London, Rome, (Paris) and New York are empire capitals, which I mentioned in the Cockfosters and EMPIRE post, that we enjoy visiting. I failed to appreciate that Amsterdam should be on the list. The Dutch empire is less obvious than the others and Amsterdam lacks the typical vertical architecture of power: palaces of monarchs, destination churches, towers of glass skyscrapers. Amsterdam does, however, possess an architecture of power of a different sort: canals. This horizontal architectural structure is evidence of a trading, commercial power and the city is ribbed with a multitude that is the defining feature of the city. They were the avenues that brought overland goods into this port city, to be exchanged and dispatched to the far reaches of the globe. Now they are charming waterways of houseboats, flower markets and tour boats.
Holland was one of the earliest republics in Europe, having fought an 80-year war of independence from Spain in the 16th into the 17th century. What sparked the rebellion was taxes; money. While religion also played a role, it is noteworthy that it is a secular, mercantile empire that emerged, not a theocratic state. Amsterdam became the capitol of modern day capitalism, as the first stock market was established here, along with an accompanying civil, secular government based on contracts and led by influential burgermeisters. No monarchy, divine sovereignty or hereditary privilege here. Indeed, these were violently opposed. The religion, Calvinism, venerated hard work and worldly success as a pathway to eternal redemption, thereby harmonizing spiritual and economic aspirations, and Amsterdam became a beacon for religious refugees, free thinkers, and republicans from countries across Europe. Fifty percent of Amsterdam’s population in the 16th-17th centuries were immigrants; something that continues to this day.
Aristocracy in medieval countries derived its wealth, privilege, and power from land ownership; tangible, concrete and essential to securing the basics required for sustaining life. This is a culture of stasis. Holland is small— it would be ranked 42nd in area as a state in the US, above Maryland and below West Virginia. Yet it was, and continues to be, one of the world’s great economic powers. It derives most of its wealth from trade and commerce. Most of what comes into the country goes out. Holland signaled a shift from medieval to modern nation state, where wealth and power are based, not on landed stasis, but on the dynamics of capital ex-change.
This dramatic emergence of a new form of culture, government, and economic life is reflected in the art. The Dutch Golden Age of art dates from this period. The “Persons of Quality” that were the objects (and financiers) of art are not popes, kings, bishops, nobles; they are wealthy merchants and traders. And the themes are not religious or biblical dramas but still lifes, portraits, and landscapes. The topics and approach are thoroughly modern. I cannot muster much enthusiasm for art prior to the 16th century, but the Dutch masters, especially Vermeer and Rembrandt, speak directly to me. They are personal and psychological; they convey the “epiphany of ordinary life”. This is why we went to Amsterdam and The Hague—to see Vermeer, Rembrandt, and the newly renovated Rijksmuseum.
We were not disappointed. The Rijksmuseum was built and recently renovated to showcase Dutch art and, in particular, Rembrandt’s “Night Watch”. Arriving at the second floor, we turned into the “Hall of Honor” and were immediately drawn into a telescoping architecture that focused all attention to the end of the hall, on the golden spot at the center of the “Night Watch”. It must have been 50 yards away, but it halted our steps. Oh my! Oh my! (See pic; I am in the foreground, unsuccessfully trying to take this picture).
We slowly worked our way toward it, viewing the art in the side chapels. As we turned into one of the last of these chapels, there, before us: 3 Vermeer’s. Sharon broke into tears. I was overcome. In contrast to Rembrandt’s golden glow, here is a luminous light. And in contrast to Rembrandt’s high drama, here is a hold-your-breath immediacy of an “ordinary” moment, transformed. The Milkmaid is, for me, the pinnacle of Vermeer’s work. The personal intimacy of a prosaic moment, several centuries past, set before us, now; timeless infinity, grasped. Yet all is dust; painter, milkmaid, pitcher. All that remains is the painting and, thus, it also intimates finitude and mortality. This whipsaw of immortality and death renders his work breath-stopping. The tiny spec of paint on the corner of the mouth of the “Girl with the Pearl Earring”; the thread of milk from the Milkmaid’s jug that becomes more translucent and immaterial the closer you inspect, are instances of the masterly details, almost invisible, that create this temporal magic. (Pic offers only a weak similitude).
To see a World in a Grain of Sand.
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand.
And Eternity in an hour.
