Orange is the Dutch colour. But to see it in Delft you need to lift your eyes above the roads and canals to the tops of the buildings. Big bright orange pantiles run in vertical rows down the small hipped roofs of many houses, each of which is different in size and height from its neighbour. Some of their brick walls are also on the orange side of red. Old Delft had wooden houses, but after the great fire of 1536 and the arsenal explosion (‘Thunderclap’) of 1654 houses were rebuilt in brick.
The real origin of orange, though, is the House of Nassau or Orange. Its leader in the sixteenth century was William the Silent, ‘Father of the Fatherland’. It was his decision to side with the protestant rebels against Habsburg domination of the intolerant Philip II that sparked the eighty years’ war between the ‘united provinces’ and Spain. The military and diplomatic skills of William, his son Prince Maurits and their successors paved the way for independence for the northern provinces and the establishment of the Dutch republic.
Delft had a special connection with William I. Its centrality and defensibility made it an ideal centre for his military operations, and he set up his headquarters in the former convent of St Agatha on Oude Delft, now Het Prinsenhof, the town’s museum and art gallery.
Philip II, though, was not above using assassination to defeat his former governor and now rebel. A price was put on William’s head. A radical Catholic called Balthazar Gerard insinuated himself into his confidence. On 10 July 1584 he ambushed William within his own house and shot him dead with a pistol. (Leon Trotsky suffered a similarly engineered fate in Mexico in 1940.) You can see the bullet holes (or what purport to be them) in the wall on the staircase of Het Prinsenhof to this day.
The museum’s interpretive display feeds the visitor a consistently heroic story of William and Dutch independence. It doesn’t draw attention to the religious (intra-protestant) and political (monarchist v republican) conflicts after the end of Spanish domination, which had a habit of turning bloody, despite the general tolerance towards Catholics and other minorities in the new nation.
Fifteen years after William’s death the States General commissioned Hendrick de Keyser to build a grand monument to his memory in the Nieuwe Kerk. Parallel versions of William, one seated in majesty, one reclining in death, are surrounded by four allegorical female figures of freedom, justice, religion and courage, while a fifth female character trumpets his fame, improbably balanced on one foot. De Keyser’s monument soon became a tourist attraction and it featured in countless paintings of the sixteenth century.
The House of Orange had a mixed subsequent history. Het Prinsenhof has a special room of royal portraits, which is surprisingly frank about the failings of many of the members of the Dutch royal family.
Delft is not blessed, in its centre at least, with many green spaces, though the canals are bordered with handsome planes and birches. But in a figurative sense it would be hard to find a greener city.
Come out of the rail station and the first thing you see is a forest of bicycles, racked in neat, labelled rows. Almost all Delft’s inhabitants, young and old, seem to own at least one bike and cycling is by far the most common way of getting about. Most bikes are heavy, gearless sit-up-and-begs. Drop-handlebars are unusual, mountain bikes as rare as hens’ teeth. Tradition and terrain, maybe, account for the conservatism, but a straight back, keen 180 degree vision and complete concentration are essential for safe cycling here. Bikes come in all flavours: seats behind for older children and in front, often with visors, for tots; trolleys, again fore and aft, for transporting shopping, furniture or other bikes.
Walking in Delft is hazardous for the incautious. Not because of cars, which are few and slow, but because bikes are apt to come at you from all directions. An imprudent step off the pavement – even if you’re lucky enough to be on one in the first place – could prove painful.
One of the many reasons for the rarity of cars is that parking in Delft is perilous. Many of the very tight parking spaces border the canals – literally. You need to place your wheels precisely, on the unkerbed edge of the canal. Just a few inches too far could mean a waterlogged vehicle, an expensive bill and social disgrace or ridicule.
In the past the canals – Oude Delft, Koornmarkt, Oude Langendijk, Molslaan and the rest – supplied Delft with all kinds of commodities and were used to export its products. Today they carry only tourists. But they also provide vistas across the town and help you get your bearings, helped by their low stone bridges, all with white-painted iron railings.
It’s no coincidence that Delftians are healthy and fit-looking individuals. All that biking must do wonders for the condition of their hearts and limbs. The air feels clean in the absence of massive vehicle emissions. And presumably the economy benefits from the money saved in paying for expensive private transport (there are plenty of trains, trams and buses for longer journeys).
Today blue is the colour most people associate with Delft, as it has been for some four centuries, because the town is home to Delftware, one of the town’s chief exports.
Blue-figure painted pottery began to be produced in the early 1600s as a local response to the growing taste for pottery from China. The pots and tiles soon found a ready market and at the industry’s peak there were 32 different factories in the town. Today there’s only one left, Koninklijke Porceleyn Flis. In 1900 Flis relocated from the old town to its present site to the south, close to the Technical University. You can visit a museum and even wander round the factory and watch the craftspeople at work, preparing the white ‘biscuit’ and painting designs on them (in black – firing produces the distinctive blue). At one time the Flis plant specialised in ‘ceramic architecture’ – elaborate, if heavy, pillars, reliefs and plaques – that had a brief vogue, and you can see samples in Flis’s peaceful ‘cloister’ garden. Today it’s the painted tableware that sells, but you can still find small rectangles of Delft tile, with inscriptions (arde, Erde, terra, terre), inlaid in pavements throughout the old town.
