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Little could Jacob van Campen, the architect who received the commission in 1648, have imagined that the building he was designing was to become the Royal Palace.
When you come from the centre of the Dam and find yourself observing the palace, you will perhaps conclude that despite its extraordinary size, the palace has none of the luxury and magnificence that befit Royal residences. Well, although that is indeed the case, it is also true that what is now the Royal Palace was built by Van Campen in the seventeenth century and supposed to become the new City Hall.
Van Campen moved away from the fantasy forms of the Dutch Renaissance and found inspiration in Roman administrative palaces to design an austere building with classical forms, solid lines, and rich decoration, built in Bentheim stone. The new City Hall, which is 80 metres long and 56 metres wide, was intended to symbolise Amsterdam’s commercial prosperity in its true Golden Age, and that is what it did. When it was built the City Hall was said to have been the largest civil building in Europe and was considered the “eighth wonder of the world”.
On the interior, the most spectacular room is the Burgerzaal, or entrance hall. The floor of this room features two large maps that place Amsterdam not only in the centre of the world, but also at the heart of the universe. The sculptures, the Italian marble finish and painted ceilings, furthermore, show the vanity of a city at the height of splendour.
While the City Hall was being built, some important events took place in the city that affected building work collaterally and interrupted it on several occasions. These included Van Campen’s differences with the city architect, Daniel Stalpaert; disagreement about whether or not construction on the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk should continue, which would make it higher than the City Hall; and the 1652 fire in the former City Hall. Nevertheless, the building was constructed relatively quickly between 1648 and 1655.
Up to this point the building has been called the City Hall. In 1808, however, the whole panorama changed completely. Indeed, with the arrival of King Louis Napoleon in Amsterdam, it ceased to accommodate the city’s services and magistracy and become the Royal Palace.
Obviously, the new king of Holland, Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, was not satisfied solely with changing the name of the building from City Hall to palace; he also commissioned a series of renovations that would give it a more imperial style.
The collection of Imperial-style furniture, the clocks and the chandeliers still preserved today are from that period. The whole interior arrangement was modified to adapt it to its new status as a royal residence and a balcony was added to the facade.
With the fall of Napoleon after the 1813 revolution, reconverting the palace to City Hall was not so easy. Prince William of Orange became king and, naturally, wanted to keep the palace as such because he understood the significance of having a royal residence in the capital.
Despite pressure from the nobility on the city council to restore the palace’s original use, it is still currently owned by the Crown as a result of an agreement reached in 1935. By this agreement the city would renounce its claims in exchange for a payment of money that would be used to build a new City Hall.
Even so, the Palace is currently used basically for state visits, official receptions, ceremonies and important prize-giving events. It could jokingly be called a weekend house as the Dutch royal family officially lives in The Hague.
Whether Palace or City Hall, it is one of the main attractions in the Dam square and its impressive figure determines the geography of the old part of the city. So, if you want to be a model tourist, do not forget to take a photo of it.
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