Follow-up: a discovery becomes a dilemma

In an earlier post I reported on the recent discovery of 17th century ceiling paintings in the Trippenhuis, the home of the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences in Amsterdam. They were hidden behind an early 19th century plaster ceiling and the dilemma arose whether the plaster ceiling should be preserved or whether the 17th century paintings should be uncovered. In order to do the latter, the entire plaster ceiling would have to be removed. A seeming dilemma – but is it? Time to take a closer look. Last week I was able to visit the house which is not normally open to the public and to take photos.

Piano Nobile, Justus Vingboons, 1664

Piano Nobile, Justus Vingboons, 1664, Stadsarchief Amsterdam

In order to understand the significance of the newly discovered paintings for the decorative programme, one has to understand the layout of the Trippenhuis which consisted of two homes annex offices for the Trip brothers Hendrick and Louys, under one roof. The two homes/offices were strictly separated but were each other’s mirror both in layout and in their decorations. The partition wall between the homes ran straight down the middle which posed a problem since the façade consisted of seven windowed bays allowing, according to classicist principles, for a corridor to run down the center. This, however, was not what the brothers intended. In order to solve the problem architect Justus Vingboons opted for the solution to board up the central façade windows as the partition wall divided these in two. The partition wall was removed when the Rijksmuseum moved into the building in 1815.

Canon shaped chimney

Canon shaped chimney

Since the Trip brothers made their fortune in the weapons and iron industry, the decorative programme both on the outside and on the inside was devised around the motto Ex bello pax (from war, peace), a firmly held belief at a time when armed conflict was always lurking: the Second Anglo-Dutch war was in fact not far off and the end of the 80 years war with Spain not far behind.

The decorative programme was consistent in both houses, with the distinction that the interior decorations were complementary: while the paintings and decorations in Hendrick’s home expressed the need for good weaponry, the decorations in Louys’ home celebrated peace and prosperity brought about by (successful) war efforts. The uniting theme of both programmes was the Peace of Münster (1648) which had ended the 80 years war with Spain.

Left: from Hendrick Trip's house; right: from Louys Trip's house

Mirrored houses and decorations reflected in ceiling paintings in the rooms. Left: from Hendrick Trip’s house; right: from Louys Trip’s house

It is inevitable that the house was altered over time. That so many of its original decorations survive is due to the fact that it remained in the family until the end of the 18th century, although Elisabeth van Loon (member of the Van Loon family whose house on Keizersgracht is now a museum) extensively altered Louys’ part of the house in 1730. Unfortunately, this meant that the ceiling paintings by Nicolaas de Heldt Stockade in Louys’ main salon have not survived, but we get a good impression of their splendour and quality from Hendrick’s salon where they survived intact.

Hendrick Trip's former salon. The wooden floor is original; the paintings all originally belonged to the Trips

Hendrick Trip’s former salon with original wooden floor; the paintings originally belonged to the Trips. This room is still known as “Rembrandt Room” as it is here that, from 1815 to 1885, Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch” hung – or rather: stood, in front of the fireplace at the far end (© MD)

In the 17th century the house must have exuded a sumptuous luxuriousness that rightly earned it the name “city palace”. It had gold leather hangings on the walls as well as many paintings and chimney pieces commissioned from Ferdinand Bol and other leading artists of the day, there were elaborate carvings, and this was not limited to the rooms but implemented throughout. In spite of the alterations the house underwent in later times, it still boasts one of the most complete surviving decorative programmes in any Dutch house of the period.

Fine 17th century carvings and tiles in one of the stairwells at the Trippenhuis

Fine 17th century marble carvings and original tiles (© MD)

We have seen in my previous post that between 1815 and 1885 the Rijksmuseum shared the premises with the Royal Institute of Sciences, Literature and Fine Arts and that architect Abraham van der Hart had altered the rooms where the museum housed as well as the corridors and passages leading to them. Corridors were fitted with lowered plaster ceilings in the part of the house where the museum was located. Because so much knowledge had been gained concerning the mirrored decorative scheme elsewhere in the building, restorers felt it would be justified to drill holes in the plasterwork to see if there could still be paintings behind them. They discovered bird paintings similar to those in the corridor of the mirror house. The latter, representing Aesop’s fable of the crow and the raven, have meanwhile been restored. It stands to reason that van der Hart’s plaster ceiling hides another bird fable.

IMG_0663

Holes drilled into van der Hart’s 1815-17 plaster ceilings reveal 17th century bird paintings (© MD)

An important question to ask is whether the quality of the early 19th century plaster ceilings in any way equals that of the 17th century ceiling paintings that have already been restored in the mirror house. Now that I have been able to assess the situation in situ I would say they do not. The plaster ceilings are in so far a part of the history of the house that they stem from the period when the Rijksmuseum was located here, but is that enough?

Fine 17th century proportions complemented by ceiling paintings and Swedish landscape over door by Allaert van Everdingen

17th century proportions complemented by ceiling paintings and Swedish landscape over door by Allaert van Everdingen (Sweden is where the Trip brothers had their canon foundry and weapons factories)

The corridor adapted in 1815-17 by van der Hart - disruptive?

