At Keizersgracht 123 you can see a beautiful 17th century building on a double canal lot, with six prominent heads on the façade. It is known as Huis met de Hoofden (House with the Heads) and was built in 1622 for Nicolaes Sohier, a rich stocking merchant and art collector, who lived here for 12 years. Although the design of its Renaissance style façade is usually attributed to city architect Hendrick de Keyser (1565-1621), it was most likely completed by his son Pieter de Keyser (1595-1664). The building is a national monument.
No other double canal house in Amsterdam from the early 17th century has such a well-preserved interior, the layout still largely original. It is one of the three remaining houses from that era with a side annex (the other two are The Dolphijn from 1600 at Singel 140 and House Bartolotti from 1617 at Herengracht 170). Since 2017 it is home to the Embassy of the Free Mind, a museum, library and platform for free thinking, inspired by the philosophy of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica collection (Ritman Library).
Front of the Building
Beside the heads, the Renaissance façade ornamnents show stone scrolls, vases, obelisks, lion masks and columns. There is a double doorstep in front of the house (still with its 17th century banisters) and a small gate to the right hand side of the house, which gave access to a corridor which ran to the coach house at the back of the building. Above the gate was a room for the coachman. The style of the house has a distinct resemblance to House Bartolotti, which was also designed by Hendrick de Keyser.
The Six Heads
The earliest official mention as House with the Heads dates from 1715. The house got this name of course because of the six heads on the front — although technically they are not heads but short busts. They are almost 1 m (3.28 ft) high and 50 cm (1.64 ft) wide. They were most likely added by second owner Louis de Geer (1587-1652), a Dutch-Swedish entrepreneur, banker and industrialist, who was also involved in the Swedish slave trade.
The heads depict six Roman gods, three men and three women: Apollo with a laurel wreath (arts), Ceres with ears of grain (agriculture), Mercury with winged helmet (trade), Minerva with plumed helmet (wisdom), Bacchus with a grapevine wreath (wine) and Diana with a half moon (hunting). The heads left and right of the main entrance, Mercury and Minerva, show that De Geer wanted to be seen as a “mercator sapiens”, a trader of both commerce and wisdom.
The pairing of Mercury and Minerva was also symbolic of various art forms. The heads or busts each look in different directions — they are also placed alternating male and female, a feature often used during the Dutch Renaissance. The left side represents morning and afternoon (for trade and activity), the right hand side the evening and night (for study and contemplation).
There was an urban legend, probably from the middle of the 17th century, which told that the six heads belonged to six robbers who tried to enter the building and were killed by the deaf kitchen maid with an axe. As a reward for her courageous action the owner then attached the six robber heads to the gable. Hers is said to have been the missing seventh head on the façade. The story was already dismissed as invented in 1861, as very similar stories circulated in the east of the country.
- 1622 – Nicolaes Sohier (1622-1635).
- 1634 – Louis de Geer (1587-1652).
- 1652 – Laurens de Geer (1614-1666).
- 1656 – Philosopher Jan Amos Komensky (Comenius) was guest of Laurens de Geer until 1670.
- 1746 – Last and 4th generation De Geer in the house.
- 1752 – Anthoni Grill (1705-1783) rents the house from the inheritants between 1752 and 1775. His uncle’s trading house supplied the VOC between 1722 and 1731 with silver for trade in Asia.
- 1779 – Swedish grandnephew Louis de Geer inherits it, but never lived here. His son sells the house.
- 1791 – Diederik van Leyden Gael (1775-1846), former mayor of the city of Leiden.
- 1811 – Art dealer Cornelis Sebille De Roos (1754-1820), big art auctions here. They sold Rembrandt’s Anatomical Lesson to the Dutch state in 1928.
- 1865 – Ownership to the City, public high school (HBS), moved to Keizersgracht 177 in 1869.
- 1869 – Trade school (Openbare Handelsschool), later moved to Raamplein.
- 1907 – Restoration, the later date back extensions removed.
- 1909 – Amsterdam Conservatory and music school.
- 1920 – Commemorative stone placed in honor of Comenius.
- 1931 – Fur trader Aron Heertje (1903-1983).
- 1954 – Remodeled, restoration right hand side gable in the back of the house.
- 1981 – Restoration.
- 1983 – Gemeentelijk Bureau Monumentenzorg (Municipal Bureau of Monument Care).
- 2005 – Bureau Monumenten & Archeologie moves to De Bazel on Vijzelstraat.
