Sunday, October 27, 2013

Travelblog One: Huygens

The Seventeenth Century belonged as much to them as anyone. They were the Huygens family, well placed, well known, well connected and well liked. Constantijn Huygens served Statholder and Prince of Orange Frederick Henry as his personal secretary, which entailed much more than taking notes. Huygens represented the Netherlands in various arenas throughout Europe on the Prince’s behalf. He also was a poet and song writer, an accomplished engineer and amateur architect, and a devoted husband and father. His second son, Christiaan Huygens, was one of the most brilliant human beings to grace the planet – Sir Issac Newton called him the most elegant mathematician of their time. Newton and Huygens carried on an intellectual argument on the nature of light, whether it was a wave or had mass. Today we know sometimes light can be either. Huygens also invented the pendulum clock, perfected the telescope to the point where he could discover that the bulges around the planet Saturn were actually rings, and saw Titan orbiting Saturn, just to name two of his many achievements. He also was one of the first to write a book using science to speculate what alien life forms might look like. Another Huygens, Constantijn Junior, was personal secretary to William of Orange and accompanied his employer in 1688 as William rode the second great Armada across the channel to unseat his father-in-law and become King William III of England. Other great figures owed their gratitude to some degree to the family. Constantijn Sr. oversaw the building of the Mautishuis, designed by Jacob van Campen. It is now one of the most intimate and enjoyable museums in Holland. He also is said to have discovered a struggling artist by the name of Rembrandt van Rijn. The Huygens had friends in England and France even when their country was at war, including John Donne and Rene Descartes. Constantijn was knighted by both the British and the French while Christiaan was one of the founders of the French Academy of Science. The list goes on and on. Their influences can be felt to this very day. They lie beneath another man’s marker, father, mother and son. In fact, exactly where their bodies are buried is not yet certain. There is no way to disturb the massive headstone above the spot where it is assumed they rest without threatening the entire structure that houses them. Such an important family should have had an elaborate, or at least noteworthy mausoleum, and Constantijn designed a memorial plaque to be used for such a structure, but it never happened and no one is sure why. Instead, in the Grote Kerk (Great Church) in den Haag, Constantijn, his wife Suzanna, and his son Christiaan rest together in virtual anonymity. As if they were never here, or as if we choose to ignore the fact of their existence. Plans are in the works to give the Huygens their due respect. But, for now, it was my turn. Annemieke and Erik know my passion for the Huygens. On our very first visit to Holland, they took me to Hofwijk, the summer home Huygens designed and had built in 1642 as a retreat from the pressures of court. When I had learned that the family was buried in the grand cathedral, I expressed my desire to visit their “crypt.” I did not yet know the complicated nature of their burial. Annemieke contacted the church and discovered that I had just missed a wonderful exposition dedicated to the family. But, if I was really interested, the cleric-curator would allow me inside by private appointment. Our first Thursday in Holland, Erik and I took the train to den Haag, then went for the appointment. A gracious and happily informative gentleman guided me to the spot they believe is the Huygens’ resting place. Above them is a massive plaque dedicated to a Frenchman who loved the city and asked to be buried there. His family later requested his body be returned to France for burial in their family plot, but the plaque was too heavy to move and moving it would threaten the very foundation of the massive cathedral. They left me alone to honor the three magnificent people under my feet. I found myself thinking mostly of Suzanna, who died while giving birth to their fifth child. Constantijn never remarried, loving her to the end of his says, fifty years later. His instructions were for his body to be buried with his wife. Christiaan, who never married, joined them six years after his father’s passing. But it was she who anchored her husband’s work and his art, who gave us the elegant mathematician, and who died too young to see it all come into being. Feeling deeply honored to even be there, I thanked them all for the gifts they brought to us, especially the woman behind the men. I took a few pictures of the spot and of the overwhelming, empty church, and of the simple plaque that has been set into the wall near the crypt that says, simply: “Grafplaatz van Constantyn en Christiaan Huygens.” That Suzanna’s name is not on the plaque is somehow fitting.

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