h2g2 Literary Corner: In Bruges

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In Bruges

Ed. Note: Have you seen that lighthearted comedy about hitmen on holiday, In Bruges? Then you'll enjoy this week's literary specimen. It's an awesome travel book called Old Time Travel. Sounds cool, right? You know what's cooler? The copyright date: 19-aught-bloomin'-3, man, as Colin Farrell would say. In other words, you get a bargain here. Somebody in 1903 is comparing a European tourist site – oh, say, Bruges   – in the 1860s with their present, 1903. And you can go there and compare it all with 2017. Is that cool, or what?

So here, without future ado, is what they had to say about Bruges in 1903. Enjoy.

Bleepin' Bruges, Man

Bruges around 1900.

Now Schowen is one of the forgotten spots of history.

One might almost say the same of Bruges, for if not forgotten it is neglected. The solitude
struck the poetical imagination of Southey when he visited it in 1815, and then it had been waking up to the echoes of the war. "Bruges is, without exception, the most striking place I ever visited, though it owes nothing to situation. It seems to have remained in the same state for some two hundred years; nothing has been added, and hardly anything gone to decay. . . . The air of antiquity and perfect preservation is such that it carries you back to the age of the Tudors or of Froissart."

So it was when I first saw it: so it is, and so it is likely to remain1. There are English who have seen a great deal too much of it2, for it has always been an asylum for impecunious respectability3. It has become what Boulogne used to be to the spendthrifts and prodigals of the Regency4. And perhaps it is natural that half-pay officers and superannuated5 civilians should be indifferent to the sentiment of the picturesque stagnation and the faded memories of the past6. But if, like Mr Tupman, you are disgusted with the world and in search of a temporary retreat, I know no more eligible place than Bruges. There is an English club, where you can hold converse with your countrymen7 . If you tire of solitude, and care to break the seclusion, there is Brussels on the one side and Ostend on the other, both within easy reach. But the venerable mart of the Middle Ages is rich in a variety of interests, and in Longfellow's Belfry of Bruges8 you have the most eloquent of historical guides. I was primed with Longfellow when I first stopped there, and there for the first time I was entranced with the Belgian chimes. So strong was the solemn and suggestive impression that it was rather a pleasure to lie awake and listen. The first stranger I came across in the salon of the Flandre was an English artist, engaged to restore the paintings of the Chapel of the Holy Blood9. He had explored each nook and corner in the town, and guided me to all that was best worth seeing. The mysterious Memlinc10 is enshrined in the Hospital of St John, and his memorial is the Shrine of St Ursula. Mysterious, for like Melchizedek11, no one can say where he was born, or where he died, and even the dates of the time of his flourishing are doubtful. I was fortunate in an appreciative critic to indicate the exuberant richness of his fancy and interpret the meaning and inexhaustible charm of his work12. The worst was that even the Van Eyks paled after him; he made the "Adoration of the Lamb," in St Bavon of Ghent, something of a disappointment: and the Meisters Stephen and Wilhelm of Cologne seemed only to touch the grotesque or the ridiculous. Memline's work on the shrine, and the admirable triptychs on the walls present the strangest contrasts. The backgrounds and what one may call the "properties" are purely Flemish; he fills in the backgrounds with Flemish buildings13, and dresses his virgins and British warriors in the costumes of his period. But the faces of his saints, angels, and martyrs have the ineffable sweetness of the Raphaels, with nothing of the somewhat insipid monotony of Fra Angelico, and less of Leonardo's simpering sanctity14. I daresay I may be heterodox, but I speak my thoughts15. In the faces, with their infinite variety of expression, you see spiritual life in visible action, and sometimes with a strong underflow of terrestrial passion. And he is daring as Dante or Milton in his conceptions of the incarnate Trinity. As I have dallied for a week at a time in Dresden, in an adoring flirtation with the Madonna di San Sisto, so for a week at least I should scarcely feel dull in Bruges, with the Council Chamber of St John's for a place of resort and meditation.

Ed. Note: And so forth and so on. The author of this delightful tome was Alexander Innes Shand (1832–1907), a Scottish barrister and travel writer. We at the h2g2 Post would love it if you'd take him with you on your next outing. On a handheld device, of course. That way, you can shut him up if he's too boring. Unfortunately, there's no audiobook version, otherwise I'd suggest using him on headphones like those self-guided tours.

The Literary Corner Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

16.01.17 Front Page

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1Especially with Colin Farrell as tourist guide.2And Irish actors.3And hitmen.4Told you.5Isn't it amazing how PC they were in 1903? 'Superannuated', indeed.6The Tourist Board would take exception to this. Their boats have motors, we notice.7Reluctance to learn foreign languages was widespread, even then.8Longfellow was not overweight, so we assumed he climbed the belfry.9Which houses a vial of (allegedly) Jesus' blood, the subject of an annual Ascension Day parade and festival which is protected by UNESCO. (The event is protected.)10Still mysterious, Hans Memling (1430-1494) is easier to google if they bother to spell his name right. I got a lot of bad hits. However, the search was worth it: Memling was a German painter who moved to Bruges and became a citizen. People love to study his religious paintings, but not because of their religious messages. (Wait for it.) It's his carpets, you see. Memling painted these gorgeous Armenian carpets. The patterns have been copied. Buy a Memling carpet for your loved one.11And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. – Genesis 14:8.12And admire the carpets.13And carpets.14That's Leonardo told.15You would have loved the internet, Binky.

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