Book review: “Vermeer’s hat”

Book review

Vermeer’s hat

By Jonathan Arriola 
      1. Overview

«Vermeer’s hat» is a direct journey to the very inception of globalization. By unveiling the stories behind six paintings of the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, Brooks takes us back to the world of seventeenth century, where a system of international connections rose, driven by the power of trade and cultural exchange.

Starting from Vermeer’s hometown -the city Delft- the reader will jump into those paintings and will find himself at the heart of the big episodes which shrank the world four centuries ago. It is well-known that fur, silver, tobacco, porcelain, spices, etc. were the first products with which the web of globalization was woven and around which a common human community based on economic, politic and social exchange was created. But Brooks offers something more than a simple historical reconstruction of those facts.

Approaching different stories such as that of the French explorer Champlain or that of the Italian Dominican Angelo Cocchi, who, although in a different way, played a role in the development of the global world, Brooks achieves to literally dismantle, thread by thread, the unfathomable web of globalization tailored during Vermeer’s days. In doing so, Brooks achieves to bring us a brilliant and fresh insight about the beginnings of economic interdependence, the creation of a transnational market and even the rudiments of primitive international marketing strategies.

Chapter 1

The View from Delf.-

In the first chapter, Brooks introduces the general dynamic of the book, whose objective is to trace the global history of the seventeenth century. There, the author states that the best way to draw such a history is to start from the city of Delft in the Netherlands. The reason for that is simple: unlike other cities that share the same historical background, Delft has still a vivid “memory” of the rise of the global world in the seventeenth century, reflected in its architecture, in its internationalized economy and, especially, in its art. In that sense, Brook argues that the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, one of the most famous artists from Delft, are a perfect channel to gain access to Delft’s past. Because they portrayed the peculiarities of the seventeenth century’s Delft, Brook says that his paintings are “like windows”, through which we can proceed to revive, not only Delft, but the whole epoch. By looking hard at them, Brooks insists, we can find clues which tell us more about Vermeer’s globalized world. Each chapter will look into one painting and unfold the stories behind it.

Besides this introduction to the structure of the book, Brook proceeds to examine the first painting, called “View of Delft” (1660).

Here, he draws our attention to two particular points:

a) The wide bottomed vessels. The story of these vessels is according to Brooks this. The global cool of the seventeenth century made the arctic ice move to the south, causing freeze-ups in Norway and making the fishery move to the Baltic Sea, where they were caught by vessels of Dutch fishermen. That increase of the amount of fish caught, led the Netherlands to an unprecedented age of prosperity, of which Delft was one of the most favoured city, due to its privileged geographical location. 

b) The roof of the Dutch East India Company (or VOC). The VOC is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable symbols of capitalism, as it was the first enterprise in history to achieve global economic dominance due to 1) its unique federal structure and 2) its capacity for building a worldwide network of trade. Besides, the expansion of the VOC activities around the world would not have been possible had the VOC not managed to take advantage of three of the major innovation of its time: the magnetic compass -which notoriously eased navigation-, the paper –which helped cartography- and the gunpowder –which led to achieve military dominance-. Through the web of trade, the VOC, for the very first time in history, displayed around the world huge amounts of people. As a consequence, a new phenomenon arose: «transculturation». As soon as products from distant cultures made its appearance, everyday practices began to change. With the expansion of horizons there was too an expansion of ideas: the once boundless and mysterious world now became a closed and single unit.

Chapter 2

Veermer’s hat.-

In the second chapter Brooks addresses the second painting: Officer and Laughing Girl (1658). 

This time, he points his attention to only one object: Vermeer’s hat. The history of that hat leads us to a place that now is known as Crown Point on Lake Champlain on 1606, and to a man named Samuel Champlain.

