Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 27, 2021
Claudia Swan Rarities of These Lands: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Dutch Republic Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021. 336 pp.; 140 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780691207964)

“Europe is literally the creation of the Third World. The wealth which smothers her is that which was stolen from the underdeveloped peoples.” This is of course Frantz Fanon’s famous (and perhaps overquoted, but here I am repeating that sin anyway) diagnosis from The Wretched of the Earth (English translation from Grove Press, 1963, 102). A few sentences earlier Fanon names “Latin America, China, and Africa” as key sites from which “Europe has stuffed herself inordinately with the gold and raw materials of the colonial countries.” Two years later, parallel formational geopolitics were explored in the first two books of Donald F. Lach’s ten-tome Asia in the Making of Europe (University of Chicago Press, 1965). I thought a lot about these early-1960s material-technological-historical proposals as I was reading Claudia Swan’s new book. Focused on the first half of the seventeenth century (as the United Provinces asserted their independence from Spain, an independence finally recognized in 1648), Rarities of These Lands similarly argues “that Dutch identity depended on and was structured around encounters with foreign states, belief systems, languages, and wares: the Dutch Republic came into being as a result of and in response to negotiations with foreign powers and exchanges of foreign goods” (17).

Indeed, the book’s title comes from a delightfully paradoxical example of Dutch incorporations and appropriations of far-traveled things. In 1612 and 1613, the States General (the governing body of the United Provinces) prepared two shipments of gifts to the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed I in hopes of gaining trade privileges. The contents of the shipments were several times referred to as composed of “rarities of these lands” (rariteyten van dese landen). The paradox, however, was that although the “rarities” included things like Holland linen, lots of butter, and three thousand pounds of Edam cheese, many of the other gifts sent to Istanbul via Amsterdam had originally come from Asia, including nine hundred pieces of Chinese porcelain and eight bird-of-paradise skins. That birds of paradise could be imagined as rarities of the Netherlands was, as Swan notes in her preface, a key moment of wonder that triggered her volume’s various strands of research. Wonder, but also exasperation: “Who did the Dutch think they were?” (xi).

The early modern phenomenon of the kunstcamer or rariteytencamer (cabinets of curiosities) is a recurrent theme for Swan (key sites for her overarching motifs of “compilation and translation,” xiii), and indeed each chapter might be likened to its own self-contained kunstcamer, packed with amazing images and a wide array of intriguing anecdotes. Fossilized pepper from the 1613 wreck of the Witte Leeuw! An equestrian-portrait-painted sea turtle shell (after 1630)! Rembrandt sketches of bird-of-paradise skins (ca. 1640)! A poetic encomium on the Amsterdam exchange (1636), as well as a reconstruction of its spatial-social layout (one of my favorite discussions)! Instructions for producing white peacocks! All of these wonders and more await the reader in lavishly illustrated pages.

After an introduction that lays out the political-economic context of the Dutch Republic, chapter 1 (“Renowned Emporium”) looks at how self-representations of Amsterdam in word and image frequently included references to the world beyond, sometimes far beyond (a 1611 history of the city, for example, incorporates various accounts of voyages to distant lands cribbed from previously published sources). Chapter 2 (“Exotic Fineries and Precious Wares”) turns inward from the city as a whole to the material landscapes found within its various buildings, from houses and their cupboards to the East India House and the exchange and its shop stalls—interiors far more lavishly and globally appointed than staid Dutch interior paintings would have us believe. Chapter 3 (“Rarities”) focuses on a specific kind of interior within an interior: the spaces of cabinets of curiosities, across Europe generally and in the Dutch Republic specifically. Chapter 4 (“Rarities of These Lands”) completes the inward-burrowing movement of the first arc of chapters and looks at turbans as worn and represented on the bodies of Dutchmen and -women as well as people from across Asia; Swan gives Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring an appropriately focus-pulling alternative title: Girl with a Turban.

