COMPLETE BOOK on Vermeer of Delft & the 17th Century city of Delft

Art history and social history by Vermeer specialist, art historian Drs. Kees Kaldenbach, Amsterdam.


0) Introduction
1) The fortified City of Delft
2) Artisans and the Guild of St Luke
3) Science and Technology in Delft
4) Vermeers Private House
5) Women - Courtship - Music
6) Beer - Bread - Markets
7) Hidden Corners in Delft
8) Selected Bibliography



Chapter 3
Dawn of Science and Technology


The Republic’s break with Catholic Spain discussed in the previous chapter, may have led to the freeing of minds and may have allowed citizens to think new ideas without fear of reprisal from either the Catholic church clergy or a repressive state government. Breaking out of former moulds of thought about the structure of the physical world led not only to mental freedom but also provided room for ample technological innovation.

This chapter highlights Delft’s contributions to the world of scientific and technical innovation from 1568 onwards, thus from the beginning of the Eighty Years War with Spain up to the end of the seventeenth century. During this war, advanced technology was used in wetland fortification and metal engineering, two essential arts of war in which some of Vermeer’s family members excelled.
Like many other towns in Holland, Delft was situated below sea level, and managing water levels required highly specialized technology. The use of various types of timbers in constructing water pump windmills and in shipping brought innovations in engineering and cross-fertilization. Both windmills and ships had to be well-designed to withstand the excessive forces of wind and water. Windmills and shipyards in Delft contributed to the town’s increasing wealth.
Mapmaking was also an expression of the desire to describe and conquer the world, both in terms of trade expansion and by war if deemed necessary. Vermeer often portrays maps within his paintings as a reference to the world outside his rooms, perhaps also for purely formal, compositional reasons. The finest birds-eye view map ever produced in the Netherlands displayed Delft in all her glory.
Finally we discuss the Delft lens making artisans who laid the practical foundation for the study of optical phenomena that so fascinated and inspired the painters Fabritius and Vermeer, as well as a host of other Delft citizens.
All of these innovations were at the vanguard of western scientific development, and would in time open the doors to the blossoming of technology in the eighteenth century, the Age of Reason.


Warfare and technology

In the late sixteenth and all of the seventeenth century, warfare was one of the driving forces behind the development of advanced technology in the Netherlands. From the 1560s onwards, the clouds of war loomed over Dutch skies. In Chapter 1 we have seen how individual towns in the northern Dutch provinces decided to plunge into revolution one by one, changing their allegiance from the Catholic Spanish king to the rebel Protestant forces. An initial revolt of just a few cities was picked up elsewhere and led to widespread insurgence in order to gain freedom for the Protestants. As the Spanish sent in additional troops to quell the unrest, their army leaders initially succeeded in regaining control of some southern towns on high and dry grounds, as can be seen in the large Velasquez painting The Peace of Breda, now in the Prado, Madrid.
The Spanish were however, ill prepared for fighting in the flat, waterlogged landscape of the central and northern Netherlands. This battleground was filled with river estuaries, man-made dykes and polders, canals and ditches for pumping water out towards higher rivers and the sea. The locals were able to use this particular landscape to their full practical and military advantage, manipulating wet elements such as sluices, dikes, ditches, canals and other waterways. They inundated polders at will so that foreign war machinery got stuck in the resulting mud. The town of Breda was in fact, re-captured by northern troops.



Many Dutch towns had become well fortified, and by 1550 Delft boasted its own highly superior system of defensive walls, gates and ramparts. Due to insurgent warfare, a class of specialized fortification architects and metalwork engineers emerged from the 1570s on. Around 1600 Simon Stevin (1548-1620) worked in the Republic as a mathematician and engineer. His interests spanned the fields of decimal fractions, military architecture, trajectories of bullets, and the art of perspective. He thus became one of the grand masters of the art of war. With the help of military engineers, city ramparts in the border region were improved and transformed into a “place forte”.  The city perimeters were reinforced with jutting triangles of land that stuck out, half-moons and bulwarks. Cities were thus transformed by mighty fortifications so that they were ready to withstand a Spanish siege. In designing the layout, engineers took into consideration the shooting-range of various arms: muskets, arquebuses, mortars and cannon.
Half a century later, these arts of war were still evolving when the engineer Menno van Coehoorn excelled in developing and spreading his improved concepts of fortification technology.


