What is now the Royal Palace on Dam square was once Amsterdam’s proud overstated city hall, meant to show to the world how important the city was. The building, almost created like a fortress, is certainly worth a visit — the interior is packed with symbolism and interesting stories.
Opened in 1655, this city hall held a myriad of different functions: city administration, exchange bank, prison with torture chambers, court of justice, civic guard quarters. The palace is open to the public (unless there is an official reception going on). Several free audio tours are available for visitors which explain the highlights.
Map of the Palace
The palace has three floors and an attick. Only a part of the palace is normally open to the public. Visitors enter the palace from an entrance on Dam square where a wide staircase takes you up. Once there were two narrow stairways here (easier to defend), but French King Louis Napoleon had the stairs widened when he made the city hall his palace. The impressive Burgerzaal (Citizens’ Hall) is in the center, covering the full height of the building.
The Vierschaar was a tribunal where death sentences were publicly pronounced. A Vierschaar (Foursquare) was an early Germanic form of judiciary, where benches and ropes would create a square space for justice to be handed out by one judge and 9 aldermen, with the defendant in the center. The mayors, seated in the Mayor’s Room, followed the death verdicts through an opening. After the trial the prisoners went to the Justice Room, where they were passed through an opening in the wall to the gallows on Dam square.
On the walls three reliefs: the sentence of Roman council Lucius Junius Brutus, Greek King Zaleucus and biblical King Solomon, representing impartial, compassionate and wise sentences. The large female figures on the wall symbolize Guilt and Remorse. Louis Napoleon used this Vierschaar as a chapel (he had the grim marble sculptures covered with blue curtains).
Burgerzaal (Citizens’ Hall)
In the center of the former town hall is the Burgerzaal (Citizen’s Hall), 25 m (27 yd) high. The Amsterdam town patroness sits above the doorway on the Dam side, flanked by two reliefs symbolizing proper governance. At the far end a statue of Atlas, the heavens on his shoulders. Below him Justice crushing Greed and Envy. The marble floor is inlaid with maps of the eastern and western hemispheres and a map of the northern stars, meant to show Amsterdam as the center of the universe. These maps, the largest in existence, were based on the work of famous cartographers from the 17th century, among them the well-known Blaeu family, who had a shop on Kalverstraat.
- The clock (above the Town Patroness and Peace on the Dam side) is stuck at 11, symbolizing that justice is always possible until the last hour.
- Apollo mediating between fighting cocks above the Petty Affairs room.
- Bankruptcy Room: Icarus falls down, surrounded by rats gnawing at unpaid bills and an empty chest. Rembrandt’s bankruptcy was once handled here.
- The Four Elements above the arches: Earth, Water, Air and Fire.
- Main statues around the Burgerzaal: Peace (east, Dam square side), Prudence (southeast), Justice (northeast), Atlas (west), Vigilance (southwest) and Moderation (northwest).
- The statue of Argus above the mayor’s quarters reminds the patriarchs to remain vigilant.
- Venus and Mars, in the far right hand corner, are the only statues which look at each other directly (Venus was married to Vulcan, but had children with her lover Mars).
- The Aldermen’s Chamber (Schepenzaal) was where normal trials were held, presided by the the bailiff (schout) and nine judges (schepenen). Two afternoons a week were reserved for weddings pronounced here, hence the pigeons and children on the architrave.
Interior Changes by French King Louis Napoleon
Most clocks, Empire furniture and the crystal chandeliers date from when French King of Holland Louis Napoleon resided in the palace around 1808. Each chandelier originally held 12 oil lamps, but they were converted for electric lighting in 1937. The balcony on the Dam square side was also his doing. Despite all the changes which Louis Napoleon had done to the city hall to convert it into his palace, the building is still full of Italian influences.
Photo Gallery: inside the Royal Palace (July & August 2021)
Website of the Royal Palace: https://www.paleisamsterdam.nl/en/
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