Bruges – 3, To the Lake of Love.

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The distinctive Gothic shape of the Boniface Bridge is quietly emblematic of Bruges, the city of reflection. It embodies that melancholy meditation of memory and love, that perfect moment when all time flows through an ostensible cusp, briefly and sharply experienced. Just beyond, the Church of Our Lady soars heavenward. Its one hundred and fifteen metre brick spire is the second tallest in the world. The church dates back to the thirteenth century and took two centuries to complete, encompassing a variety of styles from Gothic to Baroque.In the sixteenth century Our Lady’s acquired a statue by Michelangelo, Madonna and Child, a rare example of the artist’s work travelling beyond his homeland during his lifetime.

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Bruges is a storybook of bridges and towers. After the initial frenzy of photography, the city re-establishes its quiet beauty on the soul. You find yourself within a photograph that is centuries old, enduring and subtly changing, captivating and offering profound release. Beyond the Boniface Bridge, and heading south, the crowds thin somewhat. 

The Canal shimmies away from the quaysides and is bordered by the serene Beguinage. The Beguinage was a walled area within the city which offered a retreat for the Beguines, a lay sisterhood founded in 1245. These lived and dressed as nuns but did not take the vows, so they could return to the real world at any time.This location was crucial in Bruges La Morte. The cover features an illustration of the bridge. Floating on the waters that flow beneath, the figure of Hugue’s late wife is modelled on John Everett Millais’s Ophelia. It was drawn by Fernand Khnopff, whose work Secret Reflection hangs at the Groeninge Museum. Khnopff was a leading Symbolist painter who spent his childhood in Bruges. The mystique of the floating city would inform his later work which influenced the Belgian Surrealists, Rene Magritte and Paul Delveaux.

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The Beguines are suggested in the role played by Jane as she snares Hugue’s desire when he attends a performance of Robert the Devil. Jane dances the lead role in a sequence known as the Ballet of the Nuns. Robert the Devil is an actual Opera by Giacomo Meyerbeer, with a libretto by Eugene Scribe. It was a triumph of the visual power of stagesetting when first performed in Paris in 1831. The story gives a nod to the historical character, Robert the Magnificent of Normandy, father of William the Conqueror, who was known by some as the Son of the Devil. Jane plays the role of Abbess Helena who returns to life with her nuns and arise from the graveyard. They divest themselves of their habits and, shaking off the dust of death, dance a celebration of the physical joys of life. Scandalous, and sensational, the Ballet of the Nuns was a huge influence on the development of dance, transcending its classical constraints to push towards the more sensual artform of modern times.

Rodenbach adapted his novel for the stage and it received a German translation by Siegfried Trebitsch called Die Stille Stadt, the Silent City. Trebitsch was a friend of Julius Korngold and the two discussed the potential of turning the story into an opera. Julius’s son, Erich, in his early twenties was enthusiastic about the project, collaborating with his father on the libretto under the pseudonym Paul Schott. He composed the opera giving it the title Die tote Stadt, the Dead City. In this version, the melodramatic and crazed climax occurs within a dream, softening its impact.

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The original German title brings to my mind Thomas Moore’s melancholy Oft in the Stilly Night. Where Moore’s Vale of Avoca puts friendship at the centre of happiness, conjuring a perfect day in an idyllic landscape, Oft in the Stilly Night is melancholic, a lonesome voice leaking into the darkness.

Oft in the stilly night, ere slumber’s chains have bound me,

fond memory brings the light of other days around me.

Like Hugue, or any solo traveller at that certain moment of reflection, the environment is a multifaceted construct, built of memories and moods as much as its physical components. Within the crowds and chaos of the city there will be an isolated being, channeling the ancient history of the space throughout time, and through the prism of their own memory.

The smiles the tears of boyhood’s years,

the words of love then spoken,

the eyes that shone now dimmed and gone,

the cheerful hearts now broken.

Into these vacuums of darkness and solitude there is a welcoming space for those manifestations of the Muse, for music, poetry and art. For Rodenbach, art was a kind of religion.

