Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 11, 2016
Dániel Margócsy Commercial Visions: Science, Trade, and Visual Culture in the Dutch Golden Age Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. 336 pp.; 32 color ills.; 39 b/w ills. Cloth $40.00 (9780226117744)
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The belief that scholarly consensus and the public good, rather than economic competition, should guide the pursuit of knowledge is an ideal inherited from a tradition of disinterested science that took shape in the early modern Republic of Letters and Enlightenment public sphere. Yet was early modern science as disinterested as it is often imagined to be? “No” is Dániel Margócsy’s blunt answer in Commercial Visions: Science, Trade, and Visual Culture in the Dutch Golden Age. Focusing on the early capitalist economy of the Netherlands, in which scientific pursuits were linked through commercial networks to the rest of Europe and the world, Margócsy shows that knowledge always had a price. Commercial Visions is not, however, a study of interaction and mutual influence between two distinct pursuits, science and commerce. On the contrary, it is an account of science as commerce. Convincingly and in lucid prose, Margócsy demonstrates that the very epistemological grounds of what counted as knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age were thoroughly shaped by commercial interests.

Margócsy’s story of early modern science is of particular interest to art historians because of the central role that visual evidence plays in it. Commercial Visions explores the entrepreneurial motives of Dutch naturalists by attending to their competing methods of marketing knowledge through pictures and physical specimens. In the second chapter, for example, Margócsy considers the relationship between specimen exchange and the development of taxonomy, showing how the new classificatory methods of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century natural science emerged through a trade in portable objects like shells, seeds, and insects, all of which could be shipped internationally at reasonable cost. Illustrated encyclopedias were published to aid in the exchange of small naturalia. A naturalist in St. Petersburg or London could look at his copy of Leonard Plukenet’s Phytographia (1691), identify to his supplier in Amsterdam or Danzig a particular plant by the page number on which it was pictured, and expect to receive the correct seeds and dried specimens in the mail. While this system had its problems, as no two encyclopedias agreed on how to name and classify the constantly growing number of plant species, the principle was simple enough and worked well if you and your correspondent both referred to the same book. Natural history, after all, as Michel Foucault writes in The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, “is nothing more than the nomination of the visible” (New York: Vintage, 1970, 132). When Foucault contrasted the natural history of the Classical age with Renaissance analogical thought, however, he left open the question of how one episteme displaced another. By arguing that commercial needs were the decisive factor, Margócsy offers “a down-to-earth, basic explanation to an epistemic shift” (45): natural history is nothing more than the desire to see what you are paying for.

Subsequent chapters follow the entanglements of commerce, science, and visual evidence through other contexts: the luxury book trade, the market for anatomical preparations, and the development of color engraving. The lesson in each case is that competition among different methods of visualization, and not the search for consensus, was the rule for Dutch science in the Golden Age. In his third chapter Margócsy considers in detail one of the most impressive works of early modern natural history, Albertus Seba’s four-volume Thesaurus (1734–65), a publication in which visual evidence served as the guarantor of authenticity but also, because of its cost, a potential liability. A virtual counterpart to Seba’s famous cabinet of curiosities, the Thesaurus was an expensive commercial venture. Seba planned four volumes and completed all of the engravings—the most costly aspect of book publication—before he died in 1736, even though he had only published two volumes by this point. How, then, were the publishers to proceed without making the final two volumes a crass effort to cash in on Seba’s initial outlay of capital? Their answer was forgery. The story of volumes 3 and 4 of the Thesaurus (published in 1759 and 1765, respectively) is a tale of remarkable acrobatics performed by ghostwriters to sustain the fiction of Seba’s authorship. For Margócsy, the case exemplifies how the emergence of scientific authorship in the eighteenth century coincided with the need to protect the value of a wealthy naturalist’s investment.

