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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.