An Adornment to the Cleavage

The spectacular colors and endless variations of the tulip marked it from its first discovery as an exceptional flower. There was general agreement on this point, not only between Turks and Dutchmen but also among botanists of every nationality, and by 1600 it had been widely acclaimed throughout Europe. The tulip, the French horticulturalist Monstereul wrote a little later, was supreme among flowers in the same way that humans were lords of the animals, diamonds eclipsed all other precious stones, and the sun ruled the stars. That judgment, to a seventeenth-century mind, said something important about the tulip. If humans were God’s chosen creatures, then the tulip was surely God’s chosen flower.

The popularity of the new flower was such that garden lovers soon began to strive to outdo each other by producing ever more dazzling and brilliantly colored varieties. Thanks in part to the work of Clusius and his circle of correspondents, a good number of different hybrids were now available; to the tulips of the Netherlands and the dozens of varieties produced by James Garret in England must be added the forty-one French cultivars cataloged by the botanist Mathias Lobelius and uncounted others elsewhere; certainly many more than one hundred in 1600, and one thousand (of which at least five hundred were Dutch) by the 1630s. The latter total compares remarkably favorably to the 2,500 or so species produced by the mid-eighteenth century and the 5,000 cultivars recognized today.

Nevertheless, the number of bulbs available at the turn of the century remained somewhat limited. Most of the new varieties had so far produced only a handful of tulips, and largely for this reason, the flower remained the passion of the privileged few. It was grown principally by rich connoisseurs, who valued it for its beauty and the intensity of its colors. These men traded prized flowers among themselves, but because they were, almost without exception, wealthy in their own right, they only rarely cared to make substantial profits from these exchanges.

By the end of the sixteenth century small groups of tulip connoisseurs existed throughout Europe. They could be found in the city-states of northern Italy, in England, and in the empire. But thanks largely to the early introduction of the tulip to the southern Netherlands, the largest concentration of enthusiasts were to be found in the Low Countries among the members of the Flemish nobility and gentry. Many of these connoisseurs had obtained their first bulbs from Carolus Clusius and his companions. Clusius’s colleague Lobelius published a list of them in 1581; they included Marie de Brimeu and her husband the duke of Aerschot, who had a fine garden at their home in The Hague; Joris Rye of Mechelen, and Clusius’s lifelong friend Jean de Brancion.

From the Netherlands the tulip soon spread south to France, where the soil of Picardy was well suited to the cultivation of bulbs. Around 1610 there was a craze for flowers in Paris, and fashionable nobles began competing with each other to present the ladies of the French court with the rarest and most spectacular specimens they could find. When the idea first caught on, most of the blooms exchanged in this way were roses, which had been, for several centuries, by far the most popular garden flowers. But the nobles of the French court found in the tulip something capable of surpassing the reigning empress of the garden. The subtle elegance of the flower—not to mention its novelty and rarity—quickly established it as the new favorite of the court. The fashion for tulips seems to have raged at least until the wedding of the young king Louis XIII in 1615, where aristocratic ladies wore cut flowers as an adornment to the cleavage, pinned to the plunging necklines of their low-cut dresses, and the most beautiful varieties are said to have been as highly esteemed as diamonds. The Dutch horticulturalist Abraham Munting, writing later in the century, recorded that at the height of the French craze a single tulip of especial beauty—and a cut flower, not a bulb—changed hands for the equivalent of a thousand Dutch guilders.

Of course, the nobles of the court soon sought new diversions. But their enthusiasm for the tulip had important consequences, for Parisian society, even in the seventeenth century, was renowned throughout Europe for its elegance and style, and the fashions of the court were taken up and followed elsewhere. Indeed, they often continued to flourish in the backwaters of the continent long after the French themselves had moved on to some other craze, and it was not at all uncommon for visitors to the west of Ireland or the forests of Lithuania to find the ladies there dressed in styles that Paris had discarded ten or twenty years before. The passion for tulips that swept through the court of Louis XIII for a few short years thus did much to ensure that the flower would be looked on with high favor throughout the continent for decades to come.

