The Utrecht monuments through the eyes of an ‘impostor’

‘Cavernous and cold, and at any rate a spot totally unsuitable for study.’ These are the words Joannes Jacobus Franciscus Wap (1806-1880) used in De Stad Utrecht (1859-1860) to describe the city library which was housed until 1820 in the choir of the Janskerk (St. John’s Church). In that year the ‘sombre choir was avoided’ and the collection moved to the rooms in the former palace of king Louis Napoleon at the Wittevrouwenstraat. According to Wap a large step forwards and Utrecht ‘may be proud to own such a library and to show it to the world of learning that comes to visit it, from far and near.’ Favourable words which still hold true for the library that was founded 430 years ago!

Janskerkhof

De stad Utrecht published in 1859/1860 includes a beautiful lithograph of the former chapel in the palace of Louis Napoleon that had recently been added to the library. The book also contains a beautiful picture of the Janskerkhof. This square with St. John’s chapter church in the middle, was a place of relaxation and entertainment for the higher classes, especially in the nineteenth century. From 1838 onwards funfairs were held in the square and after 1840 there was a weekly flower market. The square is dominated by St. John’s chapter church, consecrated in 1054. This church not only played an important role in an ecclesiastical sense but also in the history of the university library. After the city fathers of Utrecht converted to the protestant faith in 1580, the buildings and goods of the Roman Catholic institutions were confiscated. From 1584 onwards the confiscated books, including numerous manuscripts and incunabula, were housed in the newly founded city library in the choir of the Janskerk. From 1636 this library also functioned as university library which, according to Wap, did not do a very good job until it was moved to the Wittevrouwenstraat.

Into the good books of famous contemporaries

Wap was not a man of unimpeachable conduct. Originally from Rotterdam, Wap was a Roman Catholic and possessed certain character features that allowed him to get into the good books of a considerable number of famous contemporaries, such as the poets Bilderdijk and Chateaubriand, and even crown prince William II. Through the latter’s mediation, Wap, after graduating from the University of Ghent, was engaged as a teacher of Dutch and history at the Royal Military Academy in Breda. Besides his job he published a lot on various subjects. After his resignation from the Military Academy in 1840 he supplemented the personal stipend from the king by writing. Wap was also the founder of the journal Katholikon, which appeared between 1827 and 1830, and later became chief editor of De Noord-Brabander. In 1876 he donated his Bilderdijk collection, as well as the publications of his own hand, to the Maatschappij van Nederlandse Letterkunde (‘Society for Dutch Literature’). A list of the gifts is included in the proceedings of the Society for 1876 and 1877.

‘Windbag, obscurantist and impostor’

The Roman Catholic cause was central to all Wap’s writings. Initially, his point of view shifted from anticlerical Roman Catholic even to fully anti-Catholic. In 1832 he was converted, now expressing his regrets for the negative statements about Roman Catholicism he made earlier. With effective obtrusiveness he then managed, during a visit to Rome in 1837, to be awarded a Roman doctorate through the intercession of Pope Gregory XVI. ‘De paus, die Jan Wap doctoreerde, openbaarde zeer overtuigend zijn menselijke feilbaarheid’ (‘The Pope, by awarding the doctorate in person, very convincingly demonstrated his human fallibility’), according to the later historian L.J. Rogier. All the same, Wap referred to himself as dr. Wap from that time onwards, in spite of the skeptical attitude and mockery of many of his contemporaries, who viewed his sudden conversion with suspicion and denounced his opportunism. He had to live with epithets such as ‘vain windbag’, ‘the most thick-headed obscurantist on God’s earth’ and ‘the greatest impostor in the land’.

A talented writer?

Even if we ignore these qualifications, it is not entirely clear why it was Wap who was asked to write the ‘historical notes’ for De stad Utrecht, an album in large octavo with 26 chromolithographs (including the title page) of remarkable buildings and spots in the city of Utrecht. Although Wap had written about monuments and festivities before, he had no known ties with Utrecht. But whatever he may have been as a person, he cannot be denied certain talents as a writer. Partly because of this the album turned into a reasonably interesting document, although its greatest value must be sought in the illustrations. The lithographs were produced in the Utrecht lithographic printing office of P.W. van de Weijer at the Ganzenmarkt. Some of the lithographs bear the name of the artist, J. Bos. No doubt he is Jan Bos Wzn. (1832-1897) who worked as an etcher, engraver and lithographer in Utrecht. On the binding which was made by the Utrecht bookbinder J. te Kiefte is stamped with the red and white city coat of arms. The album De stad Utrecht was republished as a photomechanical reprint in 1971.

‘Valuable sources of knowledge’

In De stad Utrecht Wap writes about the most important Utrecht monuments, including well-known remarkable buildings and locations, such as the Dom Church and Dom Tower, the city hall, the Pope house, the Vredenburg, the Maliebaan and the city theatre. Also less known building are not forgotten, such as the ‘Bathing Establishment’, ‘the Eye Clinic’ and ‘the Mad House’. In specific explanations, all buildings, squares and markets are put in their historical context. The earlier mentioned ‘Bibliotheek der Hoogeschool’, nowadays the University Library City Centre, gets a favourable description:

‘Dáár, waar eenmaal de vlugge dansreijen rondhuppelden, staan nu zeventig duizend ernstige vertegenwoordigers der stille Wetenschap, […] deftig, maar vrolijk, […] en vrij toeganklijk voor allen, die hen willen naderen en raadplegen over iedere aangelegenheid van den vorschenden geest.’

(‘There, where once gay rows of dancers hopped about we now find seventy thousand solemn representatives of silent Science, […] distinguised, but gay, […] and freely accessible to all who want to approach and consult them about any matters arising in the inquisitive mind.’)

Anyone was allowed to ‘feed upon the valuable sources of knowledge’ so even in the old days the library considered open access of the utmost importance!

Further reading

1859/60
Book
HM (MvE ed.), 2014
Binding 'De stad Utrecht' by Wap, 1859/60
Title page 'De stad Utrecht' by Wap, 1859/60
Lithography Janskerkhof in 'De stad Utrecht' by Wap, 1859/60
Lithography University Library in 'De stad Utrecht' by Wap, 1859/60
Lithography Dom Tower in 'De stad Utrecht' by Wap, 1859/60

Dr. Wap, De stad Utrecht. Album bevattende afbeeldingen harer voornaamste gebouwen en gezigtspunten met historische bijschriften. Utrecht, 1859-1860 (Utrecht UB, MAG: T oct 718 rariora)

  • Binding: Publisher's binding of purple linen with gold and colour stamping, manufactured by J. te Kiefte, bookbinders in Utrecht.
  • Provenance: Registered in the books of the University Library in 1858, evidently by subscription.