“Che-bel-vivere!” Willy Retsin, a true Bruggeling and professional provocateur, is comparing and contrasting opera across a host of different languages. “You see, it must come from the throat,” he exclaims. “One cannot sing with the lips!” Then he’s off, running into the house to bring back yet another Cuban artefact, old book or prop, again dodging my questions with the sprightliness of a man half his age.
An introduction into Bruges’ hidden world of freemasons, symbolist art and gothic poetry
Retsin is as mercurial as he is intriguing. Everyone in Bruges knows “Willy” and many a city guide now includes on their tours his huge house-cum-museum, The Lucifernum. Accounts abound of his townhouse being opened for wild evenings of music, dancing, drinking and smoking – in rooms strewn with religious icons, grotesque statues and portraits of topless saints, with two black Dobermans howling outside. As for the locals, some talk about the strange converted animal ambulance he drives around town, others grumble about unauthorised, artistic interventions in public spaces.
But things are changing. Closed on Saturday evening, The Lucifernum now opens only on Sundays. Where before revellers and musicians cavorted, now Retsin’s gentle, Peruvian wife serves paellas. The emphasis is now on the Retsin house and its history.
“I want to make the museum more accessible,” says Retsin, throwing on lights and dusting furniture in a wing that has only recently been opened to the public. “This was a Masonic lodge at the time of Napoleon, until it was abandoned by the masons after my ancestor’s death. I’ve restored it to its original state.”
Retsin’s stories are best taken with a pinch of salt. He says that his ancestor, Dr. August Retsin, was a famous 19th-century doctor in Bruges, as well as a freemason detested by the local church, and the first to experiment medically with Cannabis Sativa. He was succeeded as a freemason by his son, Franz Retsin.
Another family member was supposedly the first European to experiment with anaesthetic chloroform. As for the present day Retsins, Gilbert is an artist in Blankenburge, whose work appears in the museum. Willy, born in the 1940s, is said to have become a cloth tradesmen after studying languages, worked shipping routes in Central America.
Yet the historical significance of the museum as a Masonic Lodge is not immediately apparent. If this is where the freemasons of Bruges used to meet, its present décor, with paintings covering the walls and all manner of objects in the room, is more a symbolist fantasy of mystery, death and decadence.
Particularly memorable is a painting showing a sailor screaming in front of a violent sea, or one featuring a masked gentleman against a swirling absinthe-green sky, or yet another where a woman stands in mist while a monkey deals playing cards at her feet.
“It was my ancestor Giles who painted these,” explains Retsin. If the dates (1851 to 1929) correspond to the paintings’ dreamy symbolist aesthetic, they are, nonetheless, hard to reconcile with the appearance in numerous paintings of a stern and elegant Willy Retsin lookalike.
Not to be outdone, Retsin returns producing a manuscript-style book, illustrated with the same haunting paintings. “When we cleared out the library, we found an unpublished poem that had been sent to my ancestor by the great American poet Edgar Allan Poe,” he says, emphasising the gothic witer’s name in a rasping, operatic crescendo. The rest of his ancestors’ correspondence, says Retsin, was stolen by the bishop of Bruges and the “Retsin papers” are still kept in the bishopric palace.
“The poem was probably written under the influence of delirium tremens and Cannabis Indica between 1847 and the poet’s death in 1849,” he explains. “I’m looking for an editor.” Retsin’s colourful introduction to the poem describes how Poe died “a madman bitten by a werewolf or a rabid dog.”
The poem is a roller-coaster love story in the gothic style: from otherworldly love – “Reckless Love, a Glow unknown so far upon to Heaven's Door, became our Part” – to tragic loss, suicide and Judgment Day – “To late Trespassers, hear the bony Finger knocking on your Door, it's Mister Blackjack, Death's Messenger, calling you, the Rich and Poor”.
Perhaps this is a long lost poem of Poe's, though maybe it’s not. But who cares? When Retsin bellows out these lines in rasping, theatrical voice, dressed in a black suit and top-hat in the company of tortured paintings, the question seems academic.
For Retsin, you sense, prefers the world of fiction to the world of fact. And like a latter-day and gothic Don Quixote, he forcefully imposes this mysterious and highly personal world – with its echoes of freemasonry, of North Coast Belgian symbolism, of empire and pre-Castro Cuba – onto the humdrum of modern-day Bruges life.