Books in the Golden Age


Vintage books in the ‘Asia in Amsterdam’ exhibition. Courtesy photo

From time to time, items from the Phillips Library get selected for exhibition in the galleries over at the museum. Similar to the paintings or silk tapestries on the wall of an exhibition, books obviously have more of a story to tell than what appears at first glance. The Asia in Amsterdam exhibition opening this week features a number of books from the Phillips Library, but their secure placement in cases throughout the galleries brings to mind the old adage that books shouldn’t be judged just by their covers – or in this particular instance, their covers or the particular set of pages you can see as the book sits open. This post means to dig a little deeper into a number of the books currently on display.

The exhibition features books from the library’s own collections, such as the Frederick Townsend Ward Collection on Imperial China, as well as some that are on deposit with the Phillips Library, in particular the Eijk and Rose-Marie van Otterloo Library on Dutch art. The books vary in ways books always do – from the heaviest, over-sized tomes to smaller, convenient to pick up and carry volumes, with different languages and subject specialties—but they all come together to represent the growth of information about the wider world available to an eager Dutch society at the time.


The exhibition case shown above is a sampling of the vast amount of volumes published during that time period. The public’s fascination with new discoveries and cultures outside of Europe provided substantial support for a rapidly expanding publishing industry. The writers in the case range from a German Jesuit scholar to a Dutch surgeon and an Italian Jesuit missionary. Other writers include George Psalmanazar and Willem Cornelisz Schouten. Schouten took part in an expedition that discovered the route around Cape Horn to the Pacific Ocean, and Psalmanazar, originally from France, masqueraded as a native of Formosa, or present day Taiwan. His work in the exhibition is a descriptive tale of his supposed homeland. Thanks to the high production quality of books during that time period, we are still able to view these works as wealthy sources of information. A detailed listing of the books in this case can be found at the end of this post.


Close-up of the spine title of Johannes Isacius Pontanus’ Rerum et Urbis Amstelodamensium Historia. The volume, bound in vellum, is from the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection.

The oldest volume in the case seen above was published in 1611. Written by Johannes Isacius Pontanus, the work Rerum et Urbis Amstelodamensium Historia was published by J. Hondius in Amsterdam. Although born in Denmark in 1571, Pontanus spent much of his childhood in Amsterdam. Written in Latin, the work celebrates Amsterdam’s economic prosperity through the growing network of trading and cultural exchanges around the world.  As an intriguing aside, later in 1618, Christian IV of Denmark appointed Pontanus as the Royal Danish historian, whereupon Pontanus was given the not so light task of writing a history of Denmark. The first volume of that work was published during his lifetime, with the second eventually following suit well after his death.


Engraved title page for Rerum et Urbis Amstelodamensium Historia by Johannes Isacius Pontanus. The stamp hovering over the Amsterdam coat of arms is from Bibliotheca Afrana, a library in Germany.

In the Fashionistas section of the exhibition, a small volume with quite a story sits among the finest examples of Dutch fashion. Written by Jean-Baptiste Tavernier and originally published in Paris in 1676, the work was reprinted in Amsterdam in 1678. It was widely popular and translated into several languages. The volume featured in the exhibition from the Phillips Library is one of the Amsterdam reprints.


The Amsterdam publication of Les Six Voyages de Jean Baptiste Tavernier was published in two volumes. The book on exhibition is the second volume and the plate shown here shows the difference between cut and uncut gemstones that belonged to Asian monarchs.

Tavernier was the son of a cartographer, but is most well-known for his discovery of the 116-carat Tavernier blue diamond. He eventually made a substantial profit when he sold the diamond to Louis XIV of France in 1668. The same diamond would eventually reappear years later as the Hope Diamond.

One of the more prominent and influential Dutch works on display is Het Gezantschap der Neêrlandtsche Oost-Indische Compagnie by Joan Nieuhof, first published in Amsterdam in 1665 by bookseller and engraver Jacob van Meurs. The copy in the exhibition sits open to the volume’s elaborately engraved additional title page.


Joan Nieuhof’s Het Gezantschap der Neêrlandtsche Oost-Indische Compagnie in exhibition case. The library’s copy in the exhibit comes out of our Frederick Townsend Ward Collection of Western published materials on Imperial China.


Two pages from Het Gezantschap der Neêrlandtsche Oost-Indische Compagnie. On the left, the title page of Niehof’s work. On the right, a portrait of Joan Nieuhof

The illustrations throughout the work, which include landscapes, villages, temples and people throughout 17th century China, came from drawings done by Nieuhof himself. Nieuhof’s travels included a journey from Canton to Peking, and his work was enormously popular after its initial publication in 1665. The influence of Niehof’s work was so huge that scenes from its page appeared elsewhere. The exhibition features fascinating examples of these appearances, including the delftware vase situated next to the volume itself and the plaque shown below.


Illustration from Nieuhof’s work depicting Chinese street performers, including figures performing music, animal tricks, and balancing acts.


Delftware plaque from the Netherlands that features a similar street performance scene to the one shown above.

The Asia in Amsterdam exhibition features many treasured volumes from the Phillips Library. Hopefully this post will entice you to take some extra time to admire them.

More Books FROM the Golden Age:

  • Olfert Dapper, Asia, of, Naukeurige beschryving van het rijk des Grooten Mogols, en een groot gedeelte van Indien (Asia, or An Accurate Description of the Empire of the Great Moguls and a Large Portion of India), 1672. Published in Amsterdam, by Jacob van Meurs. Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.
  • Johannes Isacius Pontanus, Rerum et urbis Amstelodamensium historia (History of Amsterdam), 1611. Published in Amsterdam, by J. Hondius. The Eijk and Rose-Marie van Otterloo Library on Dutch Art on deposit at Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.
  • Joan Nieuhof, An Embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces, to the Grand Tartar Cham, Emperor of China, 1665. English edition, published in London, by John Green, 1673. Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.
  • Athanasius Kircher, Toonneel van China (Theater of China), 1668. Published in Amsterdam, by Johannes Janssonius van Waesberge. Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.
  • Martino Martini, Regni Sinensis à Tartaris tyrannicè evastati depopulatique concinna enarrati (The Tartar’s Devastation of the Kingdom of China), 1661. Published in Amsterdam, by Janssonius Valkenier. Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.
  • Martino Martini, Sinicæ historiæ decas prima (The First Ten Divisions of Chinese History), 1658. Published in Munich, this edition published in Amsterdam, 1659, by Joan Blaeu. Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.
  • George Psalmanazar, Description de l’ile Formosa en Asie: du gouvernement, des loix, des mœurs & de la religion des habitans (A Description of the Island of Formosa in Asia: The Government, Laws, Mores, and Religion of its Inhabitants), 1704. Published in London, this edition published in Amsterdam, 1705, by Estienne Roger. Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.
  • Nicolaus de Graaff, Voyages de Nicolas de Graaf aux Indes orientales et en d’autres lieux de l’Asie (Voyages of Nicolas de Graaf to the East Indies and Other Places in Asia), 1719. Published in French in Amsterdam, by J.F. Bernard. Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.
  • Willem Cornelisz. Schouten, Journal ou Relation exacte du voyage de Gvill. Schovten (Journal or Accurate Description of the Voyage of William Schouten), 1618. French edition published in Paris, 1618, by M. Gobert with maps by M. Tavernier. Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum

Editors’ Note: This post originally ran on Conversant, the staff blog for the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum.

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