Book Review: In the Dutch Golden Age – When Science Becomes Profitable

Commercial Visions gives us a scholar of early modern science at his best, serving up delightful prose and imaginative arguments as he moves from such mundane topics as seashell taxonomy to the downright bizarre business of wheeling-and-dealing preserved cadavers.

Commercial Visions: Science, Trade, and Visual Culture in the Dutch Golden Age by Dániel Margócsy, University of Chicago Press, 336 pages, $40.00.

By Justin Grosslight


If the adage “money makes the world go round” smacks of modernity, then the ethos of early Enlightenment Amsterdam was nothing if not new. Financial motives compelled the German polymath Baron Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach (1683-1734) to sojourn there, engaging intensely with the city’s scientific practitioners. It also lured czar Peter the Great (1672-1725) and his courtiers, who purchased numerous scientific items for export to Russia. Yet the people whom both men encountered in the Netherlands were not always cooperative – with either their customers or with each other. In truth, their interest in self-promotion challenged norms of communalism and disinterestedness that scholars have traditionally associated with scientific practice. Dániel Margócsy’s new book, Commercial Visions, ingeniously assesses this hybrid form of scientific culture.

Generally speaking, Margócsy stresses that pragmatic concerns influenced science – that is, natural history – in early Enlightenment Europe. Collectors of scientific objects increasingly found the historical descriptions and rhetorical flourishes of Renaissance humanism inimical to their taxonomic goals. They created picture books that supplanted extensive written descriptions with pithy statements and useful images to help them classify flora and fauna. Yet this evolution of the format of natural history texts was not consistent: transportable objects, such as small plants, insects, and seashells were far easier to depict with detailed imagery than large animals, whose accurate textual illustration emerged only after considerable cost and great care. And when new specimens were discovered and depicted (some of these images were lifted and reused), no consensus materialized as to what texts should be used to classify them. Individual practitioners had favorite illustrations, but selecting which were ‘authoritative’ resulted in more disagreement than unity when it came to identifying specimens.

Margócsy focuses on a representative example of the confusion generated by classificatory work: Albertus Seba’s four-volume Thesaurus (1734-65) and the debacle that characterized its protracted publication. Halfway through publishing his opus, Seba (1665-1736) suddenly died. Seba’s wife passed away two years later; the result was that his books and related materials became bogged down in legal bureaucracy. Publication of the Thesaurus ultimately fell into the hands of R. W. van Homrigh (1711-1800?) and Willem Muilman (1697-1759), two men who had relations with Seba’s daughters. Hoping to capitalize on Seba’s reputation while maintaining the value of his work’s expensive copperplates, the men concluded that volumes three and four of the Thesaurus should be ghostwritten and predated to Seba’s death. Renowned naturalists and professors were hired to complete the Thesaurus as if they were Seba writing the volume before he had died.

Quarrels arose among writer Arnout Vosmaer (1720-99), his supervisors, and other ghostwriters. Vosmaer could neither obtain images from his employers nor access Seba’s auctioned specimens. He also could not understand why his authorial emendations would not be credited, an anomaly in publishing practice. Vosmaer lamented that these behaviors created a dishonestly authored and dated text that would be anachronistic from the moment it was published: it drew on pre-Linnaean taxonomy in a post-Linnaean world. Luckily for Vosmaer, his tribulations dissipated when new publishers took over, but the episode itself reveals a world where marketing and authorial erasure trumped presumptions of intellectual transparency.

Margócsy goes on to tie marketing to anatomical innovations. Hoping to preserve body parts for pedagogical dissections, medically untrained nobleman Lodewijk de Bils (1624-71) began injecting a waxy substance into human bodies in 1659. Bils’s cadavers appeared lifelike, veins and arteries emitting a lurid glow. Sensing monetary success, de Bils began pamphlet advertisements for his specimens. He promised readers a future museum of his wonders in Rotterdam; a sample specimen for the planned educational/amusement space can be found in his book The True Use of the Gall-bladder (1658). But just before his first public anatomy demonstration, de Bils suddenly died. The newfangled practice of cadaver conservation was in dire need of a new star.

Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731) filled de Bils’s shoes with his superior preparations. Equally important, however, was Ruysch’s marketing acumen. He placed advertisements in the Amsterdamshe Courant, in instrument catalogues published by the famed Musschenbroek family, and in Stephanus Blankart’s popular anatomy textbook Anatomia reformata (1687). Eventually, Ruysch published a series of thesauri to market his creations as well. He became famous after he created a popular museum that displayed his preparations. For Ruysch, printed anatomical texts were hardly ways to promote knowledge – books “were not commodities, per se, but rather tools to commodify.” In a subtle critique of scholars Elizabeth Eisenstein and Jürgen Habermas, Margócsy shows how anatomical knowledge became authoritative, not through print, but with the considerable help of marketing efforts. The Netherlands didn’t have an absolutist government that could control public discussions — only unbridled capitalist competition, with its winners and losers, provided a way to finalize intellectual claims.

