Tulipmania and Social Anxiety

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The lecture on 4 April will be on “Tulipmania and Social Anxiety.” The article below is on another aspect of Anne Goldgar’s work on the social and cultural context of tulipmania.
Note: This is the uncopyedited version of an article which has already been published. If you wish to cite it, please look at the published version, which appears in Pamela Smith and Paula Findlen, eds., Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe (New York: Routledge, 2001), 324-346.

Nature as Art: The Case of the Tulip

Anne Goldgar
"When Homer sang in ancient times at Corinth, no one listened to his verses. In our own era in Paris, Poussin earned too little to live." These lines bewailing philistinism, published by Nicolas de Valnay in 1669, were written, rather surprisingly, in defense of the tulip. Valnay, contrôleur of Louis XIV's household and a member of a loose group of curieux devoted to flowers, expressed surprise at the preference some felt for other curiosities, such as paintings, medals, or porcelains. Look at such things as long as you like, he wrote, but you will always be looking at the same thing. Not so with the wonderful annual variety of flowers, of which the tulip was the queen. The beauties of painting, moreover, are all in design, execution, and color; but "I challenge the entire Académie de Peinture to imagine flowers better than natural ones, to execute them in complete perfection, or ever to approach the colors of Flowers." If you own a painting, you will always have only one, but bulbs have the advantage of multiplying themselves. The consequence of this (although Valnay did not put it this way) is social: you can give a rare flower to a friend and yet still keep the same thing, not a copy, for yourself. These arguments against painting, Valnay said, could also be made against medals, porcelains, and other fashionable rarities: "when reason is combined with taste, beautiful flowers will hold the first rank among the pleasures of sight."i

Valnay's view that the times were too "blind and insipid" for flowers like tulips -- that they suffered from the poor taste of the public, as painting and poetry had also sometimes suffered -- is something of an exaggeration.ii Although the tulip would not find again such passionate advocacy as it did in the period leading up to the tulipmania of 1634-7, it enjoyed a healthy popularity, particularly among a circle of professional men, merchants, and gentry, both in France and in equivalent social groups in other European countries such as the Netherlands, England, Italy, and the German states. But what is interesting in Valnay is not chiefly the strength of his views, views expressed by other enthusiasts over the years such as Crispijn van de Passe in the Netherlands, Jean Franeau in Flanders, Sir Thomas Hanmer in England, or the Sieur de La Chesnée Monsteureul in France. The interest lies rather in Valnay's treatment of tulips as works of art. This essay will explore the complex of ideas and attitudes which allowed such a comparison, and, further, the social consequences which sprang from making it.

Grappling with the relationship between art and nature was hardly new in the seventeenth century. As Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park have delineated in a richly suggestive chapter of their Wonders and the Order of Nature, the opposition between the forces of nature and art was an ancient paradigm, still crucial in the seventeenth century even as natural philosophy began first to break it down and then to change its terms.iii From the days of Zeuxis and Parrhasius, artists have made a strong case for the superiority of their craft to the creative powers of nature.iv With the strengthening view in the Renaissance that the artist's ingegno was akin to that of the creating God, the view of art as surpassing nature became ever more influential.v Early modern comments about floral still life make this clear. Painters of flowers were considered to improve on nature if they were talented at depicting texture, and, as Paul Taylor has pointed out, the desire to idealize the flowers in paint and thus perfect imperfect nature was a powerful impulse for artists.vi Thus the triumphs of Zeuxian grapes were brought up to date with verses praising Daniel Seghers' painted roses. According to Huygens in 1645, "Nature as judge, conceded defeat in the contest:/The painted flower rendered the real one a shadow."vii

But art had not quite won this battle with nature, and Seghers could prove just as potent an argument for the other side. Proponents of the glories of flowers, for example, also cited Seghers, but now to stress his supposed inability to do justice to them in paint. Both the breeders John Rea and his son-in-law Samuel Gilbert favored real tulips over their portrayal by "Pater Zegers, a Jesuite in Antwerp, famous for painting flowers," Rea commenting of a tulip called the Agate Hanmer, "Her Native Beauties shaming Art,/Once did that famous Jesuite try/To copy out her Majesty; But falling short of his desire,/He left his Pencil to admire."viii Despite artists' tradition of challenging God and nature with their ingegno, in the seventeenth century some voices, including, naturally enough, those of various botanists and gardeners, continued to maintain that art could do nothing to imitate the beauties and wonders of some natural objects.

