Open to Words

Svetlana Alpers

  • Vermeer’s Hat: The 17th Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook
    Profile, 272 pp, £18.99, July 2008, ISBN 978 1 84668 112 7

Timothy Brook’s subject in Vermeer’s Hat is the ‘global world’ of the 17th century. Brook is a historian of China who wants to consider the lure of China for others. The dream of China, he argues, is the imaginative thread that runs through the history of early modern Europe’s struggle to reach the wider world; he admires the energy and drive of the Europeans who devised means to do this. The tone is generally upbeat despite the fact that the tales he tells of foreign adventures involve conflict, danger, disaster and death. Believing as he does in the virtues of the global – now as much as then – he sees an essential difference between China and the Netherlands. On this account, China regrettably kept itself closed to the outside, partly in order to defend its skills and accomplishments and also to protect the honour of its past. The Netherlands, by contrast, was open. Dutch ships, supported by new technology and newly invented entities like the joint-stock trading corporation called the Dutch East India Company, sailed across dangerous oceans. They did this less to settle than for the promise of trade and profit. And the strange foreign goods they brought back were eagerly taken up by a growing consumer economy.

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