Waterwork pioneers

Called “pioneers”, military engineers were found in many Dutch border towns, and were present at the defense perimeters of the Republic. They hired themselves out as free-lancers for ready cash to whichever Dutch military company needed their expert assistance, and thus were not (as in armies elsewhere) permanently attached to one particular platoon or regiment. Pioneers became experts in managing water, mud, earth and bricks to create structures for defense or attack positions. Many Dutch border towns in the south along the shores of the Meuse and Rhine rivers, bristled with these military engineers whose plans were carried out and realized by contractors.
Vermeer’s maternal uncle Reynier Balthens (c.1600-1653) was one such military contractor. In 1633, he started off building military earthwork fortifications at Rhijnberg, a stronghold on the Rhine, now in German territory. He also worked in the Dutch city of Gorinchem, a strategically placed town at the border between the northern Republic and the Spanish province of Brabant, situated on the Merwede river, a branch of the Meuse. By ship it was about 45 miles or a one-day trip away from Delft. In 1640 and again in 1647, Johannes Vermeer’s mother went there to witness a baptism, and it may very well be that as a boy, young Johannes Vermeer traveled along with her to Gorinchem.


Uncle Balthasar, Counterfeiter, Metal specialist


Balthasar Gerrits (c.1573-c.1630), the father of Vermeer’s mother Digna Baltens was active in another branch of defense strategy, and was a colorful character, to say the least. His area of expertise was metalwork and coin-making. He chose to leave his hometown of Antwerp when it was reoccupied by Spanish troops. He then settled in Amsterdam and was active there as a makelaer (commercial broker). He also served as an agent for clients who had gone bankrupt due to shady trade in East India Company stock.
Just three years prior to Vermeer’s birth in 1632, he only just managed to evade the law courts, having escaped arrest for his role in another shady deal, coin counterfeiting. Twelve years earlier in 1620, his son Balthens was not so lucky – he was arrested at the house of another coin counterfeiter in The Hague, where he and his father had been active as metal specialists, cutting dies in order to forge counterfeit coins. Initially, both father and son were arrested and imprisoned by the authorities. They were however, granted some leeway as they belonged to a group of counterfeiters who may have received the ‘green light’ from high up in government circles. They may have been asked to counterfeit coins in order to create cash for a new found Calvinist ally, in German territory just across the Dutch border.

In the ensuing lawsuits, all the adult members of Vermeer’s family testified as character witnesses for both father and son. The authorities initially found Balthasar guilty and kept him locked up in Antwerp during these hearings. He was later transported to Amsterdam in order to confront other accused individuals. His son Balthens was kept under lock and key as well. Two of their accomplices were convicted and beheaded for their crimes. After signing a full confession and giving the authorities the names of all the counterfeiters, Balthasar was given a safe conduct and was free to go as he pleased, miraculously escaping further punishment. Some time before, Balthasar and a companion had developed a process making steel out of iron and sought to commercially exploit this process. Clearly the art of metallurgy was Balthasar’s forte. In a document from 1627, one witness described him as “an artful master of clockmaking and other wonderful inventions”. In 1631 he was back in Delft, and is later documented as being active as a metalwork and clockwork expert.

The art of clockmaking on a large scale can be examined high up in the tower of the New Church.


Upon his death Balthasar left an appreciable collection of paintings to his daughter, Vermeer’s mother Digna Baltens. Her husband Reynier’s successful start as a painting dealer may have had something to do with this inheritance.


