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Bulbs And Bubbles

TulipMania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age

By Anne Goldgar

(University of Chicago Press, 425 pp., $30)

Deep within the massive masonry structure of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, an archive is tucked away among the domed vaults of the north aisle. For the most part it contains the building's construction records, which reach as far back as the beginning of the sixteenth century, but the archive of the Reverenda Fabbrica di San Pietro also has lists of indulgences (certificates guaranteeing time off in Purgatory) sold in Germany, samples of Renaissance silk, and some seventeenth-century books containing ravishing pictures of tulips. There are tulips with feathery petals, tulips whose white petals are shot with veins of red, tulips that curl with a Baroque flourish. The seventeenth century was the moment when Europe suddenly went mad for tulips, a Turkish wildflower whose graceful shape and extraordinary capacity for mutation made it as capable of infinite variety as Shakespeare's Cleopatra. Tulips were embroidered on dresses, waistcoats and priestly vestments, and woven into tapestries, and painted as stylish embellishments or as the focal point of lush bouquets, their short-lived blooms fixed at last for all seasons. Living tulips made their way into European gardens, transported from Turkey as bulbs and then passed on to Dutch middlemen, whose Protestant faith made them less likely than their Catholic contemporaries to ponder another crusade against the Ottoman infidel.

As the catalogues in the Reverenda Fabbrica di San Pietro prove, tulip mania gripped all of Europe, not just the Netherlands; but the sandy soil and hardy merchants of the province of Holland provided the irresistible flower, then as now, with its most fertile ground. For four decades in the early seventeenth century, tulip prices rose steadily to vertiginous heights. Then, in February 1637, the market collapsed virtually overnight. Tradition has it that desperate Dutchmen drowned themselves in the canals of Amsterdam and Haarlem rather than face financial ruin. Contemporary cartoons ridiculed the tulip speculators as a confederacy of dunces, including the unwitting dupe who cooked and ate a priceless bulb thinking it was an onion. Tulip mania has served for more than three and a half centuries as a warning against the perils of short-sighted capitalism.

Yet, as Anne Goldgar gently informs us at the beginning of her absorbing book, most of what we "know" about tulip mania is pure fiction, borrowed wholesale from a Dutch satire called Dialogue between True-Mouth and Greedy-Goods, penned by one Adriaen Roman in 1637, at the very moment when the bubble burst. By comparing the assertions of True-Mouth and Greedy-Goods with surviving archival records in Haarlem, Utrecht, and Amsterdam, Goldgar has discovered that most of the tulip merchants who were active in 1637 continued to trade long after the February crash. The real long-term effect of the crisis, then, was more practical than dramatic: by setting a more reasonable range for tulip prices, it actually stabilized a market that thrives with no less vigor today.

The first Dutch tulip merchants were a special breed, men and women closely linked by marriage, religion, and, most of all, a peculiar combination of passion and expertise. Tellingly, the self-chosen term for the most qualified dealers was liefhebber, or lover. Flowers were, for them, much more than a commodity. More prosaically, tulip traders were also known as bloemisten, or florists. A conspicuous number of them were Mennonites, and many came from outside Holland. One large and powerful group had fled the religious persecutions that began to mar life in Spanish-dominated Antwerp. Five partners working in Haarlem had originally come from the same group of remote villages in German Swabia. Another dealer, the exotically named Jeronimus Victory, started life in Italy as an insurance salesman named Girolamo Vittori.

As a group, the bloemisten ranged from well-off to out-and-out wealthy. They were successful merchants who could indulge in the risky business of exotic flowers because they also carried on a stable trade in less glamorous commodities. In Haarlem, where the records of the seventeenth-century city are especially well preserved, Goldgar discovered that most of the tulip traders made their living as cloth merchants, in company with a certain number of bakers, brewers, and innkeepers. Other liefhebbers worked as apothecaries, spice merchants, dyers, gardeners, or, like Jeronimus Victory, insurance brokers. Women entered the business as enthusiastically as men, negotiating for bulbs and working tirelessly to arrange the marriages that bound the liefhebbers into a remarkably close-knit community.

