The best books to understand the Dutch Golden Age

Hugh Aldersey-Williams Author Of Dutch Light
By Hugh Aldersey-Williams

Who am I?

In my writing about science, I am always keen to include the artistic and literary dimension that links the science to the broader culture. In Huygens, a product of the Dutch Golden Age, I found a biographical subject for whom it would have been quite impossible not to embrace these riches. This context – including painting, music, poetry, mechanics, architecture, gardens, fashion and leisure – is crucial to understanding the life that Huygens led and the breakthroughs he was able to make.


I wrote...

Dutch Light

By Hugh Aldersey-Williams,

Book cover of Dutch Light

What is my book about?

Filled with incident, discovery, and revelation, Dutch Light is a vivid account of Christiaan Huygens’s remarkable life and career, but it is also nothing less than the story of the birth of modern science as we know it.

Europe’s greatest scientist during the latter half of the seventeenth century, Christiaan Huygens was a true polymath. A towering figure in the fields of astronomy, optics, mechanics, and mathematics, many of his innovations in methodology, optics and timekeeping remain in use to this day. Among his many achievements, he developed the theory of light travelling as a wave, invented the mechanism for the pendulum clock, and discovered the rings of Saturn – via a telescope that he had also invented.

The books I picked & why

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Rembrandt's Eyes

By Simon Schama,

Book cover of Rembrandt's Eyes

Why this book?

His earlier and best-known book, The Embarrassment of Riches, may offer a more comprehensive synopsis of the culture of the Dutch Republic’s Golden Age, including everything from the fashions, drinking and dice games that paradoxically thrived amid the strictures of Calvinism to the interpretations placed on passing natural events such as comets in the sky or the appearance of a whale on the beach. But Schama here gives us a loving and humane portrait of its greatest artist, doing in words what Rembrandt did in paint for his subjects, presenting his humanity with truth and dignity enlivened by inimitable splashes of colour and brilliant strokes of the pen. Using the paintings themselves as his window, Schama allows us not only to see back in time to this astonishing period, but to view it as those who lived through it must have seen it.


Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing

By Laura J Snyder,

Book cover of Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing

Why this book?

The Dutch Golden Age produced some of the world’s greatest art, but – less known – it was also a period of astonishing scientific and technical innovation. Snyder gets to the heart of the intrinsic connection between the worlds of art and science when she examines the lives of two of the greatest innovators who were born in the same month of 1632 and lived and worked in the same tiny city of Delft, and yet who may never have known each other or even met: the painter Vermeer and the pioneer of the microscope, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek.

Although it is frustrating that there is no record of the two men having met – we can only conjecture the kind of conversation they might have had, with their common interest in the use of light and the understanding of optical phenomena – this in a way is the point of Snyder’s book. Brilliance did not require a meeting of minds; brilliance was in the air all around. It was the extraordinary milieu within which both men made their lives – which furnished them with the clients they needed, with advanced technical skills and arcane raw materials – that was so profligate as to be able to spew out not one genius but two. An embarrassment of riches indeed.


The Great Level

By Stella Tillyard,

Book cover of The Great Level

Why this book?

Fiction allows for the portrayal of a kind of absorption in the processes and materials of a historical period that is unusual in nonfiction. It can give a powerful sense of how time actually passed for people. Vermeer’s chaotic domestic routine as a painter was splendidly imagined by Tracy Chevalier in Girl with a Pearl Earring, for example. But the technical innovators of the Dutch Golden Age – the telescopists, the astronomers, the surveyors and engineers – are yet to be celebrated in this way. Sadly, nobody has written the story of Simon Stevin, who built a sand-yacht that could outrun a galloping horse as it whipped along the Dutch strand, or of Cornelis Drebbel, who demonstrated a submarine for King James I that mysteriously managed to stay underwater with its crew for several hours in the River Thames.

However, Stella Tillyard has performed this service on behalf of the Dutch hydraulic engineers who came to England during the seventeenth century and so altered large tracts of the English countryside near where I live. The hero of her fiction, Jan Brunt, is a protégé of the real Cornelis Vermuyden, who masterminded the colossal project of draining the fens. (Brunt is the overseeing engineer; the actual digging is done by Irish prisoners of war.) Tillyard describes technical facets of the project with a light touch, and counterbalances this with a sense of the delicate ecology of that unique environment before it was so radically reshaped – an economy as well as an ecology since it includes the reedsmen and water dwellers who will be displaced by the works. This tension resonates gently with our knowledge of peoples and habitats under threat of destruction today in one of a number of surprising – but ultimately convincing – modern echoes. Other such twists of fate lie in wait for Brunt and the English marsh-girl he falls for.


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

By Anne Goldgar,

Book cover of Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age

Why this book?

Perhaps no one object was more demonstrative of the Dutch thirst for beauty, novelty and showing-off-but-not-showing-off riches than the tulip. The famous mania for these exotic bulbs, bred to produce ever more exotic flowers and to command ever higher prices, supposedly produced the world’s first economic bubble, which burst spectacularly in February 1637.

The truth is less spectacular (few people were involved in the trade and even fewer were ruined) but, in Goldgar’s skilful telling, much richer and more nuanced than the myth. The episode tells us about the growth of maritime trade and the emergence of the modern financial industry (including the important concept of risk) as well as the cultural interests of Dutch people at this exciting time in their history when the accumulation and subtle display of wealth vied in importance with the quest for aesthetic novelty and genuine curiosity about the natural world. One fashion-conscious doctor even renamed himself Dr Tulip – he is the surgeon seen demonstrating the dissection of an executed prionser’s body in Rembrandt’s famous painting of 1632, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp.


Think Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to Die

By Steven Nadler,

Book cover of Think Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to Die

Why this book?

Baruch Spinoza was the philosophical flower of the Dutch Golden Age. Bertrand Russell called him the "noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers", and I am certainly not going to disagree. Like many of the innovators of the Golden Age, his ideas still seem fresh. Expelled from his Jewish community in Amsterdam for his ‘heresies’, we now find his conception of God as nature highly congenial. We probably share his dislike of ritual and perhaps aspire to his renunciation of materialism. His advice neither to fear nor to hope when it concerns things we can do nothing about is as good now as it was when it appeared in his most famous work, Ethics, in 1677.

Spinoza’s philosophy is hard to approach in the original – his arguments are rigorously constructed in the style of ancient Greek mathematics proofs. But Steven Nadler, as well as producing a towering biography of Spinoza, has written this highly accessible primer to his most important ideas. If you wish to become a free person in a world without evil, this is the book for you.


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Interested in the Dutch Golden Age, the Netherlands, and Colonial America?

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