The historic centre of Bruges has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000.
The city derives its name from Old Dutch for ‘bridge’; and Brugehoofd (“bridgehead”) or Brug (“bridge”) in modern Dutch. The name comes from the city functioning as a bridge on the Reie River, which was used as a channel to bring merchandise to the city, which controlled the commercial traffic. As one of the cultural and commercial capitals in Europe, Bruges developed cultural connections with other parts of the world.
The city enthusiastically welcomed foreign traders, especially the spice and pepper traders from Portugal. And because of the many Italians present in Bruges at the time, the city quickly became a centre of Renaissance and Humanism. At one time, it was considered the world’s major city of commerce. And history scripts it as an alluring city in the Northern part of Europe with as much character and flamboyance as Venice in the Mediterranean World.
Like many Flemish cities, it was textile trading that propelled Bruges to prosperity. Much exchange was associated with England’s woollen industry, was then the source of the best quality wool. By the latter part of the thirteenth century, Bruges had become an international port for trading cloth. It is often purported that even when the King of France, Philip the Fair, visited Bruges in 1301, his wife, Joanna of Navarre, was so astonished by the inhabitants’ wealth and luxurious apparel that she supposedly claimed: ‘I thought I was the only queen, but I notice here that I have six hundred rivals’.
During the time of Philippe le Bon (1419-67), the city became a centre of Flemish art with Jan van Eyck, and Memling exercising considerable influence on both Flemish and European art. Flemish art thrived and Bruges’ artists, commonly referred to as the Flemish Primitives, produced masterpieces that are still seen today in various parts of the wold. The excellent condition of many of these existing early Flemish paintings is no doubt due to the expert approach of the artists and the quality of the colours they applied, bound with oil.
Bruges quickly became an economic capital of Europe in the fifteenth century and the city’s economic wealth subsequently brought affluent traders to the city. These affluent traders lived in splendid houses filled with great art works. In the beginning of the Burgundian dynasty, the influential Flemish primitives such as Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling discovered their creative niches in the city of Bruges, which then swiftly became the inspirational source for many artists.
Settlement and Architecture
The historic city of Bruges is testimony to a major change of influences in architectural advancements over a long period, especially in Gothic brick. The increasing prosperity of the city was mirrored in the architecture of public buildings, like the magnificent Belfry at the Grand Place. Bruges also supported revolutionary artistic influences in the advancement of medieval painting. Being the homeland of the Flemish Primitives School, Bruges tends to be an excellent model of architectural ensemble, showing significant periods in the cultural and commercial areas in medieval Europe, of which the social, public, and religious institutions are a living testimony. It is an exceptional illustration of a medieval historic settlement, which has kept its historical fabric, and where the cities identity is partly original Gothic architecture.
Right from the Middle Ages up until modern times, the architecture of Bruges has been mainly distinguished by Gothic brick and most specifically by a construction style called Travéeoise. This style of engineering was well recognized during the early 16th century. With some subsequent variations, it was kept up until the 17th century which also became the foremost inspiration for reconstructions in the 19th century.
Bruges has the majority of its Gothic architecture intact. A lot of its medieval buildings are distinguished, and among them is the Church of Our Lady, which has a brick spire reaching 122.3 m (401.25 ft.), making it one of the highest brick towers in the world.
The Madonna and Child sculpture, which can be viewed in the transept, is considered Michelangelo’s sole sculpture that was taken from Italy during his lifetime.
Also, the most distinguished land mark of Bruges is its 13th-century Belfry housing – a city carillon made up of 48 bells. The most important squares in Bruges are the Grand Place and the Burg. For more than 1,000 years, the Burg square has continued to be the symbol of alliance between social and religious authorities, plus the seat of many other public institutions, such as the dispensing of justice.
Bruges also happens to be the homeland of the Flemish Primitives as well as a centre of the growth of painting in the Middle Ages with artists such as Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling making significant advances in both illusionism and natural representation. Their Paintings generally has complex iconography with their subjects generally being religious scenes or small portraits with narrative painting or mythological subjects being comparatively rare.
Bruges’s principal gallery, The Groeninge museum – where some of the best Flemish primitives are stored – is also referred to as ‘The city museum of Fine Arts’. The term ‘Groeninge’ pertains to the immediate ‘Groeninge straat’, which means Groeninge Street. The name also relates to the Groeninge fields found in the Kortrijk city where the Flemish army defeated the French king’s army in 1302. A superb and treasured collection of Flemish masters is the pride of the Groening museum. These collections in the museum span multiple centuries (from the 14th to the 20th century) and focus generally on works by artists who resided and worked in Bruges.
Jan Van Eyck, of whom the Groeninge Museum keeps two original works plus an early copy, is mostly considered as the originator of the school of Flemish Primitive as well as its generally well-regarded optical realism. He had an enormous impact on Flemish painting in both the 15th and 16th centuries. In conjunction with their technical excellence, fine preservation state, and results, the paintings of Jan van Eyck are also outstanding for their objective yet enticing depiction of persons (the saints) and nature, which he brilliantly reproduced in miniature.
The most diverse of the 26 museums in Bruges is The Gruuthuse museum, a museum of applied arts located in the house of Louis de Gruuthuse. In the late middle ages, this house belonged to the family Van Brugghe-van der Aar, -the lords of ‘Gruuthuse’ who possessed the monopoly of selling ‘Gruut’ – a medieval mixture of spices used in making beer. The ‘Archaeological Society’ of Bruges established the current art collections and antiques in 1865. The building was at first used by the city of Bruges to display the archaeological collection of the Société Archéologique, and over the years, extended into a more standard museum in 1955 after the city had acquired the collections.
The Gruuthuse collection extends from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. The museum showcases the interior of a house of a rich family, just like how it would have been in the late middle ages with a collection of everyday tools and utensils showing everyday life between the 15th and 19th centuries. The collection includes lace, furniture, gold ware, and items of everyday use, which will transport you back through time to medieval Bruges. The main hall in the museum happens to be one of the main attractions with its magnificent collection of Flemish tapestries, richly ornamented rafters, and impressive fireplace, all depicting the wealth and affluence of the lords of Gruuthuse. On exhibit are also the renowned and prestigious lace collections in gold and silver, weapons, ceramics and the small musical instrument cabinet. Among the collection is the most known item- the painted terracotta bust of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.
The exterior of the museum is to some extent original, and in part a reconstruction; whiles the interior is generally a reconstruction of the late 19th century Neogothical medieval interior.
Bruges under the spell of the Middle Ages
Bruges maintains the urban architecture that defines and documents its different stages of advancement. And the historic centre continues to cover absolutely that same areas as the boundary of the old settlement. The reconstruction of its facades in the late 19th-century reconstructions introduced a neo-Gothic style that is exclusive for Bruges and it continues to be an energetic, living city.
The historic centre of Bruges has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. In the last half of the 19th century, the city became one of the first tourist sites of the world bringing in wealthy French and British tourists. The city still makes use of a full-time carillonneur that offers free performances on a consistent basis. Reconstructions of household and commercial structures, churches, and ancient monuments brought about an increase in tourism in general as well as economic activity in the ancient downtown area. International tourism has exploded, and new efforts have resulted in Bruges being marked ‘Europe’s Capital of Culture in 2002. It attracts about 2 million tourists every single year. Ideal for romantic getaways or short stays in Autumn or Winter.