Holland’s early history as a center of trade and commerce, free thinkers and religious tolerance, proved to be a magnet for publishing scientific work that was considered dangerous, blasphemous, and subject to religious Inquisition and persecution. Galileo, while under house arrest, had the manuscript for his most important work, “Two New Sciences”, smuggled to Holland to be published. It proved foundational for the emergence of dynamics, a branch of classical mechanics that addresses the physics of moving bodies. Descartes, another 17th century pioneer, spent 22 years of his adult life (he died at 54) in Holland, where he published his philosophical masterpiece, “Discourse on Method” (e.g., “I think therefore I am”). It is considered the seminal work that ushers in Modern Philosophy, where philosophical bedrock is secured in perception, reason and mathematics, not Church doctrine, Biblical text, and scriptural exegesis. The Calvinist religious tradition emphasizes the importance of each person reading the Bible, which fostered literacy among the entire population, including women, as early as the late 16th century. In the 17th century, ½ of all books published in the world were published in Holland, and 30% were published in Amsterdam. Today, this commitment to science and literacy has very visible consequences. This scientific legacy continues, as almost all of the most important contemporary scientific journals are published in Holland. And despite its size, Holland is the world’s second largest exporter of agricultural goods, after the US. It has transformed its landscape into a veritable hothouse of high-tech farming.
Holland felt like home to me in a strange way. It is certainly foreign, but the cultural practices and personal interactions are familiar. My family name is Dutch. I was raised at 55 Amsterdam Rd, and attended a Dutch Orthodox Presbyterian church (NOT Dutch Reformed—they were too liberal), composed of extended, interlocking families of Dutch origin. When I viewed a gaggle of school children at the Rijksmuseum, they looked like a collection of my cousins and me in our old family photographs.
This commonality is evidenced not only in physical appearance. Conversations with Dutch colleagues, Dutch residents, and reading convince me that I, and my family, share core character traits with the Dutch, despite a remove of over three generations and the Atlantic Ocean. (I know it is politically incorrect to ascribe national character types, as it ignores diversity and individual differences found in any national grouping. However, I would argue that national character types exist and are the product of a shared cultural heritage. Crossing from France into Germany, or from the US into Mexico, is a convincing demonstration of this—at least to me). These traits are, in my mind, intimately connected with Dutch history and cultural heritage; the interpersonal and psychological concomitants of the horizontal power of a trading, mercantile nation that spent nearly a century at war freeing itself of monarchy, the Church, and hierarchical power. Here are some traits:
Distrust of/opposition to authority (vs. deference)
Direct and plain spoken (blunt) (vs. mannered & elaborate social protocol)
Informal (vs. formal)
Frugal (cheap) (vs. extravagant)
Pragmatic and functional (vs. poetic and ornamental)
Display of personal accomplishments and position shunned (vs. self-promotion)
Stoic (vs. emotive)
Serious and industrious (driven) (vs. fun loving and relaxed)
The canals that define the landscape, history, and power of Holland have complementary channels of habits, values, and character etched into the lives of its descendants, centuries later, in a far-away New World. I have journeyed into strangeness and discovered home.
Your descriptions of the Dutch match our friends, M. and D.! They are master rule challengers, penny pinchers and great fun to visit .
LOVE those Vermeers, too. Thanks so much for this “visit”. I hope to see Amsterdam some day.
Amsterdam is my favorite city. It has such a rich history and open attitude. But, like all cultures, there were not perfect. Their economic based colonization of Cape Town laid the ground work for apartheid.
Indeed so. Holland (and Britain) acquired their wealth from the shackles of slaves and from the barrel of gunboat colonialism. The democratic, secular, capitalistic society proclaiming equality while trading slaves was transplanted to the American colony and defines us— and bedevils us— to this day. Also, I think the noteworthy openness of Dutch society is driven, in part, by economic pragmatism; it is bad business to discriminate when you are a trading nation.
What an elegantly written window into the culture of the Netherlands! Your descriptions of the paintings is eloquent and made me ponder still life in terms of there still being life after all these years.
I love it that Sharon burst into tears in the Rijksmuseum. That is, indeed, a very powerful hallway. We found ourselves in tears in the great hall of Trinity College Library in Dublin. Such age and depth make me confront how new and shallow our culture can be.
Your blog audience is fortunate that you decided to retire Brian. You have graced us by sharing the work of your mind and heart. The thread of humanity through your essays is solace for those who contemplate their own journeys. Thanks for the weaving of history, the eternal touch of art and the written words of others and for your own experiences and thoughts. It is a pleasurable gift.