Thus in the stilly night ere slumber’s chains hath bound me,

sad memory brings the light of other days around me.

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Bruges, being a city of reflections, can quickly shift. From melancholy to gaiety, it’s seldom more than a step away from a changing atmosphere. Ancient and beautiful, but also busy. Visitors cloud its atom like electrons, a dusty swirl by boat or boot or horse and cart. I balance precariously at a sidewalk bar, and the horses turning their carriages pass close enough to touch. The crowded small square is festooned with art and crafts and above it all the teetering spires of the sky.

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But, you can always find a place to be alone, whatever timeframe you inhabit. Further along, lies the Minnewater, a regular artificial lake where the waters feeding the canal system lie waiting, a few metres above the city waterways. The Minnewater is known as the Lake of Love. Passing the lock gatehouse is to enter a calmer sphere. A quiet park enfolds the lake with a relaxed residential area surrounding that and the adjacent Beguinage. At the far end there is the Lovers Bridge, though all bridges in Bruges are magnets for lovers. This one is named for the doomed lovers of myth, the beautiful young Minna and Stromberg, a warrior of a rival tribe. It is a variant of Romeo and Juliet. Of love and death. Standing guard is the Powder Tower, part of the old city’s outer fortifications. 

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Returning to the park, modern music beckons me to the water where a quartet of hedonists have established their own milieu and are dancing in a sea of ganja mist. In the quiet of the park once more, a hostelry looms out of the trees. In the afternoon heat and the deserted ambience, I feel I may have stumbled on the source of the Golden Fountainhead. The bar is to the rear of the Gothic building, where a matronly woman serves me. I take my beer onto the extensive and deserted terrace and sit a while contemplating the stillness of the waters. Minnewater, my solo pastime, a quiet conversation with an intelligent shade of the colour blue.IMG_4867

Bruges – 2. Morning Reflections

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The boat trip is a recommended introduction to the city. Available at most quays in the centre, it costs ten euro for the half hour trip and is well worth it. The boats are small, slung low in the water  and fit a dozen or so. Close your mind to the cameras and apparel, drag a finger through the water and see the brick rise up from the canal, glowing with the centuries. Merchant palaces and church spires soar like impossible crystals above the reddish brick. A couple converse with a woman beside me, they in English, she in French. There is understanding and mystery, smiles and photographs. If you are a participant in the permanently picturesque, you harmonise with the painting that is emerging. The French woman is young or old, depending on the quaysides that we pass. The English couple are occasionally dappled with the shadows of Flemish dress, awaiting the caress of the artists brush. On disembarking, my companions are puzzling over arrangements for a place to dine, caught in a pantomime of gestures and smiles. 

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I drift off to a cafe promising a hearty breakfast. The next half hour or so is rich in elements of Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch. There were no sausages, and the rashers dematerialised too. Egg and bread remained, however, and a cup of tepid coffee. 

From the 14th century Brugge attained a prominent position as the capital of Flanders. The world’s first stock exchange was set up here by the Van Der Bourse family, attaching their name to the trade ever since. The 15th century became the city’s golden age, commerce and art flourished and Bruges produced such artists as Hans Memling and Jan Van Eyck; the Flemish Primitives. The name Primitives is a bit misleading. These were pioneers in the art of oil painting and were stunning, meticulous representationalists. There is an excellent collection of their work, and other later Flemish and Belgian masters at the Groeninge Museum off Rozenhoed Quay.

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Brugge went into decline in the 16th century as neighbouring Ghent prospered.The city became a sleepy backwater, ironically a fact which contributed to the preservation of its medieval charm. The isolation and stagnation inspired the Symbolist novel Bruges La Mort by George Rodenbach in 1892. This lit the flame of its revival as a tourist destination, though Bruges is gloomily characterised as the city of death. The story tells of a man, Hugues, who mourns the death of his young wife. He keeps a Temple of Memories including paintings, photos and a long lock of her hair. Within his grief he also becomes obsessed with a dancer he sees at the opera, Robert Le Diablo, Robert the Devil. The dancer, Jane, bears a close resemblance to his wife and after some awkward courting he invites her home.