Weapon manufactury

The course of the armed insurgence led to the flourishing of the metalwork branch of the defense industry. Vast numbers of pikes, pistols, muskets, arquebuses, mortars, cannon and other weapons of war were produced, and used by all military branches. Many Dutch painters depict weapons in scenes showing proud city militia troupes, city watch soldiers and battlefields. They are also found as attributes of portraits showing off the manly character of the sitter. Early on in his career, Vermeer painted the Officer and the Laughing Girl (chapter 1) in which the officer looms bear-like, proclaiming his male physical dominance.
Although small arms were widely produced in the Netherlands, the production of the heaviest type of cannon took place in Sweden, where the Trip brothers from Amsterdam ran a manufacturing plant. They had access there to all of the necessary raw materials, energy sources and manpower. Strangely enough, the sales departments of these Dutch arms firms felt free to deliver these weapons of destruction to any party, friend, neutral or foe, as long as they were ready to pay the going price. In Delft cannon were produced in small numbers in a metal workshop in the southwest, just outside the city walls.

Dutch warfare specialists were highly regarded in their areas of expertise. Important illustrated handbooks on military techniques and weapons, such as Wapen Handelinge  (Weapon Handling) by Jacob de Gheyn were published in Holland. That book was initially suppressed from being printed by national government orders until 1607, for fear of disseminating crucial warfare information to the enemy. Once published, the book provided a highly effective blueprint of army leadership techniques, presenting methods to turn a motley crew of mercenaries from many foreign lands into a highly effective army unit, ready for combat.
In his famous painting The Night Watch, the Amsterdam painter Rembrandt showed first-hand knowledge of the various phases of loading, firing and cleaning muskets and arquebus shotguns. Rembrandt also showed off other weapons for use on city streets and battlefields. Thus the Dutch weapon industry, specializing in small firearms, medium size shotguns and both light and heavy cannon, was central to society and at the absolute forefront of European production.



Military technology in Delft

In his View of Delft Vermeer showed the advanced state of military technology as it had developed in the late sixteenth century. The painting includes buildings for defensive warfare, with well-designed strong gates, towers, crenellations, a barbican, a drawbridge, a portcullis and all sorts of preparations for defensive tactics. Posted at the gates, soldiers would question anyone attempting to enter the city. Vagrants were kept out by sentries at these gates. Popular paintings of these sentries teams, called Corps de Garde in French and ‘cortegaard’ in Dutch, formed a specialty subject for Delft painters such as Carel Fabritius.


Engineering windmills and ships

The Dutch excelled in developing windmill technology for managing water levels due to rain, rivers and the sea. Windmills were engineered to perform as mills for grain, oil, wood-sawing, and most crucially for pumping water. Throughout the Republic, there were many hundreds at work, scattered all over the horizon, an example of human industry and ingenuity.
This windmill technology dovetailed with shipbuilding engineering in the use of timbers of various kinds in order to make the best use of material properties. Fertile crossovers existed in innovations of windmill and ship design. Both made use of particular types of weather-beaten, bent-over tree trunks, but also tall and straight timbers. Carpenters selected the type of hardwood and softer woods for their particular function in the structure to be built.

Windmill engineers succeeded in harnessing immense push and pull forces as well as the use of wheels transferring power. These mills were used as industrial workhorses, transforming rotary wind power to millstones. They were also put to use in a seesaw woodcutting action, a Dutch invention. When the wind became too strong, the miller would use his extra large rotary brake system to stop the mighty sail vanes of the windmill. Smaller versions of this rotary break system are still in use in millions of machines and automobiles today.
Delft’s series of windmills were mainly for the purpose of milling grain and were positioned wide apart on top of city walls as well as outside the city perimeters.
When looking at Vermeer’s View of Delft starting on the right and going towards the left hand side, one sees the herring boats in the shipyards at the eastern corner. Just beyond the present edge of the painting, there would have been a large windmill at the southwestern corner of town. Well outside the city there were windmills for grinding pigment powders for the successful Delftware industry.