The traditional division represented here, seen in the usual classification of collections into naturalia and artificialia, was precisely one which the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries delighted in undermining.ix There was a delight in blurring the boundaries between art and nature, to be seen in artificial objects resembling natural ones, such as Palissy's ceramics or the mechanical rainbows and songbirds to be found in the Villa Aldobrandini at Frascati.x More important for our purposes are the many natural objects in collections turned half into artificialia by gilding, etching, carving, or artistic arrangement. Coconuts, ostrich eggs, or rhinoceros horns transformed into reliquaries; nautilus shells etched and gilded into luxurious beakers; reindeer antlers fashioned into candelabra: all testified to the desire of artists and collectors to intertwine nature with art.xi

A coconut carved with a biblical scene or a nautilus cup engraved with the image of other shells and sea creatures not only illuminates the status of objects which are half art and half nature. Such objects also demonstrate to us a desire for art to conquer nature. A nautilus shell itself was sometimes not enough; the hand of man had to alter it and beautify it as well. These attitudes have been elaborated in recent work on the Kunstkammer and its objects. What has not so far been examined by scholars, however, is a further step along this path. Man could impress himself upon natural objects by gilding, etching, engraving; but there were also objects which, although remaining entirely natural, yet were evisaged as art. The tulip is one such object: fascinating and enigmatic precisely because of this special mixture of art and nature. What, then, did it mean for Valnay to place it in the same category as a painting or a piece of porcelain?

Even in 1669, when Valnay was writing, tulips remained exotic items. They had arrived in Europe in the mid-16th century, either through seeds sent home by the imperial envoy Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq, as most sources recount, or, possibly, through trade between Turkey and Italy, France, and the Low Countries. The first tulip was described by Conrad Gesner in De Hortis Germaniae (1561) as growing in 1559 in the garden of Johann Heinrich Herwart in Augsburg. A passion for tulips grew up among botanists and collectors by the later sixteenth century. Such collectors included both professional men with an interest in plants, particularly doctors and apothecaries, as well as a variety of elite groups ranging from merchants to aristocrats. The special excitement generated by tulips stemmed first from their foreign nature; they were prized along with the other exotic bulbs which arrived in Europe, largely from the Ottoman Empire, in the same period, including flowers such as the iris, crocus, and hyacinth.

But tulips were particularly valued because of their unpredictable and exciting capacities for variation. Unlike most other flowers, tulips could change from year to year in coloration and form, and the propagation of tulips could present new forms never before seen. Already in 1597 Gerard's Herball reported that to recount all the different sorts of tulips "would trouble the writer and weary the Reader," and by the time of Rea's Flora of 1665 we hear that "so numerous are the varieties, that it is not possible that any one person in the world should be able to express, or comprehend the half of them...."xii These qualities led to high prices for many tulips and, eventually, to a futures trade in the Netherlands which involved artisans as well as other sections of society. But even in countries unaffected by the futures trade, the tulip remained a favorite flower until it was eclipsed by the hyacinth in the eighteenth century.

Given the reigning issues about art and nature, the question of the authorship of tulip varieties was a live one in the period. Who or what actually created the tulip? Many works on gardening alluded to tulips, and to flowers in general, as small but perfect works of God, or of both God and nature. For Petrus Hondius, whose poem Dapes Inemptae, of de Moufe-schans (1614) praised the garden of his patrons in Neuzen, gardening was a way of honoring the name of God and his creation.xiii Similarly, Jean Franeau, extolling the gardens of the gentry and aristocracy of the Southern Netherlands, compared a flower to a school or a beautiful book of which "the author is this great God, who, as a schoolmaster, teaches the lessons in his own words...."xiv But these protestations address a countervailing trend which we have already seen in the field of painting or sculpture: the desire of man to claim credit for himself. The commercial breeder Samuel Gilbert, acknowledging in 1682 that man can play a role, hedged his bets in a verse mainly devoted to the planning, shaping, and protection he would give to a garden:

...Assisting Nature by industrious Art;

To perfect every Plant in every part,

But not like some, whose crimes to rise so high

Boldly to pull down Heavens Deity.xv

Gilbert's concern that an emphasis on man deprives God of his rightful place speaks to the questions raised by those who believed that man could, indeed, "assist nature."xvi

The actual assistance man could provide was minimal, but this relative powerlessness was not acknowledged by contemporaries. We have seen that it was the variety of tulips which made them so popular. This variety was achieved either by cross-breeding or by "breaking" tulips through an aphid-borne virus. Neither process was known in the early modern period. Gardeners had no knowledge of the sexuality of plants, so that any crosses which occurred would have to take place by accident; and although there was some speculation that beautiful tulips were diseased -- "in the same way that a person in agony turns different colors when through a contagious malady he approaches death," wrote a derisive La Chesnée Monstereul in 1654 -- this was neither universally accepted nor understood.xvii Yet long experimentation had assured some botanists and gardeners that, if they were grown from seed rather than bulbs, certain tulips were more liable to vary in color, although this was a process which could take up to ten years. Jacques Garret, a Dutch apothecary living in London, was described by John Gerard as having "undertaken to finde out if it were possible, the infinite sorts by diligent sowing of their seedes, and by planting those of his owne propagation, and by others received from his friends beyond the seas, for the space of twentie yeeres, not being yet able to attaine to the end of his travaile, for that each new yeere bringeth foorth new plants of sundrie colors not before seene..."xviii Later annotators of Dodonaeus' Cruydt-Boeck noted in 1618 that sowing seeds was an uncertain business, and that in any case tulips could get worse as well as betterxix; but the very fact that sowing seeds could produce new tulip strains produced a confidence that man could indeed use his art on the natural tulip.

Not surprisingly, much of the writing on the alteration of tulips focused on the choice of seed. If gardeners could not actually predict the outcome of sowing seed, at least they could try their art in choosing only the seed of superior tulips, and by culling bulbs of flowers which did not meet their standards. The eighteenth-century diary of the Lancashire gardening enthusiast Nicholas Blundell is full of notations such as "I Examain'd my Tulops and marked some of the best of them to be preserved & the worst to be destroyed."xx But the idea that man could control nature went further than this. The aesthetic and commercial value of tulips, as well as the tedium of taking ten years to grow them from seed -- described by the Haarlem breeder Nicolas van Kampen as "unpleasant" and "useless"xxi -- led early on to more direct attempts to intervene by art into the processes of nature.

Some of these promised short-cuts to beautiful flowers, it is true, remained close to natural processes. The theory shared by some that tulips changed color through disease led to experiments in weakening flowers so that they would fall sick more easily. John Rea suggested in 1665, for example, that "more vulgar" tulips might be dug up just before flowering and laid in the sun "to abate their luxury, and cause them to come better marked the year following"; a yearly alternation of good and poor soil was thought to have the same effect.xxii Rea assured the aspirant gardener that such methods would produce tulips that "might be taken for much better flowers than they are, especially if a new name be put upon them, as some flower-merchants about London use to do."xxiii

Other procedures to alter tulips, however, were much more self-consciously a form of art. Like an engraver carving designs on a nautilus shell, gardeners set about by intrusion to change their flowers. It was said that cutting two bulbs in half and sticking them together would produce a cross-breed; that new varieties of tulip with exotic colors could be bred by steeping the bulbs or seeds in colored water, ink, paint, or even "mixing a number of ingredients with pigeon dung" and burning the ground with it.xxiv Many of our accounts of such interventions come, it is true, from those casting aspersions on these methods; John Evelyn, for example, warns us to "trust little by mangonisme, insuccations, or medecine, to alter the species, or indeed the forms and shapes of flowers considerably," and John Parkinson dismisses as "meere tales and fables....the many rules and directions extant in manie mens writings to cause flowers to grow yellow, red, greene or white, that never were so naturally....[W]hen they come to the triall, they all vanish away like smoak."xxv Such comments indicate to us, however, the prevalence of such views; and contemporary gardening books, such as Giovanni Battista Ferrari's Flora, seu de florum cultura of 1633, took such advice seriously.xxvi Moreover, even those ridiculing these methods did not necessarily believe that there was no art to changing the appearance of tulips. La Chesnée Monstereul, who took time to ridicule the Rouennais who burned up his entire garden with a fire made with pigeon dung, affirmed flatly that, although this particular method was laughable, efficacious means of producing new tulips did exist. "It only remains for me to discuss whether by Art one can embellish those which have not yet attained their peak of perfection....I have no difficulty in saying that one can, and that without doubt by Art they can be rendered capable of changing into something better...."xxvii