As the satirists realized in the late winter of 1637, tulip mania provided a suggestive image of the Netherlands in an age when expanding commerce had brought unprecedented prosperity. Stern, patient practicality had wrested the country's fields and cities piece by piece from the grip of the sea, and although the qualities of persistence and frugality still dominated Dutch society, sophisticated new tastes had also emerged along with the new temptations. Only in this rarefied Golden Age could an object that looked for all the world like an onion have been traded for such dizzying sums of money, all for the none-too-secure hope that a dry brown bulb would one day burst into a flower as ephemeral as it was glorious.

The liefhebbers' passion for tulips extended to other wonders of nature and human ingenuity. Goldgar has found them trading paintings, dogs, ostrich eggs, and carved coral as well as bulbs. Theirs was the age of Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Hals, of burghers clad in black woolens and starched collars who imported silks and spices from the far ends of the earth before purveying them in turn to the rest of Europe. The East India Company had just established its foothold in the Spice Islands (now Indonesia); an analogous West India Company would ultimately prove less successful at staving off competition from Spain, Portugal, and the Ottoman Empire.

The risks of Golden Age trade encouraged both a stern Protestant prudence and a love for gambling that could reach levels of comic absurdity, as when Rembrandt and his friends placed bets that they would still be alive at the same time the following year. (Rembrandt lived to collect.) The black-clad burghers who stare back at us from their portraits by Rembrandt and Hals also wear those extravagantly starched and gathered collars, with their intricate borders of microscopically fine lace. As people, they present a strange mix of conformity and remarkable personal freedom, practical moderation and unbridled hedonism--and we can still recognize them in their contemporary descendants, who have the same qualities in the same elusive combination.

Dutch archival records are so complete that many liefhebbers can be tracked down to their houses and neighborhoods, many of these, too, remarkably well preserved. Goldgar marshals maps and contracts alongside photographs of shops and canals to show how the passion for tulips guided liefhebbers even in their choice of places to live. The commercial prosperity of the Golden Age led predictably to flourishing populations, and Dutch cities expanded to meet the growing need for housing. Amsterdam's tulip merchants clustered in the new neighborhoods along the Prinsengracht, the ring-shaped "Prince's canal," where close-packed rows of houses enclosed extensive garden plots. In Haarlem, liefhebbers chose property along the main road from Amsterdam, where again large back gardens allowed them to plant each tulip in splendid isolation--a priceless object to contemplate, when it bloomed, in its individual perfection. The contemplative practice may have been inspired by the Ottoman custom of presenting each tulip in its own elaborate pot.

Yet tulips were as capricious as they were beautiful, and liefhebbers suffered all the pains of more conventional lovers. A bulb flowered once a year, for perhaps a week of fleeting glory. And there was also that other notorious lover's flaw: mutability. The plant's unusually quick rate of mutation meant that new varieties emerged all the time. Unfortunately for lovers and traders, the emergence of those varieties was frustratingly unpredictable (in marked contrast, for example, with the breeding of dogs). In the first place, the workings of heredity had yet to be entirely understood--Gregor Mendel's experiments with sweet peas lay two centuries in the future. The flowers, moreover, propagated in two different ways: by pollen and seeds, but also by secondary bulbs, clones called offsets--with each growing season, individual bulbs grew fat underground and then split off into smaller segments. And yet, when the offsets finally bloomed a year later, their flowers did not always look like those of the parent bulb.

It was this curious fact that made tulip trading so risky, and so romantically mysterious. Sometimes the difference was simply a matter of the tulip's marvelous mutability, but in the case of prized "broken" tulips, with their scarlet veins, the effect itself derived not from the flowers' genetic heritage, but from a fungus. One offset of a "broken" parent might have the fungus and another might not, so that thousands of guilders invested in a white Semper Augustus shot with red might result in a plain red flower pushing up from the stately bed that had been prepared for a quite different and more dazzling kind of bloom. Dutch microscopy was literally in its infancy--at the time of the crash, Anton van Leeuwenhoek was a child of five--and so the breaking of broken tulips remained an unfathomable secret.