Champlain initially was part of the first incursion by Europeans into North American in 1606, as a member of a French expedition. His mission was to establish trading alliances with natives, in order to increase the flow of goods. At that time, four important Indians group inhabited the vast territory of North America: Montagnais, Iroquet, Hurons and Mohawks. One of the objectives of Champlain was to reach to St. Lawrence River. However, in that territory the Mohawks were settled. After establishing an alliance with the Iroquets, he deliberately decided to kill the Mohawks, since they were seen as an obstacle in French monopoly of trade, specially of fur, which was one of the most demanded goods in Europe due to its scarcity in and inimitable quality. It is important to underline that his victory over the Mohawks was possible as a result of the invention of a new a powerful weapon: the arquebus.

The arquebus was an innovation made in 1609. It caused a big revolution in Europe as it determined that size of an army was no longer important in war: what mattered, then on, was how soldiers were armed. Thanks to the global network already displayed, this revolution was rapidly spread throughout the world. Among others, it made possible the South America conquest by the Spanish, the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592, and, as we said, the victory of Champlain over the Mohawks.

The monopoly of fur which Champlain got after that victory was only a mean to finance the real ultimate end: find a passage to China, a country, which, due to Marco Polo’s written memories, had a reputation back in Europe of being very wealthy. Until then, there were two known routes to China: one via South America and the other via Africa. But they were too complicated, long, risky and, moreover, expensive. That is why Chamberlain hoped the St. Lawrence River, or even the Lake Superior, would unveil a cheaper and shorter way to China. However, his dream was highly frustrated by reality. Chamberlain’s effort was not in vain: thanks to him, Vermeer was able to wear the fashion fur hat.

Chapter 3

A dish fruit.-

The painting which Brooks examines in this third chapter is Young Woman Reading a Letter at an Open (1658). 

The object that, in this opportunity, catches Brook’s attention is a Chinese dish, which is under a heap of fruit which is lying just near the woman. That dish, as the other objects already studied, was a sign of something else: it was painted when the Chinese porcelain was taking place in Dutch’s life.

The first porcelain that reached Europe amazed everyone who saw it, because of its impressive quality and fanciness. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to acquire Chinese porcelain in Goa, India. From there, they went directly to the south of China to negotiate with Chinese wholesalers more of the precious porcelain. Because the route was crucial for worldwide commerce, the Dutch wanted to get into it. The first cargo of porcelain that arrived Holland was due to a seizure of a Portuguese ship in 1602. But soon they decided to get their own business near China and establish regular trade channels. The Dutch wanted to break the Iberian monopoly, both Portuguese and Spanish, on the Asian trade by entering directly into the competition. Although there was a serious rivalry between Dutch and Spanish people -because, as it is widely known, the latter occupied the Netherlands during the sixteenth century- resentment was not the most important. The manifest objective of the Dutch was, rather, to control the Asian trade, which was equal to control global economic order.

Claiming that freedom of trade was a declared principle of international law, like the Dutch lawyer and philosopher Hugo Grotius did, the VOC ships were also in the South China by the turn of the seventeenth century, doing their first shopping list of porcelain in 1608. Although VOC’s ships delivered, in the first half of the country, a total of three million pieces, porcelain was still expansive in Europe and soon a market of imitations arose. The most successful in that emerging business were the porters of Delft.

But the circulation of decorative objects did not go only one way. Europeans objects circulated in China as well. However, European objects did have the same impact on China as Chinese porcelain had in Europe. For Chinese, it was difficult to discern what value should be attributed to those objects that arrived from abroad, since for them they did not have any intelligible meaning attached. In other words: in China, foreign objects embodied no values; they only awoke curiosity. Conversely, in Europe, and especially for Dutch, the porcelains objects were more than just beautiful: as Brooks points out, they were a symbol of the Dutch positive relation to the outside world. In some point, they represented the overcoming of the challenges of the world; the conquest of land and ocean by means of the new science and technology. And that can be seen perfectly in Vermeer’s painting. The letter the woman is reading was sent by her husband, a man who ventured himself, probably on a VOC’s ship, to the external world to get more of the precious and well-valued Chinese porcelain for his wife.

Chapter 4

Geography Lessons.-

The Geographer (1669) is the fourth painting that Brooks studies in the book.