More recently, the film In Bruges, written and directed by Martin McDonagh, with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, sets Bruges as a noirish backdrop against a tragi-comedy of love and death. This more than anything was a factor in my resolution to visit.

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Certainly, these days Bruges in summer is thronged by visitors, but it isn’t overrun. There’s so much to see, and room to see it, that it is a flaneuers dream. Up, down and sideways, you can bathe your eyes pleasantly in Bruges. And, as in any city worth its salt, that includes a visit to the premier art gallery for a journey into the past. The 18th century was the city’s Austrian period and this era saw the foundation of the Academy of Fine Arts which formed the basis for the collection in the Groening Museum. This museum, within a maze of gardens and courtyards, seems small from without, but within holds a wealth of material. Headphones are free, and give an excellent account, free of the artspeak that often bedevils these devices.

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On entering the Groeninge, first up is a painting by Antoon Claessens: Mars, Surrounded by the Arts and Sciences. Here, the painter exhorts the liberal arts above ignorance, with Mars centre stage, trampling on a donkey-eared ignoramus as the muses of the various arts gather around. The painting pitches for the inclusion of painting and drawing on this exalted platform. 

Van Eyck’s Madonna with Canon from 1436, shows all the mastery of detail and rendering, while unifying the work in serene and bold composition. Stepping into these paintings is a journey back in time to the heyday of Brugge, its dreaming spires and palaces, its surging commercial life, and most importantly its people. Religion is to the fore, with strong connections to the spirit world. Sitters are accompanied by their patron saint.

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In Jan Provoost’s triptych only the outer wings remain, telling an intriguing, if partial story of the donor and his wife. As was the custom, the sitters are portrayed with their patron saints in tow. Here, the Donor is accompanied by Saint Nicholas, his wife by Saint Godalieve. Godalieve is a patron saint of Bruges itself and here she appears in the foreground with a scarf wound around her neck. In the background, she is pictured being strangled with this scarf by henchmen of her husband. This story is echoed in Rodenbach’s novel. As Jane tires of her lover’s obsession with his dead wife, she teases him and mocks his Temple of Memories, finally taking a step too far as she dances with the lock of Hugue’s wife’s hair. Hugue, enraged, descends into delirium, and strangles Jane with the lock of hair. On the reverse, a different narrative unfolds. This stark, graphic tableau portrays the man exchanging money with a live skeleton. A faustian deal, perhaps, buying time from death. In the backgeound, the artist is portrayed in stern disapproval.

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Much of the work of the Flemish masters depicts the ethical conflicts in life. Cautionary tales of terrible retribution on corrupt persons in trade and law. One judge gets flayed alive in graphic detail for taking bribes. In Bosch’s Last Judgement, the retribution comes from God, the consolations of the good life being the reward of paradise, the punishment for venality the horrors of hell. The Breughel’s, Pieter the Elder and Younger, root their work in the daily struggles, and celebrations of life. In such startling detail and vivacity that we’d swear they smelt of brewing and woodsmoke, of crackling snow and glowing ovens, our bellies full or empty but all the time throbbing with the stuff of being alive. 

The ages slip away as I float through the gothic and romantic, and glimpse the seductive reefs of surrealism. Paul Delveux and Rene Magritte paint mindscapes in appropriate reflex of our modern condition.

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Outside the brackets of the museum, that wondrous timewarp, the world throbs and whirls in its relentless mayhem. But there is solace too. I might search for love or happiness, and all the contradictions that quest embodies. I might search for myself but will need first to become lost. There might be a perfect moment, or even a chance to find the Golden Fountainhead. Anything seems possible here. Without a route to take me, I flow with the human river, and come to the Boniface Bridge. This is a magnet for lovers, and they pose at its apex anxious to draw down its benign influence, and that somehow a photograph might capture their soul in all the timeless ambience it generates.

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