The first people to follow the fashion of the French court were the French themselves. Shortly after the tulip became popular in Paris, a miniature mania for the flower took place in northern France. There are, unfortunately, no contemporary sources of information about this episode, which by all accounts foreshadowed what was later to occur in the United Provinces. If later reports are to be believed, however, the passion for tulips was such that in about 1608 a miller exchanged his mill for a single specimen of a variety called Mere Brune, and another enthusiast handed over a brewery valued at thirty thousand francs in return for one bulb of the hybrid Tulipe Brasserie. A third account of the same episode tells of a bride whose dowry consisted of one solitary bulb of a new Rosen tulip, which her father had bred and named, with due sense of occasion, Marriage de Ma Fille. (The groom of this tale is supposed to have been delighted by the magnificence of the gift.)

These stories may be apocryphal. It is, however, certain that the fashion for tulips soon spread through the rest of Europe. By 1620 the flower was nowhere more popular than in the United Provinces, where it quickly eclipsed rivals such as the lily and the carnation. Tulips began to be cultivated throughout the republic, where they were admired by an increasing number of knowledgeable connoisseurs and grown in a profusion of varieties from Rotterdam in the south of the country to Groningen in the north.

The initial impetus for the long-standing Dutch enthusiasm for tulips was provided by the flood of refugees and immigrants who poured across the borders of the United Provinces from the southern Netherlands at intervals throughout the Dutch Revolt. Tens of thousands of Protestants living in the Spanish lands fled north in order to keep their religion and escape intermittent bouts of persecution. In some instances the influx of immigrants more than doubled the size of Dutch towns; 28,000 refugees arrived in Leiden between 1581 and 1621, and the total population quadrupled from 12,000 to 45,000, while in Amsterdam, throughout the seventeenth century, the majority of men marrying within the city walls had not been born there. The immigrants were willing to work hard, and they often had capital to invest, substantially adding to the sum total of Dutch prosperity. The majority were capable artisans who could contribute useful skills—the foundation of the famous Amsterdam diamond trade was directly attributable to immigrants from Antwerp—but among their numbers were many of the wealthiest merchants of great towns such as Brussels and Antwerp. These men included a number of early enthusiasts for the tulip who brought their bulbs with them, introducing many new varieties to the United Provinces. By swelling the number of bulbs in cultivation, the refugees must also have made the flower significantly more widely available than it had once been.

But the tulip was not popular just among immigrants; many Dutchmen were also becoming passionate about the flower. In the United Provinces, unlike the rest of Europe, tulip connoisseurs were rarely aristocrats; the nobility of the northern Netherlands, which had controlled the country for hundreds of years, had been largely wiped out in the Spanish wars. They were, rather, members of the new ruling class of the republic—a group of rich and influential private citizens whom the Dutch called “regents.”

The regents of a Dutch city typically included particularly well-to-do second-or third-generation businessmen, some lawyers, and perhaps a physician. As a rule they were wealthy enough to live by investing their money in bonds, foreign trade, or closer to home, one of the many profitable schemes for reclaiming land from the sea or draining lakes and marshes to create new farmland. They were thus freed from the day-to-day cares of earning a living and formed a self-perpetuating ruling class whose members filled the principal posts in the provincial parliaments and town councils.

The few Dutch connoisseurs who were not regents were rich merchants, some of whom were at least as wealthy as their compatriots, but who nevertheless earned their living by taking an active part in the running of some business or other. The men of this class were generally accorded an honorific title that recognized their particular calling—so that a man named, for example, de Jonge who was involved in the fisheries would be known as “Seigneur de Jonge in Herring”—and they tended to reinvest the profits they made in their own businesses. They had less time for their gardens than did the regents, but even so, a number of the richest merchants did become noted tulip lovers.

The flower was, in fact, perfectly suited to the United Provinces. It was not only fashionable and far more delicately colored than other garden plants; it was also unusually hardy, which meant that novices as well as expert horticulturalists could grow it successfully. The bulbs, moreover, flourished best in poor, sandy soils of the sort found in several parts of the republic and particularly in Holland, where a belt of dry, white earth ran parallel with the coast all the way from Leiden up to the city of Haarlem, just to the west of Amsterdam, and then on to Alkmaar, at the northern tip of the province.

What mattered most, however, was the tulip’s new status as a symbol of wealth and good taste. Beginning in about 1600 the United Provinces became, quite unexpectedly, by far the richest country in Europe. For more than half a century enormous sums of money poured into the country, greatly expanding the ranks of wealthy merchants. These men could afford to spend lavishly on things of beauty.

