In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Antwerp

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Archives and Published Sources
  • Journals
  • Social Relations
  • City Government and Politics
  • The Visual Arts

Renaissance and Reformation Antwerp
Guido Marnef
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0299


From the late 15th century onward, the city of Antwerp experienced an enormous demographic and economic expansion and became the commercial metropolis of the West par excellence. Merchants from Portugal, Spain, England, Germany, and other parts of Europe settled in Antwerp and gave the city a cosmopolitan character. The rapid economic growth had far reaching consequences for the city’s social and cultural life. A limited number of merchants and bankers realized big fortunes and caused a highly polarized wealth structure. At the same time, the increasing prosperity created opportunities for a broad social middle group. The economic expansion greatly stimulated cultural and artistic activities. Foreigners visiting Antwerp were struck by the elaborated and laicized school system. The book printing industry boomed too, giving Antwerp a dominant position in the Low Countries. A similar evolution happened in the realm of the arts. A contemporary observed that the best artists moved to Antwerp and commented that “art prefers to be with abundance.” The cosmopolitan character of the city, the availability of books, and the high level of schooling created an openness and a critical attitude in religious matters and contributed to the rise of Protestantism. Furthermore, from 1566 onward Antwerp played a key role in the Netherlandish, or Dutch, Revolt. In 1585, however, rebellious Antwerp surrendered to the besieging Spanish army and quickly became a stronghold of the Counter-Reformation. The closure of the Scheldt River to navigation after 1585 notwithstanding, the Antwerp economy experienced an Indian summer in the first half of the 17th century thanks to the integration of commerce into the Iberian trade system. Furthermore, art production highly profited from the construction and redecoration of churches, turning Antwerp into an international center of baroque art. The history of Antwerp’s so-called Golden Age generated much historical research. While a focus on the economic and social aspects characterized the 1960s and 1970s, the history of art and culture has drawn considerable attention in the years since then.

General Overviews

Two volumes with a collection of articles, covering all aspects of Antwerp’s long 16th century, offer an excellent starting point for further research. Antwerpen in de XVIde eeuw (Genootschap voor Antwerpse Geschiedenis 1975) summarizes research up to the early 1970s, while van der Stock 1993 contains a limited number of overview articles and focuses more on how the Antwerp metropolis was represented in contemporary art and literature. Antwerpen in de XVIIde eeuw (Genootschap voor Antwerpse Geschiedenis 1989) is a chronological sequel to Antwerpen in de XVIde eeuw, the collection on the 16th century. Placing the Antwerp metropolis in a comparative perspective offers an interesting approach to study the city. Burke 1993 applies a broad approach, including European and Asian cities, while O’Brien 2001 compares the successive golden ages of Antwerp, Amsterdam, and London. Voet 1973 offers a classic and still valuable single-authored overview.

  • Burke, Peter. Antwerp, a Metropolis in Comparative Perspective. Ghent: Martial & Snoeck, 1993.

    A concise book that compares the Antwerp metropolis with other major European cities, particularly with regard to three activities: painting, performance, and printing. A last chapter broadens the horizon and compares Antwerp with three Asian cities.

  • Genootschap voor Antwerpse Geschiedenis. Antwerpen in de XVIde eeuw. Antwerp: Mercurius, 1975.

    Contains overview articles dealing with all aspects of Antwerp in the 16th century. Most especially, the articles dealing with the social and economic aspects, all written by leading experts, are still valuable.

  • Genootschap voor Antwerpse Geschiedenis. Antwerpen in de XVIIde eeuw. Antwerp: Genootschap voor Antwerpse Geschiedenis, 1989.

    Follows the same concept as the previous title although several articles do not offer a general overview but focus on specific topics or aspects of 17th-century Antwerp.

  • O’Brien, Patrick, eds. Urban Achievement in Early Modern Europe: Golden Ages in Antwerp, Amsterdam and London. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    Compares the major urban achievements or realizations of three important mercantile cities in five domains: economy, architecture, fine and decorative arts, book publishing, and scientific knowledge. For each domain, there are separate chapters for each city. A conclusion, connecting the insights cited in the articles, is missing.

  • van der Stock, Jan, ed. Antwerp: Story of a Metropolis, 16th–17th centuries. Antwerp: Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 1993.

    In this splendidly illustrated exhibition catalogue a rich variety of material objects evokes the diverse achievements of Antwerp and reveals at the same time how the city was represented in contemporary art and literature. The excellent introductory chapters written by leading experts put the items of the catalogue in a broader perspective. A useful and tangible introduction for both historians and art historians.

  • Voet, Leon. Antwerp the Golden Age: The Rise and Glory of the Metropolis in the Sixteenth Century. Antwerp: Mercatorfonds, 1973.

    A somewhat dated but still very informative narrative of Antwerp’s golden age written by the former curator of the Plantin-Moretus Museum. The economic, political, intellectual, and cultural developments are especially well covered.

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