Hof van Busleyden in Mechelen is a fine example of the 15th and 16th-century city palace typical of the Low Countries. Over the years, it has had various uses ranging from a stately private residence with lush gardens to an alms house for the poor. Generations of owners have left their mark on it. Today, the city palace houses Museum Hof van Busleyden, named after the very first occupant of the house. Mechelen's prosperous period as the capital of the Burgundian Netherlands is at the forefront once again.
1496 - 1506
In 1496, François van Busleyden, brother and mentor of Hiëronymus van Busleyden, purchases a residence on Koestraat, or present-day Frederik de Merodestraat in Mechelen. At that point, the city is the bustling centre of the Burgundian Empire. The presence of the Burgundian court gives rise to an influx of wealthy nobles and high officials, including François van Busleyden. He purchases a residence in the affluent parish of Saint John's, a prosperous neighbourhood in the shadow of Saint John's Church. After François’ death in 1502, the residence passes to his three brothers: Valerius, Gilles and Hiëronymus. The latter, more than anyone else, will leave his mark on the house.
1506 - 1518
In 1506, humanist and art connoisseur Hiëronymus van Busleyden buys his brothers out. He has just been appointed as a member of the Great Council, the highest judicial body of the time, and needs a residence of his own in which to receive the nobility, humanists and politicians as his guests. His home must radiate not just beauty, but power and prestige.
Shortly after the purchase, he begins extending his city palace with the assistance of the Keldermans, a well-known family of architects. He extends the home to create a building with two main wings, a garden, stables, storage and servants' quarters. Outside, a beautiful open gallery joins the old to the new: it provides a passage from the garden to the inner courtyard thereby connecting the oldest part of the house to the newest.
The building of the new wing is completed in 1508, followed by the creation of the large garden. To achieve this, van Busleyden purchases plots between his residence and Lange Biest, or what is now Sint-Janstraat and the most prestigious street in the neighbourhood. The most public areas of his home can be accessed directly from the newly laid garden. You can walk straight into the dining room or main reception area of the city palace. The rooms take on a more intimate character as you proceed further into the house.
As a humanist, van Busleyden is active in developing an international network and so he is rarely alone. His guests include names that are familiar to us to this day, such as Erasmus and Thomas More. To host them in style, he has furnished at least four guest rooms. The dining room is the beating heart of the humanist city palace, a place where words take centre stage. Little is known about the home's interior design in this period. However, it probably consists of finely crafted furniture, luxurious carpets and refined paintings.
One special space, which can still be visited today, is the hypocaustum. This is a small room next to the dining room to which Hiëronymus likes to retreat for personal conversations with his guests. The room's small size allows easy heating by the fireplace in the larger dining room nearby. Hiëronymus himself employs the word hypocaustum, a Latin term alluding to the Roman method of floor heating.
The highlight of the room are the beautiful murals inspired by Italian works. They depict mythological scenes from antiquity and stories from the Bible. The frescoes were also conversation pieces that would have inspired the lengthy conversations that probably took place there.
In 1517, Hiëronymus van Busleyden dies in Bordeaux while returning from a journey to Spain. It marks the end of an important period for this city palace.
1518 - 1580
In 1518, the city Palace comes into the possession of Jacqueline de Boulogne, widow of Jean Le Sauvage, Grand Chancellor under Charles V. For eighty years, the residence of Hiëronymus van Busleyden remains in the hands of the Le Sauvage family.
However, these are not good times for Mechelen. In 1546 there is the Zandpoort explosion, which reduces a large part of the city to ashes. In 1572 and 1580, the city is pillaged during the Spanish and English Furies. The Burgundian court moves to Brussels, taking many nobles and officials with it.
The Le Sauvage family stops extending the Hof van Busleyden, and largely maintains it as it is.
1589 - 1609
In around 1600, Mechelen returns to life as a religious centre in the Netherlands. The former van Busleyden residence gets new owners in 1589. Karel van Arenberg and Anna van Croy. Both are members of the highest nobility. Karel is Count of Arenberg and Duke of Aarschot, diplomat, admiral and knight of the Golden Fleece. The couple owns several residences and stay in their Mechelen abode only occasionally.
1609 - 1620
In 1609, the Hof van Busleyden changes ownership once again: Jacob van Varick, a member of the Great Council, and his wife Johanna Rovelasca. Unlike their predecessors, they are not of high nobility. They have neither the means nor the necessity to maintain a large residence.
To adapt the house to meet their need for a smaller home, they sell plots on the northern side of the city palace. Ten years after moving in they sell the rest of the property, this time to Wenceslas Cobergher, leading court artist of Archduke and -duchess Albert and Isabella, who has a totally different purpose in mind.
