After its hugely popular “Rodin” exhibition – it is “Rodin-year” – the Groninger museum now gives visitors an impression of what it was like, to be rich in Groningen. Not from the early middle-ages to the 21st century, but mainly during the 17th and 18th century.
The museum’s post-modernist main building lies opposite Groningen’s central station. Alessandro Mendini, Michele de Lucchi, Philippe Starck and others were involved in its creation. On entering this building, one finds the museum’s shop on the left and the café on the right. Ticket obtained, descend the wonderful staircase. Once downstairs, the exhibition “Rich in Groningen” is straight ahead.
In the first room, engravings, drawings, paintings of Groninger borgs line the wall. A borg usually started life as a strong-hold and developed into a manor house. Some of the borgs still have a keep. Through the ages, some families owning such strongholds enlarged them. Others had everything pulled down and replaced by something “modern”.
This room also illustrates the fate of many of the borgs. During the 19th and early 20th century, the houses became too expensive to maintain. Owners sold the dilapidated buildings, which were destroyed. In the middle of this room, sculptures and other remnants are exhibited.
The exhibition’s ten rooms give an impression of how the well-heeled lived. The first part focuses on the Groninger gentry, the rich landowners. The second part focuses on life in Groningen town. Groningen being both the name of this Dutch province and the province’s capital.
As elsewhere, arranged marriages were used to ensure wealth, lands, manorial rights, money increased as well as remained in the family. Some families started with owning one Borg, but soon owned two or more. There are portraits of women who married – or were forced to marry – uncles, nephews, cousins.
The tomb with elaborate effigy, commissioned by Anna van Ewsum and created by Rombout Verhulst is quite stunning. The exhibition shows a photo and a statue which was once part of the effigy. The tomb was built in honour of Anna’s first husband. She married a distant relation of her him. When her second husband died, Anna replaced one of the carved putti with a statue of her second husband.
Groningen not just boasted complicated family relations. Its complicated history ensured different sets of laws existed in country and town. The landed gentry regularly had business in town (or even further abroad). To ensure they stayed in town in style, they usually owned a town “palace” as well.
The upper-classes partly consisted landed gentry owning estates in the “ommelanden” (literally meaning surrounding lands). The town’s wealthy burghers owned impressive town houses too. “Townies” and gentry lived very similar lives. Through marriage, inheritance, or by simply buying estates from impoverished gentry, wealthy burghers soon ended up owning one – or two or more – borgs as well.
The province may have been a long way from say Amsterdam, London, Paris, the German and Italian courts … Its upper-classes were not isolated. They followed the latest 17th or 18th century fashion, decorative tastes and landscape design trends.
The exhibition ends with an impression of what one room of one town house looked like. Here, original ceiling and wall paintings manage to impress and stun modern-day visitors. Yet the room only shows the paintings; not the rich carpets, statues, elaborate fire-place, silver-ware on carved table, oak chairs and other furniture.
The paintings were created by Hermannus Collenius. To honour the lady of the house, he chose scenes from stories by Livius. Stories in which women played an important role.
When this room was modernized during the early 20th century, the paintings were sold and some ended up with American collectors. After an exhibition on Hermannus Collenius, the Groninger museum managed to buy the paintings, though four remain missing.
The quality of these paintings as much in the exhibition, impresses. However, there are also portraits by lesser, local artists. Most exhibits are from the museum’s own collection.
From the 19th century onward, art and family possessions were donated to the museum. In fact, the museum now owns the Menkemaborg. This period home with its sprawling gardens, is one of several Groninger stately homes which can be visited.
If a visit to “Rich in Groningen” whetted your appetite there are two borg-hotels: the Ennemaborg and Weltevreden. Apart from the Menkemaborg, a few borgs can also be visited. Other borgs are not open to the public though some have opened their grounds. To plan your own borg-tour in Groningen, contact the Groninger tourist information office.