# 2 Fortifications

Dirk Verrijk, View on gateway the Weesperpoort (ca. 1750)                                                             (Stadsarchief Amsterdam)

17th-century Amsterdam needed protection. In fact it needed more than that. In order to maintain its very existence, it needed a clear demarcation. A physical barrier between city and country side. An obvious distinction between in or out. The ring of fortifications that surrounded 17th-century Amsterdam provided the city with such a distinction. 

Outline of the needed fortifications around the city. Unknown artist ca. 1610.                              (Stadsarchief Amsterdam)

Construction of the fortifications started in the late 16th-century. Before that time, Amsterdam was surrounded by a wall. Due to changing military strategies, a ring of fortifications with several strongholds became the new standard of defense in early modern Europe. This way, cities were better and easier to protect. The great extensions of the city in the 17th-century meant that the fortifications needed to be built anew, on a very large scale. 

Amsterdam with the extension on the west side of the city. Map by Dirck Cornelisz. Swart (1623).    (Stadsarchief Amsterdam)

The expansion of Amsterdam in the 17th-century, resulting in the famous (UNESCO World Heritage) canal-belt, was carried out in two stages. The first extension on the west side of the city was constructed roughly in the years 1610-1616, the second one between 1655-1665. Before they could start digging out the canals and selling the new plots of land, the defense structure of the city had to be in order. This meant that the fortifications had to be built first. And though carried out in two stages, the realization of the defense structure alone was a major challenge. In fact, because of the enormous costs of building the fortifications, the city decided that the expansion would not be carried out in one go. 

The outline of the plan for the second extension on the south and east side of the city. Map by Daniël Stalpaert ca. 1663)                         (Stadsarchief Amsterdam)

The completed ring of the defense structure was about 8 kilometers long. There were 26 strongholds pointing outwards, and people could enter the city through one of the 8 gateways (only one still remains). The fortified ring was about 5 meters high and coated with stone. On top of the strongholds there were windmills for various uses (one of them remains today). The ring of fortifications of the city was surrounded by a wide canal, span by drawbridges to reach the gateways.  

The gateway Muiderpoort on the east side of the city that is still there today. (Photo by an unknown artist, ca. 1905)                                                                                          (Stadsarchief Amsterdam) 

Today the old ring of fortifications no longer exists, although you can still see some of it if you know where to look. The canal that once surrounded the whole structure is still there. It still curves around in places where the strongholds used to be. In fact, one of the strongholds is still clearly visible as a sharp point sticking out in the canal. Just keep in mind that when you cross the last canal that girds the old city, you are crossing the dividing line between in or out. Or nowadays, between old and new.

# 1 Royal Palace / City Hall

Gerrit Berkheyde, The city hall on Dam square (1672).                                                                     (Image: Rijksmuseum Amsterdam)

In the heart of Amsterdam, a building proudly overlooks Dam-square. Built between 1648 and 1655, the city hall was the largest non-religious building in the (western) world. It reflects, to an almost hubristic extent, the enormous wealth the city gained in the 17th-century. The gentlemen-directors (as the mayor and his officials were called) of the city thought that Amsterdam needed a city hall that would emphasize its position as the commercial capital of the world. So it had to be big, built in the architectural style of (Dutch) classicism, and it had to impress everyone who walked in. Because, though its unparalleled size and splendor might suggest otherwise, the building was the city hall, and thus open to the public. 

19th-century reproduction of Johannes Lingelbach, View on Dam square (1656). On the left, the city hall under construction. (Image: Stadsarchief Amsterdam)

Upon entering, the citizens of 17th-century Amsterdam were overwhelmed by the size and luxury of the place. In the burgerzaal (common room) people would literally face God’s creation. A map of the Eastern and Western hemisphere and the known stars and planets, was laid-in in the floor. Visitors would literally have to walk through God’s creation as it was spread out at their feet. The message was clear: Amsterdam was the centre of the world.

The building was used as the city hall until 1808. After Napoleon Bonaparte conquered the Netherlands, the Dutch Republic became a kingdom in 1806, and two years later King Louis Napoleon (Napoleon's brother) made the city hall his residence. The iconic building of Amsterdam’s Golden Age became a royal palace. Louis wanted to be able to wave at his subjects from his palace like a proper king. In order to do so a balcony was attached to the palace, which is still there today. Fortunately, no further big changes were made to the building. And apart from a big collection of so-called empire-furniture (and the aforementioned balcony) the Bonapartes didn’t leave a permanent mark on their temporary residence. 

The common room of the city hall. Paulus van Liender (1765).                   (Image: Stadsarchief Amsterdam)

After the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, the city decided that the icon of Amsterdam’s wealth could maintain its function as a royal palace. The era of Dutch republicanism was over and the new king of the Netherlands, William I, received the building as a gift from the city of Amsterdam in 1815. The four street lights in front of the building were placed to commemorate this act of generosity. 

Today the building is (again) open to the public. And although it’s unfortunate that visitors have to pay an entrance fee to enter a building that was built as a place to serve the citizens of Amsterdam, everybody who visits the city should do so.