Not only did gardeners, then, give their endorsement to the idea that man's art could triumph over the processes of nature, but they consciously conceived of what they were doing in these terms. La Chesnée Monstereul's discussion of the transformation of tulips plunges straight into the topic. "There is no doubt that it is not only in this point that Art surpasses nature, of which we can see the effects, but in many other things which [Nature] begins, & which Men complete & perfect through their industry."xxviii Florists and gardeners, according to other writers, "know how to aid nature by an artifice which industry and time has taught them"; flowers are "natures Choicest dishes, advantag'd by Art."xxix These gardeners were not mere spectators to the wonders of nature, but active participants in changing it, for, as Jan van der Groen wrote of gardens in 1669, "nature can, through art, be shifted, decorated, put into good order, and made ornamental and pleasurable."xxx

Thus even those pleading, as Samuel Gilbert did with such concern, that flowers were the work of God had to admit that, ultimately, "our Art, with Madam Nature joyn[s]."xxxi But the power to control nature -- a power of which tulips were, ironically, a poorer example than industry or agriculture -- was not the end of the construction of tulips as artifacts. The language used by gardening writers and the names given to tulips by growers show a distinct mental association between the flowers and both art and craft. In floral still life, it was said that the technically gifted made roses look like silk and tulips like leather,xxxii but the same kind of comparisons were applied not only to paintings but to the flowers themselves.

The trope that tulips outdid the work of any painter -- "it is impossible for painters and dyers to imitate the colors of them"xxxiii -- demonstrates a cognitive link between the flowers and the art of painting. But the mention of "dyers" in this same passage from a 1697 gardening treatise points us toward the wider associations of tulips in the period. There were constant references to the flowers as part of a wider world of man-made luxury objects. That both paintings and other artificialia should provide comparisons with tulips is perhaps not surprising, since painting had such strong connections with craft and with craft guilds, in the Netherlands at least. In the chief towns of Holland, painters and sculptors were members of the same guild as craftsmen such as embroiderers, glassworkers, and goldsmiths. Although painters increasingly came to emphasize the dignity of their profession, they did not seek in this period to emancipate themselves from the structure of a craft guild; indeed one artist who also was involved in the tulip trade, Frans Pietersz. de Grebber, was reported to "get by nicely on embroidery" when his skills as a portraitist were not in demand.xxxiv Given both the rarity and the price of tulips, however, a more important explanation for their linkage with costly crafts is surely the role of the luxury trades in the maintenance of status. Like visible material wealth, tulips were precious and costly collector's items. The close associations of tulips and luxury are evident; the names and descriptions of tulips remind us continually of a shiny, varied, patterned world of cloth, enamel work, and polished stone.

Cloth, carpets, and embroidery are among the earliest images applied to tulips and the gardens containing them. Gardens decorated with a variety of colors reminded viewers of a tapestry or carpet; Marie de Brimeu, Princesse de Chimay and a friend of Clusius, referred in 1591 to the garden he had stocked for her with plants sent from Frankfurt as "the riches of your tapestries [which] truly surpass by far those of gold & silk, as nature surpasses artifice...."xxxv John Parkinson was still musing in 1629 on such comparisons, and on the possibilities for garden design using tulips. "[A]bove and beyond all others, the Tulipas may be so matched, one colour answering and setting of another, that the place where they stand may resemble a peece of curious needle-worke, or peece of painting...."xxxvi That this was not merely a metaphor is evident from the Iardin du Roy Tres Chrestien Henry IV of 1608, a collection of engravings of plants in the king's gardens. The author, Vallet, far from being a gardener, was a professional embroiderer, and the accompanying verses in praise of the book make much of his abilities with the needle. His designs were evidently intended at least in part as patterns for embroidery.xxxvii

