Basel and Erasmus

H.E. Mr. Dominik M. Alder,Ambassador of Switzerland

It is a particular honour for me, not only as the Swiss Ambassador to the Netherlands, but specially as a citizen of the Canton of Basel, to be invited to address you at this year’s Night of Erasmus with some comments about “Basel and Erasmus”.

Previous to my studies at the University of Basel, I have spent my secondary school years at the “Humanistisches Gymnasium” situated at the majestic “Münsterplatz” of Basel, just a stone’s throw away from the Cathedral where Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus is buried. So it will not surprise you that at my school, where Latin and Greek were compulsory, the eminent humanist Erasmus and his activities in Basel had a place of honour in the educational programme.

My hometown and Rotterdam have been tightly linked much before the times of Erasmus. The Rhine River is the geographical and economic umbilical cord between Switzerland and the Netherlands and our only navigable opening to the seas and oceans of the world. Erasmus lived and worked in Basel at three periods: with some interruptions from 1514-1516, regularly from 1521-1529 and finally during the last year of his live. Stefan Zweig once said: "We cannot think of Erasmus without having in mind Basel, and neither can we think of Basel without having in mind Erasmus”. Allow me therefore to call Basel “the other City of Erasmus”.

Also in Basel we are proud to have our “Erasmushaus”, the house where he lived and died; there is a square named after him, the “Erasmusplatz”. A restaurant has chosen his name, and so did even a garage of a car dealer representing two well-known Italian marks, and curiously, a small food shop in the old town owned and run by a Turkish family is called “Erasmus-Lädeli”. In addition, the Basel Tourist office suggests to the visitors of the town a special "Erasmus-walk" with the idea to familiarize them with the buildings and places related to Erasmus. In the “Basler Kunstmuseum” you can admire one of the three portraits of Erasmus which Hans Holbein the younger has painted in oil during his Basel years. Before already, Holbein had illustrated with 75 fascinating pen and ink drawings a copy of the 1515 Basel edition of Erasmus’s probably most popular work: Moriae Encomium, or in English “The Praise of Folly”. You can see it in the “Kupferstichkabinett” of the Kunstmuseum, and it is available today as a facsimile.

Although Erasmus was never teaching at Basel University, its library is very proud of owning a collection of some 850 titles which belonged personally to Erasmus. Among them are handwritten texts from the 15th and 16th century (also many written by himself) as well as precious incunabula dating from before 1500 and prints from the 16th century. Other personal belongings of Erasmus are kept in the Historical Museum of Basel.

In spite of having lived a long and very important period of his active life in Basel, Erasmus never denied his origins and always called himself Erasmus Roterodamus, and never Erasmus Basiliensis. Although he added his origins to his name, Erasmus never wanted to be seen as a citizen of a town or a country, but as a cosmopolitan and citizen of the world, which for him was identical with Europe. Or to use his own terms: “I am a citizen of the world, my homeland is everywhere, or rather I am a foreigner everywhere.” He was the Prince of Humanists and maybe the first real European citizen. It is therefore understandable that the high esteem Basel has for him is still unbroken and alive today.

On the other hand, if I am correctly informed, a poll in Rotterdam 5 years ago showed that many Rotterdammers believed that Erasmus was the designer of their “Erasmusbridge”. This situation has certainly changed a lot since then, as the City of Rotterdam now commemorates Erasmus annually on three occasions:
• on 1st April, the release of "The Praise of Folly" is celebrated, and
• on 28th October his birthday,
• and tonight in the “Nacht van Erasmus” we commemorate for the 3rd time his death and the lasting influence of his work,
and we all are looking forward to the opening of the Erasmus exhibition in the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in November.

What made Basel so attractive to Erasmus? At his times, Basel was already one of the important and well known cities of Europe. Situated at a crossroad of states, languages and confessions, Basel was certainly not comparable to Paris, neither to Vienna or Rome. But let me mention just two major events which contributed to the fame and importance of Basel in the century preceding the arrival of Erasmus. The choice of Basel as initial location for the Ecumenical Council convoked by Pope Martin V. in 1431, reflected the desire among parties seeking reform, to meet outside the territories of the Papacy, the Holy Roman Empire, or the kings of Aragon and France, whose influences the Council hoped to avoid. The Council of Basel was also attended by a certain Enea Silvio Piccolomini, the later Pope Pius II, who in 1460 became the founder of the University of Basel. As a former teacher of the works of the antique writers at the University of Vienna, Piccolomini had an important influence on German humanism. Through its University, Basel became a well-known European centre for the movement of humanism north of the Alps. So the wish of Erasmus to settle down in Basel was most probably motivated by this fact, but also by other, more political and religious considerations. The Swiss way of practicing the democratic rights of participating in political decision-making might have been an important factor for the choice of Erasmus. He was convinced to find something in Switzerland what he was missing to an increasing degree in his country of origin. Equally important for him was certainly also the wish to escape a starting religious persecution in the Low Lands and an expected pressure on him from Charles V to write against Luther. Another basic reason for opting for Basel was certainly the presence of a very flourishing printing industry. Through his connections since 1513 with the famous printer-editor Johannes Froben, Erasmus found himself in Basel to be the central figure of a large circle of Humanists with friends and admirers from all over Europe, from Portugal up to Poland.

During his first period in Basel from 1516 to 1518, Erasmus published with Froben a nine-volume edition of the works of Hieronymus, his favourite church father. Less ambitious editions of other fathers including Irenaeus, Augustinus and Chrysostomos followed in the succeeding eight years. In 1516 his probably most important work of his life was published in Basel: the first edition of the Greek New Testament text. Beside it he placed his own elegant Latin version with critical notes, some as insightful as anything that came later from the Reformers. A second edition followed in 1519 and was hailed with delight by Martin Luther, who used it in making his German Bible translation. The book’s prefatory essay itself was a masterly achievement, as Erasmus set down his alms and hopes. “I could wish,” he declared in lines that became famous, “that every woman might read the Gospel and the Epistles of St. Paul, and that these were translated into each and every language so that they might be read and understood not only by Scots and Irishmen, but also by Turks and Saracens.”

After his very fruitful years in Basel from 1521 to 1529, and with Basel being definitely and officially reformed in 1529, Erasmus gave up his residence there and moved with many other catholic intellectuals to the German town of Freiburg, just 60 km north of Basel. After an absence of six years he came back in 1535 to the happiest of his homes, to Basel, for overviewing the printing of the most important work of this last period, Ecclesiastes, in which he comments on the function of preaching. Here, in the midst of the group of protestant scholars who had long been his truest friends, he died exactly 472 years ago in the house of his late friend Johannes Froben, then property of his son Hieronymus Froben, who honoured him with a reedition of his complete works in nine folio-volumes between 1538 and 1540. In 1543 his works were publicly burned in Milan, together with the works of Luther, and they stayed on the “Index” of the Catholic Church until 1966.

Although Erasmus was a catholic his whole live, protestant Basel honoured him with a burial in its Cathedral, where you still can see the epitaph in Latin on his tomb. I think the City of Basel couldn’t have been showing in a better way its appreciation and esteem for Erasmus, the Prince of Humanists.