What’s in a name? ‘Antwerp’, it was said, derived from the words werpen and hand, meaning ‘throwing’ and ‘hand’. Legend had it that a Roman soldier named Brabo cut off the hand of a giant who stood on the banks of the Scheldt and demanded payment of a toll. Even in its foundation myth, Michael Pye notes in his exhilarating new history of Renaissance Antwerp, the city stood for free trade.
At the city’s height, which for Pye is roughly the first six or seven decades of the 16th century, ‘Antwerp’ meant much more than a mere location. It was a new idea of what a city could be. There were old models, it is true. Was Antwerp a second Venice in the north? The Venetians thought so. ‘There is in Antwerp the trade of the whole world,’ its ambassador wrote home in 1546. Ships from India, Brazil and the Americas came to its quayside up the tidal Scheldt. Goods came in and out of the city – from Germany, the Alps and northern Italy – through the tributaries of the Rhine, or across the North Sea or the Baltic. The Medicis bought their horses here; the king of Sweden shopped for singers and musicians; everyone came for that most precious of commodities, information. If you couldn’t buy it here, where could it be bought?
Perhaps Antwerp was another Rome. The letters SPQA were inscribed, somewhat self-consciously, on a tablet in the city’s new exchange, the Beurs, built in 1532. Visitors had the same notion. Antwerp was a new Rome rising on the Scheldt, the English diplomat Daniel Rogers said while visiting in