Goldgar focuses on the social aspects of tulip trading rather than on the flowers themselves. (She writes in full awareness of Anna Pavord's lavish flower-centered book The Tulip, which appeared in 1999.) She urges her readers, as already noted, to examine the phenomenon in connection with other kinds of collecting and connoisseurship, and the various kinds of social prestige that followed upon possession of, and knowledge about, exotica. Since traders worked for most of the year with bulbs, that is, with potential flowers rather than actual ones, trust played a more essential role than usual in their transactions. This was one reason that the community of liefhebbers tended to be so tight, and so tightly related--and one reason that the shift in prices, when it came, seemed more like an earthquake, the signal of a moral fault line in society rather than a simple, if sudden, economic adjustment.

In fact, a good deal of the allure of tulip mania derived from the flower's peculiar botany, which determined its stubbornly unpredictable behavior in an age that was otherwise busily recognizing nature's patterns and regularities and creating modern science. Seventeenth-century collectors, like seventeenth- century natural philosophers, scrutinized the bewildering variety of the phenomenal world for its underlying order, its laws, principles, and consistencies. So did seventeenth-century traders, sending out their emissaries to the ends of the earth in search of new commodities that could be made into essentials of life--and hence subjected to the laws of supply and demand.

To a satisfying extent, the world ran in harmony with these systems. Amazing creatures like narwhals and armadillos nonetheless begot baby narwhals and armadilloes. The hairy man of the Canary Islands married a normal woman and fathered both hairy children and normal ones. But tulips, for their fleeting beauty and their mutability, inspired visions; even their catalogues, like the ones preserved in the Reverenda Fabbrica di San Pietro, present each flower in a splendid individual portrait. Only the conspicuous prices distinguished them, perhaps, from the portraits of beautiful women that graced many a seventeenth- century gallery. Tulipmania presents a whole range of tulip-inspired allegories, from Joris Hoefnagel's stunningly realistic still-life Allegory on the Brevity of Life, painted in 1591, with its caterpillars, butterflies, mayflies, roses, and a tulip, to the crudely printed broadsides that followed on the crash of 1637, the same broadsides that created what is really the myth of tulip mania, with all the resonant power of suggestion that myth can muster. To go mad over flowers may have made no rational sense, but it provided the perfect picture of irrationality.

Eventually, Dutch tulip prices would have had to find their equilibrium: the heights they reached in 1636 were an experimental extreme. But two outside factors, as Goldgar shows convincingly, made the market's abrupt shifts in February 1637 look like a cataclysm. The first was an outbreak of bubonic plague that erupted in 1636, bringing on its usual train of death and panic, but also an unusual number of wills whose provisions involved tulip bulbs and tulip transactions. The second was that the crash came in Carnival season, with its ritual rebellion against every kind of propriety. In a culture as carefully regulated as that of Holland, carnival craziness provided a crucial outlet for social tensions, but even when regulated by calendar and ceremony, the topsy- turvy carnival world was as disconcerting as a painting by Breughel or Bosch. In a plague year, those tensions and those discomfitures were all the greater, compounded by real fears that this time God's wrath would be implacable.

Tulips simply provided these longstanding aspects of the human condition with an irresistible symbol, just as the intangible evanescence of the Internet recently lent a certain suggestive aura to a similar quick shift in dot-com prices. The real problem, as this arresting book concludes, lies not in tulips, nor even in capitalism, but in ourselves--in the elusive but persistent ways in which we ascribe value to people, or things, or ideas. In the meantime we are lucky that the sandbars of Holland still burst into bloom every spring, as they have now for nearly four centuries, in ways that are more easily explained but, for all that, no less marvelous.

Ingrid D. Rowland is a professor at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture in Rome.

By Ingrid D. Rowland