Oud Holland

Review of: ‘Rarities of these lands: Art, trade, and diplomacy in the Dutch Republic’ (2021)

May 2022

Review of: Claudia Swan, Rarities of these lands: Art, trade and diplomacy in the Dutch Republic, Princeton [Princeton University Press] 2021

In an oft-cited letter from René Descartes (1596-1650) to the writer and co-founder of the Académie française Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac (1597-1654), the early modern natural philosopher cheerfully furnished his correspondent with a description of Amsterdam, where Descartes had lived on and off for several years. Guez de Balzac had informed Descartes in an earlier missive of his plans to visit the burgeoning commercial hub on the IJ, where Descartes experienced some of his most productive years of thinking and writing, and from where – on 5 May 1631 – the latter wrote to his friend to offer enthusiastic praise for his adopted city. In its essence, the letter offers, more than merely a tribute to Amsterdam, an encomium to a new kind of urban life: for the philosopher, writer and artist, Descartes proposed, a bustling city affords, counter-intuitively, greater respite and space for philosophical reflection than might a country retreat, since, effectively, no one will bother you. Descartes locates in the vibrant urban entrepôt that is Amsterdam, among the traders, sailors, investors and shopkeepers, a productive tranquillity: "everyone but myself is engaged in trade, and thus is so focused on his own profit that I could live here all my life without ever being noticed by anyone." Merchants strode by and he paid them as much heed as he might the thick trees of a peaceful woods. And if one might miss the delightful fruits that grow in a country orchard or any other of the finer things that might be enjoyed in a rustic landscape, one could obtain these, too, in Amsterdam, where vast ships delivered all manner of goods from the far reaches of the globe – "tout ce que produisent les Indes, et tout ce qu'il y a de rare en l'Europe." Where else in the world, the father of modern philosophy went on to explain, could one find such material abundance so easily: "toutes les commodités de la vie, et toutes les curiosités." Amsterdam was veritably (as the city would be dubbed) le magasin de l'univers.1

Following in the footsteps of many historians before her, Claudia Swan cites Descartes' letter in Rarities of these lands, in her case to emphasise the 'rare' things that one could obtain in the thriving Dutch metropolis. (Note, however, that the French adjective rare used by Descartes would not have had quite the same meaning as 'rariteyt' [rariteit], the Dutch noun invoked repeatedly by Swan [who favours the older spelling, for reasons never clarified].) Descartes' comments pertain, in fact, less to rare things per se than to the imperviousness of the modern homo economicus to distraction and to the casual crassness of urban life, of which he heartily approves. He also highlights the new urban man, who moves confidently about the city, preoccupied with commercial thoughts and capitalist intent, pausing not a tick to offer non-productive pleasantries or neighbourly chat. The ever-prescient Descartes describes here not only the rise of Amsterdam and, a few decades later, London, but anticipates, as well, to an uncanny degree, late nineteenth-century Paris and modern New York.

Cover of Rarities of these lands: Art, trade, and diplomacy in the Dutch Republic

Middle left: fig. 1 Jacques de Gheyn II, Vanitas still life, 1603, oil on panel, 82.6 x 54 cm., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Middle right: fig. 2 Willem Isaacsz. van Swanenburg, after Jan Cornelisz. van 't Woudt, Hortus Botanicus of Leiden University, 1610, print, 32.8 x 40.4 cmm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Right: fig. 3 Emanuel de Witte, Courtyard of the exchange in Amsterdam, 1653, oil on panel, 49 x 47.5 cm., Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

The category of 'rare' things and that term, in particular, would not seem to be central to Descartes' thesis, and it is not self-evident how or why it is to Swan's. Her thesis, in fact, is not altogether clear – or at least, it is not clearly articulated – in a book that comprises a series of discrete chapters that survey global trade and the high-value commodities imported into the Dutch Republic, especially Amsterdam, during the period of its emergence as Europe's capitol of commerce. Swan is keen to detail various episodes related to what she calls "trade and exchange" – it is not apparent how these two differentiate, in her view – and the inventories and archival records that otherwise reveal the rich range of goods that could be had in the Netherlands from 1600 to 1650.2 She does so within the confines of a few somewhat arbitrary parameters in terms of time and space: the book wraps up with the Peace of Münster, even though patterns of overseas trade in the Republic do not demonstrably decline at that moment;3 and her case studies are exclusively Asian, thus leaving out the not insignificant Dutch commerce with Africa and America. Swan's method is to "accumulate" and "translate"4 examples of the Republic's commercial success and to inventory the commodities and things that it brought into European circulation. It is, as Swan herself acknowledges in passing, hardly a new story.5

