambition to make drawings for scholars.

The Holy Land

De Bruijn wanted to go to Jerusalem, which was, under normal circumstances, two days from the port of Jaffa. But when he had reached Ramla, halfway, he was ordered to stay where he was. An epidemic in Jerusalem made it irresponsible to continue. Almost three months later, he could finally proceed, and on 17 October, De Bruijn reached the holy city.

The Ottoman authorities did not allow private visits to the sacred places, but the Franciscan friars had a license to organize guided tours, and their groups were often accompanied by soldiers. Pilgrims were therefore able to see only what the Ottomans allowed them to, and De Bruijn -although no real pilgrim- was no exception. His account contains few surprises, but has several interesting illustrations and entertains by its commonsensical tone. De Bruijn was interested in the places he visited, was not unaffected by what he saw, but was not a very religious person. One wonders what he thought when he touched the skull of John the Baptist in the basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, because he knew that the skull of this very same saint was also venerated in Rome.)

Once in Jerusalem, De Bruijn joined the organized tours through the city and to Bethany and Bethlehem. These were all very normal trips. Yet, De Bruijn also left the city to go the Mount of Olives, where he prepared an unique panorama of Jerusalem. This was forbidden, but a bribed Franciscan friar gave him a signal when Ottoman soldiers approached, so that the artist could hide his drawing materials in a picnic basket. After four days, the first accurate drawing of the holy city that was to reach Europe was ready.

Cornelis de Bruijn's drawing of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. From Reizen van Cornelis de Bruyn door de vermaardste Deelen van Klein Asia (1698).
The Holy Sepulcher

De Bruijn also made several drawings in the basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, which was built over both the site of Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, and the tomb in which his body was buried. It took three days and nights of more or less continuous work. His drawings were, again, important for western scholars: there's a fine picture of the exterior, a remarkable drawing of the Rotunda, the square building (aediculum) in which the tomb itself could be found, and the sepulcher itself. Even today, these drawings are valuable, because the basilica was destroyed by fire in 1808, and without De Bruijn, we would not be able to reconstruct the original building, which was built in the fourth century by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great.

De Bruijn left Jerusalem on 16 November, and again stayed in Ramla for some time. Here, he celebrated Christmas, New Year, and Epiphany, and on 8 January 1682, he reached Jaffa, where he immediately boarded a ship. Next day, he arrived in Tripoli.

Syria, Turkey, Italy

In Tripoli, the house of the Dutch consul was De Bruijn's residence for four months, but he made a few tours. One of these brought him to the Lebanon, where he admired the famous cedar trees, and on a second, he reached Acre, Nazareth, Lake Kinneret, and Mount Tabor. On his return, he visited Tyre again, called at Sidon, said good-bye to Tripoli, and continued to Aleppo, where he was living in the caravanserai from May 1682 to April 1683. In his account, he tells about the Roman coins he bought on the market, which he describes in great detail.

From Aleppo, De Bruijn wanted to travel to the recently identified ruins of Palmyra, a once famous center of the caravan trade between the Roman and Sasanian empires. Five years before, the remains of the old town had been visited by a group of Englishmen, and the Dutch artist wanted to see the site too. Unfortunately, a local tribe of Bedouins refused to cooperate, and De Bruijn left Aleppo, slightly disappointed.

Cornelis de Bruijn's drawing of Palmyra. From Reizen van Cornelis de Bruyn door de vermaardste Deelen van Klein Asia (1698).

Still, the reader of Travels in the Principal Parts of Asia Minor does not have to share in this disappointment. Eight years after De Bruijn's attempt, the reverend William Halifax and a Dutchman named G. Hofstede van Essen had more success, and De Bruijn offered his readers a summary of what Halifax had written, with some minor additions. He also added an engraving, which is a copy of a large painting by Hofstede, as we will see below.

De Bruijn left Syria from the port of Alexandretta (modern Iskenderun), briefly visited Cyprus, and in the first half of June he traveled from Antalya to Smyrna, an unusual inland route that was known to be dangerous. The main peril, however, was not robbery, but a large snake, which forced De Bruijn to use his pistol.

Safe and healthy, he arrived in Smyrna, and was to remain in this Greek city for another sixteen months. Only now did he discover that during his former visits, the Dutch consul in Smyrna and the ambassador in Constantinople had believed that De Bruijn was the would-be assassin of Johan de Witt. When the artist finally left Smyrna, on 25 October 1684, he had been away from home for more than ten years.

Cornelis de Bruijn's panorama of Smyrna. From Reizen van Cornelis de Bruyn door de vermaardste Deelen van Klein Asia (1698).

On 10 November 1684, he arrived in Venice, where he was to stay until 1692 at the studio of a Bavarian painter whose real name was Johann Karl Loth, although every Italian called him Carlotto (1632-1698). De Bruijn is mentioned as one of Loth's students, but this does not mean very much. In this age, the old ranks of artisans ("student", "bachelor", and "master") were just titles: economics of scale forced workplaces to keep many people on the rank of student and bachelor, which was cheaper. That De Bruijn is called a student of Loth, only means that he was on his payroll. In fact, he was a professional, and when he returned to The Hague, he was almost immediately recognized as a master.
Copy of Titian's Death of Peter of Verona, from the studio of Carlotto.
Copy of Titian's Death of Peter of Verona, from the studio of Loth

Hardly anything is known about De Bruijn's Venetian years, and it is possible that an investigation of the archives of Venice will be fruitful. He must have met Johann Michael Rottmayr (1656-1730), who was also employed by Loth and would one day be famous. Of course De Bruijn must have heard how in 1688, William of Orange had accepted a rather dubious invitation to become king of England, had defeated the regular army, had conquered London, had become king, and had announced that he, as he was accustomed in Holland, would share power with the Parliament. The story of the "glorious revolution" must have fascinated De Bruijn, because William had risen to power after a murder of which the artist was still suspected.

It is possible that De Bruijn contributed to the one work from the Loth studio that can be dated to these years, a copy of Titian's Death of Peter of Verona. The original used to be in Venice's San Zanipolo but is now lost.

In 1692, Loth was called to Vienna to be made court painter of the emperor Leopold I. Johann Karl Loth would occupy this honorable position until his death, and was succeeded by Rottmayr. Not being a Catholic, De Bruijn could not follow his colleagues to the imperial court, and instead returned home. The Rhineland was no longer a war zone, and he could visit Frankfurt and Cologne, where he spent some time and celebrated Christmas, New Year, Epiphany (the three wise men are said to be buried in Cologne), and the famous Carnival. On the fourteenth of March 1693, he arrived in Amsterdam; five days later, he was in The Hague. 

to part three

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