Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Book in Hand – Vermeer’s Hat

I’ve just finished reading a fascinating, entertaining, and enlightening book: Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World, by Timothy Brook (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008). Dr. Brook, Principal of St. John's College and Professor in Department of History at the University of British Columbia, has devised a delightful means of exploring and explaining the surge in global travel and trade in the 17th century.In the several chapters that comprise his narrative, Dr. Brook identifies common objects that may be seen in several of the paintings of Delft artist Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), reveals how these objects came to be part of everyday life in 17th-century Delft, and examines how their creation, import, and use transformed trade, tradition, and human relationships around the world, not only at the time, but for our lives today, as well.
Among the objects he brings to our attention are the beaver hat of the title, as seen in Officer and a Laughing Girl (ca. 1658; click here to see an image) and silver coins weighed in a scale, as seen in Woman Holding a Balance (ca. 1664; click here to see an image). Other items or activities brought forward for our consideration include tobacco, porcelain, maps and map-making, and exploration itself.
In exploring the means by which these objects and commodities were discovered, obtained, and traded, and examining the extent to which they became part of everyday life, particularly in Delft, Dr. Brook weaves a tale of adventure, intrigue, piracy, politicking, material desire, racial and social prejudice, ambition, and greed, all set within the expansive and expanding world of the 16th and 17th centuries.
In his examination of A View of Delft (1660 or 1661; click here to see an image), where several boats of varying sorts crowd the riverbank, and the headquarters of the Dutch East India trading company dominates the skyline, Brook helps readers to understand the enormous role that trade, specifically global trade, played in the everyday lives of Delft's citizens.
Though the story starts in Delft, where Vermeer made his home, we necessarily visit North American and Canada, where we learn through first-hand accounts how the European demand for beaver pelts (from which the luxurious felt hats were made) led to the devastation of indigenous people and the ultimate domination of the continent by European-born explorers and country-builders. We also travel back and forth from China, whence Dutch traders brought back samples of the exquisite porcelain ware that sparked a craze for similar goods across northern Europe. That “Delftware” on your sideboard has a long and fascinating history!
Dr. Brook also takes us to Argentina (the “land of silver”), where Europeans took control of silver-rich land and imported slaves from Africa to bring the plentiful precious metal out of the earth. Much of the silver ended up in China, where it was traded for the porcelains, silks, and other goods so much in demand in Europe. Because the Chinese valued silver more than gold, the Europeans realized huge profits on their silver operations.
Dr. Brook spins these tales with an engaging, informed, but never pedantic voice. As he is primarily a scholar of Chinese history, he brings deep understanding to his explanation of the developments, influences, products, and people of that China and its neighbors. Too often, it seems, our studies of European explorations during this period focus on European interests and outcomes; this book brought a welcome balance. Though I was familiar with the broad outlines of much of the content covered here, I found myself continually surprised and delighted with the many serendipitous discoveries Dr. Brook shares, and grateful for the new understanding I developed for this important part of our history.
I’ll be recommending Vermeer’s Hat to our book group. Later this week, I’ll learn what they thought of Mark Helprin’s Freddy and Fredericka (read my review here), which was my choice for our October discussion-meeting.
An interview with Timothy Brook may be heard at:
http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2008/02/brook_on_vermee.html
I haven't yet listened to this podcast.

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