Not so much an innovative argument or novel thesis, Swan's contribution is rather to synthesize recent (and older) literature on collecting, trade and diplomacy, and to spotlight specific cases of interest, which all too often entail exotic objects. Two opening chapters provide an overview of Amsterdam's efflorescence as a major urban centre and its newly earned status as an 'omphalos mundi' (invoking a term and argument developed by Elmer Kolfin in an article of that name), which stocked the embarrassment of foreign riches that filled the homes of the city's wealthier merchants and burgers, and even those of the middling sort.6 The book's two central chapters home in explicitly on 'rarities': one registers miscellaneous Dutch collections of the period – of Bernardus Paludanus (1550-1633), Carolus Clusius (1526-1609), Petrus Hondius (1578-1621), Christiaen Porret (1554-1627) and Ernst Brinck (1582-1649), along with the princely collections of the house of Orange (the latter recently studied in Broomhall and Van Gent's excellent Dynastic colonialism).7 Yet another discusses diplomatic exchanges, which typically entailed foreign objects (i.e. 'exotic things': Swan uses that phrasing interchangeably with 'foreign rarities'), noting inter alia the presence of turbans in several painted and printed images of the period (including by Rembrandt [1606-1669] and Jan Lievens [1607-1674]). Two more chapters draw attention to birds of paradise, in one case as part of a larger diplomatic gift to the Ottoman sultan, in the other as an object of scientific inquiry. And a final chapter rehearses scholarly work of the past several years on porcelain in Dutch paintings, collections and trade (material handled, for example, in the recent Asia in Amsterdam exhibition catalogue).8 In her brief conclusion, Swan looks at Jacques de Gheyn II’s (c. 1565-1639) Vanitas still life (fig. 1) of 1603 (de Gheyn was the subject of Swan's previous book), which she endeavours to relate both to the theme of worldly goods – a standard approach to the genre of vanitas imagery – and to the inherent violence of Dutch overseas trade, the latter among the allusive leitmotifs of the book.

'Rarities' are broached throughout these chapters, yet Swan's attention to this particular category or phenomenon is episodic rather than systematic, and the reader is left without a fully cogent sense of how or why this term and concept are critical to the book's claims. The de Gheyn still life does not so much feature 'rarities' as it does things that relate to vanity – above all, the centrally-placed skull – and wealth, for example the coins and medals scattered across the panel's foreground. This raises the central questions of 'rarities,' also 'of these lands': why, in the first instance, does Swan lay such emphasis on this particular word, and why, in the second case, does she single out the Dutch Republic? After all, collecting and the overseas commerce that produced collectibles were standard operating procedures for the wealthy and often not so wealthy of early modern Europe – compare the commerce and collecting that took place on the Iberian Peninsula, in Italy, France, England and the prosperous German-speaking cities – and there is an extensive bank of literature on the subject, which has been richly augmented over the past few decades.9

In short, why rariteiten? Perhaps it is simpler to ask: what are rariteiten? One would not be too far off the mark if one intuitively understood them to be (as the word's Latin root suggests) 'rarities.' Yet what are rarities? Swan prefers not to be pinned down on this (“a specific category of exotic goods”),10 but one might conclude, simply, things that are rare. The word derives from the Middle French rarité or rareté (in its singular form), which comes from the classical Latin etymon rāritāt- or rāritās, both of which originally referred to things that had a looseness of texture or porosity, yet later came to mean things that were of rare occurrence and – by the mid-sixteenth century – objects of rare beauty (recorded usage from 1544), objects possessing the quality of being uncommon (1553), and, more basically, objects that were – as one might say in contemporary English – rare (1559).11 In fact, early modern Dutch boasts a rich vocabulary for the rare, curious, and often foreign things that Swan engages with in her book. To 'rariteiten,' the historically-attentive scholar might add (noting the variable spellings) 'kostlicheyden' (things that are exquisite, costly), 'sonderlingheden' (things that are exceptional), 'frayicheden' (things that are fine, i.e. of high quality), and 'vreemdigheden', (things that are generally, if not always nor necessarily, foreign). All of which point us to a modern term that covers much of this, a word also invoked in the early modern period albeit mostly in its technical sense, exotic (from ἐξωτικός, meaning outside of), used to designate natural species that were non-native, as, for example, in the Exoticorum libri decem (1605) of Clusius.12

