21 March 2008

Vermeer's Hat: A Review

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

As the subtitle indicates, Mr. Brook isn't writing a work of aesthetic appreciation of Vermeer's paintings. He is using them as an entry point for broad observations about the seventeenth century, global trade, and the route from there to here.

Still, Vermeer gets the starring role as does a certain beaver-pelt hat.

The hat is there (aside from the title) in the cover art, which reproduces "Officer and Laughing Girl." The officer, in full uniform and with the hat slanted a bit to the left, has his back to us, because his attention is on the young woman to the right and mid-background.

She's grinning but it's a bit of an overstatement to say that she's laughing. Still, it appears that the officer has come a-courting and is doing well.

The scene gives Mr. Brook the chance to inform us that the custom whereby a man would remove his hat indoors, especially in the presence of a lady, had not yet developed.

"When Vermeer painted a man without a hat, he was someone at work: a music teacher or a scientist. A courting man did not go hatless."

Behind the recipient of his attentions is a map, serving as a wall decoration. It would not have been cheap -- the map, along with the furnishings and the heavy elaborate window, indicates that this is a comfortable home. She's quite a catch.

That hat, though, leads Brook into a discussion of the 17th century trade in pelts, and this gets us a very different sort of map before we've turned too many pages into this discussion -- a map of the trade routes of the Great Lakes region of North America, where those fashionable beavers were to be found.

All in all, a fine book by Mr. Brooks, though structured as a bit of a stew.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.