Visiting the Egmont Palace, Brussels, Belgium: radiating complex, historical symbolism

Flag of Belgium
Flag of Belgium | Source
Egmont Palace, Brussels
Egmont Palace, Brussels | Source
Egmont Palace, Brussels
Egmont Palace, Brussels | Source
Giovanni Niccolò Servandoni, attributed to Jean-François Gilles Colson, second half of 18th century
Giovanni Niccolò Servandoni, attributed to Jean-François Gilles Colson, second half of 18th century | Source
Leo Tindemans
Leo Tindemans | Source
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks with Belgian Minister Reynders at Egmont Palace in Brussels, Belgium, on April 24, 2013
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks with Belgian Minister Reynders at Egmont Palace in Brussels, Belgium, on April 24, 2013 | Source

Influences in place

Years ago when visiting the neighbouring Square du Petit-Sablon, / Kleine Zavel, Brussels (French: Bruxelles; Dutch: Brussel), with its statue of the Dukes of Egmont and Hoorn, I recall wondering what the neighbouring building was: its looming features behind railings commanding an imposing presence. The building in question is the Egmont Palace (French: Palais d'Egmont; Dutch: Egmontpaleis), the main court of which dates from the 18th century, its Neoclassical design being the work of Giovanni Niccolò Servandoni (1695-1766). In the interior of the building the main entrance staircase is a fine marble construction carried out under Duke Engelbert-Marie d'Arenberg (1).

There were previous structures on the site of the current Egmont Palace, parts of which have survived. One of these buildings was a mansion owned by the Egmont family, but in the 18th century, until the early 20th century, ownership passed to the Arenberg family, prominent nobles of the Habsburg Netherlands. Because Germany and Austria-Hungary were enemies of Belgium in World War One, the Arenbergs relinquished Egmont Palace and ownership passed to the City of Brussels.

However, the City of Brussels eventually decided that it wanted the money that the Palace was worth more than the Palace itself, and in 1964 the property passed to the Belgian state: today the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs uses the building, especially for diplomatic receptions. In the 1970s also, the Egmont Palace gave its name to the Egmont Pact (French: Pacte d'Egmont; Dutch: Egmontpact), the negotiations for which took place in the Palace, while Leo Tindemans (1922-2014) was Belgian Prime Minister. Although not implemented, some of its provisions were eventually adopted via subsequent agreements, marking a stage in the implementation of internal federalism in Belgium. Added to the fact that Belgium has long been a leading proponent of advancing federalism in the European Union, the building has arguably come to represent something of the flair of Belgian negotiators and diplomats for Federalist measures.

Intriguingly, in the history of what is now Belgium, the way in which the Counts of Egmont and Hoorn resisted the influence of the Duke of Alba and the Inquisition during the period of the dominance of Spain on the Continent of Europe resembles somewhat the way in which the strong, Federalist tendency of Belgian foreign policy has in a measure contained the dominance of large countries within the European Union (although no one is accusing European Union members of practices comparable to the Spanish Inquisition!) Similarly, the containment of disproportionate community influences within Belgium itself via internal federalist measures arguably offers hints of the Belgian state's genius for compromise borne of deep-seated practice.

Thus the Palace and its immediate neighbourhood has an absorbing history which in a measure illustrates the relationship between what is now Belgium and the various, historically dominant powers on the Continent of Europe, and recalls Belgium's internal dynamics also. Maybe this, at a deeper level, is what the brooding presence of this historic building at 8, Square du Petit-Sablon / Kleine Zavel is all about.

January 22, 2015

Map location of Brussels, Belgium
Map location of Brussels, Belgium | Source

Note

(1) In considering the fine, marble staircase at the Egmont Palace, I am reminded of words of Léon Daudet about the giant trees in the Bois de la Cambre / Ter Kamerenbos, Brussels: 'No stone, no granite, no marble gives such an impression of solidity and durability comparable with that of these titans' (my translation; Léon Daudet, quoted by Roger Bodart, Soignes, mère de Bruxelles', in: Bruxelles: ville en forme de cœur, Brussels / Paris: Editions Universitaires, 1957, p. p. 107-108.) To continue the analogy, I suppose it could be said that the institutional traditions of Belgium are even more deep-seated than the real estate from which they are practised.

Also worth seeing

The visitor attractions of Brussels are numerous, but a few of these include the Royal Palace and BELvue museum, the Grand' Place, St Michael's Cathedral, the Atomium and the Erasmus House museum, Anderlecht.

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How to get there: Brussels Airlines flies from New York to Brussels Airport (Brussel Nationaal / Bruxelles-National ), from where car rental is available. However, the Metro is a very convenient way of getting around Brussels. Please note that some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. You are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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