Discover the rich history of Bruges at Gruuthuse Palace!

In recent years many visitors to Bruges were disappointed to find the Gruuthuse Palace closed. Today the building has been completely restored. The Gruuthuse Museum that it houses paints a splendid picture of life in Bruges over five centuries.

“Originally Gruuthuse Palace was the city palace of Louis or Lodewijk of Gruuthuse. The Gruuthuses were a local noble family that enjoyed a monopoly on the import and sale of gruit, a mixture of herbs that in the Middle Ages was used in the production of beer. This monopoly yielded great wealth and it was with some of this money that Lodewijk of Gruuthuse built Gruuthuse Palace in the 15th century, partly to live in and partly to show off his wealth” says Geert Souvereyns of the Gruuthuse Museum.

“Later the building was used as a Mount of Piety, an institutional pawnbroker's that was run as a charity. People who were hard up could hand in items and redeem them within the year. Items that remained uncollected were put up for auction. The building served this purpose for many years and largely fell into disrepair. It was only towards the end of the 19th century when the eye of Bruges city architect Louis Delacenserie fell onto it that a major renovation was considered.”

VKA

“Remember this was the latter part of the 19th century. The Gothic Revival was well underway. English tourists had discovered Bruges on their trips to visit the battlefield at Waterloo. They found that Bruges was a pleasant staging post on their journey, though much of this trip was made in barges along the canals that had been built to give the ports of Bruges and Ghent access to the sea.”

“Bruges was putting itself back on the international map: medieval buildings were renovated, while new ones, in Gothic Revival style, were built. People could even apply for a renovation grant to spruce up the front of their house. Bruges made an effort to cater for tourists. Museums were opened. Cultural events were staged and historic pageants were held. A local archaeology society was established. Prominent citizens became members but also craftsmen, eager to study the techniques used during the Middle Ages to inspire their new designs. The archaeological society needed a location to display its collection and Gruuthuse Palace was their choice. Louis Delacenserie was Bruges city architect at this time and he got the job of renovating the building.”

“Some of the building is original and we have incorporated items like stones and woodwork into our displays, but much was the work of Louis Delacenserie and his team: neo-Gothic items were added to the front. It may look medieval but much, including the stained glass windows, is neo-Gothic addition.”

The museum had to close five years ago for a root-and-branch renovation of the building. At the same time the concept of the museum was completely rethought. The results are impressive. A range of exhibits from across Bruges allow the museum to tell the very varied story of the city of Bruges and equip the visitor with the knowledge to explore the city.

“Each floor covers a particular period. Using multimedia applications the first room on every floor sets the scene before you move onto the other exhibits. It's the exhibits that tell the story of Bruges. The ground floor concentrates on the 15th and 16th centuries. This is the age when Bruges became rich as a result of international trade. It was a lynchpin in the international trade routes: to England, Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltic, but also to southern Europe. International trading houses had offices in Bruges."

"You can see some of the accounts. Lodewijk of Gruuthuse was a councillor of the Burgundian ruler Philip the Good and was eager to replicate the tournaments and feasts staged at the Burgundian court. He possessed the second largest library in the Burgundian lands with most of the manuscripts eventually ending up in Paris. An important centre of manuscript production in its own right Bruges manuscripts too form part of the collection. Bruges also wanted to project its prosperity. The painting “The Seven Wonders” shows the magnificent public buildings that went up at this time. A prize exhibit is a ten plate copper map of the city that shows the streets and buildings in great detail. In the 1560's it was designed to emphasize that Bruges could still be reached by sea despite the silting up of the Zwin estuary.”

Don't miss a rare portrait of a young Emperor Charles V. Many of the objects from the Burgundian Age have been restored especially for the reopening of Gruuthuse.

“Items created for the Bruges elite keen to show off their wealth form a key part of the collection, but we also want to shed light on the people who created these items. The guilds played a crucial role in the development of Bruges.”

An interesting exhibit is a plate containing all the marks used by all the jewellery smiths active in the city in the 16th century. Bruges weavers too had a special mark that was added to tapestries to guarantee their work lived up to the high standards set by the Bruges guilds. It is unusual to find shoes that have survived from this period, but Gruuthuse has them.

Bruges also fell on hard times when its access to the North Sea, already hampered by the silting of the Zwin estuary, received a devastating blow with the secession of the Northern Netherlands and the loss of the port of Sluis. Governor General of the Hapsburg Netherlands Albert initiated the building of canals to Ostend and Nieuwpoort restoring Bruges' access to the sea.

The 17th and 18th centuries are the focus of exhibits on the first floor. New products are brought in by the Ostend Company. Tea, coffee, tobacco, chocolate, porcelain and silk are available to the wealthy. At one point 40% of Europe's tea imports go via the Ostend Company. It was a thorn in the side of the great powers that took the earliest opportunity to put it out of business.

Video reveals the techniques used by craftsmen in this age. The museum went in search of artisans still active today. At this time 50 different guilds were operating in the city.

New products require new artefacts: coffee pots, hot chocolate pots and snuff boxes. We learn how the daughters of the wealthy used special cards to reserve a dance for their partners at the ball. Wigs become all the vogue, also in Bruges, but it is above all lace that the city is renowned for. A Medici collar from the sixteenth century has survived.

Also on the first floor you will find Lodewijk of Gruuthuse's private chapel. It's directly connected to the neighbouring Church of Our Lady underlining the status of this Lord. All the plaster that collected on the woodwork over the centuries has been taken away, while the wooden planks were all removed, sent to Brussels and restored before they could be refitted.

The upper floor is devoted to the 19th century and the Gothic Revival. Bruges regains direct access to the North Sea via the port of Zeebrugge, while Neo-Gothic craftsmen scrutinise the techniques of medieval glaziers and dressmakers to produce artefacts steeped in tradition.

The Gruuthuse Museum is located on Dijver 17C. It's open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:30AM to 5PM.

An audio guide is included in your ticket. It's available in English, Dutch, French, German, Italian and Spanish as well as in Flemish sign language and international sign language. Unfortunately, the building doesn't have wheel chair access – a tour of the full building will take you up 260 steps – but great efforts have been made to make any visit interesting for the visually impaired. There are items on display especially designed for you to touch and a special descriptive audio guide for the visually impaired is being developed.

Photos: A. Kockartz