Nella Brandt's Amsterdam
Updated: Nov 17, 2020
By Jessie Burton
The Miniaturist is a novel by Jessie Burton. In Dutch it is called Het huis aan de gouden bocht (The House on the Golden Bend). It is set in Amsterdam just after the Dutch Golden Age. It was inspired by the real-life dollhouse of Petronella Oortman. During the time Petronella had her dollhouse and its collection grew, many wives of wealthy merchants were also collecting and developing their own dollhouses. These dollhouses were often worth more than the canal houses that the women were living in. To me this seems like an astonishing waste of money, but the dollhouses and, in particular, Petronella’s, are amazing pieces of art. The artwork, the china, everything, was custom designed and made to scale.
The Miniaturist is so beautifully written and so well researched that it lends itself perfectly to using it to guide you around Amsterdam. Though do remember that Burton has taken some liberties with the book, it is fiction after all. For example, Petronella Oortman lived on Warmoesstraat but Nella Brandt lived on Herengracht.
For this book I have a list of questions as well as a guided walking tour of Amsterdam, and for those who can’t get to Amsterdam, a presentation to give you an idea of what Nella’s Amsterdam was like in the late 1600s.
Questions on The Miniaturist
Did it surprise you that Johannes didn’t consummate the marriage? Does it foreshadow anything in the book? If so what?
P. 76 ‘Every woman is architect of her own fortune.” Do Nella, Marin or Cornelia have the freedom to make the choices they want? Why or why don’t you think so?
The lute is brought up over and over in the book. In paintings it can refer to harmony, lust, indecency, and the shape can be a reference to a woman’s genitals (How to Read a Painting; Decoding, Understanding, and Enjoying the Old Masters by Thames & Hudson). On page 40 Marin says ‘It’s not for playing. It’s a piece of craftsmanship that will be ruined by your plucking (referring to the lute). How does the lute represent Nella? Has Johannes acquired her to collect and not to play just like the lutes?
There is so much symbolism in this book, the lute being one of them. What other items are used as symbolism and how?
On page 255 Marin says to Nella ‘A lifetime isn’t enough to know how a person will behave.’ Is this true of the characters in the book? Marin, Johannes, Nella, Otto, and Cornelia? Do any of them really know each other? Is this true of real life? Or of your own life?
On page 317 Nella thinks about differing views on marriage; ‘it seems Marin viewed marriage as a ceding of something, whereas so many women – including my own mother, Nella realizes – see it as the only possible form of influence a woman may have. Marriage is supposed to harness love, to increase a woman’s power, Nella supposes. But does it? What is marriage suppose to offer a woman? Is it different today than in 1600s Amsterdam?
How does all the talk of water, a sinking city, drowning, dissolving, freezing canals etc... foreshadow the demise of the Brandts?
What did you think when Nella first realized that Agnes did not have a room in her doll house? Did your opinion on the reason why change as you finished the book?
A Self Guided Tour through the Amsterdam of Nella Brandt from the The Miniaturist
A Perspective of Amsterdam in the late 1600s
To begin, you will walk through some of the most touristy areas of Amsterdam, so watch your belongings! The area is known for pick pockets. However, other than that it is safe and very interesting. Make sure you take time to enjoy the atmosphere, even though it would have been different in Petronella’s time and if you’re going during Covid – much quieter.
Begin the tour on Damrak Bridge (across from Central Station). In the Dutch Golden Age when the Dutch traded the first ever share the trading of shares would occur on this bridge. Petronella lived during this time.
Walk to Zeedijk 15, St. Olafskapel. This building is where shares were allowed to be traded when the weather was bad. As an aside, behind you is one of two remaining wood houses in Amsterdam.
On the left is one of two wooden buildings remaining in Amsterdam.
On the right is St. Olafskerk where VOC shares were traded on rainy days in the 1600s
Walk along St. Olafspoort to Warmoesstraat. Warmoesstraat is the street that Petronella lived on. The exact house is not known but get a feel for the area – though it is much more touristy now than it was back then.
A view towards the Oude Kerk from Warmoesstraat today. Warmoesstraat is where the real Petronella Oortman lived.
Walk east along Warmoesstraat and turn left onto Enge Kerksteeg. At the end of this street you reach the Oude Kerk (Oude Kerksplein). This would be the church the Brandts attended. Notice all the additions to it over time.
Oude Kerk, where the Brandts would have gone to church.
Turn right onto Oude Kerksplein and then walk to Wijdekerksteeg, turning right onto it. At Warmoesstraat turn left and continue walking to Dam Square.
At Dam Square take in the interesting sites. People often come to Amsterdam to feel free of restrictions and there usually are many interesting things to see in this area of the city. Note also that at the east of the square are the two best tourist stores in Amsterdam - in my opinion.
Wander toward the Royal Palace. This was the Stadhuis (townhall) where Johannes was put in jail and tried. Nella would have walked past this to do her shopping on Kalverstraat. It is often open for tours if you are interested in touring it. https://www.paleisamsterdam.nl/en/visit/
The building that was the Stathuis in the mid to late 1600’s but is now the Royal Palace.
