Few Rotterdammers will be aware that the finest statue in Europe (as art historical literature has sometimes claimed) stands in the square in front of St. Lawrence Church; it depicts the most famous Rotterdammer of all times. Most people are familiar with the bronze Erasmus, turning a page in a large book, but only a few of the town’s inhabitants know when and by whom it was made, and what connection the figure with the book has with Rotterdam.
Erasmus, or Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus as he called himself, was born in Rotterdam on 28 October 1469 (or 1466), though at an early age he attended school in Gouda. His was a restless existence; he lived in various places in Europe and died in Basel on 12 July 1536. Erasmus was the great humanist scholar, who played a prominent part in turbulent religious matters of his times. However, in his writing The Praise of Folly, for which he is still best known, he also scrutinized human behaviour. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, the small town of Rotterdam was very much aware that this famous European scholar had been born within its walls. Even when prince Philip, who went on to become the notorious king Philip II of Spain, ceremoniously entered Rotterdam on 27 September 1549, he was ‘met’ by a statue of Erasmus introducing itself as Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam who commended the population of Rotterdam to him for his protection.
In 1557, a permanent statue, made of freestone, was erected in the town, but when the Spaniards occupied Rotterdam in 1572, they destroyed the statue and threw it in the harbour. It is said to have been replaced by a wooden statue, but between 1593 and 1596 that made way for a stone version, which in 1614 was described as having been ‘painted over’. Seemingly not satisfactorily, because in 1616 a new statue was decided on; the copper from which it was to be made was located in the councillor’s office. Another world-famous scholar, jurist and classicist, Hugo de Groot (1583-1645) was the instigator. He became pensionary of Rotterdam in 1613. However, he was deported to Loevestein castle in 1619. Later he was to write that he had ensured that Erasmus was cast (in gold) replacing the earlier statue. On 29 August 1618 the Amsterdam city architect and sculptor, Hendrick de Keyser, was commissioned to make the bronze statue, for which he received an advance of 600 guilders.
De Keyser was born in Utrecht in 1565, but moved to Amsterdam in 1591 where he designed a great many buildings, including two churches; the Zuiderkerk and the Westerkerk. Added to which, he was the foremost Dutch sculptor of his time. For this reason he was commissioned in 1614 to execute the tomb of William the Silent in the New Church in Delft. Hendrick de Keyser made a model of the statue of Erasmus which had to be approved. There is a bill, dating from 20 November 1619, which de Keyser submitted for 2,550 guilders’ worth of metal needed for the statue. It included a ‘gun’ metal (bronze as used for bell-making) and ‘red scrap’ (scrap copper). In other words, material which was to be melted down to make the bronze for the statue. However, it was some time before the work was actually cast. Hendrick de Keyser died on 5 May 1621 and the statue was cast by Jan Cornelisz Ouderogge in 1622 in the Artillery House in the Hoogstraat.
Hendrick’s son, Pieter, supervised the operations. Evidently, the overall cost of the statue exceeded 10,000 guilders- a huge sum, compared for instance with what Rembrandt received in 1642 for his Night Watch: 1,600 guilders. Eventually, on 30 April 1622, the statue, weighing 1554 kilos, was placed on its pedestal. In the beginning, the statue must have gleamed in the sun, since it was cast in shining bronze; so much so that Hugo de Groot described it as gold. However, the bronze oxidized quite quickly to become green, its present colour. We see the humanist, enveloped in a thick tabard and wearing the familiar bonnet on his head. Hendrick de Keyser no doubt knew Erasmus’ face from the many portraits painted of him over the years. He is carrying a huge book in his left hand and is in the process of turning over one of the pages with his right. The portrayal is not static; Erasmus stoops forward slightly, as if walking and reading at the same time. It is a depiction of a scholar, absorbed in his material. The statue is more than life size. It makes an overpowering impression, from its great height on top of the pedestal. It was acclaimed from the very start; in the same year, 1622, the famous Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679) wrote a poem: To the splendid metal statue in Rotterdam erected in honour of the great Erasmus. The last lines read: “which was once in stone, but now in metal glows. And thus the envy stirs with pomp and show. And so, with ease, Rotterdam’s revered Erasmus in gold is cast.”
The statue was to have a turbulent history. In 1674 it was stored away provisionally because the bridge on which it stood was in danger of falling down; there was even a proposal to melt the sculpture down or to sell it to the city of Basle, where Erasmus died. Fortunately in 1677 it was placed on a new pedestal, with a translation of the Latin texts made by the Rotterdam poet Joachim Oudaan (1628-1692): “The great Rotterdammer restored to the city of his birth and immortalized in renewed splendour.” Miraculously the statue survived the bombing of Rotterdam in 1940, was then buried in the Museum Boymans gardens and after the war placed at the Coolsingel. In 1964 it resumed its place in front of St. Lawrence Church. The old pedestal, dating from 1677, was replaced by a copy. In the night of 21 – 22 November 1996, the statue fell headfirst off its pedestal, damaging the paving of the square. Damage to the work itself was not very serious and, following careful restoration, the statue was put back in place. Despite the fact that many people were in favour of keeping it inside and erecting a replica outside, to protect the important 1622 artwork from future mishaps.
E. Neurdenburg, Hendrick de Keyser, beeldhouwer en bouwmeester van Amsterdam,
Amsterdam, z.j. (1930);
J. Becker, Hendrick de Keyser, Standbeeld van Desiderius Erasmus in Rotterdam, Bloemendaal, 1993 (Paletserie).