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17 Jun 2022

Plague, fire, floods and a king

Written by Thalia Ostendorf, PhD candidate, University of St Andrews
A little silver oblong box, shaped like an old book, is displayed against a pale grey background. It has some etched patterns on the top and side.
A silver tobacco box at Brodick Castle
As part of a Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities (SGSAH) doctoral internship Beyond Beckford, Wu Yunong, a PhD student from the University of Glasgow and Thalia Ostendorf, a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews, are carrying out research at Brodick Castle. Thalia tells us more about some of their discoveries.

One of the things we are doing is co-curating the display cases in the exhibition room, researching the objects we want to put on display. We are going through Brodick Castle, into the stores and lifting items off shelves in the rooms in order to have a closer look at the objects we have seen in the database. In the wine cellar, where there is no wine but instead the some of the castle’s objects stand on display, we are looking at tobacco and snuff boxes. A tobacco box in the shape of a book draws my eye and when I look at it up-close, it turns out the spine has Dutch writing on it, which happens to be in my mother tongue – Het Boek Der Zuigelingen [The Book of Infants] – not a title that immediately rings a bell.

When the box is clicked open, it reveals a small painting on the inside of the lid. This painting depicts a city square with a number of large buildings in the background, and some crates and toppled-over barrels in the foreground. Overhead flies an angel-like figure holding a white cap and a staff with two snakes, while a helmet with wings is falling from the sky. There is a black bird in the sky and to the left there stands a man with a Napoleonic hat on. In the right-hand corner, a man with a (devil’s?) trident holds his head in his hands. Some of the buildings and barrels have writing on them, but it is difficult to decipher.

A silver box, shaped like a book, is open, to reveal a tiny painting on the inside of the lid. The box is otherwise empty.
The painting inside the lid of the tobacco box

Several things in the painting stand out, but the most prominent feeling I have is that I have seen that stately building in the background before. It looks like the Royal Palace on Dam Square in Amsterdam, the city where I was born.

The city was originally built on a dam on the River Amstel, and was first recorded as ‘Amstelldamme’ in 1275. The coat of arms, which dates from around 1280, includes a red and black shield with three white crosses on it. The story goes that the three crosses represent the three biggest dangers to the city. Like most old cities, Amsterdam used to be made entirely out of wooden houses, which meant that fire could spread quickly and was always a risk. Because Amsterdam was built on a river, and interspersed with canals, the second danger to the city was water. Although water brought the city many riches (goods would be transported via the canals), the risk of flooding was ever present. The third danger was universal in Europe: the Black Death. It is suggested that the crosses either represent the three dangers or are meant to ward them off, protecting the city.

A coat of arms, with two lions standing either side of a red shield with a crown on top. The shield has a black central vertical panel, with three white crosses on it.
The coat of arms of Amsterdam

Initially, I think I recognise these three dangers depicted in the painting. There is a fire in the background, as well as a body of water, and I think the staff might be the mythical Staff of Aesculapius – still used as a symbol for medicine and healthcare. This staff, however, has two snakes, which would make it the Staff of Hermes or the Caduceus. The winged helmet also suggest it is indeed Hermes; Hermes originally stole the Caduceus from Apollo, the bringer of the plague.

The palace in Amsterdam was not built for royalty but as a city hall in the 17th century. In this painting it bears a French flag, which would place it in the period of French dominance (1795–1813). However, there is a boxy black building right in front of it that confuses me. In the present day the square is empty save for pigeons and living statues. After a little research, I find in an article a pen drawing from 1763, which shows the city hall with a small black building in front of it: De Waag (the Weigh House). The building I know now as ‘De Waag’ is the ‘new’ one (it was converted from a 15th-century city gate); this was the Weigh House on the Dam. In the painting in the tobacco box the top of the weigh house is missing; it is only half a building. Other paintings I find show the whole thing.

After some further digging, I find out that when Napoleon Bonaparte installed his brother Louis Napoleon (known in the Netherlands by his adopted Dutch name Lodewijk) as the new king in 1806, Louis claimed the city hall as his royal residence. Having gained a palace, he was not satisfied with the view from its balcony – he considered the weigh house to be an eyesore. In the autumn of 1808, he had the weigh house demolished. With the French flag atop the palace and the half-demolished weigh house, I can date the scene in this painting quite precisely – to the last six months of 1808. The title of the book/tobacco box (The Book of Infants) also hints at the period. With Lodewijk only becoming king in 1806, might this suggest his rule was in its infancy?

Unhappily, Louis saw two of the three ‘Amsterdam disasters’ during his short reign. A boat carrying gunpowder exploded in Leiden in 1807, and there was a flood in Holland in 1809. Louis Napoleon was popular among his Dutch subjects but he was exiled by his brother in 1810 – who thought his brother had failed as a monarch because he was ‘too kind’, as evidenced by his visiting the disaster sites. Napoleon Bonaparte then annexed the Netherlands into the French Empire.

So much history in such a little box!

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