Discover Golden Age Leiden
Leiden’s pioneering university, climate of tolerance and thriving economy made it an immensely attractive destination for scientists and immigrants, as well as traders. Leiden University, the country’s first, became an intellectual hub, attracting an extensive list of scholars, thinkers and theologians. René Descartes’ Discourse on the Method, which you may know as the treatise that brought “I think therefore I am” into the world, was published in Leiden (in 1637). The city’s guest list also included the Pilgrim Fathers of the United States, who had fled England for the relative tolerance and stability of Holland. They would later set sail and meet up with the Mayflower, ultimately signing the Mayflower Compact and founding the Plymouth Colony (now Plymouth, Massachusetts).
The importance of Leiden’s role in the Dutch Golden Age is very difficult to overstate. Besides its contributions to trade, science and the economy, Leiden also heavily influenced the art world; it was, of course, the birthplace of Rembrandt, one of the greatest visual artists in the history of art.
Experience an era of art and science
Rembrandt in fact lived in the same district as the Pilgrim Fathers, in the area surrounding the iconic Pieterskerk – a late-Gothic church dedicated to Saint Peter, and the final resting place of famous scientists and dignitaries, including Rembrandt’s prolific contemporary genre painter Jan Steen. Steen, Rembrandt and other Dutch Masters like Jan Lievens and Jan van Goyen, thrived in and drew inspiration from Leiden, and together created a body of work that left its mark on both the city and the world. Rembrandt’s career had an early start in his home city, where he produced more than 40 paintings. Some of these, including ‘Brillenverkoper’ (‘The Spectacles Salesman’, 1624) and a self-portrait (1626) are owned by Museum De Lakenhal, along with many drawings and etchings. The museum is located in a former guild hall for cloth merchants.
Walking through Leiden today you’ll see thousands of monuments from, and mementos dedicated to, that time. The city is home to over 3,000 statues and monuments, and is remarkable in how well it has preserved the spirit of the Golden Age.
Follow Rembrandt’s footsteps
You can (and ought to) practically follow a young Rembrandt’s footsteps around Leiden, starting with a walk around Rembrandt Bridge and Rembrandt Park; the park is very near the Weddesteeg, where the Dutch Master was born – you’ll find a statue and gable stone marking his birthplace. Then walk through his home neighbourhood of the Pieterskwartier via the grand Rapenburg canal, and visit Pieterskerk – this deconsecrated church has some stunning epitaphs, tombstones and artifacts on display. Next head to the Latin School where Rembrandt was educated, and Leiden University where he was briefly enrolled. From there, visit Jacob van Swanenburg’s workshop where Rembrandt started an apprenticeship – Jan Steen would later move almost next door, and you can see a gable stone there commemorating that. Rembrandt soon took his own studio at Kort Galgewater, near the Stadstimmerwerf, and instructed a generation of painters. Leiden's Gerrit Dou was the first of these, and his teacher’s influence is abundantly clear in his work, something you can see for yourself at Museum De Lakenhal.
A legacy of scientific endeavor
Another historical stop is the Hortus Botanicus, the oldest botanical garden in the Netherlands, and one of the oldest in the world. The Hortus was a Leiden University initiative meant to aid medical students, but attracted all sorts, including famous botanist Carolus Clusius who became the garden’s first prefect in 1593.