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A Brief History of Delft

Delft has more than painterly charm—many great men lived and died here. Toward the end of the 16th century, Prince William of Orange (known as William the Silent) settled in Delft to wage his war against Spanish rule. He never left: the nation's founder was assassinated in his mansion in 1584 by a spy of the Spanish Duke of Alva and buried in the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church). Also buried here is Grotius, the humanist and father of international law. And Delft was home to Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek, who mastered the fledging invention of the microscope and was born the same year as Vermeer, in 1632. Vermeer was just one of many artists who set up shop in the city—which had grown rich with the trade in butter, cloth, beer, and pottery.

Delft's history was often turbulent. In the 17th century, the canal water became tainted, forcing 180 of the 200 resident breweries to close. In 1654, the "Thunderclap," an accidental gunpowder explosion, leveled half the town and killed hundreds. But Delft rebounded thanks to riches it had amassed as the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company. The porcelains their traders brought back from the Far East proved irresistible, and in 1645 De Porceleyne Fles started making and exporting the famous blue-and-white earthenware that soon became known the world over as Delft Blue.

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