The terrestrial globe, which is behind the geographer Leeumenhoek, is where we must focus our attention this time. That globe was the new edition of a 1618 globe published by the famous Dutch cartographer Jodocus Hondius (1563-1612). In the globe itself, the author explains why this version differs from the original one, published in 1600: due to increasingly frequent expeditions to different part of the world, information about geography was being actualised all the time. Although knowledge of geography was still far from being perfect, it was definitely improving and also getting more accurate.

As Brooks points out, the Spanish Jesuit, Adriano de las Cortes, was a perfect example of a victim of the “moving” geography of the epoch. His ship was driven onto the rocks of the Chinese coast by 1625, right after departing from Manila. As it was common in the epoch, they became discoverers by mistake, as they had arrived to an uncharted place. To that extend were isolated, that the fishing people who were living there had not seen any foreign people at close range never before. As a result, they were naturally surprised to see the wide microcosm of people they brought: Moors, Blacks, Goans, South Asian Muslims, Portuguese, Spaniards, Japanese, etc. The rise of the global world implied not only the internationalization of goods but also of people from all continents.  

While in other parts of the world the movement of people started to become common currency, in China, conversely, they seriously started to worry about foreign presence, both within and outside its territory. They unenthusiastically witnessed the huge arrival of European and Japanese traders at South and Mongolia, and the settlement of Tunguistic warriors at North. Who the greatest threaten was, whether Europeans or Manchus, was a common discussion held in China in that time. Some Chinese were especially reluctant of allowing foreign technology (Portuguese gunners) or religion (like Jesuit Mission) since they saw them as a dangerous intrusion to China’s security and culture.

The profound distrust shown for foreigners can be perfectly appreciated in Las Cortes’ story. Immediately after the shipwreck, a military officer arrived. He did not even bother to ask what had happened but rather, and suspecting the worst, he ordered the crew to “surrender”. Before the officer’s eyes, these foreigners were “pirates”; an accusation that not only was unfair but which ultimately came to be rejected by China’s own justice. The implicit premise was that foreigners, for their own condition, are guilty until their innocence is proved.

Despite these inconvenient, people were still moving around the globe, and quite freely. People like Vermeer’s geographer took advantage of these heydays of traveling by gathering all the information about unknown places and even routes that travelers brought back to Europe. It was precisely due to this feedback mechanism established among travelers and cartographers, European maps were constantly revised and remade. Just the opposite was the case in China. Chinese’s cartographers could not benefit from any feedback mechanism since the government was reluctant to foreigners, who were the only people bringing information about the outside world. On the top of that, and what is worse, there was no desire whatsoever to alter what was already done by the ancient thinkers and philosophers. While Europeans let the outside world enter in their everyday life, by opening their frontiers to foreign products and by incorporating them into their culture; Chinese, inversely, wanted the outside world to remain outside. That is why there was no geographer like Leeumenhoek in China.   

Chapter 5

School for smoking.-

Unlike the others, chapter number five does not address any of Vermeer’s paintings. Rather, it deals with a Delft-manufactured Chinese plate, which shows a Chinese smoking another worldwide product of seventeenth century: tobacco. 

1)   Tobacco’s History. According to Brooks, it is very likely that tobacco arrived Europe in the pockets of the Portuguese sailors, who shared it with soldiers and priests. Soldiers, priests and sailors, thus, were among the first Europeans who started smoking. Once spread, the demand for tobacco became very high in Europe. As a result, Europeans thought that it would be better to take over the supply. Such operation was accomplished by pushing aside the Native producers in America and by setting up their own tobacco plantations. As the world’s demand for tobacco rose considerably, the plantations needed more labour. Thereby, the Dutch WIC was born; a company whose aim was to buy slaves in Africa and to sell them to tobacco plantation’s owners in America. From there, tobacco traveled to China mainly by three routes: from Brazil to Macao, from Mexico to Manila, and from East Asia to Beijing.  

