domingo, 12 de febrero de 2012

Vermeer´s Hat by Timothy Brook

Vermeer’s Hat by Timothy Brook is not really about Vermeer, or hats, or art for that matter. It’s a book about globalization sixteenth century-style. Using elements from a few of the Dutchman’s paintings – plus some others from the period – the author identifies evidence of global trade, of the economic history of a century that saw the opening up of commerce on a scale the world had previously not known. And unlike the more academic studies of Wallerstein or Gunder Frank, Timothy Brook’s book is accessible even to the casual reader. Its approach is highly original; its style is lucid and clear; its scholarship is nothing less than phenomenal.

Early on in the text the author reminds us of the fundamental difference between the passing image and the narrative of art. ‘Paintings are not “taken”, like photographs;’ Timothy Brook writes, ‘they are “made”, carefully and deliberately and not to show an objective reality so much as to present a particular scenario.’ Objects in a painting are there for a reason. They are part of a narrative or comment that the artist chooses to relate, perhaps consciously. Our tasks as observers are partly to interpret as well as respond, as well as merely see. And make no mistake, the process is intellectual, not just aesthetic. With an admirable eye for detail, Timothy Brook thus analyses seventeenth century paintings for evidence of international trade. But this is only a starting point for a truly global tour.

A beaver hat, for instance, leads him to relate the story of how French expeditions into Canada sought pelts to feed demand for high fashion in Europe. It was the beaver’s fortune – or perhaps misfortune – to be born with a fur that, when transformed into felt, remained waterproof, and hence kept its shape in the rain. The consequences of this trade – apart from the obvious ones for the beavers – included conflicts with indigenous people, followed by subjugation and, in some cases, annihilation.

A Chinese vase, a Turkish carpet and other artefacts around the house lead to the history of trade with the east and thus into how China developed into a manufacturing centre that sucked in Spanish colonial silver from South America to pay for its wares. A discussion of the galleon trade leads to Spain’s annexation of Manila and later the whole of the Philippines. In order to compete the Portuguese establish in Macau and the Dutch colonise the spiced islands.

What impresses the reader of Vermeer’s Hat is Timothy Brook’s skill – an artist’s skill, no less – in assembling potentially disparate scenes into an engaging and ultimately convincing narrative. Economic history thus becomes an engaging story that makes perfect sense. By the end of the century the British were also on the scene, having taken advantage of victories over the competition.

We follow the spice trade, the spread of tobacco, trade in silk and ceramics and, of course, the lives of people who pursued and controlled the commerce. We learn how administrators and rulers reaped their own rewards, how illicit goods were smuggled in the same holds as declared cargoes. We see fortunes made and lost, ships sailed and sunk, reputations created and destroyed. And certainly we recognise the world as we know it, a modern world where only the technology is different. Vermeer’s Hat is a must for anyone who thinks that globalization might be a recent phenomenon.

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