Dutch industry excelled in shipbuilding as well. The fleet of both small and large ships had expanded into a prime commercial and naval force by the 1590s. Ships going to nearby areas such as the Baltic or the Mediterranean, or even those sailing to far away ports in the East Indies, had a fairly good chance of returning intact to the Dutch harbor. However, due to the aggressive nature of seawater and the brutal forces of wind and storms, sea-going ships only lasted some 15 years. This short time frame required an ongoing process of shipbuilding. The trade took care of importing its own raw material by bringing in timbers from Norway and Sweden.


Grain was also imported from the Baltic area, especially from Poland, while North Sea fishery provided excellent nourishment for the common man. The bulk source of sea fish protein came from enormous herring yields. In Vermeer’s View of Delft we see two of these herring ship under maintenance just before the opening of the herring season.  The herring industry provided an excellent and healthy source of fish protein. A new method was devised to preserve herring on the open sea, cutting them up and salting them and then storing them in wooden vats. This allowed the herring ships to stay away at sea for a number of days or weeks instead of frequently having to return to the harbor. This preservation technology increased the yield and led to affordable market prices.

Instead of relying on home grown wheat, the Dutch improved and upgraded methods of high yield foodstuff production, producing not only the famous Dutch cheeses from cow milk, but also branching out in cattle farming, vegetable market farming, and inland fishery. All of these activities fueled the market economy and brought wealth to a well-fed and commercially active population. In Delft it provided ample produce for local markets.


Small dog, big bone


The story of the phenomenal expansion of the Dutch trading empire after the 1580s may be seen as the story of the smaller dog running away with the biggest bone. Other major European states were too busy with political and religious in-fighting. Internal and external battles ravaged many European countries and many a city was sacked and whole stretches of agricultural lands laid to waste. This occurred not only in German-speaking lands where the Thirty Years War wreaked unparalleled havoc, but France, England and Scandianavian countries were also victims of ongoing civil war or serious military campaigns. Although the northern Dutch provinces were seriously embroiled with the Spanish king, the battlefields were situated far away and they were internally stable. The Dutch population lived and traded in relative peace.



Natural philosophy

According to modern history, the Age of Reason - also known as the Age of Enlightenment – is considered to have started in the eighteenth century with such great minds as Sir Isaac Newton in England and the Encyclopédie writers Diderot and d’Alembert in France. However, the starting point for this scientific movement actually had its roots more than a century earlier within the bristling towns of the Dutch Republic, where a number of its ingenious inhabitants stood at the very dawn of the modern scientific age.

What we now label pure science was then called natural philosophy. It had no exact limits and developed due to highly personal, private curiosity. Dutch natural philosophers felt unencumbered by age-old doctrines in the fields of religion and politics, and entered on a new path of observation and experimentation, by probing and questioning. They followed their private hunches and interests and their own fascinations in their inquiries. In practical and philosophical explorations and discoveries they succeeded in pushing the frontiers of knowledge. The Dutch Republic was the one country in Europe in which philosophers and natural philosophers were able to print their findings without restrictions or reprisals from civil or church authorities. The general mindset in the Republic was tolerant, allowing freedom of speech and printing on most subjects. The French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) moved from France to the Republic in 1629 for this very reason. During his twenty-year stay he wrote and published many of his dissenting books that were discussed with great intensity in university circles. Another person who made a great impression during the Dutch Golden Age was the Jewish philosopher Baruch de Spinoza (d. 1677), who like Johannes Vermeer and the inventor of the microscope, Antony van Leeuwenhoek was born in 1632.