Despite (or because) of his celebrity, Ruysch had his detractors. Margócsy next explores Ruysch’s epistemological differences with Leiden professor Govard Bidloo (1649-1713). While Ruysch promoted his wax specimens by touting their non-perishable, three-dimensional, lifelike qualities, Bidloo doubted the efficacy of such models. Instead, he argued that Ruysch’s creations suspended the natural movement of human organs and suppressed the operation of glands. Such models also privileged the circulatory system so they could not be examined sequentially, as in a text. Citing infant coronary arteries, Bidloo asserted that, at a microscopic level, each human body was different; artists, therefore, could render minute anatomical details in print without needing to conform to a uniform model. In the 1690s, these disagreements generated an acrimonious pamphlet war that left such medical scholars as Johannes Rau (1668-1719) and Hermann Boerhaave (1668-1738) uneasy about the place of art in anatomical preparations.

An image from ,Frederik. Ruysch's Thesaurus Anatomicus. 1701

An image from Frederik Ruysch’s “Thesaurus Anatomicus,” 1701

Nevertheless, both Bidloo and Ruysch profited from their epistemic practices. The latter made considerable money from museum visitors and (eventually) the sale of his specimens and preservation secrets. Similarly, Bidloo’s Anatomia humani corporis (1685) fetched him substantial sums and earned him the patronage of William of Orange. Yet Ruysch also produced printed materials and Bidloo anatomically preserved specimens; neither of these projects garnered much attention or lucre. Taken in tandem, their story suggests that visual knowledge did not manifest in a singular, correct epistemic paradigm. More critically, by showing that Ruysch’s specimens were depicted in a trustworthy, automated form characteristic of the nineteenth century (mechanical objectivity), while Bidloo’s images deviated from highlighting the underlying regularities that characterized images (truth to nature) of the early modern era, Margócsy questions current scholarly frameworks for assessing scientific imagery and confidence in its objectivity.

Finally, Margócsy shifts his discussion to artisanal practices. He argues that in the eighteenth century artisanal skills (bricklaying and carpentry, etc.) occurred less through individual trial and error and increasingly through the use of mathematical theory. Such was the case regarding printer Jacob Christoph Le Blon (1667-1741) and his friend Lambert ten Kate (1674-1731). The pair uncovered an uncanny relationship between Pythagorean proportions of human body parts and the lengths of colored bands that Newton had discovered in his prism experiments. Using these ratios, Le Blon derived mathematical formulae for mixing hues that were the basis for exquisite colored image lithography. Yet because his artisanal invention was found by way of mathematics rather than through extensive training, anyone could steal his idea and apply it immediately.

Conjecturing that “mathematization of knowledge might have created preconditions for the emergence of the modern patent system,” Margócsy addresses the legal problems that could ensue when knowledge theft becomes profitable. Following Le Blon’s death, apprentice Jacques Fabian Gautier d’Agoty (1716-85) attempted precisely this maneuver: he claimed authority over Le Blon’s techniques and engaged in a pamphlet war to prevent awarding authorial rights to Le Blon’s family. After legally losing the privilege (rights) for color printing, d’Agoty published his own Chroa-genesie (1749), which condemned the application of mathematical laws to printing. Instead, d’Agoty claimed to have formed his own method from experience, thus making him the true father of color printing.

Despite Commercial Visions’ theoretical complexity, its thesis is straightforward enough: “Disagreement, not consensus, lies at the heart of the modern scientific enterprise.” This argument directly challenges Harold Cook’s monumental volume Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age (2007). The product of two decades of research, Cook’s study provided the first English-language, book-length investigation of early modern Dutch scientific culture. By emphasizing the era’s standardization of finance and time, its organized systems for bartering goods, and its embrace of global commerce for the sake of sociocultural development, Cook contended that commercial cooperation and system building – not controversy – became crucial scientific mores. Margócsy’s counter claim rests on methodological contrasts. Cook divides his attention between the Netherlands and relations with its global outposts while Margócsy (perhaps inspired by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann’s 2004 masterpiece, Toward a Geography of Art) explores Dutch intra-continental relations in tracing intellectual developments. Cook’s narrative tends toward the macroscopic while Margócsy paints exquisitely detailed vignettes. Also, in terms of chronology, Cook’s investigation ends roughly where Margócsy’s begins.

The lure of Commercial Visions is precisely its challenge to conventional ideas. Until recently, the early Enlightenment had been overlooked in histories of early modern science. By examining this era, Margócsy sheds light on such fabulous (and understudied) characters such as Bidloo and ten Kate. In addition, while historians have studied the period’s print industry, they have not examined the evolution of color printing. More important, the book’s protagonists are filled with the entrepreneurial spirit. In chronicling their money-making machinations, Margócsy challenges an entrenched lineage of scholarship – from Edgar Zilsel to the present – that has tended to segregate the mercantile aims of early modern craftsmen from the fiscally disinterested nature of scholars. In Margócsy’s Netherlands, this dichotomy does not exist: craftsmen, intellectuals, and scholars are united via their pecuniary interests.

