Antwerp, a prosperous Belgian city a half-hour north of Brussels, is best known as a center for diamonds: There are 10,000 stonecutters and polishers in Antwerp's wholesale district. To connoisseurs of another kind, the city is known as the setting of the children's classic "A Dog of Flanders." (Written by a visiting British woman whose nom de plume was Ouida, the book somehow became immensely popular in Japan but was virtually unknown in Belgium until a Japanese tourist brought it to the attention of Antwerpians.)
To lovers of art, though, Antwerp is the city of Rubens. While it also is the city of two other great painters, Jacob Jordaens and Anthony van Dyck, it is Peter Paul Rubens -- the master who built an opulent house and a network of patrons and influence there and who is buried in one of the city's loveliest churches -- who ranks first.
In Antwerp, "lovers of art" doesn't necessarily mean people with advanced degrees in the subject. A taxi driver will brag -- in the good English that most residents having anything to do with tourism speak -- about the city's Big Three, and eagerly point out the statues of Rubens, van Dyck and Jordaens that are prominently positioned in major squares. Other cities erect statues of kings and generals; Antwerp built monuments to the 17th century painters who still are spoken of as if they might at any minute stroll down the Meir, the city's main shopping street.
A fine way to discover Antwerp -- especially the old heart of the city, which is best explored on foot --is to take the Rubens Walk. It visits the painter's house, the homes of his patrons, the churches where he worked and the stately Royal Museum of Fine Arts, where one vast gallery offers a mind-boggling lineup of 13 Rubens paintings varying in scale from large to immense. The subjects of most come from the life of Christ, but there's also the charming "Venus Frigida," which means she's shivering, not frigid in the sexual sense: She's one of the few mythological nudes in the history of painting to acknowledge that it's cold when one has no clothes on.
A helpful map of the Rubens Walk is available for 5 Belgian francs -- a reasonable 17 cents -- at the city's two tourist offices, one outside the Central Station, the other at the edge of the Grote Markt, the central marketplace. Plan your timing carefully: Some of the churches on the tour are open only in the afternoons, or only in the mornings. The walk takes you past 17th century Flemish houses that are startlingly familiar to anyone who ever took Art History 101. Details from the opulent facades, with their columns and pediments, turn up often in paintings of the period.
The artist-starving-in-a-garret myth hadn't been invented in Rubens' time. He lived and worked in quarters fit for a prince, which were, in fact, often visited by the royals and nobility who were the patrons of the man who was both artist and diplomat. The house-cum-studio he built after he settled in Antwerp in 1610, after an eight-year sojourn in Italy, is grand indeed, and will look familiar to anyone with passing knowledge of his paintings: Parts of the architecture appear in the backgrounds of his works.
The first part of the house the viewer sees is the great studio, with its fantastic twisted marble columns, oak timbers, hefty carved doors and a selection of paintings, including the early "Adam and Eve" -- fig-leafed at a later stage -- and an
"Annunciation" full of light and motion and a sense of flurried excitement.
Elsewhere in the house are walls covered in stamped leather, mullioned windows, checkerboard marble floors, huge open fireplaces and tables covered, as was the custom, in Oriental carpets. Among the rarities is an old linen press, a pre-ironing board device that literally squashed wrinkles out of fabric.
One of the house's most remarkable rooms is the art gallery -- Rubens was a collector as well as a maker of art -- whose walls would have been packed with paintings, in the 17th century style. At one end of the gallery is a marble apse, modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, the better to show off Rubens' collection of antique sculpture. Like Antwerp's other great 17th century houses, Rubens' is right on the street, without a front yard. But it has a beautiful inner courtyard, with symmetrically laid-out beds, clipped hedges and wooden arbors, where the painter must have paused for rare moments of relaxation.