Two other wealthy men of science are at the center of Margócsy’s fourth and fifth chapters: Frederik Ruysch and Govard Bidloo. Ruysch was widely famed for the anatomical preparations he created through a process of wax injection. These wonders of preservation seemed to restore life to the human body without any apparent human intervention. In Ruysch’s view, the best way for an observer to understand human anatomy was therefore to visit his collection and view his original preparations. Ruysch’s competitor, Bidloo, argued that the best way to convey anatomical knowledge was not through wax preparations that distorted and rigidified human anatomy, but through an expensive, well-illustrated atlas. Bidloo put forward this alternative visual epistemology in his Anatomia humani corporis (1685), in which skilled engravers employed multiple strategies—such as composite images or the use of chronological juxtaposition—to convey the infinite variability of human anatomy.

The work of Ruysch and Bidloo may point to competing visual epistemologies, but for all of Margócsy’s attention to rivalry instead of consensus in Commercial Visions, the figures treated in this book find common ground in their modernity: each belongs, or at least helps to usher in, a new “regime” of the commodity, one which Margócsy contrasts with an earlier regime of the embodied maker and artisanal skill. In Margócsy’s view, for example, and in contrast to much of the literature on Ruysch, the importance of this famed anatomist lies not in the artfulness of his preparations, but in the extraordinary measures he took to maintain the secrecy of his art in order to protect the value of his commodities. A similar logic guided the efforts of Jacob Christoph Le Blon, the focus of Margócsy’s final case study. Inspired by Newtonian optics, Le Blon set his new methods of color engraving on the foundations of mathematical color theory and sought throughout his career to protect the secrecy of this knowledge. After his death, however, Le Blon’s technique became the subject of a battle for intellectual property waged by his former pupil Jacques Fabien Gautier d’Agoty. The case exemplifies the transformation of a manual workshop skill (engraving) into a commodity that was now “alienable, communicable, mobile” (170).

It is worth asking, however, how complete this alienation was. While Margócsy argues that in the work of Le Blon and d’Agoty “artisanal know-how became a commodity,” in the next breath he goes on to qualify his claim: “Or so they believed, at least” (170). This last statement is an important one, because it gestures toward something that stories of regime change are not good at addressing, and that is the extent to which, in Bruno Latour’s phrase, “we have never been modern.” To what extent, in other words, were the mobile commodities circulating through the commercial scientific networks of early modern Europe fictions? Margócsy is himself enough of a Latourian to know the difference between being modern and believing you are modern, and he makes readers aware of the problem even if he shows little interest in pursuing the implications of the distinction. To do so would likely derail the compelling story of scientific and economic modernity that Margócsy tells. But it is a distinction worth raising in a review, and especially one by an art historian, since it bears directly upon the seventy-one images that appear throughout Commercial Visions.

It is a curious feature of this book that its illustrations get little attention. Only in a handful of cases are any of them directly referenced, which leaves the reader with the task of paging through the book to decipher which pictures correspond to which chapters and arguments. Perhaps this is because Commercial Visions is less a book about pictures than a book about beliefs about pictures. Never subjects for close examination, the illustrations themselves function a bit like commodities as they float through the text but are never fully attached to accounts of their origin or reception. Nevertheless, these illustrations do at times seem to tug against the book’s overarching narrative of economic and scientific modernity. For instance, in contrasting the engravings of Bidloo’s Anatomia with Ruysch’s alternative mode of scientific entrepreneurship, Margócsy notes Bidloo’s refusal to idealize human anatomy into a stable image of unchanging nature. Indeed one might cite the remarkable particularism of Bidloo’s approach as evidence of how the engravings in his atlas reach toward a form of pictorial embodiment that has a place in the early modern market for knowledge without being reducible to the logic of the commodity. In short, if Commercial Visions tells a persuasive story about visual culture, commodification, and the mobility of knowledge in early modern science, it also invites readers to ponder the limits of its story.

Michael Gaudio
Professor, Department of Art History, University of Minnesota

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