Yet, in his zest to be provocative and upturn platitudes, Margócsy sacrifices fashioning a balanced historical narrative. The book’s repeated gaze on financially dependent Petrine Russia is troubling, given how it tends to neglect comparing the Netherlands with countries who had more developed markets. Economic historians, for example, have argued that by the final quarter of the seventeenth century, the Dutch economy began to stagnate and that the artisanal center of gravity had begun to shift to England. While Amsterdam remained an incubator for enterprise, London’s streets were teeming with printers, instrument makers, and natural history aficionados. Scientific images, too, began to eclipse the popularity of Restoration art in early Enlightenment visuals. It was in England where the Statute of Anne (1710), perhaps the first step toward protecting authors’ intellectual property rights, was enacted.

Encouraged by proximity, correspondence between England and the Netherlands flourished during this era. Given the lack of English cabinets of curiosity, travellers from London flocked to Amsterdam to behold the natural wonders on display in these amazing cupboards. Yet the voices of these tourists are not heard in Commercial Visions. In terms of scientific instrument making – an artisanal vocation prevalent in both countries – London could rival anything that even the famed Musschenbroeks could produce in Leiden. Yet Margócsy sidesteps a serious discussion of scientific instruments, the one place where a direct artisanal comparison can be made between the two countries – an area that, when combined with numismatic items, account for roughly “half” of the Dutch artisanal objects that eventually emigrated to Peter the Great’s Kunstkamera (Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography) on Preobrazhensky Island. A similar story could be told about Paris, which also persisted as a scientific and cultural entrepôt in the early Enlightenment.

Daniel Margocsy

Scholar Dániel Margócsy — he has written a fascinating book exploring the mingling of science and money-making.

Because of the similarities among Dutch and other metropolitan markets, Margócsy is pressed to establish what is unique about the Dutch. He suggests three potential distinctions. Most salient (and superficially obvious) is his argument that the Netherlands – unlike France, England, Russia, or the German princely states – did not operate on a patronage system. With only a weak hierarchical order in place, social relationships were flattened onto a single, commercial stratum. His second conjecture is that the Netherlands’s lack of a scientific academy until the latter half of the eighteenth century fostered a world in which consensus was unnecessary. Yet if the first argument is tenable, then one would expect Switzerland to be a mercantile hotbed because it, too, lacked a powerful absolutist regime. The second argument is weak because the number of individuals involved in foreign, state-sponsored scientific academies was miniscule. His third (implicit) reason: urbanization and ease of mobility through the Netherlands created a knowledgeable, mercantile public space.

The third argument, if convincing, helps explain why only half of the “Dutch scientific practitioners” whose networks and names “recur” in the book are actually Dutch. For example, Le Blon, Rumphius (1627-1702), and Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) were of German origin. Moreover, Le Blon pursued many of his artisanal endeavors in Paris and London. Merian is a particularly puzzling case because her name appears fewer than a dozen times outside of the book’s introduction. Yet her status as a female practitioner raises questions: did women in eighteenth century Amsterdam – like those in Italy – play a central role in scientific endeavors? Was the setting for Merian’s work comparable to that of her male compatriots? Did Merian’s ideas about insect collecting differ in their approach from the mechanical methods developed by French collector René Antoine Ferchault de Réamur (1683-1757)?

Finally, Margócsy could have benefitted from acknowledging that the mingling of science and money were not entirely new in the early Enlightenment. Scholars and mechanics, for example, worked together at the University of Leiden a century before Le Blon and ten Kate cooperated: the mathematician and military engineer Simon Stevin (1548-1620) is an excellent example. Commercial Visions also could have benefitted from a more careful discussion of privileges, patents, and how (or if) they differed throughout the early modern world. Research on these topics has shown that, in the early Enlightenment, both items helped secure limited financial protection for writers, printers, booksellers, and inventors, though their use primarily protected against the theft of objects rather than the protection of ideas. Concerns for safeguarding authors and their works evolved only through judicial and cultural reforms during the eighteenth century. Only with the birth of liberal economies and the political ‘subject’ did patents begin to value intellectual property over technology transfer. Many of the studies on these issues have concentrated on England and Germany. It would be interesting to see if similar paradigms held in the Netherlands, which had been granting patents since 1593.

Overall, however, Commercial Visions gives us Margócsy at his best: a robust scholar who serves up delightful prose and imaginative arguments as he moves from such mundane topics as seashell taxonomy to the downright bizarre business of wheeling-and-dealing preserved cadavers. The book’s accompanying images are also striking, ranging from breathtaking color prints to lurid photographs of body parts still preserved from the eighteenth century. By exploring his eccentric cast of characters’ financial motivations, Margócsy has assumed a leading place among an upcoming generation of early modern scholars who have begun to examine — seriously and critically — economic motivations in scientific interactions.

Justin Grosslight is an academic entrepreneur interested in examining relationships between science and business. He is especially intrigued by how networks operate (quantitatively and qualitatively), both from historical and from contemporary perspectives. He holds degrees in history and mathematics from Stanford, a history of science degree from Harvard, and has published in all three fields. He currently is working in Vietnam, but also has lived in Italy and the United States.

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