Every time you call an outsourced computer help desk in Mumbai, you’re continuing a tradition of international commerce that began as soon as human beings figured out how to cross mountains and oceans. But in a more practical sense, modern globalization has its origins in the 17th century, when European encounters with Asia and the Americas solidified into worldwide maritime trade routes.
The Netherlands, that small but vigorous nation, played a seminal role in the process, and its merchants grew rich. Flush with cash, they adorned their houses with representational paintings of their belongings and their hometowns, and those paintings reflected the new economic forces at play. In the marvelous Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World, Timothy Brook, a professor of Chinese studies at Oxford, teases out the global interconnections revealed by humble objects depicted in the works of Johannes Vermeer, the period’s quiet master. Brook’s many previous books focus on Chinese history, but he knows the Netherlands well, and rightly sees Vermeer’s Delft as a microcosm of the era’s international commercial surge. That warehouse in the background of The View from Delft ? The Delft office of the Dutch East India Company. The dish holding fruit in Young Woman Reading a Letter from an Open Window ? Porcelain from the booming China trade. The object of the book’s title, the big felt hat worn by the man whose back we see in Officer and Laughing Girl, proves a launching pad for a trip through the Canadian beaver fur trade, pioneered by the French as a sideshow in their failed effort to find a new route to East Asia.
The tidbits are fascinating in their own right, but Brook has a larger point, relevant to our own time: We need to narrate the past in a way that recognizes connections, not just divisions. Our 17th-century forebears, the smart ones anyway, were people who figured out how to cross cultural lines. The results were mixed, but good or bad, they’re still worth contemplating.
Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.