From the Palace walk north along Kalverstraat. This is where Petronella would go to get her provisions.
A modern-day view of Kalverstraat where Nella did her shopping and the Miniaturist lived.
Turn right onto Gedempte Begijnensloot and walk through the street past the Amsterdam Museum (there is no street sign so look for the picture below). As you walk down the narrow street notice the symbol of Amsterdam – the Xs on red. This is what would have been marked on the Meerman’s sugar loaves made in Amsterdam.
The entrance to The Amsterdam Museum – walk through it. The area where the door to the orphanage is.
Here you enter a square that is all part of the Amsterdam Museum, turn to the left and walk through the opening. On your right is the former location of Het Kleine Weeshuis (see photo above). This building was an orphanage for over 400 years and would have most likely been the location of the orphanage discussed in the book.
Follow the path ahead until you reach Gedempte Begijnensloot again. Turn right and continue on the path. When you reach a set of gates enter the Begijnhof.
This is an aside and nothing to do with the book, but you are so close you should see it. The Begijnhof was set up to provide housing for woman who needed refuge. In Nella’s time costs would have been covered by the church. It is still in use today but I do not know who covers the costs.
The Black Wood House in here is the other remaining wooden house in Amsterdam.
The Begijnhof entrance you would walk through. Right now, during Covid times, it is locked.
Walk past the wood house into the little walkway and out the other side - pay attention to the old tiles in the walkway.
If it is appropriate to take a break for lunch I recommend walking over to Restaurant Haesje Claes at Niewezijds Voorburgwal 320 – at the yellow dot on the first map (this is the back entrance so the address is different than on the website). The food is authentic Dutch food. Dutch cooking is not my favourite cooking, but if you are looking to try it out, this is the place to go.
On the other side of the walkway cross Spui and go right to Handboogstraat. Turn onto Handboogstraat. As an aside look for Dampkring Coffeeshop. The Coffee shop and Heiligeweg (the street straight ahead) were in the Ocean’s 12 movie when Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and Matt Damon meet up with Matsui.
Turn right onto Heiligeeg and cross the Singel Canal. Walk straight to the Herengracht and cross the canal turning left immediately on the other side of the canal. On the bridge you cross to get to Herengracht you have a view of The Golden Bend, where Nella lived.
The same view of the Golden Bend on the Herengracht.
One from modern days and the other a painting from 1672 by Gerrit Adriaensz Berckegde. Note the difference in the street when the houses were not very old compared to today.
The Herengracht looking the other direction.
Again, a photo from today and a painting from 1671 to 1672 by Gerrit Adriaensz Berckhegde. Again, look at how the canal has changed over time.
Walk along Herengracht to Nieuwe Spiegelstraat. Look out over the canal to your left. This is referred to as the Golden Bend – de Gouden Bocht, which is the name of The Miniaturist in the Dutch version of the book. This is where the wealthy merchants lived and where Burton situated the Brandt’s house.
You can see hooks at the top of some of the houses. These were to hoist merchandise for storage.
Some of the houses lean forward and this was to aid in hoisting the merchandise.
The taxes in Amsterdam at the time were based on the width of a house. Therefore, the wider a house is the more taxes the owner had to pay. Thus, the reason some are so narrow and tall.
·Turn right onto Nieuwe Spiegelstraat and walk along the street enjoying the scenery. Look for the cow on the roof. There are often bikes covered in flowers on one of the bridges. Continue to the Rijksmuseum. This is where Petronella’s Dollhouse is now on display. You can go in and examine it to its fullest.
Our book club did a tour of the museum based on the book and you can message me if you want the information on the tour guide. I highly recommend the tour. It was perhaps the best museum tour I have ever had. She is also capable of touring you through the rest of the museum.
If you decide not to do the tour but look at the museum on your own, I have a few tips.
Make sure you compare the scenery in the pictures along the canal to today’s scenes you see – as in the photos above.
Given how much Petronella referred to food, examine the paintings that have food in them.
After looking at the doll house compare the art work on the walls, the roof, the table setting…to other things you see in the Rijksmuseum. It will give you a feeling of what life was like for the wealthy during Nella’s time.
Another great museum to tour is The Six Collection. It is a free museum but you have to reserve a place in advance and sometimes many months in advance. However, this museum gives a good idea of what a canal house of the 1600 and 1700s was like. In addition, my favourite Rembrandt painting is there. Jan Six was a friend of Rembrandt and knew he needed money. He commissioned Rembrandt to paint his portrait but gave Rembrandt no advice on how to do it. Thus, Rembrandt was able to paint the portrait as he wanted, not as instructed. It is so much more natural than most portraits painted by Rembrandt.
Attached is a PDF of the walking tour if it is easier to use that.
Below is a Book Club Presentation for those who cannot make it to Amsterdam, or who are waiting for Covid to be over but want to travel virtually for now.
I'd like to thank the hubby and my friend Christie for editing my blog. Christie was especially good with the correct Dutch spellings some of which I thouht I knew, but.....