A train track runs through it now. Half the vision is gone. Yet enough remains to take you back in time to the very hub of Holland’s Golden Age, in the summer home of one of its pivotal figures, Constantijn Huygens and his son.
Constantijn Huygens was personal secretary to Frederick Henderik, the Statholder (or governor) of the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Being the personal secretary of such a powerful man meant more than arranging agendas, meetings and state dinners. Huygens himself was a powerful man, with direct influence on the art, architecture and horticulture of the country. Forever busy, with boundless energy, he lived most of the Seventeenth Century and placed his mark everywhere imaginable. He was among the first to recognize and promote the talents of a young painter named Rembrandt van Rijn. He oversaw the construction of the Mauritshuis in Den Haag, home of his employer’s cousin and now one of the foremost museums in Holland. He designed and oversaw the engineering of a long boulevard that stretched from Den Haag through the sand dunes to the coast and the resort village of Scheveningen.
Constantijn Huygens also formed close ties with dozens of important people throughout Europe and championed the Stuart family after Charles I was beheaded in London and the family sought exile. A portrait of him by Rembrandt hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
His crowning achievement was his summer home in Hofwijck, built in 1640. A master of design and proponent of gardens that remove one from the sense of the real world, he created an amazing estate here. Its beauty, charm and uniqueness comes from his concept of depicting the body of a man through the use of all the elements at his disposal. In this way the house, modest in comparison to the garden beneath it, stood for the man’s head. A large pond surrounded the house on three sides, like a head of hair. Then the garden, with carefully placed rows of trees and greenery, created the shoulders, chest, arms, torso and legs. If seen from above it might indeed have looked like Galileo’s Vitruvian Man lying on the ground, relaxing.
Half the gardens are gone, lost to expansion and a railway. But the house still stands, with part of the landscape to lead you there. The house is modest, three stories tall but with small rooms. On the first floor a hostess cheerfully explains the layout, offers to show you a worthwhile video, and has items for sale. Not many, but among them are copies of a volume of poetry. Did I mention that Huygens was also an accomplished poet?
There is also a scale model of what the estate looked like when Huygens and his family spent their summers there. Among the children were two who themselves made a mark on the Seventeenth Century. Constantijn Huygens Jr, would be instrumental in guiding the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the Dutch launched an invasion of England and bloodlessly placed William of Orange on the British throne. It is Christiaan Huygens, however, that brought me to this place the first time.
Christiaan Huygens became a personal hero after I read Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” and discovered a man equal in intelligence to Sir Isaac Newton. Huygens had an endless curiosity and the energy to match. Among his accomplishments he discovered that the rings of Saturn were separate from and not attached to the planet, through a telescope refined from Galileo’s original design; using that telescope, he discovered the moon Titan; he argued (pleasantly) that light acted like a wave while Newton believed light behaved like a particle (they both turned out to be right; light does both); he invented, among other things, the pendulum clock, based on principles discovered by Galileo, to assist sea farers in determining longitude, and the spiral balance spring still used in pocket watches.
With Anton van Leeuwenhoek, and his microscope, Christiaan saw and sketched the spermatozoa of a dog and of a man.
He also wrote a book that argued the high probability that life existed on other worlds, and speculated on the nature of that life – crude science by today’s standards but groundbreaking for the time. He once said, “The world is my country, science my religion.”
On the third floor of the Huygenshuis stands the bedroom where this genius slept, and the workspace where he worked. Among the sparse furnishings is a representative and working model of the actual Huygens pendulum clock. For just a moment, the centuries melt away. Christiaan’s determined face seems to study you, kindly but intently, as the clock ticks in perfect time.