The tulip craze lasted just a few years, reaching its height in 1636 and coming to a spectacular end in February 1637, when prices crashed due to governmental intervention, leaving thousands of speculators penniless and victims of wide-spread ridicule. Moggach’s book makes use of this craze by mirroring tulipomania with a passionate, but ultimately doomed love-affair.
The Rijksmuseum’s blog provides a great timeline for the most important events, displays fabulous paintings of tulips sold at the time and also shows some of the gorgeous white and blue Delftware flower stands specifically created to show off tulips and other bulb-grown plants to their full advantage, namely indoors in Holland’s cold climate.
In a Business Week article, tulipomania is compared to the dot.com bubble the world saw not all that long ago. It is hard to imagine today how one man, the proud owner of a dozen tulip bulbs for the variety Semper augustus, could possibly turn down an offer of 3,000 guilders for ONE bulb in 1624, when that represented about a whole year’s income for a wealthy merchant.
The name of this greedy beggar was not recorded by history – leaving one to speculate if he was one of thousands of tulip-investors forced to jump into Amsterdam’s grachts, after losing everything in the tulip-crash of 1637, including their homes, mortgaged to the rafters to buy tulip bulbs.
Semper augustus was the most expensive tulip bulb ever sold during the craze and provided inspiration for quite a few painters – as well as prompting author Moggach to write a love story about people involved in the tulipomania of 17th century Amsterdam.
It’s also hard to imagine what times were like for people. After eons of wars with Spain the Netherlands suddenly saw huge wealth poured back into its country from trading with newly established foreign colonies. Perhaps for the first time in history, merchants began to financially out-class the aristocracy. They could afford to build mansions, deck themselves out in the latest fashions, wearing precious silks, gold embroidery and semi-precious stones like their nobles before them. Merchants could now afford commissioning paintings just like the rich upper crust had done for centuries.
Society was changing rapidly on a never-before seen scale, aided by Europe’s Reformation. Moggach makes use of religious doubt extensively in her book, although the ending of her novel is utterly contrived as a result and very unsatisfactory in my view.
But the influx of vast sums of money also allowed the Dutch to create a country in their own image, draining wetlands, reclaiming land from the North Sea, engaging in huge construction programmes to improve their country’s infrastructure. Yet another challenge to God, to the Grim Reaper, to Eternal Darkness – the grachts have endured, no matter what craze befell human minds in the interval.
This look towards extension of one’s alotted life-time is a long, long philosophical and religious way off from the medieval – and catholic – view of eternal damnation, heaven and hell.
Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in Amsterdam. The wealth it must have taken to create the grachts/canals is staggering, practically incalculable in today’s money.
The houses that would eventually grace the Prinsengracht and the Herengracht, where Moggach’s love story “Tulip Fever” is set, sprung up in those heady days when money seemed to be as plentiful as duckweed floating in English village green ponds.
Occupying the Gouden Bocht or Golden Bend of the Amstel River, the Herengracht reached only as far as the present-day Leidsegracht until 1663. After that date, Amsterdam’s fortifications were expanded and Herengracht, Prinsengracht and Keizersgracht were all extended. Buyers wishing to build on Heregracht were encouraged to buy not one but two lots of land and construct double-width mansions.
As a by-product of the three canals having been laid out at a greater distance from each other, the lots were not just wider, but deeper, allowing merchants to build veritable palaces.
Adorning their Amsterdam-palaces with classicist facades and richly stuccoed interiors, especially the magnificent ceilings, the merchants also established lovely gardens that were opened once a year to the public. You can just imagine them being filled with tulips of the richest hues, can’t you?
Where the Amstel River bends, just by the Nieuwe Spiegelstraat (the “new mirror street”), the richest citizens chose to build their dwellings, which prompted the public to rename this part of the river the Golden Bend.
Moggach’s fictional young wife Sophia, lover Jan van Loos and cuckolded husband Cornelis would have been neighbours to the real-life family living at Herengracht 475, the wealthy clan of the De Neufville, who lived their from 1731 to 1733.
Interestingly, a list of the real people, who lived in the Golden Bend of the Herengracht during the time Moggach’s book describes, includes the following names:
- Jan Bernd Cicker (#460)
- Gerrit Braamcamp (#462)
- Cornelis Munter (#468)
- Willem Andriesz Munter (#444)
- Jacob Boreel (#507)
- Maria Meerman (#480)
all of them have first names Moggach uses in her novel – better still, “Meerman” is the Dutch word for mermaid/mer-people and servant Maria dreams in the novel of swimming through an underwater world. You see, writers’ minds soak up everything they see and regurgitate every morsel as something totally different, something inspired!
What is missing in Moggach’s novel is the ebb and flow of humanity. Between the years of 1578 and 1665, the time when Amsterdam sided with the supporters of the Reformation, urban development reached an unprecedented scale. The city grew from 30,000 to 160,000 people – only London and Paris were larger at that time. This huge influx o new residents was not just driven by the Reformation though, which forced large numbers of protestants to feel the catholic South, but was also the result of Antwerp losing its hold as “Golden Age” centre in favour of Amsterdam.
Although a single, much older canal existed, the way Amsterdam looks today is due to a four-phase construction programme that began in earnest in 1585. By 1613 a second phase had completed an even larger section of canals and between 1613 and 1625 the third phase was completed.
The final phase took place in the years 1656 to 1665, the time the Gouden Bocht was constructed and Amsterdam’s most prestigious address was created, the Herengracht between the uneven numbers 441 to 513 and even numbers 426 to 482. I can’t help but wonder what Maria Meerman (if I’d known this name existed, I’d have made it my pen name!) got up to in her mansion. Did she “swim” through stuccoed rooms, floating by her magnificent rear garden, waving at the goldfish in her pond, while casually picking off dead petals from her Semper augustus, tulipa clusiana and Violetten Admirael van Enkhuizen?
The latter bulb was sold for 5,200 guilders, an all-time record in the winter of 1636, when the sale of just 70 tulip bulbs achieved revenue of 53,000 guilders for a handful of orphans, whose father had left them nothing but tulip bulbs.