In Search of Utopia

Peter Morrell goes on his own voyage of discovery to Leuven in Flanders where Sir Thomas More had his seminal book Utopia printed 500 years ago

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Sir Thomas More was a statesman, philosopher and humanist who featured heavily in British history. Born in London in 1478 one of More’s greatest achievements was the publication of his book Utopia, a mythical island where the inhabitants had created the perfect society.

He started to write the book in 1615 while an envoy in Antwerp and the book was finally printed in 1616 under the editorship of Erasmus in Leuven.

To celebrate the publication of the book Leuven has created a whole series of exhibitions and events related to Utopia. I recently visited the city for the opening of the exhibition ‘In Search of Utopia’ at the M Museum and to see many of the peripheral themes related to the celebration of a Utopia’s anniversary.

Getting to Leuven is simple, Eurostar from St Pancras will whisk you comfortably to Brussels Midi station in under two hours. With all border checks completed in London a simple change of train will have you in Leuven within an hour.

The city itself is charming, cobbled streets and squares give it a medieval atmosphere and this is reinforced by the delicate lace-like facade of city hall which dates back to 1448. Sitting across Grote Markt, the main market square, is St. Peter’s church, the city’s cathedral. The building, started in 1425, was severely damaged in both world wars but is now fully restored.

The chancel and ambulatory of the church were turned into a museum in 1998 and contain numerous fascinating sculptures and artworks. One of its most prized exhibits is the exquisitely beautiful painting of The Last Supper by the Flemish Primitive artist Dirk Bouts.

My first evening in the city was spend literally sampling one of the Utopia themed events. Six restaurants have collaborated to create ‘More on the Menu’. This is to commemorate the fact that two years before the publication of Utopia ‘A notabel boecxken van cokeryen’ – A Notable Little Cookery Book, was printed, the first ever cookbook written in Fleming. Recipes from this book have inspired a range of dishes created from the ingredients available 500 years ago, potatoes and tomatoes would not appear for another century so do not feature.

My first ‘More on the Menu’ experience was at the Zarza restaurant, we learnt that pickling and preserving was a key aspect of the cuisine. This method of food preservation was achieved with vinegar and verjuice, the juice of unripened grapes. The other notable ingredients were spices, recently arrived from the far east. The addition of cardamom, cloves and cinnamon was a way for people to show off their wealth. As we were in Leuven, home of Stella Artois and the brewing centre for Leffe Abbaye ale, beer was our food companion, ranging from champagne like to dark and complex.

Before visiting the Utopia exhibition I visited the Library of the Catholic University of Leuven on Ladeuzeplein. The architecture of the building is breathtaking but it’s actually had to be rebuilt twice in the last 100 years after being destroyed like the cathedral in the two World Wars. The library is the location for the exhibition Utopia and More. You are guided through the life of More and the utopian literary world. There are original manuscripts, letters, old prints and all kinds of curiosities including a relic of More’s vertebra

The island of Utopia never existed except in the mind of Thomas More. To read his Utopia is to enjoy his literary genius. He described the island in great detail, as though it really existed. This dream world bore revolutionary ideas such as a six-hour working day, enough of everything for everyone and the right to supreme happiness. Thomas More also depicted the other side of the dream world, however, with strict control, no privacy and severe punishments for dissidents.

Thomas More inspired scientists and authors to think about the ideal society, giving rise to a new literary genre of utopian literature. Through books and film this exhibition transports you to this fascinating imaginary world.

A few minutes walk away from the library is the main attraction, In Search of Utopia, at the M-Museum. Curator Jan van der Stock and his team have been working since 2009 gathering together more than 80 masterpieces from around the world.

The desire and search for Utopia resulted in a creative wave of painting, tapestry weaving, map making and the development of scientific instruments. All the great masters of Thomas More’s day are represented by their most famous works. In Search of Utopia is a unique opportunity to see the best of Quinten Metsys, Jan Gossaert, Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein and many others. There have been loans made from the collections of Her Majesty the Queen and the National Gallery and many other museums.

The exhibition is divided into four distinct segments Firstly ‘Utopia by Thomas More’. Here are paintings of More’s fellow travellers like Desiderius Erasmus and Pieter Gilis who subscribed to his Utopian view. The next segment is ‘Dream Worlds’ here we find the imagined perfect world being juxtaposed with dystopia, the failures that come while seeking an idyllic world.

The third segment ‘Beyond the Horizon’ celebrates Utopia marking a period of intense innovation and voyages of discovery to new worlds. Artists were fuelled by curiosity and their creativity was invigorated like never before. The final section is ‘The Universe in your Hand’,the desire for the ideal world was given new dimensions in art. People wanted to understand the universe and eternity better, not merely to believe. Leuven became a leading city for the production of astronomical instruments, for example armillary spheres and astrolabes.

Amongst all the exhibits I was particularly taken by a massive tapestry from Portugal, the collection of Armillaries and the headline image for the exhibition, a portrait of a young Danish princess with an armillary from our National Gallery. This was a most stimulating exhibition, the curation is excellent and the works are impressive.

Another strand to the Utopia celebrations in Leuven is called Tracing the Future. One facet of this is an exhibition at M by the artist Yto Barrada where she explores the identity of Morocco through the media of film, photographs and sculpture.

With three exhibitions under my belt I had a brief rest at my hotel, the Penta which was only a few steps away from the exhibition locations. The Penta has a boutique feel to it with plenty of contemporary art in both the public areas and the bedrooms.

Time for another ‘More on the Menu, at Het Land aan de Overkant restaurant. Here I enjoyed the beer and themed food featuring pigeon with rye bread, a leg of pheasant, monkfish and wild duck. All of these dishes would have been familiar to More.

On my last day I continued ‘Tracing the Future’, starting by watching a film called ‘Medium Earth’ produced the London based Otolith Group. The next was an installation in the municipal park of wooden structures that bridged the divide between public space and the private gardens that backed onto the park.

The next two exhibits were housed in KADOC, a literary research centre. One featured an Ursula Biemann and Paulo Tavares’ film Forest Law about the challenges to bio-diversity in the Amazon basin and the World premiere of a fascinating film ‘Münster’ by Martin Le Chevallier about the trials of the Anabapists in 1533. Last stop was was an exhibition about miners and dockers by Allan Sekula in the old Anatomical Theatre next to the Botanical Gardens.

After an excellent modern Italian lunch in Baracca my Utopian journey had come to an end. What I had discovered was that Sir Thomas More’s view of his ideal life aligned more with a monastic lifestyle than a hedonistic one that most people imagine.

This had been a very rewarding trip. I was impress with Leuven, both with the enormous effort that the City had devoted to the Utopia celebrations and the fact that even without them it offers very good food with lots of cultural interest and is conveniently located as a long weekend destination.

Useful Information

The Utopia Program of Events

Visiting Leuven

Visiting Flanders