“Why,” asks this volume’s chief editor, “do recognized and celebrated achievements, across several fields of endeavor, tend to cluster within cities over relatively short periods of time?” (p. 5) Although the three maritime metropolises of Antwerp, Amsterdam, London, have long been regarded as experiencing subsequent ‘golden ages’ between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries, the broad question of how connected accomplishments in art, architecture, science, and publishing were during these ‘belles époques’ has rarely seen comparative study. The fifteen historical essays which make up this book attempt a corrective, focusing upon the cultural and social life of three Northern European locales during their traditional periods in the economic sun: Antwerp c.1492-1585, Amsterdam 1585-1659, and London c.1660-1730. The products of conferences sponsored by London’s Renaissance Trust in 1994 and 1995, the articles isolate five areas of ‘accomplishment:’ economic growth, architecture and urban space, fine and decorative arts, books and publishing, and scientific knowledge. Several pieces provide particularly strong overviews (e.g. Martin Jan Bok on the market for paintings in Amsterdam, and Larry Stewart on mathematics and technology in London,) and a handful of topics which rarely see treatment in English (e.g. town planning in Antwerp, the Amsterdam book trade) are here the subject of survey articles. At times, however, the exact definition (and relevance) of the category of ‘achievement’ gets lost as the book unfolds. Yet overall the clustered approach results in a superb overview of current work on early modern cultural history.
After an opening synthesis by Patrick O’Brien, the first section outlines the economic underpinnings of prosperity in the three cities. Michael Limberger argues that an ‘economy of agglomeration’ rather than a dependence upon transit trade fueled Antwerp’s growth after 1500; Clé Lesger shows that Amsterdam’s wealth after 1585 was rooted not just in international commerce but also in the regional economy of North Holland’s fishing, agriculture, and textile industries, while Peter Earle studies patterns of spending in later seventeenth-century London. As a political capital London differed from Antwerp and Amsterdam by its hosting of a court, a fact which led to both constant desire for luxury goods within the city and a greater concentration of national wealth in one place. The volume’s next section, “Architecture and Urban Space” sees Judi Loach arguing that precisely this emerging concentration of wealth in the construction of grand houses led to concerns with overcrowding in the City of London, and renewed interest in city planning schemes particularly after the Great Fire of 1666. Antwerp, as Piet Lombaerde’s essay shows, had wrestled with similar problems a century before, and enacted programs for the widening of streets and slum clearance as early as the 1520s. While aimed at easing commercial traffic through the city fabric, the straight new streets in Antwerp were, like the Nieuwstad built by magnate Gilbert van Schoonbeke, also aids to defense and public relations. The colossal fortifications built throughout the sixteenth century assured foreign merchants that Antwerp was a safe place to trade. Amsterdam’s ring plan was dictated by similar concerns. Marjolein ‘t Hart shows that in the 1610s fortifications were built first, and the famed canal girdle added second, and both undertakings were made particularly expensive by the profiteering of burgomasters.
The fourth section of Achievement begins with a survey of Antwerp painting in the sixteenth century by Hans Vlieghe. Notably, Vlieghe points to Rubens, who settled in the city in 1608, as a key example of disconnect between economic and artistic ‘golden ages;’ the Rubens-led revival of the arts in the Scheldestad after 1610, he reminds us, occurred when the city’s economically-gilded years had long past. Martin Jan Bok then presents a rich chapter on the demand for paintings in early modern Amsterdam, a section from his 1994 Utrecht dissertation (which will appear in full English translation in 2003.) Drawing on recent data of Montias, de Vries, and van der Woude, Bok argues that the unprecedented numbers of pictures produced and consumed in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, which so astounded foreign visitors, was the result of increased purchasing power. Wages in the Dutch Republic simply bought more after about 1580 than in other European countries, Bok concludes. Thus more money was left among even moderately well-off burghers to purchase durable goods like paintings. When the mass market for art in Amsterdam collapsed completely around 1672, artists turned to other, burgeoning economies to sell there wares, Britain’s among them. David Ormond’s excellent essay on the fine arts in London shows how Dutch and other continental artists all but monopolized the production of paintings in England beginning with the reign of Charles II.
The situation with printing appears to have been similar. Werner Waterschoot’s essay on Antwerp publishing and Paul Hoftijzer’s on Amsterdam’s book trade reveal an industry founded and fueled by savvy émigrés. Christoffel Plantin, initially from Tours, branched off his enormous Antwerp printing operation to Leiden in 1583, and was thus well-placed to avoid disruption (and Jesuit censorship) when the former city fell to the Spanish in 1585. As later in Amsterdam, the huge demand for (and relative affordability of) books in different languages by traders and religious exiles meant that international contacts rewarded entrepreneurship. As with paintings, greater purchasing power meant greater numbers of objects to answer the demand; “you may buy bookes cheaper at Amsterdam,” Hoftijzer quotes an English visitor as saying in 1678, ” in all languages, than at the places where they are first printed: for here the copy cost them noething.” (p. 260) To be sure, the greatest problems stalling London publishing before about 1700, Adrian Johns points out in his fine contribution, were that costs were high, typographic quality poor, and few people in continental Europe familiar with English.
Closing the volume, the “Scientific and Useful Knowledge” section in many ways represents the most interesting one. Here contributors overtly question the validity of ‘urban achievement’ as a concern applicable to natural philosophy. Amsterdam, Antwerp, and London, they point out, never hosted universities during the periods of their supposed flourishing, and citizens who could sent their sons to nearby institutions at Leuven, Leiden, Oxford and Cambridge instead. To be sure, ‘civic’ institutions like Amsterdam’s Athenaeum Illustre founded in 1632 (discussed in Karel David’s essay), like the Royal Society in London (here examined in Larry Stewart’s piece) provided forums for amateurs to meet and discuss botany, astronomy, mathematics, biology, or engineering. However, permanent institutions for experiment and research tended to be located elsewhere, and were rarely confined to the dominant metropolis. By 1650, we learn, Amsterdam had established a permanent anatomical theatre for viewing dissections, but then so had the smaller locales of Franeker, Groningen, Harderwijk, and Utrecht. The example of scientific endeavor makes the editors’ aim of distinguishing Amsterdam’s contribution from that of the Dutch Republic as a whole problematic. And although Antwerp too, trafficked in books devoted to ostensibly scientific endeavors, practical examples of natural knowledge in action were hardly outstanding within its walls. As Geert Vanpaemel sagely admits in his essay: “It is perhaps too easily taken for granted by historians that in a large and wealthy metropolis science cannot but develop and flourish. This is, however, not necessarily the case” (p. 288). Indeed, the idea of ‘achievement’ clearly differs from city to city, from endeavor to endeavor, and is not entirely a by-product of economic prosperity (which, we should further recall, often resulted in repressive and neglectful social conditions for large sections of urban citizens.) If anything the complexities of cultural life in Antwerp, Amsterdam, and London, which this book does so much to illume, suggest that accomplishments in one field do not always signal achievement across all.
Christopher P. Heuer
University of California, Berkeley