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Book Review


Brook, Timothy. Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008). 272 pp., $27.95.

     In this very engaging work Timothy Brook, a specialist in Chinese history, imaginatively "reads" paintings by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) for subtle indicators of the increasing interconnectedness of the world in which the famous Dutch artist lived. Brook calls the seventeenth century a time of "second contacts"—which he distinguishes from the "first contacts" that characterized the earlier age of discovery, and from the age of imperialism that came later—and argues that it was in the seventeenth century that "interactions" between societies culturally and geographically distant from one another became "more sustained and likelier to be repeated," thereby qualifying that century as the "dawn of the global world."

In this creative blend of social, cultural and art history, Brook succeeds in capturing the dynamism of the seventeenth-century world, the flow of people and goods across oceans, the way things took on new meanings when relocated from one setting to another. He accomplishes this by tracing the complex stories behind certain easy-to-overlook objects that Vermeer placed in his paintings—the hat worn by the man in Officer and Laughing Girl, the blue and white china dish containing fruit in Young Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window, the silver coins on the table in Woman Holding a Balance. How did the felt in the hat get to Holland, where did the dish come from, what did silver signify and what could it buy within the various societies through which it traveled? In exploring such questions Brook establishes how globally integrated Vermeer's era was and also how integration led to "transculturation" (a term he borrows from Cuban historian Fernando Ortiz), whereby "habits and things move from one culture to another so thoroughly that they become part of it and in turn change the culture into which they have moved." (p. 126)

Since he is a fan of Vermeer, it is appropriate that Brook writes with a light and airy touch. He makes clear that commerce drove global integration in the seventeenth century but avoids getting bogged down in lengthy analysis of the complex factors that promoted and institutionally supported it. Brook is less interested here in politics, in the role of states, or in how economies of scale worked, than he is in exciting meetings between people and societies and the impact those had on minds and material cultures. Long on drama and rich with obviously consequential information, Vermeer's Hat should work very well in the classroom. Students will enjoy and learn much from the stories Brook tells, and because each chapter can be read in stand alone fashion, teachers will find that this book allows them great flexibility in terms of assignments and lesson design.

At the end of Vermeer's Hat Brook states, "this was not an obvious book for a specialist in Chinese history to write, but world history has to be written from some promontory of expertise, and China is as good a place as any, perhaps better, to track the global changes of the seventeenth century." (p. 231) "Perhaps better" precisely because, as Brook makes clear, China had more influence, direct and indirect, on the seventeenth century globalization process than any other society. Wealthy, sophisticated and powerful (even though going through great political turbulence at the time), China fired the imaginations of Europeans like no other place. China "lurks behind every story in this book, even those that don't at first glance seem to have anything to do with it," Brook writes, because "the lure of China's wealth haunted the seventeenth-century world." (p. 19)

We learn here that the French explorer Samuel Champlain, whose activities in the Great Lakes Region of North America had a profound shaping effect on history there, was in North America in the first place because he was seeking passage to China. We come to understand that the world's first large joint-stock company, the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie), made a fortune and largely supported itself by transporting massive quantities of Chinese porcelain for sale on the European market (and that Chinese manufacturers were designing special porcelain ware to suit the tastes of European buyers). Brook explains that the reason why silver was "the single most important global commodity of the time" (p. 155), and why China famously came to be known as the "tomb of European moneys" (p. 159), was because Europeans who brought it to China could buy twice as much with it there as they could in their homelands.

Brook's expertise in this period of Chinese history—one of his best-known works is Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China (University of California, 1999)—enables him to write authoritatively about a critically important dimension of the seventeenth-century world in a way that specialists in European history cannot. At the same time, he relies heavily on scholarship by others focused on Europe and on Vermeer, and on many other subjects as well. Like all good synthetic history, then, Vermeer's Hat is a tribute to the collective work of the historical discipline, which becomes richer and more profound as more scholars venture across sub-disciplinary boundaries to encounter new people, and with those people engage in the repeated and sustained conversations that enable them to write—hopefully as artfully as Timothy Brook—new works of global history that reveal ours as a time of exciting "second contacts."


Timothy B. Weston
University of Colorado


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