Smarty Pants Podcast

Ode to Antwerp

Michael Pye on the golden age of the city

By Stephanie Bastek | February 11, 2022
The Tower of Babel, painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in Antwerp c. 1563 (Wikimedia Commons/Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)
The Tower of Babel, painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in Antwerp c. 1563 (Wikimedia Commons/Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Antwerp, the other port city on the North Sea, is frequently overshadowed by its Dutch big brother, Amsterdam. But long before the latter was dubbed the “Venice of the North,” Venetians—and Germans, Britons, Jews fleeing the Portuguese Inquisition, and others—flocked to Antwerp, the wealthiest European city of the 16th century and a huge beneficiary of the Age of Exploration. Pepper, silver, wool, sugar, salt, books, wine, and diamonds all passed through Antwerp in the complex web of trade spanning the Ottoman and Holy Roman empires, India, the Americas, and Africa. The city’s star burned brightly for a century, and then was snuffed out first by Spanish soldiers in 1576 and then the Calvinists in 1577. In his new book, Europe’s Babylon, Amsterdam-based writer Michael Pye brings Antwerp’s golden age to life in all its scandalous, sparkling glory.

Go beyond the episode:

A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms (1551) by Pieter Aertsen, which comments on a scandalous land deal in Antwerp

Tune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek. Follow us on Twitter @TheAmScho or on Facebook.

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