2)   Tobacco’s transculutration. Columbus was the first European who saw the indigenous people of the Americas smoke. For Native Americans, tobacco was a bridge between the natural and the supernatural worlds. It also had a social aspect: it was used with friends, neighbours and as a present. When tobacco was introduced in other continents, the original Native American-meaning jumped to other cultures as well; but cultures interpreted that meaning according to its own symbolic systems. The notion that tobacco was related to a spiritual realm remained untouched everywhere. However, whereas in Europe it was associated with witchcraft (at least at first), in Tibet it was linked to the protector deities. Something similar happened in China. Chinese had to come up with a way of making sense of tobacco. Tobacco was accepted in China mainly because it was seen as having some medicinal properties. Once accepted, tobacco spread through China quite fast. A set of customs was developed around smoking tobacco; it soon became a sign of social status and refinement. It became part of the new culture but at the same time it transformed it.

Around tobacco, a global community grew. At the end of the seventeenth century, the Dutch started bringing opium from India into Southeast Asia. From nineteenth century on, opium would leak into all levels of society as tobacco had done before, but this time with China’s eclipse as background.

Chapter 6

Weighing silver.-

In chapter number six, we have a new Vermeer’s painting: Woman Holding a Balance (1664).

The balance, which Vermeer’s wife is holding on this picture, contains silver. Since 1570 silver was suddenly available in unheard-of volumes. But where did the silver of Catharina come from? During the seventeenth century Japan was a major producer of silver but almost none of its production was going back to Europe. Probably, Catharina’s silver came from Potosí, the most productive mining city during the first half of the seventeenth century, which also helped to enrich Spain and to consolidate its empire in South America.

China was the great global destination for European silver. Chinese needed to import silver to compensate for their inadequate money supply. They needed to supplement the small bronze coins that were used for small transactions. By the sixteenth century, prices in China were calibrated by weight of silver, exactly what Catalina was doing in the picture. In the first half of the seventeenth century China was importing five thousand tons of silver from Japan and South America.

But what did all the Europeans do with all the silver in China? As Chinese economy was thirst for silver, the purchasing power of it was twice higher there than in Europe. A lot of profits were made then by buying Chinese goods (like spices, textiles tea and even coffee) and selling them back in Europe.

The Spanish enclave of Manila was the very place where the two hemispheres joined to trade. But Spain did not plan to trade only. Many requests to invade China were made by Spanish settled in the Philippines. The prohibition of entering China and the risk that China fell in Muslims hand were among the various arguments wielded to invade it. But it was clear that it was impossible for Spain to conquer China as it had conquered South America or the Philippines: China was simply a well organized and wealthy country. The Spanish could not have built their colony in Manila without the labour of the non-Christian Chinese which reside in a sort of ghetto called Parián. Not only trader but farmers, shipbuilders, tailors, sculptors, weavers, bakers, carpenters and apothecaries worked there. Because of the deplorable conditions there happened several outbreaks. However, the quiet Catharina remains unaware of the violence the silver she has on his hands provoked around the world.     

Chapter 7


The card player” (1660) is the name of the sixth Vermeer painting which is analysed by Brooks. 

The main topic of this chapter is the movement of people across the world in the globalized seventeenth century. People, either wealthy merchants or impoverished workers, moved; but the reasons why they moved were pretty different. There were:

1)  People who were forced by others to leave their own home. Such is the case of the ten-year-old African boy who is holding a glass of wine in the picture. Africans had been going to Europe since the fifteenth century but since the seventeenth century the flow of Africans to the Low Countries increased exponentially.

2)  People who needed to abandon their own home in order to survive. That is the case of the poor Chinese people who went to the Portuguese colony of Macao to find work. The flow of people going to Macao was high because it was very profitable to work there instead of working in China.

3)  People who unintentionally ended in a new place but wanted to come back. This happened to the crew of the Nieuw Horn, a VOC ship, while testing the new route across the Indian Ocean. The ship sank and the survivors had to deal with the Malays, the inhabitants of the island where they stumbled onto. The encounter was not nice. The Malays wanted to get Dutch valuable goods and the Dutch wanted to escape as soon as possible, what they did.

4)  People who unintentionally ended in a new place but did not want to come back. That is Weltevree’s story. After having his ship stolen by Chinese, these Dutch went ashore at Cheju Island. After a while, he managed to integrate himself into Korean society: Something similar happened to two poor Dutch mariners Jopkins and Harmensz, who decided to stay in Sancta Lucia with the Malagasy women.

