Travelling to places around the globe you sometimes hit upon the unexpected. Some three years ago I travelled to Recife in Brazil to find out that this city has a history that connects it strongly with the Netherlands, especially with the Mauritshuis in The Hague.
The man responsible for that was Maurits von Nassau Siegen. Family of the Dutch Nassau’s but born in Germany, Johan Maurits was a German count who lived from 1604 till 1679. At the age of seventeen he joined the Dutch army. He was a clever strategist and a strong fighter. When some years later the Dutch West India Company was looking for someone to restore order in Brazil he was asked to be the governor of the Dutch possessions there. He arrived in Brazil in 1636.
Maurits invited a group of Dutch painters and scientist to come with him to Brazil. Everywhere Maurits went he started to build and to create. On the coast of present day Pernambuco province he founded Mauritsstad, after a design by Dutch master planner and architect Pieter Post. Mauritsstad is now part of present day Recife in Brazil.
Mauricio didn’t stay long. He returned to Holland after 8 years but left an enormous impression that can still be experienced today. Coming back to Holland he went to live in the Mauritshuis in The Hague. The Mauritshuis had been commissioned by him already in 1633, years before he left for Brazil. LIke Mauritsstad the Mauritshuis was designed by Pieter Post but in this case with the help of Jacob van Campen who would some years later be responsible for the design of Amsterdams new city hall on Dam Square. Maurits started to use his house in The Hague to show his paintings among them the ones that had been made and he had taken from Brazil. The Mauritshuis today is one of Netherlands most prestigious small museums. It reopened last week (June 2014) and has among many other top quality paintings the Vermeer: “The girl with a pearl earring” on show.
Recife is the host town for some of the games in the world championship football (June 2014). I am sure that the more than three million inhabitants of Recife feel sorry that the Dutch fans will not visit them. In Recife Mauricio de Nassau is everywhere. You just can not escape him. He is on the shirts of the local football team. He is in the streets. He is on the beer. A popular bank is named after him. And his statue stands on the main square.
Maurits was a very interesting man indeed. When he went to Brazil he decided not to go alone but he took with him a group of Dutch scientists and painters. He was genuinely interested in Brazilian culture and captivated by its inhabitants. Maurits and his scientists were among the first Europeans to travel into the Brazilian wilderness and describe it. They made the first drawings and paintings of animals, fruits and plants in the Amazon forest. They were the first ones to make maps and write books about what they saw in Brazil. A lot of what they made went to the Mauritshuis in The Hague where it was shown. The paintings by Eckhout and the landscapes by Post were among the Europeans’ first, surprising and sometimes disconcerting introductions to South America. Still today, these canvases make an overwhelming impression.
Where Mauricio went he wanted to show his grandness. Where he arrived he started to build and to plant. No wonder that the owners of the West India Company were not so very fond of him. Their interest was mainly in sugar and money. The WIC made him come back to the Netherlands in 1644. Not long after that Dutch Brazil came back under Portuguese rule where it stayed utill its independece in the 20th century.
Even though I was in Recife on the shortest day of the year the city was steaming hot. My tour guide took me to a street in the oldest part of town where a street sign said that this had been the street where the Jews lived from 1636 till 1654. I remembered that 1654 was the year that the first Jews arrived in New York, at that time New Amsterdam. These were the ones that came from Brazil.
Johan Maurits was a very modern and liberal ruler. He turned out to be the first one to allow Jews to live in America. Jews were in these days expelled from Catholic Spain and Portugal. Holland was in a never ending war with Spain and the protestants allowed the Jews to live in their country.
We went inside a building to see the oldest synagogue in the Americas. I can be wrong but I don’t think that there will be many Jewish people living in present day Recife. But the synagogue is there. With an exposition on the history of Recife and about the relationship with the Netherlands and the Jews. I asked around where all this interest in Maurits and this extremely short period in history – only eight years – comes from. Brazil today wants to be a “rainbow nation” without discrimination where everybody is welcome. And perhaps this German count who lived and worked in the Netherlands embodies just that.
Johan Maurits never married. From 1647 he lived in Cleve, just over the Dutch border. He was appointed as governor there. Although he himself was a Calvinist, Catholics were welcome as well as Jews. As soon as he arrived in Cleve he immediately started to plant and to build. Sadly enough most if it was destroyed during the Second World War. But the Nassauer Linden Allee still exist. In 1644 Maurits ordered 600 linden trees in the Netherlands and planted them next to a long avenue. This made such a big impression on the rulers in Berlin that the design was repeated there: Unter den Linden.