Pot painters were not the only enthusiasts in Delft for blue. For the town’s finest easel painter, Johannes Vermeer, blue was clearly the colour of choice. He used ultramarine, an expensive pigment in the mid-seventeenth century, and lavished it on his greatest works: a rich dark blue on the apron of The Milkmaid, a lighter shade on the fur-edged fleece of the Woman in blue reading a letter and on the dress of ‘Clio’ in The art of painting. Blue seems to signify dignity and refinement, but not coolness: all Vermeer’s blues glow, albeit modestly, with an inner warmth.
White, you may say, is not strictly a colour, but of all the colours and quasi-colours it’s white that describes Delft best. Not just white, but white light.
Like Britain, the Netherlands has its share of clouds and darkness. But unlike the British, who are fearful of too much light and tend to hide themselves from it, at least in their homes, the Dutch give every appearance of welcoming it, and making the most of it. This is best seen in their use of windows. Walk down any street in Delft and you’ll see a huge variety of house types – thick and thin, plain and ornamented (but rarely to excess), painted and unpainted – but almost all houses share one common feature: their front windows, at ground floor and first floor levels, are very large. They begin close to the floor and extend almost to the ceiling. Frames are generally narrow, and are painted black, which gives a unifying pattern to a terrace of houses.
There may be practical reasons for large windows. Dutch stairs were narrow and furniture was moved in and out of rooms through window spaces in the facade: windows are removable, and many older houses have hoists under the gables to lift heavy items. There might be economic reasons, though the Dutch, like the British, were historically subject to a window tax. And there may be some truth in the claim that Calvinism’s emphasis on the honest life, lived openly, discouraged too hard a distinction between a citizen’s public and private spheres. At dusk you can wander the streets and look straight in to people’s front rooms; curtains are absent or remain undrawn and blinds are not that common.
Whatever the reason, light and brightness flood into the houses and offices of most people who live and work in the town. The same is true of the churches. This time the cause is certain: the protestant reformation. The reformers lost no time in stripping churches of almost all their Catholic ornament. A painting of 1630 by Dirck van Delen in the Rijksmuseum shows men hauling down the high stone sculpture of a bishop: one of them has climbed a ladder to place a noose round the bishop’s neck; his mates are pulling on the rope. Sculptures and paintings were ruthlessly excised and destroyed. In Het Prinsenhof a small cabinet holds just a few fragments of objects cleared in this way, drawn from middens and rubbish holes excavated in the town: a few pieces of stained glass, the wooden boards of a book.
The result is that the interior of churches in the Netherlands look like chapels in Wales: white walls, interrupted only very occasionally by monuments, and little furniture other than the all-important pulpit, the home of the Word. A whole genre of Golden Age painting – Pieter Saenredam was its best known artist – specialised in depicting these spare, white church interiors.
It’s natural to link the Dutch love of light with another preference, for enlightenment. As in England and elsewhere the second half of the seventeenth century saw a burst of interest in the natural world and how to understand it rationally.
Delft was the home of one of the chief scientists of the age and an almost exact contemporary of Vermeer, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. His area of expertise, appropriately enough, was optics. Not only was he responsible for developing the microscope as a means of observing objects too small to be seen with the naked eye, van Leeuwenhoek virtually invented microbiology, by investigating and reporting, in a long series of letters in Dutch to the Royal Society of London, many of the microscopic organisms he could see through his lenses: protozoa, spermatozoa, bacteria and many others.
If there’s one characteristic of Vermeer everyone remarks on, it’s his unsurpassed treatment of light in his paintings. In the interiors daylight enters the room usually through a window on the left, and plays over the various surfaces. It picks out pinpricks of bright colour on the loaf of bread in The milkmaid or the pearls in Woman with a pearl necklace. It accentuates the crinkles on the wall-hung maps in Woman tuning a lute and The art of painting. It casts into shade the wall painting and the man’s face in The glass of wine. And The view of Delft, his finest painting of all, is the subtlest of studies of the changing pattern of sunlight on the roofscape of the town.
The view of Delft includes all four of our colours. The patchy clouds are mainly white (though the nearest are darker, with a hint of rain). Blue is used for some of the roofs and towers, and the two boats moored by the Rotterdam Gate. The green of the few trees has faded (green is a fugitive paint). And orange roof pantiles shine in the distance in the intermittent sun.
In the seventeenth century Delft maintained a citizen militia to help defend the town in times of crisis. There were four companies making up the militia: Green, White, Orange and Blue. Vermeer, as one of those living along the Oude Langendijk, belonged to the Orange. But he would have felt at home, one feels, in any one of them.