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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World

Timothy Brook has written a fascinating work on the pivotal seventeenth century, one that defies neat categorization. It isn’t a history per se, although it is about a crucial period of history. It isn’t really about economics, but it conveys a considerable amount of economic understanding. Nor is it a work on philosophy, even though philosophical ideas play an important role. Finally, it isn’t a book on art, but great paintings by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) are central to the author’s project.

So, just what is Vermeer’s Hat?

It’s a little bit of everything, organized around several Vermeer paintings. Vermeer’s canvases, Brook points out, don’t merely depict scenes of Dutch life, but also help us understand an era of rapid economic change. There are stories to be teased out of these exquisite paintings, and the author does so brilliantly.

As a young man, Brook was cycling through Holland and had a minor accident in the city of Delft.  A woman who had seen his accident took the scraped, muddied cyclist in for a meal and some rest. Thus began Brook’s fascination with Delft, which soon came to include the paintings of its most famous artist, Vermeer.

The title comes from a painting of a man in a fancy coat and impressively large hat, seated at a sunlit table speaking with a young woman. (It can be seen in The Frick Collection in New York City.) Brook explores various socioeconomic features of the painting, but devotes most of his pages to the hat. How had it come to be? The material was beaver, not an animal native to Holland. Beaver hats had become highly popular due to their durability and fashion, which meant a lot of commerce in beaver pelts. They came through Amsterdam along with a fabulous array of exotic goods that led French philosopher René Descartes to proclaim it “an inventory of the possible.”

At this point, Brook embarks on an extended discussion of the great Dutch trading empire. Before the seventeenth century most commerce was local. Once the Dutch (and a few other seafaring nations) established global trade routes with centers in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, the quantity and variety of goods available increased dramatically. Beaver pelts from North America, spices from tropical islands, porcelain from China, and much, much more became available to consumers at steadily falling prices. Trade enlivened the previously drab existence of most people.

In the seventeenth century, however, trade was beset not only by the frailties of wooden ships and the hazards of weather and navigation but also by violence. Armed ships of the trading nations regularly preyed on cargo vessels of other nations. Naturally, piracy also ate into profits. Officials of the Dutch East India Company, seeking a justification for having seized a Portuguese ship, turned to a young lawyer named Hugo de Groot (now known as Grotius) for a legal brief. What he produced was a document entitled Freedom of the Seas. Brook writes that Grotius made several bold arguments: “The boldest of all is one that no one had thus far thought to make: all people have the right to trade.” Eventually, it became an accepted canon of international law that no government has the right to prevent nationals of other states from using the sea lanes. This principle’s effect on living standards is obvious.

Especially intriguing to Freeman readers will be Brook’s chapter on money. Global commerce depended on specie payments, chiefly in silver. His discussion of that subject is triggered by a Vermeer painting showing a woman weighing something with scales. Once Brook identifies that something as silver coinage, the chapter takes off on a global tour that includes mining, minting, and the exchange of goods for money. Brook’s readers learn some important lessons about money. After he observes that Europe had coinage from different countries in circulation, he writes, “Fortunately for the burgeoning commercial economy, the substitution of one type of coin for another did not interfere with the main purpose of money, which is to calibrate the relative value of objects.”

Another illustrative historical lesson concerns the futility of attempting to ban allegedly harmful substances, tobacco in particular. Globalization in the seventeenth century brought tobacco and smoking to the Far East, and some rulers wished to prevent the people under their control from indulging in the pastime. Banning tobacco, however, didn’t work any better than banning alcoholic beverages worked in the United States early in the twentieth century.

For a stimulating read that digs far into our history and unearths a wealth of information about trade and cultural exchange, I highly recommend this beautifully produced volume.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.