The corridor adapted in 1815-17 by van der Hart. The ceilings are lowered hiding the original top lintels )

17th century depiction of Louys Trip on a falcon hunt on a stairwell ceiling

17th century depiction of Louys Trip on a falcon hunt on a stairwell ceiling

There is such a thing as a building’s integrity and historic dignity. Given the well-preserved 17th century proportions of the corridors, the high quality of the 17th century carvings and ceiling paintings and the spatial coherence of the virtually intact concept, van der Hart’s contribution seems negligible, even disruptive, since his lowered ceilings, hiding the original lintels, violate the spatial proportions. The building is best served by removing the plasterwork. Perhaps, by drilling so many holes that it almost appears as if the plaster ceiling cannot be recovered intact, the restorers anticipated this, but this is speculation on my part.

As I write, a decision has not yet been taken. This could have to do with the fact that, should the plaster ceilings be removed, the paintings behind them will have to be restored: a not unimportant cost factor at a time when the government (the owner of the building) has announced ever more cultural budget cuts. It could also be that decisions are delayed simply because two government agencies are involved: the Government Buildings Agency (Rijksgebouwendienst) and the Government Cultural Heritage Agency. Whenever a government agency is involved, a decision-making process is invariably slow and ponderous and here we have two such agencies.

To be no doubt continued.

More ceiling paintings have been discovered, but these have been whitewashed so are in worse condition. Uncovering these is currently not being considered.

More ceiling paintings have been discovered, but these have been whitewashed in the past and are therefore in worse condition than those hidden by the plaster ceilings. Uncovering them is currently not being considered.

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “Follow-up: a discovery becomes a dilemma

  1. In Spain there are more cases of paintings hidden behind false ceilings, especially in the royal palaces. Sometimes, the false ceilings have been removed and others have been maintained. In the Royal Palace of Madrid in the billiard room, made in the nineteenth century remained the wooden coffered ceiling (XIX century) and placed a sketch of the artist himself, to show the fresco (XVIII century) hidden.
    PALACIO REAL DE MADRID  SALA DE BILLAR 31-1-2007
    The office of King Charles II (Habsburg) in the Royal Palace of Aranjuez, was redecorated with the arrival of the Bourbon dynasty creating a false vault, from the ledge, hiding the paintings of Luca Giordano and seventeenth-century stucco. Because, it was the only remaining decoration of the time of the Habsburg, was decided to remove the false vault.
    Palacio Real de Aranjuez

    I think in the case of Amsterdam, the paintings once discovered, should be visible. If we consider that the importance of the fact that the palace was the seat of Risjkmuseum, is more important than the recovery of the original decoration of the palace, the paintings should be moved to a museum (being painting on wood, and not frescoes, there should not be many problems) and restored. I do not think that closing the hole and forget about it can be considered a solution, although I understand very well the problem of budget cuts.

    • Why I would be in favour of uncovering the ceiling paintings in the Trippenhuis is because they are consistent with the ceiling paintings discovered (and meanwhile restored) in the mirror house (see photo in my post). The Rijksmuseum was located only in one part of the building and nothing of that period (which was relatively short compared with the lifespan of the house) now remains except for those plaster ceilings which are, as you can see, of poor quality: quite different from the false ceilings you have shown. On the other hand, the house can never be returned entirely to its original 17th century state simply because the Academy uses it and over time has adapted rooms for their purposes so that many original features have disappeared. Where it can be returned to its original state is precisely in the corridors where the proportions and other decorations are still intact. To remove the ceiling paintings would be senseless because (apart from the costs) they and the ceiling paintings in the other part of the house are part of a carefully thought out iconographic programme and to remove them from their architectural context would be a great pity.

      • Agree completely with your reasoning, move the paintings is a bad option, and also agree that the ceiling plaster is just a plaster ceiling without artistic value. I just wanted to indicate that the paintings once discovered must be restored and hide again not guarantee its preservation.
        Thanks for a great and recently discovered blog and good luck (This should have said from the beginning)

        • Excellent point Roberto. Thank you for your very kind words about my blog and for a very interesting discussion.

  2. I think, that in this case the removal of the plaster ceiling is fully justified, and would say recommended by the value of the discovered. In the apse of the Cathedral of Valencia, were discovered under the baroque decoration, frescoes of angels, which proved, early Renaissance fresco paintings, made ​​in Spain in 1472. After a dispute, by the value of the decoration of the seventeenth, was decided that the value of the paintings was higher than the baroque dome and it was partially removed (with considerable opposition)
    http://www.catedraldevalencia.es/en/la-capilla-mayor-y-los-frescos-renacentistas.php

    • Thank you so much for your interesting comment Roberto. The link is fascinating! I would say that in the case of Valencia the decorations removed are of far higher artistic merit than the plasterwork ceilings in the Trippenhuis so in the Amsterdam case a decision to remove the plaster ceilings should be easier to make. However, as I said, removing them would mean the ceiling paintings will have to be restored and there may be a cost factor involved as to why the decision was not taken immediately. The other factor is in how far the plaster ceilings are part of the history of the building given its past as the former Rijksmuseum.

Comments are closed.