1620 - 1828
The new owner, Wenceslas Cobergher, opens a Mount of Mercy (Berg van Barmhartigheid) in the Hof van Busleyden in 1620. The poor are offered almost interest-free loans in exchange for collateral. Cobergher is the founder of several Mounts of Mercy in the Netherlands, including one in the Gruuthusepaleis in Bruges. An architect by profession, he designs many of these institutions himself.
However, the stately city palace undergoes significant changes: additional security measures are added and more space is needed. Cobergher locates the central pawn shop in a new north wing. The former van Busleyden residence is used as accommodation for the director and staff. The pawnshop will offer low interest rates and relief to the city's poor for several centuries.
Two centuries later, we come across Hof van Busleyden again in the Mechelen city administration: in 1824, the first cadastre of Mechelen is established, essentially a register of all the city’s buildings. It gives us a glimpse of what the city palace looks like at that time.
In the nineteenth century, the city palace still serves as a Mount of Mercy. The pawnshop consists of a lobby, sales hall and storage room. It is heavily secured with wrought-iron grills, passthrough hatches and iron doors.
However, the Mount of Mercy is facing stormy seas and struggling with financial difficulties. To generate additional income, the institution rents out a part of the building and gives it a new purpose. From 1828 onwards, a kindergarten occupies the southern wing, and a music Academy is added in 1869.
In the nineteenth century the city palace is substantially rejuvenated. Like many other cities, Mechelen begins to restore its old buildings and façades. The time arrives in 1879: Hof van Busleyden undergoes a total makeover, although the work is based more on aesthetics than on historical research. The architects add romantic embellishments to the renovations: stepped gables, and onion-shaped tower spire and wooden dormer windows. Although these elements now shape our image of the city palace, they were probably not original to the Hof van Busleyden.
The First World War breaks out in 1914. Heavy shelling between the German and Belgian troops causes a raging fire in the Hof van Busleyden. Most of the building is engulfed in flames. Few authentic elements remain, and often only the walls are left standing. Only the beautiful frescoes in the hypocaustum are preserved. The City of Mechelen places the burned building under supervision to prevent further damage. After the war, it commissions the reconstruction of the Hof van Busleyden under the architect Alfred Minner. For the restoration, he relies on the romanticised 19th-century vision of the building.
The City of Mechelen aims to establish a new city museum in the old city palace to narrate the city's history. The official opening takes place on 31 July 1938. On that day, King Leopold III attends the Hanswijkcavalcade procession and Circumnambulation in Mechelen.
A memorial plaque, under the eastern gate, is still visible today: “This Town House, built in the 16th century by Jeroom Busleyden, a Mount of Mercy in the 17th century, destroyed in 1914, was restored to its former glory with city and state funds and inaugurated as a museum on 31 June 1938 by His Majesty King Leopold III. Mayor Knight Dessain, Chairman of the Public Relief Committee, H. Teugels, Head of the War Damage Service, H. Verhaecht, Architect A. Minner". The city palace also becomes a protected monument in 1938.
2010 - 2018
In the late 1990s, the city administration begins to dream of a renewed Hof van Busleyden. The old city museum no longer meets the needs of a modern audience. Architects David Driesen and Hans Le Compte take charge of the renovation plans. In 2010, the renovations begin.
The city palace is given a new extension: a state-of-the-art exhibition space under the large inner garden. The space is designed to accommodate temporary exhibitions, each requiring a new setup. The spaces in the city palace itself are arranged around a new museum concept inspired by the original layout of a humanist city palace. An art storage space is added, where valuable artworks are preserved under optimal conditions, along with a restoration workshop in the basement.
In 2018, the museum reopens under the name 'Museum Hof van Busleyden’ with a new permanent exhibition and the Call for Justice exhibition. The museum now focuses on the period of the city palace's original resident, Hiëronymus van Busleyden. In the years that follow, the museum welcomes thousands of visitors to the permanent collection, temporary exhibitions, public activities and events.
In March 2022, the museum closes its doors for a large-scale restoration of the building's exterior. In addition to a new roof, the building is given new windows and woodwork. The museum takes the opportunity to redesign and introduce greenery to the gardens. At the same time, the 18th-century corner building, ’t Schipke, vacant for more than 10 years, is converted into a coffee bar for Museum Hof van Busleyden.
In the spring of 2024, Museum Hof van Busleyden can once again reopen its doors, this time with a revised permanent exhibition and a renewed focus on the Burgundian-Habsburg period. The museum welcomes visitors into three unique worlds: that of Margaret of Austria, that of the reclusive Sisters Hospitalliers and that of ... the first resident, Hiëronymus van Busleyden.