A number of contemporary writers have preserved the names of some of the wealthy Dutch connoisseurs who collected tulips in the first decades of the seventeenth century. They include several of the richest and most influential people in Holland—men such as Paulus van Beresteyn of Haarlem, who was once the regent of the local leper house, and who grew tulips within the city walls; and Jacques de Gheyn, a wealthy painter from The Hague. De Gheyn was a well-known patrician and an acquaintance of Clusius’s who was sufficiently passionate about gardening to complete a volume of flower paintings, twenty-two pages long, that he sold to the Holy Roman emperor Rudolf II. He was one of the few well-off connoisseurs whose real wealth is known with some accuracy, since he had his capital formally assessed in 1627, two years before his death. This audit showed he was then worth no less than forty thousand guilders.

Another tulipophile whose name figures in old records was far wealthier than van Beresteyn and de Gheyn together. Indeed, Guillelmo Bartolotti van de Heuvel (who was actually thoroughly Dutch and owed his bizarre name to the fact that he had been adopted by a childless uncle from Bologna) was one of the two richest men in all Amsterdam, and with assets worth a staggering 400,000 guilders in total, he was quite probably the wealthiest private individual ever to participate in the tulip trade. Having built his fortune in trade, van de Heuvel could afford to devote his leisure time to cultivating a celebrated garden right in the center of Amsterdam. From the scant descriptions that have survived, it appears it was laid out to a highly symmetrical and fiercely formal plan. Almost certainly it would have been the garden of a true connoisseur, following the contemporary fashion for flowers to be planted one to a bed so they could be admired in splendid isolation.

The vast influx of wealth that made a rich man of Guillelmo van de Heuvel was primarily a consequence of the Dutch Revolt. In the previous century, the republic’s largest town, Amsterdam, had been a city of only modest importance, while Antwerp, in the southern part of the Netherlands, was both the largest port and the wealthiest town in Europe. Huge quantities of goods from the Baltic, Spain, and the Americas passed through the city on their way to the Holy Roman Empire and the other states of northern Europe. But with the seizure of Flushing by the Sea Beggars in the first days of the rebellion, the Dutch were able to cut off much of the city’s commerce by blocking the mouth of the river Scheldt, which gave Antwerp its access to the sea. The blockade was a catastrophe for the Flemish town. Much of its considerable trade was diverted north to Holland, where Amsterdam became the principal beneficiary.

At about the same time the Dutch broke what had previously been a Spanish monopoly by opening trading links with the East Indies. To Europeans of the seventeenth century, the Indies were a source of almost unimaginable wealth. They overflowed with luxury goods, from spices to Chinese porcelain, which could not be obtained elsewhere. These goods could be purchased relatively cheaply in the East and were hardly bulky, yet they could earn a fortune at home. A single cargo of spices was worth many times more than the same tonnage of timber, grain, or salt—the commodities on which the Netherlands had long depended—and could be turned into spectacular profits if brought safely home.

Dutch merchants were quick to recognize the potential of trading with the East. By 1610 they had established outposts on a number of Indonesian islands, and despite the constant threat of Spanish attack, fleets laden with peppercorns and nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, sugar, silks, and dyestuffs were sailing regularly to the United Provinces. The merchants of Amsterdam called these new commodities the “rich trades,” and with good reason.

The surplus of wealth that now surged into the republic—a single voyage to the Indies could yield profits of up to 400 percent—touched the lives of thousands of Netherlanders. By 1631 fully five-sixths of Amsterdam’s richest three hundred citizens had a stake in the rich trades, and both the Dutch merchant class and the regents who backed them and invested in their enterprises were enormously better off, on average, than their contemporaries in England, France, or the empire.

By the standards of the time the most successful Dutch merchants were astonishingly wealthy. In the first half of the seventeenth century, a trader of the middle rank might have thought himself comfortable if his income reached 1,500 guilders a year and well off if it topped 3,000, while those below him in the social scale—clerks, shop owners, and others with some claim to the title “gentleman”—earned on average a third or a fifth as much: perhaps 500 to 1,000 guilders a year. But for men such as van de Heuvel, who had substantial stakes in the rich trades, incomes of 10,000, 20,000, even 30,000 guilders a year were possible. The richest of the lot was Jacob Poppen, the son of a German immigrant who had built his fortune trading with the Indies and with Russia. He was worth 500,000 guilders when he died in 1624. Adriaen Pauw, a regent who became burgomaster of Amsterdam and eventually one of the most prominent politicians of the United Provinces, amassed a fortune of 350,000 guilders from his successful investments, and by the 1630s another ten Amsterdammers possessed 300,000 guilders or more.

