Rembrandt's father owned windmills © Faïza Tjin-A-Lim

Situated in the province of South Holland, Leiden is a hidden gem. Known for its centuries-old architecture and home to the oldest university in the Netherlands, it’s worth a visit, especially this year, the anniversary of one of its most famous children: Rembrandt van Rijn. hiEurope went on a city tour through Rembrandt’s Golden Age town.

Rembrandt lived at the bank of Leiden © Kees Hummel

You understand why the man was called van Rijn when you see the place where he was born. Halfway our city tour, we stop at a modest square. An arm of the Rhine flows by, crowned with uncomfortably-narrow townhouses. The small square is dominated by the statue of a solitary figure. It’s a boy standing in front of a bronze portrait of Rembrandt, perhaps thinking about his own ambitions as a future artist. On the other side of the square is the place where his childhood home once stood.

Rembrandt’s family was middle-class. Rembrandt’s father worked as a miller who specialized in grinding malt for beer breweries and his mother was the daughter of a well-to-do baker. The family owned three windmills, all along this stretch of Rhine.

Rembrandt’s statue at Weddesteeg Street © Kees Hummel

A Medieval Town

Rembrandt grew up in a medieval town, the second largest in Holland at the time and a place where life was harsh. That’s what city tour guide Elly Bakker from the Leiden guild is trying to tell us. She starts with showing us tiny Dutch houses with only one big window for light. This is where the weavers lived, who needed the space behind their one window for daylight to weave their perfect linens. Once a week, when a linen cloth was finished, the workers took it to the linen inspectors at the Lakenhal on the other side of the canal. If the work was deemed of inferior quality, it was burned immediately in front of the building. This way, the quality of products of the city was guaranteed, even if it meant that weavers would lose all earnings for a week. Today, De Lakenhal building is a museum. Like so many other places in Leiden, it is now dedicated to Rembrandt, hosting an important exhibition about Rembrandt’s youth later on this year.

More medieval life stories are told in front of the 13th-century Gravensteen prison. Prisoners were executed right in the square in front of the prison in the center of town, then taken on a ship over the Rhine to a field outside the city gates, where they were displayed as a warning to others.

The west gate of Leiden © Erik Zachte /Wikipedia

But there was also charity in the city. We visit many pretty courtyards surrounded by almshouses. These little gardens were built by the rich to house poor people and Leiden is famous for them. There are 35 groups of these almshouses in the city center here and they are all different, idyllic places, where the noise of the town is shut out and you feel as if time stood still.

All this was part of Young Rembrandt’s life, who went to the Latin School in the city center when he was 10. Along with studying Latin and Greek, he received a classical education and would have become well versed in history and literature. Most importantly, it was here that Rembrandt received his first lessons in drawing.

Canal in summer © LM Marketing

A Famous University

Holland in the Middle Ages was divided into the Protestant north and the Catholic south. In 1574, Leiden’s Protestant citizens managed to withstand a months-long siege by the Catholic Spanish. They were rewarded for this by King William of Orange with their very own college. Rembrandt enrolled at the university at the age of 14, but only spent a year there – probably attracted by the duty free wine and beer.

The university is now the oldest and most prestigious in the Netherlands. Its alumni list includes former Queen Beatrix and current king Willem-Alexander. Albert Einstein lectured here in the 1920s, which is why one of Leiden’s most popular taverns was named in his honor. The Japanese emperor met Japanese speaking Dutch students during his visit in 2000.

Street art © Ruben van Vliet

Unlike the wealthy merchants in Amsterdam, who were all about trade, the upper classes of Leiden were scholars. To attract the best professors, mansions were built along the Rapenburg, the city’s most beautiful canal, and the first public library was created when one of the professors put his book collection on display.

After the Catholics were chased, the Protestants took over the church buildings and incorporated them into the university. We pass the Hortus Botanicus gardens, where Rembrandt wandered among the linden trees. Here, the nun’s herb garden became a scientific place and the Hortus Botanicus the oldest botanical garden in the Netherlands and home to more than 10.000 species of plants from all over the world. There’s a statue of a very important person: Carolus Clusius, prefect of the garden, who came to Leiden in 1593 and set up an extensive collection of plants. One of the plants he introduced to the Netherlands was the tulip.

The young Rembrandt’s studio © Kees Hummel

A Master’s Studio

Not much remains at the Young Rembrandt Studio in Leiden. Inside, the room where the talented student once sketched and painted is minimally decorated, with only reimagined remnants. Rembrandt worked here as an apprentice to Jacob van Swanenburg, a Leiden-based artist best known for grim religious paintings, city scenes and historical battlefields reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch. Rembrandt studied and worked with the master for three years, from age 14 to 19. While he never imitated his mentor’s hellscapes, scholars have theorized that the artist’s near lifelong fascination with replicating natural and artificial light may have been inspired by Van Swanenburg’s skills at painting fearsome flames.

Sometime around 1624 or 1625, Rembrandt opened his own studio in Leiden with a colleague named Jan Lievens, who was something of a child savant when it came to painting. He got started at the age of eight, nearly a full decade before Rembrandt, and had begun working as a professional artist at age 12. However, Rembrandt was the one with the talent. He soon moved on to Amsterdam, where he became the world famous artist he is today.

Leiden’s old gate © LM marketing

It feels strange debating the life of a painter who lived centuries ago but Rembrandt’s ghost can be found all over his well-preserved hometown. It’s been 350 years since his death in 1669 and this year museums across the Netherlands put on exhibitions. This includes Leiden’s Museum de Lakenhal and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, which is showing its entire Rembrandt collection for the first time. The Mauritshuis in The Hague is hosting a landmark selection of his works until September 15, while there are expositions in Delft, Dordrecht, Enkhuizen, Hoorn and Leeuwarden.

But Leiden is where it all started, right next to the Rhine.

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