In Leiden and The Hague, 2013 was declared a “Huygens Year,” with several publications and exhibitions celebrating the achievements of Constantijn Huygens, Sr., and his son Christiaan. (See http://www.library.leiden.edu/news/huygensyear.html.) While Constantijn is renowned today as a poet, musician, art patron and secretary to Stadholder Frederik Hendrik, his son Christiaan was a gifted inventor and astronomer who played a key role in the Scientific Revolution. The impetus for the Huygens Year was the discovery of the two men’s graves in the Grote Kerk in The Hague, today a venue for concerts and public events; the exhibition staged there included not only portraits and memorabilia but also a full-scale mock-up of the Oranjezaael in Huis ten Bos, a project to which Constantijn contributed as advisor to Frederik Hendrik and later to his widow, Amalia van Solms.
Apparently overlooked in these festivities was Christiaan’s elder brother, Constantijn Huygens Jr. (1628-97), who inherited not only his father’s name but also his penchant for diplomatic service. The present book helps to rectify this omission. At a slim 195 pages and with some repetitious passages that could have benefited from closer editing, it may well have been rushed to press in order to appear in 2013. Nevertheless, it provides a solid, well-informed introduction to a fascinating document in the history of Anglo-Dutch court culture.
While Constantijn Jr. shared Christiaan’s interests in scientific inquiry, especially optics, and in sketching outdoors, his principal achievement was his service, from 1672 to 1695, as secretary to Willem III of Orange-Nassau, Stadholder of the Netherlands and, following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, King of England. While Huygens’s own political power was minimal, his position brought him into contact with a variety of important figures and enabled him to experience the Battle of the Boyne and other significant events of his time. Indeed, it was his role as observer that led to his most valuable legacy: the diary he kept off and on from 1649 to 1696. The manuscript, running to 1,599 pages and preserved in the Koninklijk Bibliotheek in The Hague, was discovered in 1823; it has never been thoroughly edited or translated. Its contents range from public politics to private life experience. An edition published in the 1870s was heavily censored due to the frankness with which Huygens recounts the sexual escapades of his fellow courtiers. In the more tolerant climate of recent times, this very aspect of the document has helped to bring it new attention, as in the article published by Rudolf Dekker in 1999 (“Sexuality, Elites, and Court Life in the Late Seventeenth Century: The Diaries of Constantijn Huygens, Jr.,” Eighteenth-Century Life, 23, no. 3: 94-109).
In thirteen short chapters, Dekker’s book explores the wide range of topics addressed by Huygens, from the political events of the Glorious Revolution and the Nine Years’ War to his relations with fellow courtiers in England and the Netherlands (and with the Stadholder-King himself) and his interests in the supernatural, jokes and puns, pornography, quacks and witches, household management, and gossip of all kinds. One topic surprisingly absent from Huygens’s commentary is religion (112), and philosophical musings seem minimal: he is very much a chronicler of the here and now.
Dekker’s introduction makes the interesting point that linear, measurable time as we conceive of it today was a relatively new concept in Huygens’s era. His brother’s experiments in clock-making contributed to this, but more to the point, his diary is one of the first to show concern for accurately recorded times of day. According to Dekker, it was Huygens who introduced the concept of “time management” into the Dutch language (29). Both the diary’s temporal structure and its concern for the private and the personal are modern concepts that set it apart from earlier egodocuments. Following the introduction and a biographical summary, Dekker focuses on recounting Huygens’s own words and ideas, offering minimal analysis and contextualization. While this approach may leave some readers wishing for more background, it brings Huygens and his thoughts to life with a refreshing directness and immediacy.
Huygens’s diary is often compared with that of Samuel Pepys, whom he certainly knew (16); other British acquaintances, encountered through the Royal Society, included Hooke, Newton, Boyle, and Wren (23), as well as fellow expatriates such as Isaac Vossius (52-54). While contacts in the scientific and political communities reflect the breadth of Huygens’s concerns, readers of HNA Review of Books will be most interested in his activities as an art collector and art advisor to Willem III, discussed in Chapter 7. (Occasional inaccuracies in describing works of art here betray the fact that Dekker is not a specialist in art history, but the value of the information provided outweighs these minor flaws.) Huygens’s practice of diary-keeping originated with a grand tour of France and Italy in 1649. Over time, he gained a reputation as a connoisseur; judging from comments in the diary, his opinions could be quite harsh. Entries record visits to private collections in the Netherlands and England and purchases at dealers’ shops and auctions. The catalogue of his extensive library (discussed in Chapter 8) lists many art books; he read Vasari and Baglione, Van Mander and De Piles. He also compiled his own encyclopedia of art and artists, but the manuscript has been lost (67-8).
Dekker observes that Huygens was more a follower of fashion than a tastemaker. He met several contemporary artists, including Jordaens, Teniers, Lairesse and Kneller, but, in keeping with the classicizing trend of his era, his comments show greater admiration for Rubens, Van Dyck, and the Italian Renaissance (71-73). In the late 1680s and 1690s, Huygens played a role in the formation and arrangement of the royal collections, consulting directly with King Willem and Queen Mary (75). He made careful lists (now lost) of his own collections of paintings, paper art, medals and coins, dispersed after his death (79-80). One acquisition stands out above the rest: in 1690, he purchased from the widow of the Flemish artist Remigius van Leemput, for three and a half guineas, “a book by Leonardo da Vinci on the proportions and movements of figures” (79). While the authorship of the drawings has been disputed, the Codex Huygens, today in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, remains an important resource for scholars of the Renaissance.
In summarizing the contents of an important and understudied manuscript, and bringing it to the attention of English readers, Dekker has done a real service. As scholarly interest in later-seventeenth and eighteenth-century Dutch visual culture continues to grow, so, too, will the importance of Constantijn Huygens Jr.
as a commentator on the arts and patronage of the time. This book should be a reference point for anyone concerned with early modern court culture, and especially with the complex history of cultural exchange between the Netherlands and Britain.
Stephanie S. Dickey