Holland on Ice

Winters are not what they used to be. The last time Amsterdam experienced a serious episode of frost was in February 2012, and that’s when I took the photos. For 10-14 days, temperatures remained well below zero, while canals stayed solidly frozen for at least a week. In Friesland, this cold spell brought about serious hopes that the semi-legendary eleven-city skating race would finally take place. Unfortunately for its fans (and fortunately for everyone else) the frost did not last long enough for that.

Such events used to be more common in the past. From the late Middle Ages to the beginning of the 19th century, Europe went through the Little Ice Age, a period when average temperatures were lower and winters were harsher than they are today. The peak of this phenomenon was at about the same time as the Dutch Golden Age, and we see painters from that period depicting winter landscapes much more frequently than in the following centuries. One of them even specialized in such scenes: Hendrick Avercamp, an artist from Kampen who was active in the first half of the 17th century.

A cold winter could have serious consequences for the city, and for the country as a whole. Amsterdam depended on a constant supply of goods from the outside to be able to keep functioning normally: basic food, fuel, and even drinking water were brought by barges from the surrounding countryside. When canals were frozen, these deliveries had to be done by land, a much more difficult (and more expensive) method. The event would also bring to a standstill trade, the central engine of the Dutch economy. Moreover, it left the country vulnerable to external attacks: in 1795 winter was particularly harsh, and the invading French army managed to capture the Dutch fleet simply by sending the infantry on ice, all the way to the ships anchored near Den Helder. However, if the cold lasted only a few days, people usually took advantage of it pretty much as we do today: enjoying a few hours outside, skating and playing on ice, as we can see from Avercamp’s paintings.

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