Around 1560 Antwerp was a bustling and thriving city. Foreign visitors described it as the 'metropole of the world' and 'the marketplace of the entire universe'. The fine arts flourished. For example twice as many painters as bakers were registered. It was a centre of publishers and printers. The famous printer and publisher Christoffel Plantijn published splendid volumes, among which the first atlases by Abraham Ortelius.
After the iconoclasm of 1566 king Philip II sent his seasoned veteran the duke of Alva to the Netherlands. He crushed all heresy with an iron fist. His arrival heralded the downfall of Antwerp. In a ten year period the population of the city dropped from over a hundred thousand to less than half of that.
The painter Pieter Paul Rubens grew up in a decaying Antwerp. But even he was appalled when he saw his city again in 1608 after an absence of eight years. The decay he had witnissed as a child had reached a dramatic low. It looked like a ghost town. Couches were nowhere to be seen, nor people riding on horseback, there was no sign of any trade going on. The buildings and the streets were still beautiful but deathlike, grass was shooting up everywhere.
These descriptions are found in ´Master of the Shadows´, a fine story about diplomat - painter Rubens and his indefatigable efforts to help end the wars between Spain, England and the Netherlands.