If these first four chapters in many ways provide new proposals for visualizing the material culture of consumption in the Dutch Republic, the next four chapters all revolve around questions of gift giving and commodity circulation. Chapter 5 (“Diplomatic Encounters”) thinks about gift giving, violence, and trade in general; chapter 6 (“Birds of Paradise for the Sultan”) focuses on the aforementioned 1612 and 1613 shipments of goods to Sultan Ahmed I, chronicling their selection, transport, and ultimate fate; chapter 7 (“Footless Wonders”) ponders the bird of paradise as consummate early modern gift. (One might call this chapter, to draw on Edward Topsell’s classic 1607 natural history, The Historie of the Rise and Fall of Un-Footed Beastes.) Chapter 8 (“Prized Possessions”) considers porcelain, with a coda on the circumnavigational trials and tribulations of Florentine merchant Francesco Carletti. The conclusion (“Spoils of War”) centers on a genre-defining 1603 vanitas still life by Jacques de Gheyn II, which Swan reads—in part thanks to a Dutch-piracy-commemorating medal depicted front and center—as (literally) emblematic of the interconnections of trade, war, violence, consumption, and destruction that run as themes through the book as a whole. This is followed by a most useful thirty-plus pages of discursive endnotes, which the reader should on no account skip.

The penultimate paragraph on page 17 asks a key question: “What made things foreign or exotic?” This is indeed a central topic for the book, and that prompt is followed by a series of words and etymologies from Greek, Latin, and Dutch. Swan notes that her own exploration focuses on Dutch relations with Asia (“Extending my account of the value of rarities in the Netherlands to include the Atlantic world would cause this book to balloon to unwieldy dimensions,” 9), but she nevertheless provides texts and images that allow us to consider the borders of where the foreign began in the United Provinces. What are we to make of a 1611 wall print vista of Amsterdam centered on a female personification of that city receiving goods from (labeled) representatives of the rest of the world, which distinguishes “European merchants at the left and Nordic and Baltic merchants at the right” (43)? Or a 1613 merchandise list for the Amsterdam exchange that differentiates “French honey” from “indigenous honey” and “Italian” from “Spanish syrup” (83)? Or the title page of a 1663 history of Amsterdam in which another female-urban personification receives goods from all four continents, with Europe kneeling front and center (49)?

The 1611 wall print vista (which is featured in four of the book’s illustrations) raises a related question of centripetal geographic imaginaries, or what I like to call noncomparative superlatives—that is, making claims for exceptionalism without providing any supporting evidence from otherwheres. I still find this in studies of early modern Latin America, where the lands north of the Mediterranean often seem to me Conradian blank spaces on the earth, but last summer I noted the following example from a wall text in that ex-Spanish-viceregal capital, Naples: “During his trip to Naples, the young Mozart, then just 14 years old, heard Jommelli’s Demofoonte at the San Carlo opera house. It made a profound impression on him. In those same years Charles de Brosses [author, of course, of the 1760 Du culte des dieux fétiches] wrote: ‘Naples is the musical capital of Europe: hence of the whole world!’” (The exhibition—Napoli, Napoli: Di lava, porcellana, e musica—is still on as I write this in mid-2021, but will close September 19.)

And so, in conclusion I cannot resist looking across the ocean to the West. Much of Swan’s book explores Dutch discourses about their unique positioning in the world of global trade: “In image and text, the Dutch laid claim to (foreign) rarities and to being the merchants of rarities par excellence” (xv); as the 1611 vista proclaimed, Amsterdam was “the widely renowned capital of trade of the entire world” (39). Yet seven years earlier, a praise-poem printed in Mexico City made the same kinds of claims for the global-commercial preeminence of that viceregal capital. Bernardo de Balbuena’s “La grandeza mexicana” (1604) declares his hometown to be “the richest and most opulent city / Of greatest trade and greatest treasure” (translation mine), and then goes on for pages to list the global commodities found there—as sourced from the Americas as well as from across both Atlantic and Pacific:

Silver from Peru, gold from Chile

            Come to stop here, and from Ternate

            fine cloves, and cinnamon from Tidore.

From Cambray cloth, from Huangzhou riches

            From Sicily coral, from Syria spikenard

            From Arabia incense, and from Hormuz garnet.

Diamonds from India, and from elegant

            Soytha fine rubies and emeralds

            From Goa ivory, from Siam dark ebony.

From Spain . . .

No doubt the Chinese emperor was making similar superlative claims about Beijing in the early seventeenth century—and how many other places, one wonders, did as well? And in comparative contrast: Did anyone then take the time to elaborate, in word or image, their hometown’s isolation and provincialism?

Byron Ellsworth Hamann
School of Historical Studies, Institute for Advanced Study