- 2006 – Bought by Joost Ritman, interior restoration.
- 2007 – Embassy of the Free Mind (incl. Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica).
- 2019 – Restoration of the façade, family crests of Louis de Geer and his wife Adrienne Gérard on the front (copied from the mantelpiece), a lion in the entrance and a globe on top of the gable.
Nicolaes Sohier (1622-1635)
Nicolaes Sohier (1588-1642) was an extremely wealthy stockings merchant, associated in business with Jacob Jacobsz Bicker (1581-1626), member of the Amsterdam city council in 1625. Sohier was married to Susanna Hellemans, sister of poet and history writer P.C. Hooft’s second wife. He bought double lots on the Keizersgracht in 1621 and had this house built by the De Keyser in 1622. The front and layout of the house are very similar to that of House Bartolotti, owned by Sohier’s brother-in-law Jan Baptista Bartolotti.
Nicolaes had a huge interest in art, music and architecture — he was known for his love of Venetian music, was an active member of the cultural elite in 17th century Amsterdam and owned several paintings by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Shortly after he moved in, his wife and two daughters died. In 1634 he sold the house to arms dealer Louis de Geer. He then moved to his new house, designed by Philips Vingboons, on Herengracht 237 (which was demolished in 1881).
Louis & Laurens de Geer
After 1634, the house was in use by the prominent De Geer family for four generations. Arms dealer and heavy artillery manufacturer Louis de Geer (1587-1652) was the brother-in-law of fellow arms dealer Elias Trip. He established several foundries and copper and iron mines in Sweden, was counselor to Swedish King Gustav II Adolf and arranged several huge loans for him as well. Louis de Geer was exemplary of the huge economic growth and prosperity in the Dutch Republic during the so-called Golden Age — and also of making money without any moral restrictions whatsoever.
A bit further down the street, at Keizersgracht 149, is a house called De Coninck van Sweden (The King of Sweden) from 1621, which has a statue of King Gustav Adolf II of Sweden on the front. Louis de Geer probably lived in that house first, as he had many close business relations with the King of Sweden, whom he also admired.
As one of the main arms dealers in the Dutch Republic, he sold guns to many German Protestant parties, to the Dutch Admiralty and the Dutch East and West Indies Companies, and also to Sweden in the Swedish-Danish conflicts. He made huge profits during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which involved many European countries and was extremely bloody (that conflict had started over Catholic-Protestant clashes but went on to become a geostrategic war between the Austrian and Spanish Habsburgs and the French House of Bourbon).
Shortly after moving in to this house, Louis lost his wife and a daughter. Nevertheless, he was very fond of the house and stipulated in his will that it should always remain in the family. He changed the interior of the house considerably and had a monumental mantelpiece placed, with his family crest on top. In a gallery behind the house he displayed paintings of his Swedish mines — these paintings are now in Sweden. Louis died in 1652, after which his son Laurens (1614-1666) moved into the house.
Supporting Free Thinkers
The De Geer family, themselves having fled religious conflicts and inquisition in Flanders, decided to promote and support free thinkers as much as possible — Amsterdam was considered to be (relatively) tolerant in those days and had become a haven for many so-called dissidents. Louis and his son Laurens made the house a meeting point for them — they both saw money as a means to create social and societal changes. Their lofty esoteric ideals did not hinder them in becoming involved in the slave trade though — Louis in Sweden and Laurens with the WIC (Dutch West India Company). There is a similarity here with the related Trip family, who carefully constructed a public image of themselves as “arms dealers of the peace”.
Louis and Laurens actively supported the publication of many works by dissident writers and philosophers. From 1656 to 1670 they offered hospitality to Czech philosopher and didactic renewer Jan Amos Komensky (Comenius, 1592-1670), who worked here on his book Didactica Magna (Great Didactic), about reform in education, published in Amsterdam in 1657. Louis de Geer also secured a position for him to reform the Swedish educational system. The De Geer family created (probably with Comenius’ help) an extensive 5,000 books library of dissident thinkers, which is now in the city of Norköpping, Sweden.
It’s quite ironic that this family of arms traders became patron to this scholar preaching peace, who wanted all arms melted down to produce bells or musical instruments. Comenius is buried in the family grave of his patron Laurens de Geer in Naarden.
Embassy of the Free Mind
Now that the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica (Ritman Library collection) is in the house, the historical freethinker legacy lives on in the Huis met de Hoofden. In a later post I will cover the Embassy of the Free Mind and the interior of the Huis met de Hoofden.
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