Compared to rigorous scientific practices in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century when Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646 -1716) published their theories, the work of the earlier Dutch natural philosophers may be regarded as relatively poorly structured. Nevertheless, their activities were experimental and of eminent practical use and formed fertile soil for later developments. These natural scientists brought forth not only single pearls of wisdom, but full strands that have stood the test of time.
One example was the amateur scientist Constantijn Huygens (see box). Like Descartes he had an active interest in all sorts of optical tools and instruments. This universal man Huygens enabled his many children to benefit from an excellent education. During an art tour with a group of friends, he may have visited the Vermeer studio and perhaps also Vermeer’s patron Van Ruijven. This day of the excursion is described in the diary of Pieter Teding van Berkhout.


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Constantijn Huygens’ Erroneous Theories

Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687) was the highly educated secretary to three consecutive Princes of Orange. He lived close to Delft in a mansion just outside The Hague. In his free time, Huygens was a musician, poet and painter. He owned an extensive private library and kept abreast of many fields of inquiry but his forte was practical observation. He adhered to widely accepted theories that were later shown to be erroneous, for instance about light rays being emitted from the eye. He dismissed new theories about the heavenly spheres by Galileo as ‘vague speculation’. New optical theories in books by Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) and later on by Descartes were also well beyond his understanding. He had a good eye for art and launched the careers of both the painters Rembrandt and Jan Lievens during their years in Leiden.

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Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695), one of Constantijn’s well educated sons, had an exceptionally fertile mind. Among his findings in the field of astronomy he formulated the wave theory of light that is still valid. He also invented the first dependable pendulum clock.
Within the Dutch Republic great minds like his had no intellectual home, as a Dutch Academy of Science did not exist then. Thus - for a goodly annual sum of money, Christiaan was enticed away by the French to become a member of the eminent French Royal Academy of Sciences. The German scientist Gottfried Leibnitz (1646-1716) was influenced by Christiaan Huygens, when they met in Paris. Christiaan’s interest in astronomy was such that he reported seeing the rings and moons of the planet Saturn.
For this reason, in 2005 the spacecraft Cassini-Huygens was named after Christiaan Huygens as an act of homage. It reached the planet Saturn and sent back a series of stunning electronic pictures of its ring system to the earth. Holland has failed to acknowledge his position in science, and there is not even a single monument that commemorates his life and works.

Other Dutch seventeenth century engineering marvels were created by Cornelis Drebbel (1575-1633), an engineer and inventor who was hired by the British crown. One of his epoch-making feats was traveling down many miles of the Thames River in a closed wooden submarine. Men within this vessel remained alive and well by the use of certain chemical substances that yielded oxygen and absorbed carbon dioxide. Constantijn Huygens met Cornelis Drebbel in London, and exchanged notes with him on his scientific experiments.



Lensmaking and Optics

In Delft the most exciting advanced frontier in natural philosophy exploration was the field of optics. Optics and perspective were relevant areas for both natural philosophers  and painters. Artists may have applied visual knowledge of optics to enhance their painting, but it would be going too far to state that they generally kept abreast of the advanced optical theories as developed by Kepler and Descartes.
Dutch painters excelled in practical terms of observation and used trial and error methods for translating optical effects into paint layers that would work for the viewer. Delft artists showed an above average interest in optical phenomena. However, given their limited scientific education  and theoretical knowledge, their focus must have remained on the experimental and practical side,  ways in which they could transform visual observations into practical studio methods. 

Many painters showed refined sensibility in composition, form, color, hue and juxtaposition (referred to as ‘houding’), and many were excellent craftsmen. Experimenting and observing optical phenomena allowed some Delft artists to incorporate new visual qualities in their art. Optics also furthered interest in the art of perspective and in illusionism. In mastering this, Dutch painters succeeded like no other European group of painters in creating works that were astoundingly life-like and deceived the viewer’s eye.

Vermeer, who shows full mastery of perspective in his paintings, did not start out with abstract theories, but applied a highly practical method of creating perspective lines in his compositions. He used a method of dipping a thread in chalk powder, attaching it to a pin pricked into the painting precisely at the intended vanishing point. When this thread was pulled taut sideways and plucked in various positions, it left a perfect set of perspective lines all converging at the vanishing point. Correctly spacing these lines were still a matter of applied math. Traces of the tiny holes left from this method can still be seen in many Vermeer paintings.

