Strolling beside Amsterdam’s oldest canals, where buildings carry dates like 1541 and 1603, it is easy to imagine the city’s prosperity in the 17th century. Replace today’s bicycles and cars with horse-drawn carts, add more barges on the waterways, and this is essentially how Amsterdam must have looked to Rembrandt as he did his rounds of wealthy merchants.
Such musings are not, of course, unprompted. This year, Amsterdam is celebrating the 400th anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth, and it is hard to escape his shadow. His birthplace in Leiden, 20 miles south, has naturally organized its own festivities. But Amsterdam has two advantages: it boasts the world’s largest Rembrandt collection — and tourists like to come here anyway.
True, anniversaries can be pretty corny, but what city resists them? This year, Amsterdam is competing with Salzburg, where Mozart was born 250 years ago, and Aix-en-Provence, where Cézanne died a century ago. A sign in Amsterdam’s tourist office by the Central Station hints at one motive for such occasions: “Buy your Rembrandt products here.”
Still, if you start off by liking Rembrandt, as I do, there is much to discover. For instance, when in Amsterdam I always make a point of paying homage to the Rembrandt masterpieces in the Rijksmuseum, yet until now I had never bothered to visit Rembrandt House, where the painter lived from 1639 until driven out by bankruptcy in 1658. In brief, I had never much connected his art to his person.
Now, at least, I have made a stab at doing so because, for this anniversary (he was born on July 15, 1606), Amsterdam has organized a host of events that offer insights into Rembrandt’s world. They highlight not only what is known about his life, but also the people he painted and the city he lived in from the age of 25 until his death at 63 in 1669.
Although the Rijksmuseum is undergoing a massive renovation through 2009, the museum is not snubbing its favorite son. Throughout the year, in part of the building to be renovated last, it is presenting some 400 paintings and other 17th-century objects representing the Golden Age in which Rembrandt prospered. These include works by Jan Steen, Vermeer and Frans Hals as well as by Rembrandt and his pupils. And they climax with Rembrandt’s largest and best known oil, “The Night Watch,” itself the focus of “Nightwatching,” a light and sound installation by the British movie director and Amsterdam resident, Peter Greenaway.
The arsenal of antibiotics strong enough to squelch nasty bacteria is rapidly dwindling worldwide, which makes worried infectious-disease doctors more intent than ever that the drugs be deployed only when strictly needed.
These specialists know that every antibiotic carries its own risks, and that the more frequently and broadly a drug is used, the more likely it is that harmful microbes will develop tricks to sidestep it. But a team of researchers in the Netherlands, where a more selective use of antibiotics has led to much lower levels of resistant bacteria than are circulating in the United States, thinks the medical finger-waggers have not gone far enough.
"As doctors, we've paid a lot of attention to questions of which antibiotics we should use to treat what sorts of infections, but have focused much less on how long that treatment should last," said Dr. Jan Prins of the Academic Medical Center in Amsterdam.
In a small but provocative study published in the June 10 issue of the British medical journal BMJ, Dr. Prins and colleagues from nine hospitals suggested that even some cases of pneumonia — a potentially life-threatening disease — could be treated with a three-day course of antibiotics, rather than the conventional 7- to 10-day treatment.
The Dutch study analyzed the cure rates of 186 adults who had been hospitalized with mild to moderately severe pneumonia. All received three days of intravenous amoxicillin to start. After that, the 119 who were showing substantial improvement were randomly divided into two groups; about half continued with another five-day course of oral amoxicillin, and the others got look-alike sugar pills. Neither the patients nor the doctors knew who was getting which treatment until the end of their participation in the study.
By the end of treatment, roughly 89 percent of the patients in each group were cured of their lung infections without further intervention. In a commentary accompanying the study, Dr. John Paul, a microbiologist at Sussex County Hospital in Brighton, England, writes that, at least for a subset of patients with uncomplicated, community-acquired pneumonia, the finding "suggests that current guidelines recommending 7-10 days should be revised."
As lead investigator of the Dutch study, Dr. Prins was not ready to go quite that far. He cited the study's small size and the seriousness of the illness as a reason to wait until the finding is independently replicated before advising a wholesale change in practice.