Descartes observed that Amsterdam was awash with things that were 'rare' (using the French word), yet he also noted the city's abundance of 'commodités' and 'curiosités,' the latter being a term of choice in current scholarly literature on collecting and the curiosity cabinet, the former suggesting – along with the seventeenth-century Dutch words 'kostlicheyden' and 'frayicheden' – the economic value of those material things imported and collected, also traded and gifted, in the early modern Netherlands. And, of course, beyond. For the commerce in and collection of curiosities was plainly a widespread phenomenon, for which the Dutch, and the Europeans more broadly, provided but one of many early modern examples. Acquiring and amassing 'rare' things were common enough practices in Mughal India, Tokugawa Japan, Aztec Mexico, and so on. The Dutch – those 'of these lands' – might be distinguished for their role in the trading and importing of exotic commodities, as historians have long understood, also in the marketing and selling of these to consumers across Europe – but they were hardly alone in these practices. Indeed, Amsterdam was an entrepôt for many things, exotica among them, and by the second half of the seventeenth century, a period intentionally not covered by Swan, it became Europe's hub for the import and export of 'rarities' in several forms: books, maps, prints, paintings, artifacts, naturalia, and so on. When Swan alleges that the Netherlands was "a republic of rarities",13 perhaps the operative word should be republic rather than rarities. For while their interest in exotic things was not, in the broader scheme of things, especially distinctive, the Dutch Republic's commercial and political system, as it developed precociously over the first half of the seventeenth century, certainly was. Swan's contribution in Rarities of these lands is to illustrate how the early modern Dutch, whether dealing in exotic rarities or Baltic rye, did a booming business.

To do so, Swan deploys a technique she characterises as "compilation and translation".14 In general, she is expressly uninterested in methodological or theoretical innovations – these are briskly dispatched with as overly "neat stratagems" – but pursues, rather, an 'episodic' approach. That said, the individual chapters offer not so much microhistories of an object or a particular exchange of rare things. Nor do they offer a sustained histoire totale of a specific Dutch entanglement or set of 'rarities of these lands' – compare, in this regard, Matthew Dimmock's Elizabethan globalism (2019), which ingeniously addresses a similar topic via an in-depth, book-length study of a singular 'Chinese' evening orchestrated by Robert Cecil in 1602, an event that, like the episodes broached by Swan, encompassed exotic things, commercial ambitions, and diplomatic agendas.15 And, with one brief exception,16 Swan makes little use of 'thing theory' or any of the several recent, object-centred approaches to global studies, which pay close attention to the tangible, material and visual qualities of the myriad early modern things that were exchanged, transported and collected across global borders.

Rather, Swan's modus operandi is to 'compile' a grouping of 'rare' things – extracted from a household inventory, registered as a ship's cargo, incorporated into a diplomatic gift – then to 'translate' its contents and, inter alia, highlight the presumed extraordinariness of these objects, their putative 'rarity.' She underscores the marvel and wonder of it all – as when she notes "how odd it seemed to [her] … that Dutch statesmen at the dawn of the seventeenth century were negotiating with the Ottoman court" and leaving records of the rich gifts they proffered to the sultan.17 Yet the oddness and exceptionality of these events and inventories are not always self-evident nor necessarily surprising. To most historians of the Dutch Revolt, overtures to the Ottomans are not at all unusual: if the famous rallying cry of the rebels was 'Liever Turks dan Paaps' (‘Better Turkish than Papist’), then what could be more logical than negotiating with the Sublime Porte? This was the sensible diplomatic course pursued also by the French and English, who, like the Dutch, endeavoured to forge alliances with – and present rare and compelling gifts to – the enemies of their Habsburg foes: Realpolitik 101. The misreading here pertains not simply to this particular event and other not-in-fact-odd moments of Dutch diplomatic history – which is a core concern of this book – but to the scattershot approach to the topic, which produces a series of interesting objects, episodes and exchanges. What is often lacking, however, is context and, more critically, causation. In short, while Swan does a good job of describing the 'what' and even the 'how', she is less attentive to the 'why' and the 'why there and then.'