A number of lens makers worked in Delft. One of the lesser-known spectacle and lensmakers was an artisan called Steenwyck, who lived there from the 1590s to 1654. He was the father of Harmen and Pieter, two brothers who both became painters. Perhaps to cut down the high costs of their art training, both sons entered as apprentices in the workshop of one of their relatives in Leiden, the painter David Bailly. Their father’s choice to allow not one, but two of his sons to start the long and expensive study of becoming a painter is exceptional.

Another minor Delft artisan who produced lenses was Johan van Wyck. In 1664 and 1665 the brothers Christiaan and Constantijn Huygens Jr. communicated with Van Wyck as did their famous father, Constantijn Huygens. All were fascinated by optical problems and phenomena.

The most important optical research was carried out by the fabric merchant Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), who specialized as a lens maker in Delft around 1667. Although he didn’t attend university, Van Leeuwenhoek became famous for constructing microscopes with tiny lenses and effective screw mechanisms for positioning and focusing minute specimens. With his lifetime production of approximately 500 microscopes, he succeeded in probing into an unknown world and in opening up a new galaxy. He researched a plethora of living tissues, including blood cells and human sperm, and corresponded about his wonderful and unexpected findings by an exchange of letters with the Royal Society in London. His letters were published later, adding to his international fame. Again in the work of Van Leeuwenhoek we note a strange and wonderful mix; on the one hand of developing practical tools and pursuing fertile, far-reaching and revolutionary ideas and insights, and on the other free-ranging meandering in an unguided trial and error method. His work methods were haphazard and not methodical, jumping from one odd idea to the next when entering into new fields.
Around 1653 Van Leeuwenhoek bought Het Gouden Hoofd (The Golden Head)  at Hippolytusbuurt  7 for which he paid 5000 guilders. See the plaque on the present day facade. At the corner of Boterbrug and Oude Delft there is another plaque commemorating his work.



Camera Obscura

In studying the seventeenth century, it is not possible to prove whether or not Vermeer actually used the optical tool known as a Camera Obscura.
A regular Camera Obscura consists of a shoe-box sized wooden case, with one large lens at the front and an open back. For focusing purposes, this case slides back and forth within another slightly larger wooden case. At the back there is a square of ground glass on which the image is projected. This setup provides the viewer with an upside-down image, in which left and right are also reversed. In order to remedy this, a tilted mirror can be placed near the back that then projects the image on a piece of ground glass on the top of the box. This results in an upright image, which nevertheless is still reversed left to right.


There are no first-hand documents, letters, diaries, drawings that remotely connect Vermeer to this instrument. However, a body of circumstantial evidence allows us to accept that Vermeer used one at times for developing visual ideas and for preparing his compositions.  It was probably a box-sized table model, and not its larger cousin, the large dark sit-in-closet. In observing optical phenomena, Vermeer took the effects seriously but certainly did not choose to slavishly follow the image as projected in a Camera Obscura as the image of an actual room to be painted. Art historians still disagree on this.
One of the prime exhibits in this question would be his painting The Lacemaker, in the Louvre, Paris. This exquisite, small painting depicts a lady stooped over while making bobbin lace. Three consecutive planes of focus are visible. Towards the front, streaming out of the pillow-shaped sewing box, are threads of brightly colored red fibers. These are so patently out of focus, that for viewers before the age of photography (say before 1850) this fuzzy detail would have been a complete enigma. The middle section of the painting that shows the wooden pedestal on which the lace is produced by the lady’s hands, is in full focus. Above this section is a third area, again out of focus, showing the head of the lady in an odd position slightly on the diagonal concentrating on her handwork. The scene gives the impression of having been photographed from some distance with a 80 mm telelens.


