DELFT, Netherlands — The inn where Johannes Vermeer was born is long gone, the building replaced by one now with a shuttered computer store. His house and studio were demolished more than a century ago. But Vermeer, the 17th century master, still inhabits the town, much as the town will forever inhabit his work.
In Vermeer's "View From Delft," one of his most famous works, the town's orange tile roofs sparkle in the sun; they still do. The harbor could be mistaken for open sea; it still can. After a three-month stay at the National Gallery in Washington, the painting has returned home to The Hague, about 5 miles north of its namesake.
As the art world is revisiting Vermeer's paintings, people are beginning to reexamine the town. For Delft is where Vermeer rendered mundane objects and the events of day-to-day life in a way that is extraordinarily rich in beauty and significance.
In Vermeer's day, this community was already several hundred years old, a survivor of devastating fires and the plague, and emerging as a trading center for butter and cloth. There also were 200 beer breweries. It was a welcomed period of calm in which trade, arts and the sciences flourished. It was the era when Delftware, a hand-painted blue porcelain, was discovered, the guarantor of future wealth.
But modern Delft feels a bit snubbed. Tens of thousands of people are visiting the Vermeer exhibition at the Mauritshuis, a 17th century palace in The Hague that is one of the great showplaces of Renaissance art. Few, however, make the trek to Vermeer's own town.
Visitors have to take a local train to visit Delft; the express trains speed by. The only obvious homages to the artist are posters of his paintings, hanging in the windows of the Jan Vermeer art school. The tourist office sells a guide booklet that includes an hourlong walk and the sketchy details of his life.
For decades, townspeople thought his childhood home was a three-story row house near the market square, now a porcelain shop. Discreetly inscribed in stone one story up are the words: "Jan Vermeer was born here: 1630." In the 1960s, "Jan" was preferred to "Johannes" because "Johannes" was thought too formal, too establishment.
But that is the wrong site, historians say. His true childhood home is roughly where the shuttered computer store stands, though the town has yet to acknowledge the mistake.
The birth date probably is wrong, too: Historians suggest the artist was born two years later, in 1632.
"They might put up a plaque," says Lya Hendriks, a town historian who leads dozens of visitors on the tours and sees their dismay at the computer store. "They were surprised at how little interest there was. They kept looking in store windows, and there was nothing."
Vermeer's "View From Delft" is the view from where the Schie River branches into two large canals. He changed the location of several buildings to make a more suggestive "view," and his painting was far ahead of its time for its use of colors and shadows to show what experts say is an unprecedented sense of depth.
"The spot gives you a panoramic view of Delft," says Arie Den Hartog, a retired engineer who attended school in Delft two decades ago, standing where Vermeer surely stood.
"You can experience the Delft that Vermeer painted. Sure, a lot of the buildings are gone and it's more modern, but you get the feel of what he saw."