The keynote presentation at last night’s Conflagration symposium, commemorating the centennial anniversary of the Great Salem Fire of 1914, was focused on modern urban fires and their impact on firefighting, but I must admit that my mind drifted almost as soon as the speaker introduced one of the earliest fire engineers, the Dutch artist, draughtsman, and all-around urban innovator Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712). Very rarely do my scholarly and local historical worlds intersect, but this was just such a moment, and I also love it when art and science come together–as they do in the work of this Dutch Golden Age Renaissance Man (mixing epochs and metaphors). Apparently Van der Heyden witnessed the burning of Amsterdam’s Old Town Hall when he was a teenager, and this conspicuous conflagration inspired him not only to depict fires and fire-fighting (along with more placid streetscapes) but also to invent the first manual fire engine and (with his brother) an effective leather hose. He professionalized Amsterdam’s volunteer fire companies and wrote and illustrated the first modern fire-fighting manual, Brandspuiten–boek (The Fire Engine Book, 1690). This publication, with its very detailed yet still artistic prints (see below–how great is the dissection image of a house fire!) ensured his influence beyond the Netherlands–along with his fire engine and his street lighting scheme, which served as the western European model until the mid-19th century.
Jan van der Heyden, Dam Square, Amsterdam (with rebuilt town hall on left), c. 1669-70, Kunstmuseum, Basel; Two Wooden Houses in the Goudsbloemstraat Burned 25 November 1682, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University; The title page of Van der Heyden’s Book (with his title of “Generaale Brandmeesters”, or Fire Warden, of Amsterdam, and two illustrations: Sectional View of an Amsterdam House on Fire, and Rope and Tar Fire, 1690, Metropolitan Museum of Art