My favourite place: Delft, Netherlands

For the latest in our historical holidays series, Stephen Porter visits a Dutch town made famous by the artist Johannes Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer's 'View of Delft’, 1661. (Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

Samuel Pepys visited Delft in May 1660, a member of the delegation sent to convey Charles II to England to claim his throne, and described it as “a most sweet town, with bridges and a river in every street”.

This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Samuel Pepys visited Delft in May 1660, a member of the delegation sent to convey Charles II to England to claim his throne, and described it as “a most sweet town, with bridges and a river in every street”.

That description still holds true. The wide streets, the broad Markt (market place) with its grand town hall, and the light reflecting from the water, give the town a sense of space and a fascinating variety of vistas.

Delft is characteristic of the Dutch canal towns, its historic core criss-crossed by a network of waterways, enclosed within a wide perimeter canal. The main streets have a central canal flanked by roadways lined by trees, and their buildings have a lively mix of frontages.

Two main canals, the Oude Delft and the Nieuwe Delft, run the length of the historic town. On the west side of the Oude Delft is the Prinsenhof, a former convent converted into a nobleman’s house after the Reformation. Now a museum, it is where William the Silent, the leader of the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule, was assassinated on 10 July 1584. He lived a relaxed lifestyle when he was in Delft, walking the streets with his dog and chatting to the citizens, yet in 1580 the Spanish had put a price on his head.

Balthasar Gérard, a cabinet-maker’s apprentice, waited one day in the hallway outside the dining-room for William to emerge from lunch. When he did so Gérard shot him at close range. The prince collapsed and died soon afterwards. The pistol balls passed through the prince and the holes they made in the wall are still there. The scene can easily be imagined; a re-enactment in silhouette is projected onto a nearby wall.

Thirty years later the Estates General commissioned Hendrick de Keyser to erect a tomb for the prince. This grandiose monument is in the Nieuwe Kerk (new church) on Markt. It is worth visiting Delft just to see it, and the view across Holland’s flat landscape from the church tower is well worth the climb. The tower of the town’s other great medieval church, the Oude Kerk (old church), a few minutes’ walk away on the street Heilige Geestkerkhof, stands at an alarming angle, a reminder of the nature of the subsoil in this sandy region.

The creation of a new country, the United Provinces, in the aftermath of William’s assassination and its remarkable economic development over the following decades is an intriguing story for an early modern historian.

Having written a book about the Great Fire of London in 1666, I was also drawn to Delft through my interest in urban fires and, by extension, gunpowder explosions; the town experienced both. The fire in 1536 destroyed a large section of the town, shown on a painted map, anticipating Wenceslaus Hollar’s plan showing the extent of the destruction in the Great Fire of London. The detonation of the magazine of the Province of Holland in 1654 also attracted wide attention and became expressively known as the Delft Thunderclap. The site was later used as a horse-fair and is now a car park. The catastrophe is not recorded there, but the aftermath was depicted by several artists.

Artist Carel Fabritius was killed as a result of the explosion, and hundreds of people injured. His contemporary Jan Vermeer escaped the blast and went on to paint the interiors of his home town, and two depictions of its exterior. One, the View of Delft, is an evocative perspective of the town seen across its perimeter canal (we stayed in a house close to his viewpoint on our most recent visit). The painting is in the Mauritshuis in The Hague (easily reached by tram or train in half an hour). The second, The Little Street, shows the exterior of a canalside house; new research has identified the location that it depicts. The painting itself is in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (about an hour away by train).

Vermeer’s other paintings are scattered around leading galleries in Europe and the US, but reproductions are displayed in the Vermeer Centrum at 21 Voldersgracht in Delft. The 17th-century town can also be seen in domestic tableaux by Pieter de Hooch, who worked there in the 1650s and depicted cool, spotlessly clean houses and sunlit yards, while its light and airy church interiors were recorded in a score of paintings in the 1650s and 1660s.

Rarely do we have such glimpses into the lives of people in the past as we do through the paintings of 17th-century Dutch artists. It is fascinating to follow in their footsteps and explore the streets and buildings of Delft.

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Stephen Porter is an urban historian whose latest book is The Story of London (Amberley, 2016).