In the forecourt of Düsseldorf’s Rathaus (City Hall) stands a large equestrian monument to Johann Wilhelm II, or Jan Wellem, as he was known. His presence in all its bronze glory speaks to his status as Elector Palatine, ruling over a territory of the Holy Roman Empire, from the then capital of Düsseldorf. Jan Wellem had lofty ambitions for the city, setting out to create a hub for international trade through both political and economic alliances and garner a reputation for cultural excellence.
While he can take credit for much of what was achieved during his twenty-six year rule, credit must also go to the women behind the man.
Jan Wellem was born into a noble family, the eldest of twelve. His six sisters were all married off strategically and he too was expected to marry wisely. His first wife – Archduchess Maria Anna Josepha was the daughter of Ferdinand III, Holy Roman Emperor. She bore him two children but neither survived infancy, and she herself, died of tuberculosis. His second wife, however, was to have a significant impact on his life and his plans for Düsseldorf.
Anna Maria Luisa, was the daughter of Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany and sole remaining heir to the Medici line. Anna Maria Luisa entered Jan Wellem’s court with a legacy of artistic patronage and a healthy dowry that provided a financial windfall for the city. On one level it was to be a highly productive relationship particularly in the cultural sphere. Jan Wellem commissioned the construction of a theatre in her honour and the city’s first Opera House, while she sought out Europe’s finest musicians to perform at court. She promoted artistic exchanges between Florence and Düsseldorf, bringing work by the likes of Raphael and Frederico Berroci to the city and traveled across Europe procuring works for the court. Gabriel Grupello, future creator of Jan Wellem’s equestrian sculpture was welcomed at court during this time and lived close to where his sculpture would one day reside. Under Anna Maria Luisa’s patronage, this period also saw the emergence of artistic guilds who would give depth to the city’s artistic community.
What did not emerge was a child and heir to Jan Wellem and the Medici line – a matter of great concern for all involved, given both the issues of inheritance and the fact that Anna Maria Louisa’s dowry came with an heir clause: if there was no heir, then the dowry must be repaid.
In the shadows of Jan Wellem’s marriage, there was a second women – Dorothea von Velem – Anna Maria Luisa’s Lady in Waiting, and Jan Wellem’s mistress. While she may not have had legal status at court, Dorothea appears to have exerted significant influence over Jan Wellem’s political sphere. It is alleged that Dorothea had strident views on human rights and advocated for religious tolerance and women’s rights. It is suggested that the burgeoning of new churches in the city, including the construction of the first Protestant church and also first Jewish synagogue, was due to her influence.
When Jan Wellem died suddenly at the age of 58, he left behind a city in darkness – his grand visions had resulted in a debt so large that the city could not afford to fill the newly installed oil lanterns that Jan Wellem had envisaged lighting his streets. Despite this, he is remembered as a ruler who laid the foundations for Düsseldorf’s artistic and cultural heritage, who had a vision for a city that could be much more than it was, and who was inspired by two influential and determined women.