These are classic historical questions, and they raise two issues about the art historical project of Rarities of these lands: art and history. Both are curiously handled in this book, yet to differing degrees and effects. Visual analysis is oddly absent. Swan offers, somewhat incongruently, a surfeit of art without much art history, in the sense that the book, even while lavishly illustrated, only rarely engages in a sustained way with visual cues: with paintings, prints and objects, and their production, consumption and circulation – not to mention their possible meanings and how these meanings may have shifted in different global contexts. Images serve chiefly as illustration – portraits of rulers, representations of objects, prints of historical events, etc. – and rarely as launching pads for analysis. (That said, Princeton University Press deserves our gratitude for producing a lovely physical book: Rarities of these lands has something approaching 150 images, all reproduced in colour and printed on heavier stock paper. This, in today's publishing universe, can indeed be a rarity.) At times, in fact, the extent of illustration can be in inverse proportion to the analytical engagement with the image. A map from the atelier of Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598), showing portions of Asia is reproduced magnificently on a double-page, colour spread that is further enhanced by a rich blue frame.18 Yet the purpose of the image is simply to show that Ortelius included a bird of paradise on the map. That he also depicted three elephants, a rhinoceros, lion and monkey, not to mention several other exotic birds and far-fetched sea mammals, goes unremarked. Nor do we learn about the use in Renaissance mapping of decorative flora and fauna – there is an astonishing cockatoo-like bird perched directly below the bird of paradise – or of Ortelius's ecumenical project of global cartography. The map, like many of the images in this book, illustrates rather than argues.

That Rarities of these lands offers lovely art without art history is not a problem per se. The book presents, after all, more as a work of diplomatic, economic, and political history than of art history. What is missing, rather, is attention to historical causation and argument. There are two historical phenomena described in this book, yet they are not ultimately or historically linked: First, Swan informs us that the Dutch desired to trade overseas, to challenge their Iberian rivals, and to grow rich in the process. This they surely did, yet this trend is well underway by 1600 (Swan's point of departure) and, besides, just as surely understood by scholars, especially those assuming a global perspective. The link, moreover, of this trade and the Dutch rivalry with the Iberians is, as they say, complicated. Jan van Linschoten (c. 1563-1611), who makes multiple appearances in Rarities and was there at the foundation of the Dutch overseas enterprise, initially worked for the Portuguese – who were, after all, only vaguely 'enemies' of the Dutch, chiefly through their association with the Habsburg crown (which invaded and then ruled Portugal from 1580 to 1640); they were, like the English, commercial rivals. Furthermore, the idea of carrying things from distant places to the metropole in order to make a profit – overseas commerce – had long been a thing for the Dutch: what makes the first half of the seventeenth century distinctive? Meanwhile, the collection of unique, costly and exotic things – the second phenomenon – is also well underway before the moment Swan describes, and it is hard to see, timing aside, how it is Dutch in any distinctive way. In fact, Dutch commerce in collectibles peaked in the second half of the seventeenth century, when there was a robust business in the Netherlands in exotic things, which were, once imported, exported from Amsterdam to the rest of Europe. More to the point, it is not clear if Rarities is suggesting a correlation between the rise of the Netherlands as a centre of commerce and a rise in the commerce in collectibles. That these things happened is plain, yet a causal connection or an exploration into a peculiarly Dutch engagement with 'rarities' – as a 'republic of rarities' – is never offered. This is the what; the historically-minded reader is left wanting the why.

