A discovery becomes a dilemma

The greatest secrets of Amsterdam lie behind façades of historic buildings that are not open to the general public. These hide many original features such as wall paintings, sculptured decorations and original ceiling paintings. A prime example is the “Trippenhuis”, the grandest of the 17th century city palaces. Recently, a 17th century ceiling painting was discovered that had been hidden from view by an early 19th century plaster ceiling. An art historical and historical dilemma: since both are part of the history of the building, which ceiling should stay?

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The Kloveniersburgwal looking towards the medieval citygate, later weighing house and the Trippenhuis (right) by Isaac Ouwater (1783), Amsterdam Museum

A house for two brothers

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Hendrik Trip by Ferdinand Bol, 1660

The Trip brothers Louys (1605-1684) and Hendrick (1607-1666) made their fortune in the weapons trade. In 1660, the construction of their double house on Kloveniersburgwal, designed by architect Justus Vingboons, began. The building took two years to complete. In 1662, the brothers and their families moved in. Both interior and exterior were lavishly decorated. Many paintings were commissioned from the great painters of the time, most notably Ferdinand Bol and Allard van Everdingen. Nicolaas de Heldt Stockade (1614-1669) was responsible for the ceiling paintings emphasing the wealth and status of the Trip family.

kloof29_bThe Trippenhuis becomes the Rijksmuseum

What would later become the Rijksmuseum was, during King Louis Napoleon’s brief reign, housed in the Royal Palace on Dam Square in Amsterdam. When the Trip premises became available in the early 19th century, it was decided to move the museum to the Trippenhuis where it would share its premises with the Royal Institute of Sciences, Literature and Fine Arts (the precursor of the Royal Netherlandish Academy of Arts and Sciences, the current occupant of the building). A complete overhaul was necessary. This took place from 1815-1817 and was carried out by the city’s architect Abraham van der Hart (1747-1820). Thankfully, while he covered most of the ceiling paintings with plaster ceilings of his own, behind these, the original 17th century paintings were preserved.

The Rijksmuseum in the Trippenhuis, mid-19th century

The Rijksmuseum in the Trippenhuis, mid-19th century

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The cassette ceiling in the “Rembrandt Room”

To let it be or not to let it be – that is the question

The current restoration, begun in 2011, aims to restore the halls and stairs with their magnificent ceiling paintings to their former 17th century glory. Many beautiful ceiling paintings, among which a particularly attractive one illustrating Aesop’s fable of the crow and the raven, had already been uncovered during a previous restoration.

Recently, when peepholes were drilled in one of Van der Hart’s plaster ceilings on the first floor, the restorers caught glimpses of a 17th century ceiling painting of exceptional quality and beauty. It also looked better preserved than others. How tempting to remove van der Hart’s plaster ceiling completely to reveal de Heldt Stockade’s new birds!

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One of the ceiling paintings by de Heldt Stockade already uncovered, before restoration

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Ongoing restoration work

In the case of the Trippenhuis, the dilemma for the restorers is whether van der Hart’s 1815-1817 architectural concept is of similar historical and architectural importance as de Heldt Stockade’s ceiling paintings. Should not at least part of that early 19th design be preserved? It is a dilemma that many restorers face. You might compare it with old master paintings: if, for example, a 14th century panel painting was restored only fifty years later and partly overpainted, have not those overpaintings also become of art historical importance and should they for that reason not be left untouched? Likewise: is not van der Hart’s design as much part of the history of the Trippenhuis as the 17th century ceiling decorations are?

It will be interesting to see what the owners of the building, the Rijksgebouwendienst (the Government Buildings Agency), in conjunction with the Academy and the restorers, will decide. We have been promised that the new discovery will remain partly visible until the next edition of the Open Monuments Days in September, when the general public can visit buildings normally not open to the public, including the Trippenhuis.

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4 thoughts on “A discovery becomes a dilemma

  1. Let me repeat two of your sentences. What would later become the Rijksmuseum was housed in the Royal Palace in Dam Square. When the Trip premises became available in the early 19th century, it was decided to move the museum to the Trippenhuis where it would share its premises with the Royal Institute of Sciences, Literature and Fine Arts.

    But why were the museums and collections moved at all?

    • Thank you for your question. The answer is complex and in itself would merit a blogpost I think. In a nutshell: the Rijksmuseum first opened its doors in 1800 in The Hague under the name “National Art Gallery”. During the French rule of the Netherlands under Louis Napoleon, who had made the former Amsterdam City Hall (from then on “Royal Palace”) his residence, the then still modest collection was moved to the nation’s new capital city, Amsterdam, and into a few rooms on the second floor of Louis Napoleon’s Royal Palace. There the art works from The Hague joined the civic guards group portraits (a.o. Rembrandt’s Nightwatch) that had already been transferred to the Royal Palace after the civic militia companies were dissolved in 1715 and their former headquarters, just as the paintings themselves, had become the property of the city. This situation lasted until Willem I became King. He had other plans for the Palace and besides, the collection had grown due to, a.o., the return from Paris of paintings robbed by the French so that the designated rooms in the Palace became unsuitable. A new home was sought and this became the Trippenhuis (from 1816). The Trippenhuis in turn became too small to house the ever growing collection of paintings, historical objects, applied art and prints and drawings so that it was finally decided that a new building, designed as a museum in its own right, should be built which is how the Rijksmuseum as it is today came into being. It opened its doors in 1885.

  2. It must be such a dilemma for the restorers..I would be tempted to bring back the earliest works of art..but maybe that is because I am so curious what is underneath. It is a loss to loose the van der Hart’s design..

    • I think until I know what the van der Hart ceilings are like, it is hard to tell. I hope to find out on Open Monuments Day. But it makes sense to leave some rooms of the former Rijksmuseum as van der Hart designed them as they are so much part of the history of the Trippenhuis.

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