5)  People who intentionally travel to stay abroad. Like Dominican missionary Angelo Cocchi, whose wish was to travel to China and stayed there in order to spread Christianity among the Chinese.

Brooks also addresses “The journey of the Three Magi to Bethlehem” (1630) painted by Bramer. Although it is a biblical scene, the painting reflects the fact of multiculturalism and ethnic variety; showing us a black African Blathasar, a hopelessly Dutch Caspar and a Jewish like Melchior. 

Chapter 8

Endings: no man is an Island

In this last chapter, Brooks approaches the outcomes of the seventeenth century process of globalization. Those are: 
  • The emergency of a common idea of humanity. No longer was the world a series of isolated locations but a sole unit on which every singular event and place is connected with the whole. “No man is an island” as the English theologian Donne claim in 1623.
  • The strengthening of the State in the West. After the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which gave birth to the current international system based on sovereignty, states were no longer the domains of monarchs but public entities serving the interests of firms and populated by citizens earning private wealth. At the same time, the States that rose to global power after Westphalia, like Great Britain, were in position to take advantage of global trade.  
  • The showdown of China. A shift in the relations between Great Britain and China took place in nineteenth century, when the English East Indies Companies undercut’s China’s economy by bringing tones of Indian opium. The silver once entered into China now was being drained, tilting the balance of payments in British favour. 

The book closes by stating that Delf privileged position in global trade had made possible that artist arose. But with the decline of the Netherlands after France invasion, there was no place for painters as Vermeer anymore. Tightly tied with Delf fate, Vermeer suddenly died in 1675.


I summarised my vision of the main contribution of «Vermeer’s hat» in the next two points:

A.    ¿VOC or Coca Cola?

In first place, as citizens of the 21th century world, we tend to believe that globalization is essentially related to high tech innovation, to instantaneous communications, to monster-size multinationals, etc. Brooks makes us review this chronocentrism of our epoch by showing that the current globalization is just an outcome of a historical process enrooted in 17th century. Before it could be global, the world had to be known. So globalization started, no in 20th by large companies or powerful states, but by a handful of 17th century brave men who, whether explorers or mercenaries, religious missioners or conquerors, wealthy merchants or impoverished workers, first tamed the ocean and first shed light on concealed territories. They opened up the routes for modern communications, making the once obscure world the single unit that it is nowadays. Brooks also reminds us that it was the VOC not Coca Cola the first global enterprise; that it was silver and not American dollars the first global currency and that it was tobacco and not Mc Donald’s’ hamburgers the first worldwide product.

B.     Globalization: a whirlpool without a center

In second place, Brooks implicitly suggests that globalization was from the beginning an unruled process. He sees globalization as neither a 1) vertical nor a 2) unilateral process.

1)   The dynamic Brooks chose for the book reveals that for him there is not real verticality in a global world. The fact that Brooks approaches the stories of individuals, clearly suggests that for him globalization was a process on which almost everybody played an important role. Moreover when consider that much of those individuals were common people. Brooks’ idea that globalization is analogue to Indra’s web, goes in the same direction as it remarks that a decision of one person in one side of the world could change the course of the whole global process. When dealing with globalization, every actor, regardless of its size, seems to be at the same level. And that has not changed nowadays: YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are the vivid proof of that. There is no «master head» for Brooks, but only a bunch of single events that somehow came together to build the global network of 17th century.

2)  «Vermeer’s hat» also suggests that globalization has nothing to do with a central point unilaterally irradiating its influence to the rest. By showing simultaneously what is the consequence in China of a slowdown in silver production in Potosí and how that affects Dutch purchases, we realize that globalization consists of myriad points that influence each other by means of trade, politics and especially culture. Through the concept of «transculturalization», Brooks makes clear that Chinese porcelain transformed the Netherlands in the same way tobacco transformed China. In its core, Brooks perspective is that if a theoretical model were to fit globalization, that would be chaos theory.


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