This absence of an overarching argument or thesis may derive from the structure of the book: a series of separately conceived chapters, half of which have been published over the past decade. As individual essays, they are suggestive and allusive; as a sustained and synthetic argument, they are less cohesive. The architecture of the book also induces several instances of repetition. Twice we learn that Jacques Specx (1585-1652), as we are told in nearly identical turns of phrase, established in 1609 the Dutch trading post in Hirado;19 twice we read the story of "the German diplomat Johan Albrecht von Mandelso (1616-1644)" and his travels in Asia;20 and twice we learn of the ambulacrum added in 1599 to Leiden University's botanical garden (fig. 2) – yet it runs along "the northern edge" of the garden in the first instance,21 and "the southeastern edge" in the second (the second description is the more, if not quite fully, accurate one).22 We hear at least thrice from Willem Baudartius (1565-1640) that crafted objects were more valued as diplomatic gifts than mere specie;23 thrice, too, we glean details of Joachim Wicquefort's (1600-1670) order of Asian collectibles, including a reference to his curiosity – translated twice, albeit differently.24 And of the Amsterdam Beurs (fig. 3) we read, twice, that it was modelled on the exchanges in London and Antwerp; twice that it was designed by the famous city architect Hendrick de Keyser (1565-1621); and twice that it "was situated on the dam for which the city is named, with direct access to the waters by which so many goods were conveyed to it for sale and purchase" – a repetition so extensive it can only be explained by a copy-and-paste job.25

Rarities of these lands is marred also by several factual errors, some straightforward inaccuracies and some simply confusing. The Spanish reached the Maluku Islands only in 1521, making it all but impossible for them to have traded there prior to the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed in 1494.26 The Dutch definitively lost control of their territories in Brazil only in 1654, a full decade after the recall of Johan Maurits (1604-1679) to the Netherlands.27 And to claim that "most rarities… from abroad" came to the Netherlands via "negotiations with the Islamic world", overlooks the substantial trade with China and Japan, not to mention commerce in Africa and the Americas, where the Dutch would have negotiated with predominantly non-Muslim partners (and, again, it is confounding that Swan leaves out the substantial corpus of 'rarities' that derived from the Atlantic world, viz. western Africa and America).28 Also geographically perplexing is the distinction drawn, as separate loci of trade, between 'Asia' and 'India', 'Asia' and the 'East Indies' (a generic term used for Asia, particularly east of the Indian subcontinent), and the 'West Indies' (generally understood to be the Caribbean) and 'North America' (the former being a subregion of the latter).29 Commerce and navigation were organised in Portugal by the Casa da Índia (technically, it was the Casa da Índia e da Guiné);30 the great Dutch collector in Enkhuizen was Bernardus Paludanus;31 and it is Marika Keblusek, who writes insightfully on the history of collecting.32

These errors and repetitions, no less the lack of a cogently presented thematic argument that carries through the book, may be the product of the book's manner of composition: stand-alone chapters, offering episodic vignettes, embracing a plethora of details, deriving from miscellaneous household inventories, ships' registers, diplomatic briefs and so on. Rarities does grant the reader a fascinating glimpse into an impressive array of archives; Swan is a diligent researcher, and her book cites a wide range of primary and secondary literature, including many of the key archives for her topic. Rarities also raises some important issues related to the process of delivering rare, foreign and costly things to the Netherlands – this was often done through violent means, and this matter is raised several times by Swan. While it is true that violence was inherent to early modern overseas trade and, of course, empire, Swan, however, would like us to couple this commercial-cum-colonial form of brutality with another form of illicit violence that was, in the instances she cites, often intra-European: piracy, the case of Piet Heyn (1577-1629) being her example par excellence. This raises questions about the intrinsic aggression of early modern capitalism, especially as it touches global trade – questions that are broached, yet never squarely addressed. That said, Rarities of these lands offers much food for thought and presents several topics deserving our attention – topics that Swan might productively address in her future work.

Benjamin Schmidt
University of Washington

1 The original text can be found at http://www.homme-moderne.org/textes/classics/dekart/balzac.html; for an excerpted English translation, see https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/descartes1619_1.pdf.

2 C. Swan, Rarities of these lands: Art, trade, and diplomacy in the Dutch Republic, Princeton 2021, p. 21.

3 J. de Vries and A. van der Woude, The first modern economy: Success, failure and perseverance of the Dutch economy, 1500–1815, Cambridge 1997, p. 432 and passim.