Today men of comparable wealth dress in the finest clothes and travel by private jet and limousine. But even at the height of the Dutch Golden Age, visitors to the republic found it hard to distinguish the wealthiest members of the regent and merchant classes from their countrymen. Even the richest of them dressed in clothes of the most severely unadorned variety, following the national fashion for large, wide-brimmed hats, tight trousers, and a heavy jacket. Underneath they sported a doublet, resembling a waistcoat—all in black—with substantial white ruffs at the throat and wrist, knee stockings, and tight black shoes, while their wives and daughters dressed in drab bodices and floor-length dresses, over which a lace apron often appeared. In winter, to keep out the pervasive Low Countries chill, men and women alike donned elegant fur-lined dressing gowns that were worn over all the other clothing at home and at the place of work, but otherwise it was customary to avoid any sort of display of wealth. Women rarely even displayed their hair, preferring to hide it under a tight white cap, and though Dutch men did style theirs in something approaching Cavalier fashion—long and curled at the shoulders, with mustaches and a small triangle of neatly trimmed beard—on the whole the national dress sense was resoundingly Puritan.

But however modest their dress, Dutch regents and merchants were not immune to the temptation to display their wealth. The riches that came in with the tides and flowed into the coffers of these immensely wealthy merchants and their backers had to find outlets of some sort. Some of the money, spent on food and wine or used to import produce to the towns from the countryside, trickled down to the lower levels of society and helped to raise standards of living throughout the republic. Much was saved, or reinvested. Still, there is no question that the profits of the rich trades also fueled consumption of all manner of luxuries, from great houses to paintings to tulips, making possible the remarkable variety and richness of the Golden Age that the United Provinces enjoyed between 1600 and 1670.

It was a time of tremendous cultural progress. The arts flourished as never before, fueled not only by the establishment of Leiden and other universities and schools but also by the arrival of many painters and writers from the south. So many artists, indeed, were looking for work that it became possible to commission a new painting or a play for a fraction of the usual cost. Many towns and private citizens took advantage of this fact, and visitors to the United Provinces were always greatly impressed by the variety and magnificence of the canvases, the tapestries, and the statuary that turned up in the most surprising places. At the same time several of the most brilliant artists were developing new techniques of realistic portraiture, creating the styles that men of the stature of Rembrandt (a Leiden miller’s son) and Frans Hals (a refugee from Antwerp) perfected. Architecture, too, enjoyed a renaissance as the new republic commissioned many imposing public buildings, and there were more books, more pamphlets, and more schools.

Individual Dutchmen, too, acquired a taste for building work. One of the principal reasons for the ever-increasing popularity of the tulip was the newfound passion among Dutch merchants and gentry for building grand country houses where they could enjoy—and indeed show off—their burgeoning wealth. Substantial mansions sprang up in clusters outside the richest Dutch towns: at Leiderdorp, a village on the outskirts of Leiden, among the rolling sand dunes on the coast west of Haarlem, and on the river Vecht, where it flowed from Utrecht to Amsterdam. They were typically built in the Classical style, fully staffed, amply proportioned, and set in extensive grounds that generally included formal gardens as well as parkland. For busy and successful merchants and for the hardworking members of the regent class, they acted as retreats from the hasty world of the city.

Social historians have found in this passion for house building an indicator of changing moods among the ruling classes of the United Provinces. During their Golden Age the once sober, God-fearing Dutch—so Calvinist that their society frowned on ostentation in all its forms and ministers were fined for venturing the merest semblance of a joke in church—slowly acquired something of a taste for display. From this point of view, perhaps the most interesting product of the building craze was Zorghvliet (“Fly from Care”), the country home of a prominent regent named Jacob Cats. Cats was one of the most famous Dutchmen of his day—a mild-mannered and extremely religious man who pursued dual careers as a politician and a popular writer and became without question the most widely respected Dutchman of the age. His fortune rested on his immense success as the author of popular moralistic verse, which sold in staggering quantities throughout the republic. A typical Cats stanza, in which the poet rather savored the opportunity to warn a beautiful young girl not to trade on her good looks, went like this:

