Commerce & Science in Early Modern Netherlands


A review of Commercial Visions: Trading with Representations of Nature in Early Modern Netherlands, by Dániel Margócsy.

What would a study of early modern scientific activity look like if one examined not only the scholarly but also the commercial practices in which it was embedded?  This is one of the key questions which Dániel Margócsy investigates in this lively and stimulating dissertation.  Focusing on the world of naturalists and anatomists c. 1700 in the Dutch Republic, a polity which saw the emergence of thriving marketplaces of goods and ideas like no other at the time, Margócsy explores the many ways in which not only natural objects, but also their visual (and other) representations, and even the very methods through which these representations were produced, became commodified and entangled in monetary and commercial networks, actively shaping in the process the production of natural knowledge itself.

The dissertation thus takes its place among a number of recent works, such as Pamela Smith and Paula Findlen’s edited collection Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe (New York: Routledge, 2002) and Harold J. Cook’s Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), which have begun to take seriously the role of early modern trading networks in the emergence of modern science.  However, building on the insights provided by such studies, the dissertation proceeds to generate significant new insights of its own, in large part through its provocative and exquisitely well-researched examination of the issue of representation, and in particular of the many different kinds of representations of the natural world made possible by these networks.  Whereas previous discussions of the representation of natural objects have tended to focus on individual eras as producing their own characteristic regimes of visual representation (cf. Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity (Cambridge, MA: Zone Books, 2007)), Margócsy instead argues that numerous forms of representation, and epistemologies associated with them, actively competed with each other in late-seventeenth century Holland and indeed throughout Europe.  For example, in the world of anatomy, fierce debates were held over whether skillfully designed engravings or specimens preserved in secret solutions held the key to understanding the human body.  Only by becoming aware of the multiplicity of technologies of representation, and the contested nature of the status of each, Margócsy argues convincingly, can we hope to understand the impact of trade and commerce on science in the early modern period (and ever since then).

The dissertation unfolds through a series of carefully crafted case studies, plucked from Dutch archives and libraries (and, in many cases, utilizing evidence well beyond that preserved in the Netherlands; manuscript repositories in England, France, Germany, and even Russia have also been fruitfully consulted).  The first chapter, for example, titled “Dead Man Writing,” traces the publication history of one particular natural-historical work, Albert Seba’s lavishly illustrated Thesaurus of exotic species of the East Indies, issued posthumously after the author’s own death in a process that took decades.  Here, Margócsy skilfully makes use of the correspondence left behind by a disgruntled ghostwriter of captions to the exquisite engravings, to show how in the marketplace for natural-historical books, it was really (expensive) images that counted far more than (writerly) text, thus significantly calling into question modern scholars’ views of “authorship” in the sciences.

The second chapter, “Refer to Folio and Number,” likewise explores the commercialization of natural-historical works c. 1700, in this case by arguing that encyclopedias of natural history, especially zoologically-focused ones, came to be designed in specific ways that would facilitate the exchange of natural-historical “curiosities” in increasingly monetized transactions.  In the late seventeenth century, Margócsy maintains, a new genre of zoological encyclopedias appeared on the scene for the purpose of identifying specimens like shells and insects, which earlier in the early modern period had not been investigated by naturalists as avidly as plants, but which during the late seventeenth century came into their own as collectors’ items.  Here, Margócsy argues, we can see the ways in which the identification of natural kinds went hand in hand with their marketing, as richly illustrated zoological encyclopedias came to serve as de facto ordering catalogs for rare species from the entire expanse of the globe.

In the third chapter, “Advertising Cadavers in the Republic of Letters,” the dissertation shifts gears slightly, moving from the examination of natural-historical objects and images to anatomical ones.  Here Margócsy probes the origins and epistemological status in the late seventeenth-century Netherlands of “anatomical preparations,” those specimens of human or animal tissue preserved by mixtures of wax and various fluids from decay so as to enable curious viewers the chance to inspect the inmost secrets of the body.  Detached eyeballs, muscles, entire fetuses — all of these were kept in jars by the noted Amsterdam apothecary and surgeon Frederik Ruysch and others.  Focusing on the figure of Ruysch in particular, Margócsy expertly dissects the ways in which the Amsterdammer, while using secret, proprietary recipes for his wax mixtures, constructed a vision of knowledge he presented the three-dimensional objects in his museum as the epitome of accuracy and exposure to public verification, far more so than any two-dimensional image produced by a fallible human artist or engraver could ever hope to be.

Meanwhile the fourth chapter, “A Cemetery of Corpses?”, shows how Ruysch’s claim to the primacy of anatomical preparations in the study of the human body came to be challenged and contested.  The Leiden professor Govard Bidloo, in particular, developed what Margócsy terms a “paper epistemology,” which championed the visual representation of human tissues and organs through printed engravings as, in fact, offering valuable representational possibilities not afforded by anatomical preparations.  Margócsy reconstructs how Bidloo saw engravings as enabling the depiction of change through time and the comparison of objects at different scales (life-size vs. microscopic, for example), all at much higher resolutions than anatomical preparations, “frozen” in wax at life-size, could offer.  Demonstrating the degree to which anatomical preparations and engravings each became valuable commodities in their own right, furthermore, as they were sold to the highest bidder, Margócsy examines the commercial implications of Ruysch’s and Bidloo’s clashing ideas about representation.

The final chapter, “Possessing Secrets, Acquiring Art” explores one last case study: that of the invention of color printing, which was to prove an invaluable tool for those seeking to support their scientific claims through representations of nature in even more “transparent” forms.  In color printing, “the addition of color made print a worthy competitor to three-dimensional objects,” making colored mezzotints on scientific subjects accessible to audiences throughout early eighteenth-century Europe.  Tracing the lengthy history of the quest to show nature’s true colors, Margócsy focuses in particular detail on case of Jacob-Christoph Le Blon, a German-born artisan and entrepreneur whose stay in the Netherlands and correspondence on theoretical issues with the Dutch merchant Lambert ten Kate helped lead to his ultimate success in Paris.  Here too, Margócsy argues, commercial concerns, in the form of efforts to acquire proprietary privileges for his new printing process (Le Blon turned to anatomical illustration as a way of proving his process’s delicacy and accuracy) were inextricably intertwined with the very production of this new form of visuality.

The dissertation as a whole, in its innovative treatment of issues both visual and commercial, thus opens up promising new vistas in the history of science.  With implications stretching far beyond the Dutch context which serves as a frame for its case studies, the dissertation suggests new ways of looking at visual representations, and the epistemologies associated with them, not only in the particular case of early modern European science but in science studies more broadly.  In its insistence on confronting the significance of an increasingly commercial world, in which not only natural objects but also forms and even methods of scientific representation could increasingly come to be monetized and commoditized, the dissertation opens up provocative new paths for scholars of science studies.

Alix Cooper
History Department
SUNY-Stony Brook

Primary Sources

Archival and manuscript materials from:
Nationaal Archief, The Hague
The British Library
Universitäts- und Forschungsbibliothek Erfurt-Gotha
Archives of the Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg
Archives nationales, Paris

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2009. 281 pp. Primary Advisor: Mario Biagioli.


Image: Juriaen Pool II. Two members of the Surgeons’ Guild. Amsterdam: Amsterdam Museum. inv. nr. SA 3031.

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