4 Swan 2021 (note 2), p. xiii.

5 Swan 2021, p. 216.

6 E. Kolfin, ‘Omphalos Mundi: The pictorial tradition of the theme of Amsterdam and the four continents, circa 1600-1665’, in Aemulatio: Imitation, emulation and invention in Netherlandish art from 1500 to 1800, Zwolle: 2011, Anton W. A. Boschloo (et al., ed.), pp. 382-92.

7 S. Broomhall and J. Van Gent, Dynastic colonialism: Gender, materiality and the early modern house of Orange-Nassau, London 2016.

8 K. H. Corrigan (et al., eds.), Asia in Amsterdam: The culture of luxury in the Golden Age, New Haven 2015. See also: T. Eliëns and J. van Campen (eds.), Chinese and Japanese porcelain for the Dutch Golden Age, Zwolle 2014, especially the excellent essay of: T. Weststeijn, ‘Cultural reflections on porcelain in the seventeenth-century Netherlands’, pp. 213-229.

9 The bibliography is truly immense. A listing that glances back only a few years and highlights specifically Dutch engagements with art/objects, mostly Asian, might include: B. Brinkmann (et al., eds.), Rembrandt's Orient: West meets East in Dutch art of the 17th century, Munich 2021; E. Kolfin and E. Runia (eds.), Black in Rembrandt’s time, Zwolle 2020; S. Schrader (et al., eds.), Rembrandt and the inspiration of India, Los Angeles, 2018; K. H. Corrigan 2015 (note 8); K. Zandvliet (ed.), The Dutch encounter with Asia, 1600–1950, Zwolle 2004; E. Bergvelt, M. Jonker, and A. Wiechmann (eds.), Schatten in Delft: Burgers verzamelen 1600-1750, Zwolle 2002; and the volumes that serve as Swan's lodestar: E. Bergvelt and R. Kistemaker (eds.), De wereld binnen handbereik: Nederlandse kunst- en rariteitenverzamelingen, 1585–1735, 2 vols., Zwolle 1992. A bibliography for the rest of Europe would be massive, yet see, for a marvelous starting point (noting the titular term 'marvelous'): W. Koeppe (ed.), Making marvels: Science and splendor at the courts of Europe, New Haven 2019, which served as the catalogue to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent blockbuster on this topic.

10 Swan 2021, p. 20.

11 See: OED, s.v. 'rarity' [online access 12 July 2021].

12 This is but a very partial review of the impressive vocabulary for the objects encountered in the context of Dutch overseas trade, diplomacy, and collecting in this period. A quick skim of the recent Rembrandt's Orient catalogue produces: the köstligkeiten and wunder-seltzame, sonderliche, and fremde things observed by Philipp von Zesen; the costelijkheden reported by Jacob van Neck; Descartes' commodités and curiosités; the vreemdigeyt en d'kost'lijckheyt der Waren noted by J. van Spilbergen, etc. See: B. Brinkmann 2021 (note 9), passim.

13 Swan 2021, p. xv.

14 Swan 2021, xiii.

15 M. Dimmock, Elizabethan globalism: England, China and the rainbow portrait, New Haven 2019.

16 Swan 2021, pp. 140-141.

17 Swan 2021, p. xi.

18 Swan 2021, pp. 200-201.

19 Swan 2021, pp. 3, 63.

20 Swan 2021, pp. 34, 67.

21 Swan 2021, p. 18.

22 Swan 2021, p. 97.

23 Swan 2021, pp. 139, 161, 182.

24 Swan 2021, pp. 64, 88, 243-45.

25 Swan 2021, pp. 16, 75.

26 Swan 2021, pp. 7.

27 Swan 2021, pp. 11.

28 Swan 2021, pp. 20.

29Swan 2021, pp. 2.

30 Swan 2021, pp. 218.

31 Swan 2021, pp. 309.

32 Swan 2021, pp. 292.

Benjamin Schmidt, ‘Review of: Rarities of these lands: Art, trade, and diplomacy in the Dutch Republic’, Oud Holland Reviews, May 2022.