Currently, engineering and optical science are still alive and well at the Delft University of Technology. On a commercial basis, major optical engineering industries also thrive in Delft.



When studying Vermeer’s compositions and the physical objects within his paintings, wall maps certainly form an important theme. Maps within Vermeer interiors refer both to the art of mapmaking, in itself an abstract representation of reality, and to the outer world itself. At the same time, as rectangular objects, maps form compositional elements, their shape defining a sense order and equilibrium within the composition.
As most maps are rectangular in shape and Vermeer nearly always prefers to show them in a frontal view, they almost act as Mondrian-like division elements. Against all rules of reading art history chronologically, one can even observe these qualities in Vermeer as both use repeated black division lines and make restrained use of the primary colors blue, red, yellow in a triple signature color chord.

One of the most appealing examples of a map-within-a-Vermeer is that depicted in The Officer and Laughing Girl, Frick, NYC. (chapter 1)  As a piece of miniature physical reproduction in oil, the map is astoundingly detailed and quite faithful as a reproduction. This documentary sense of representation is characteristic for all of the maps depicted by Vermeer in his paintings. Map specialists have documented a high percentage and can even distinguish whether the ones shown by Vermeer are a particular state or impression in the life cycle of the printing plates. This map shown in The Officer, is depicted at the beginning of this chapter.
Although his way of reproducing maps is highly documentary, Vermeer exercised his freedom as an artist to scale, resize, color, reposition or sometimes completely deleting maps on wall spaces as he saw fit for compositional reasons. In The Officer and Laughing Girl, Vermeer allowed himself the artistic freedom of reversing the usual coding colors of sea and land. Blue is usually used for water, but in his rendering he applied it to land masses.


Skippers moving out to sea from Delft used the best sea charts and maps available anywhere in the world. Amsterdam mapmakers were at the forefront of geographical knowledge, combining, collating and presenting the newest information obtained from recent ship logbooks, and thus charting the world. Mapmaking reflected this knowledge of the world and geographical science. A number of Dutch mapmakers produced products for the international map market. Important names in the trade were the printing houses of Blaeu, Visscher and Hondius, producing lands maps, sea charts, terrestrial and heavenly globes. Exploration of the world continued and was updated on maps as various subsequent editions of maps were published.


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Amsterdam Map Firms

Mapmaking workshops and outlets were nearly all located in Amsterdam, the center of shipbuilding, international commercial enterprise, and seafaring knowledge. Maps and charts were a key element in worldwide successful exploration. On the rise from around 1560, map production peaked both in the sense of specialized maps and quantities produced between 1600 and 1650. Vermeer shows a highly specialized map in the background of his painting The Astronomer.

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After 1650 the quantity of prints sold by these publishers was still impressive but the density and information quality slowly declined over the decades, as existing map designs were often simply copied. Generations of look-alike maps were thus re-cut and republished up to the end of the eighteenth century, failing to reach the former high cartographic standards and levels of innovation.

Vermeer presents us with a documentary image of certain editions of particular maps. The map shown in The Art of Painting for instance, is exemplary in its very precise representation of a map showing the undivided 17 provinces. Certain groups of military men and politicians in Holland did not accept the stalemate reality of the long-term separation of north and south, William of Orange’s son, military leader prince Fredrik Hendrik (1584-1647), being one of them. Vermeer himself chose an early map from the politically undivided era and inserted a tell-tale crease at the spot of the separation between the northern Republic and southern Spanish-governed Netherlands (north being on the right hand side). Showing this map from the era of undivided times and including a chandelier topped with eagles, the symbol of the Austrian Habsburg Empire may have been a conscious political statement on Vermeer’s part.


In the following chapter we will visit Vermeer’s home, and note that he owned portraits of those military leaders mentioned above. We will get an impression of his daily life and his studio where his wonderful paintings were created.





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Published online, July 15, 2011. Update 10 July, 2016.