Blond turns to gray
Light-hearted becomes grave
Red lips will turn blue
Beauteous cheeks will be dull
Agile legs become stiff
And nimble feet halt
Plump bodies lean
Fine skin wrinkled

Father Cats, as he was universally known, turned out more than a dozen books filled with this sort of verse, and something like fifty thousand copies of his complete poems found their way into Dutch homes; often a volume of Cats would be the only book in the house apart from a Bible. Many Dutch families regarded him fondly as an honest source of wisdom and saw his verses as a reliable guide to the moral problems of the day. If Jacob the poet thought there was nothing wrong with owning a country retreat, it was difficult to argue that there was.

This fashion for sumptuous country houses led naturally to the planting of many extensive country gardens. Dutch interest in horticulture had begun to flourish in the previous century and still showed no signs of abating. The grounds of Lord Offerbeake’s residence in Allofein, near Leiden (which an English member of Parliament, Sir William Brereton, visited in 1634), contained “spacious gardens and mighty great orchards, and a store of fish-ponds,” as well as twelve different varieties of hedgerow, a maze, long wooded walks, and of course a good number of flower beds. To be sure, Offerbeake’s was one of the grander plots in the United Provinces, but other wealthy men followed his example as best they could. Such gardens were regarded less as places of relaxation than as means of displaying the proprietor’s collection of plants.

The tacit approval of moralists such as Father Cats meant that the connoisseurs’ enthusiasm for the tulip, whose beauty was after all one of those minor miracles wrought by God and whose cultivation involved honest toil in the open air (an activity heartily recommended by Cats himself), escaped the censure it might otherwise have attracted from the more Calvinist elements of Dutch society, and the flower quickly became a prominent feature of many of the grandest new residences. One tulip garden that we know something about was planted at a country house called the Moufe-schans, which was celebrated in an epic poem of some sixteen thousand verses published in 1621 by a virulently anti-Spanish minister named Petrus Hondius. The Moufe-schans, which was built on the site of some German entrenchments dug during the Dutch Revolt and whose decidedly unbucolic name actually means “Trenches of the Krauts,” was owned by Johan Serlippens, the burgomaster of Neuzen. Serlippens invited his friend Hondius to stay with him, and in time the clergyman planted an herbal garden in the grounds that included six full beds of tulips, an impressive quantity for the time. Hondius probably had received some of his bulbs from Clusius and others from an apothecary friend, Christiaan Porret of Leiden.

Hondius was no tulip maniac. He grew all manner of plants in Serlippens’s garden, from carnations to hyacinths and narcissi, and he looked down on those who favored the tulip over other flowers, writing scathingly in his verse of those who had allowed themselves to get too caught up in the burgeoning craze:

All these fools want is tulip bulbs
Heads and hearts have but one wish

Let’s try and eat them; it will make us laugh
To taste how bitter is that dish

But the poet was himself far from immune to the new flower’s allure. In Of de Moufe-schans he challenged contemporary painters to capture the tulip’s beauty on canvas—only to admit, a line or two later, that the task was quite impossible. In his garden alone, Hondius wrote, the tulips on display exhibited a greater profusion of colors than artists even knew existed. The success of his epic poem—a treasure house for social historians that contains copious information concerning not only gardening but also the lives and habits of the country people of the time—brought some of the most eminent men of the day to Serlippens’s house. The visitors we know about included Maurice of Nassau, the new prince of Orange, commander in chief of the Dutch armies fighting the Spaniards, and one of the most celebrated soldiers of the day. Maurice must have liked what he saw of Hondius’s garden, for tulips were henceforth grown in the grounds of his palace at The Hague, in such quantities that they were eventually offered for public sale. (Sir William Brereton, who visited the palace a decade or so later, was able to purchase a hundred bulbs there for the modest price of five guilders.)

By 1620, then, the tulip was an established favorite with many of the Dutch elite and the private passion of some of the most influential men in the republic. But as the example of Prince Maurice shows, it was not yet so widespread as to be a commonplace for every citizen of the United Provinces. The flower was still comparatively rare, and some of the most highly sought-after varieties were hard to obtain at any price. Only in the coming decade would this scarcity be properly addressed.

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