Though often times an overlooked country, it’s true that Belgium contains its fair share of game changers, be it in the cultural, social or political spheres. From historic rulers to leading intellectuals, silver screen stars, and Noble Laureates, read on to discover 13 notable cultural and historic figures whose roots can be traced back to Belgium.
While there was not necessarily a ‘Belgium’ at the time, Emperor Charles V was born in 1500 within Ghent, a Flemish city that was part of the Low Countries. As the heir to three dynasties, Charles V became the most powerful sovereign in the 16th century, as he oversaw an extensive territory including Europe and its colonies. Those interested in discovering more about Charles V and his reign in Brussels can check out the archaeological remnants of the Coudenberg Palace, where the emperor held prominent influence over the building of the site.
Born within Flanders in 1512, Geradus Mercator is famed as a cartographer who developed the first world map to showcase a linear scale to be used for sailing. Mercator’s maps proved advantageous as they steadily became the standard model of how individuals view the world today. Mercator was also the first individual to gather a collection of his maps and create the very first atlas.
Regarded as one of the most influential painters of the Baroque era, Rubens’ iconic style as an artist would garner attention for years to come with masterpieces such as The Massacre Of The Innocents and The Judgement of Paris. Though the famed Flemish painter’s works can be admired around the world, his roots can be traced to Antwerp, where today everyone can visit the his former family home and studio.
Who would have thought that an iconic musical instrument that would revolutionize music and its genres can be attributed to a Belgian inventor? Born in Dinant in 1814, Adolphe Sax would come to hone his craftsmanship for instruments through creating a number of patented prototypes before finding success with the saxophone. Initially intended to be used for classical music, the saxophone picked up steam in the later 19th century and gained international recognition as a quintessential instrument that pioneered the jazz era, before spanning into other musical genres.
As a playwright, essayist and novelist Maurice Maeterlinck was a jack of old trades within the disciplines of literature and theatre. His notable achievements include being the only Belgian to have received the Noble Prize in Literature for his outstanding literary work.
Victor Horta is a renowned architect that delivered significant contributions to the Art Nouveau movement within western architecture. Horta’s beautifully crafted designs incorporated techniques that were stunning for the 19th century, and his architectural vision was envisaged through prominent buildings and townhouses that are still visible to this day. Horta also spent a period of his life dedicated to studying and teaching the style of Art Nouveau within the United States. Some of Horta’s works within Brussels are now distinguished as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Born in Charleroi, Georges Lemaître was a Belgian Catholic priest and physicist who would come to refute Einstein’s theory of relativity and posit what we know today as the ‘Big Bang Theory.’ While serving a religious life and studying physics may seem like a contradiction, Lemaître found a natural connection between the two disciplines to become a leading scientist who would come to revolutionize modern cosmology in the early 20th century.
Considered a profound pioneer of the Jazz era, Jean Reinhardt or simply by the nickname ‘Django,’ is legendary for his mastery of the Spanish guitar. As one of the most important European Jazz musicians, Django’s talent for playing the guitar with two fingers earned him considerable accolades for his performances that are reminiscent of Gypsy culture. This new guitar playing technique had significant influence in developing the musical compositions for Jazz music.
Perhaps one of the most famous Belgian painters, surrealist Magritte would come to take over the world with his fantastic work. Within iconic images from more prominent works such as Son of Man and The Treachery of Images, Magritte is more than bowler hats and pipes as each of his works encompassed purposeful elements and details right down to the title of the work. Individuals can visit an extensive collection of his work at the Magritte Museum in Brussels or head out to the quiet commune of Jette to take a tour through the surrealist’s home.
An influential comic master, Georges Remi or better known as Hergé, was the brains behind the lovable character of Tintin and his pal Snowy. The collective adventure series has been hailed a true ode to the ninth art and put Hergé as a world-renowned comic illustrator. Born in Etterbeek, Hergé’s work can be appreciated at the Comic Strip Center in Brussels, the Hergé Museum in Louvain-la-Neuve and through comic murals, statues and comic book albums about the adventures of the boy detective.
Born in Ixelles, Hepburn launched a career as an iconic actress starring in films such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s and My Fair Lady. She also proved her merit as a talented individual by becoming one of the few individuals to achieve EGOT status (by winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award). Hepburn also dedicated her life to volunteering with charitable organizations, such as UNICEF.
Renowned as an iconic fashion designer, Diane von Fürstenberg’s roots lie within Brussels, Belgium. She began her career composing sample designs before moving to New York in the 1970s, where she would then create her most famous design: the wrap dress. The wrap dress changed the modern contemporary attire for American woman and launched von Fürstenberg’s career into stardom.
Does Stromae truly need any introduction? This Brussels-born artist put Belgium on the map with his catchy beats masking some deep lyrical prose. An anagram for ‘Maestro,’ Stromae has found success as a French musical act even within the Anglophile world, with consistent sold out performances abroad as he steadily introduces the world to the true meaning of Belgitude.