Not only whole flower beds, but also individual tulips called to mind the luxury of elegant cloth. Clusius, in first describing his tulips in his Rariorum plantarum historia, resorted repeatedly to images of silk shimmering with two colors, such as a silk with a golden warp and a red weft, or a silver silk, made in the same way and known to the Germans as Silberfarb.xxxviii Such images quickly appeared in the vernacular. Among the earliest names to be given to tulips (the first flowers of which individual cultivars were named) were "Goude Laeckens" and "Silver Laeckens," gold cloth and silver cloth, appearing in other countries as "drap d'or" and "drap d'argent" and as "Cloth of golde" and "Cloth of sylver."xxxix Other names referring to cloth included "Siery nae bij" (nearly silk) and "Saey-blom" (say-flower). While says were not the most elegant of cloths, the economy of Holland depended on them; and the other materials could not have been more redolent of luxury. No cloth was more expensive or prized than silk embroidered or shot with gold or silver thread -- silver tissue was the standard material of bridal gowns at the European courtsxl -- and silk and satin clothing was similarly confined to the elite.xli Like embroidery, which bespoke an ability to pay for goods whose manufacture was highly labor-intensive, clothing or furnishings made of costly stuffs were effective signals of leisure and high station. Fine textiles, because they demonstrated marvelous workmanship, were also commonly to be found in collections and Kunstkammern.xlii

It was natural for an expensive flower like the tulip to be compared with such goods, but, as Clusius' more specific descriptions indicate, it was not an idle comparison. The petals of the tulip were also thought actually to resemble silk, satin, or velvet. One Dutch gardening book recommends matter-of-factly that a good source of seed for the best tulips was a flower that was "Satijn-agtig" (satin-like)xliii, and in the more florid prose of works dedicated to praising the tulip, references to elegant cloth abound. To take only one example, Jean Franeau's 1616 ode to the tulip, the Iardin d'Hyver ou Cabinet des Fleurs, intended to remind the growers and collectors of the aristocracy and gentry in the Southern Netherlands of their treasures during the winter months, is liberally peppered with references to embroidery, silk, taffetta, silver cloth and silver needlework. Tulips were "dressed" in rich "mantles" which, far from being natural, were "full of artifice." The tulip called the Duc van Tholl was said to be the work of a skilled tailor: clothing worthy of a great prince or duke, so richly was it embroidered in gold. This was the work of Nature, Franeau wrote, but also of "les grans," who cultivated tulips in their gardens.xliv

The luster of tulips, if it did not come from shiny satin or silk, was also said in many texts to be enamel work or vermeil, a metaphor which was mixed happily with the many references to clothing.xlv But the other favorite comparison for the tulip, with its veined and streaky markings, was polished stone such as marble and agate. Again, the names of tulips give us a hint of how they were perceived. A common designation in the Netherlands was "ghemarmerde," marbled, and names such as Ghemarmerde de Goyer or Ghemarmerde Liefkens became usual. In French, tulips were "marbrées" or "jaspées," and whole classifications of tulips based on this comparison grew up. Besides the Morillons, or rough emeralds, a major class of French tulips (which was adopted also in English nomenclature) was the Agate. By mid-century there was an abundance of names such as Agate Morin, Agate Guerin, or Agate Picot, generally adding the name of the cultivator to the designation of Agate; La Chesnée Monstereul mentioned 55 Agate tulips in his list of 1654.xlvi John Rea gives us a good picture of the association of the two objects; tulip petals, "warmed by the Sun, open and change into divers several glorious colours, variously mixed, edged, striped, feathered, garded, agotted, marbled, flaked, or specled, even to admiration...."xlvii Like tulips, stones such as agates and marbles were prized for their variation in color and their attractive veining. Polished and worked, they formed an ornament to buildings, were transformed into pietra dura furniture, or formed objects for the Kunstkammer or cabinet. We find special collections of agates in the period, such as that belonging to the goldsmith Antoine Agard of Arles, not to mention the agates and marbles in the cabinets of tulip-lovers such as Christiaan Porret in Leiden or Bernardus Paludanus in Enkhuizen.xlviii

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