The exact place and date of Pieter Bruegel’s birth are unknown. Karel van Mander, author of the acclaimed Schilder-Boeck of 1604, says that he came from a village near Breda in the province of Brabant and apparently named himself after his birthplace. However, the nearest village in Brabant by the name of Bruegel is about sixty kilometres from Breda. Van Mander also tells us that Bruegel received his training in Antwerp and registered as a master in the painters’ guild in 1551. A year later, he went to Italy and spent some time in Rome. From a sketched view of Reggio Calabria in the museum’s collection, we can deduce that Bruegel travelled to the far south of the country. His journey across the Alps seems to have made a particularly strong impression on him. In any event, he often depicted mountains in his paintings and drawings. Tiny figures in the foreground of many of those works emphasize the vastness of the landscape. They can be seen, for example, in the Mountain Landscape with Mule Caravan.
After returning to Antwerp in about 1555, Bruegel produced several designs for prints, which were published by Hiëronymus Cock. The drawings were transferred to copper plates by engravers of the calibre of Pieter van der Heyden and Philips Galle. The museum possesses a large collection of those prints. Many are compositions with several figures, illustrating biblical, allegorical or moralistic themes. Between 1556 and 1558, Bruegel made a series of design drawings for The Seven Deadly Sins. The museum has only a set of prints of that series. It does, however, possess three of the original design drawings for its counterpart, The Seven Virtues. They date from 1559-1560 and represent Charity, Fortitude and Temperance. At the centre of each sheet is an allegorical female figure surrounded by scenes from everyday life, rather like scenes in a play. They would have looked familiar to Bruegel’s contemporaries, and so enabled them to relate to the narrative. Temperance, for instance, is shown with groups of astrologers and musicians, a choir and a class of schoolchildren, who together stand for the seven liberal arts. Many of Bruegel’s motifs, such as the monstrous figures in Fortitude, are borrowings from the work of Jeroen Bosch. If only for that reason, Bruegel was considered a ‘second Bosch’ even in his own time.
From 1563, the year he moved to Brussels, until his death in 1569, Bruegel concentrated almost exclusively on painting. His best known works date from that period. In 1563, he completed The Construction of the Tower of Babel, which is now at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. His second painting of that subject, executed about five years later, is in Rotterdam. The towers in both paintings were inspired by the architecture of the Colosseum in Rome. In the sixteenth century, the Tower of Babel was a popular subject with Flemish, and particularly Antwerp painters. The biblical story about the confusion of languages in Babylon struck a chord in the busy port of Antwerp, a commercial hub frequented by merchants from different countries. With meticulous precision Bruegel depicted the bustle and commotion in the harbour and on the construction site where work was in progress: more than a thousand small figures can be seen hauling equipment, laying bricks, and loading and unloading building materials.