New gate in the Antwerp citadel - Expo Paris 1867

New gate in the Antwerp citadel at the Exhibition Expo Paris 1867

A few steps away from the equestrian statue of King Leopold I, in the Belgian part of the park, stands an ashlar gateway crowned with two gigantic bronze figures. This low, massive gate is not a triumphal arch, but rather a postern. One feels that, for it to have its true character, it lacks only a drawbridge, clasped to its sides by strong chains. The dark giants sitting on each of its pillars, half-reclining on its arch, are gentle sentinels at rest, two Gauls from the year 57 BC, at the time of the great struggles of Belgium against Caesar and his legionaries. Bare-chested, their hair blowing in the wind, uncultivated and thick as a mane, with a sword in their hand and a stone axe at their side, these companions of Indutiomar and Ambiorix are a good representation of the barbarian warriors who used to strip off their clothes before entering the fray; Keeping only the helmet and the sword, they melted on the enemy cohorts the head first, piercing the lines where they fell, and shaking in the action, like bunches of pygmies, these enraged small Roman soldiers who did not come to their shoulder.

It is not the gate of Berchem, built and inaugurated by Charles V, nor the old gate of Borgerhout on whose pediment is engraved in memory of the comrade of the Duke of Alençon the motto: Auxilium suis Deus, nor even the gate of the Scheldt that Rubens designed and that Artus Quellin was commissioned to execute. Neither the memory of the Duke of Alba, nor that of Louis XIV or even Napoleon can be evoked in honour of this monument. It has no history yet, because it is part of the new line of fortifications that the Belgian government thought it necessary to build, at great expense, to complete the defence of the city of Antwerp, the last rampart, it is said, of the Belgian nationality. This gate was inaugurated last year. The two colossal statues which surmount it are due to two Belgian artists who have already proved their worth, Messrs Armand Cattier and A. Bouré.

The first city wall of Antwerp dates back to the fourteenth century. Several times dismantled during the struggles of the Middle Ages, it was rebuilt in 1542, according to the plans of the Italian engineer Donato Pellizuoli. In 1567, the Duke of Alba had a formidable citadel built to the south of the square, more to keep the citizens of Antwerp at bay than to protect them against attacks from outside. This was the beginning of the Spanish terror in Flanders. There sat the council of troubles, that court of blood, which the worthy lieutenant of Philip II had charged with pacifying the masses. And while in Brussels the Counts of Egmont and Horn went to the scaffold, in Antwerp the burgomaster Antoine Van Strale paid with his head for his devotion to national liberties.

To complete his work, the Duke of Alba erected a bronze group in the Place d'Armes, in which he was represented as trampling on a two-headed body that personified the Flemish nobility and people. They waited until 1577, and when the day of revenge finally dawned, the whole of Antwerp, with one impetus, like a gigantic wave to which nothing resists, rushed to the citadel, and the gates fell before their efforts. Then from all these fevered brains the same thought sprang up: "Rasons la citadelle! "and all, with a savage pleasure of retaliation, attacked those stones, those battlements, those dungeons which had so long made them tremble. Young men and old men, gentlemen and sailors of the port, women and even children, each with his pickaxe, each with his dagger, some armed only with their fingernails, there they were, day and night, without respite, without respite, working to destroy the enemy, and soon there remained of the citadel only an empty square and its bloody memories.

When Napoleon made Antwerp the capital of the Department of the Two-Nethers, he felt that the British government was the heart of all coalitions. So he counted on Antwerp, in his picturesque phrase, being in his hand like a loaded pistol aimed at the heart of England. I have walked through your city," he said to the burgomaster, "and everywhere there is nothing but rubble and ruins, and it hardly resembles a European city. This morning I thought I was in an African city. Everything has to be done... Ports, quays, basins... "And everything was done. The work was carried out with prodigious speed. Five hundred convicts, sent from the Brest prison, were employed to build gigantic quays, immense basins, to raise the fortifications and the citadel, to prepare vast building sites for the construction of warships. By 1814, Antwerp had become the leading military port of the Empire. Fifty ships of the line had left its yards, and the city contained more than three hundred million worth of building materials and munitions of war.

The citadel which remained in Dutch hands in 1830, at the time of the separation of the United Provinces, allowed them to bombard and partially burn the city, to whose rescue the French army commanded by Marshal Gérard came running. The memory of this disaster led to the demolition of the fortifications and the citadel. But despite the complaints of the Antwerp municipality, this decree was not carried out. On the contrary, it is known that a few years ago the Belgian Parliament voted millions to increase the defence works around Antwerp; and eight other citadels, a continuous enclosure of ten kilometres, a huge fortress to the north of the square, were added to the old fortifications.

And yet the Provincial Council, the Municipal Council and the Chamber of Commerce of Antwerp, convinced that a religiously observed neutrality is better for Belgium than bastions and needle guns, do not tire of petitioning every year against these fortified works which, they say, "threaten the city and its maritime establishments. "

©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée