Vermeer and Polish Poetry (NL Embassy in PL)

Have you been to the Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam? The exhibition includes 28 of the 37 known paintings by the 17th-century Dutch master: the largest collection of Johannes Vermeer’s works ever brought together in a museum. His paintings have long since captured peoples’ imaginations, however.  For example, several Polish poets have been inspired to write verses about Vermeer’s works. Two well-known authors who did so are Adam Czerniawski and Adam Zagajewski. The latter wrote a number of poems about or featuring Vermeer, such as “Vermeer’s Little Girl”, which describes the famous “Girl with a Pearl Earring”.

Johannes Vermeer, ‘View of Delft’, ca. 1660-1661.

Moreover, both Czerniawski and Zagajewski composed poems about Vermeer’s “View of Delft”: a panorama of the city where the painter lived and worked, made in ca. 1660-1661. Czerniawski’s poem dates from 1969. It begins as follows:

“In The Hague there is a view of Delft,
In The Hague there is a perspective of Delft,
All it takes to see Delft,
Is to reach the first floor of the Mauritshuis,
Where the panorama is not obstructed by
A hill or a broad chestnut tree.”

The poet speaks of two views of Delft: the modern one, which is made of “steel and glass”, and the 17th-century one, captured on canvas. In the rest of the poem, Czerniawski considers his own relationship with – and desire to witness – these two “Delfts”, and tries to describe both the painting and the city itself.

The poem by Zagajewski dates from 1983. It is much shorter:

“Houses, waves, clouds, and shadows
(dark-blue roofs, brown bricks):
at last, you have become but a glance.

The uncontrolled, calm eyes of objects,
glittering with blackness.

You will outlive our admiration, our tears,
and our noisy, despicable wars.”

In but a few sentences, Zagajewski presents the painting as an everlasting ideal, which observes the ever-changing, cruel world.

We wish a lovely time to those of you who are fortunate enough to have a ticket for the exhibition, where you can see Vermeer’s “View of Delft” for yourselves. Don’t worry if you didn’t get a ticket: you can see the painting in the Mauritshuis in The Hague after the exhibition in Amsterdam ends. And who knows, maybe you will be inspired to write your own poems!

*I originally wrote this post for the social media outlets of the Dutch Embassy in Poland. This was post no. 43.

An Enslaved Pole in 17th-Century Amsterdam

Historians keep finding new sources and telling new stories, which enrich our views of the past and of the present. One recently uncovered tale concerns a young enslaved Pole, who came to Holland in the seventeenth century. Fragmentary traces of his life are preserved in the city archives of Amsterdam, which house countless old documents. Notary deeds from November 1656 introduce him as “a young man called Huvedi Dimitri, born in Poland and about 18 years of age”. He called upon the local notary Adriaen Lock and in the presence of several merchants and interpreters revealed that he had been living in slavery in the Ottoman Empire. Dimitri had been enslaved when he was about 10 years old. Some 15 months ago, a merchant from Aleppo called Joan Elias had bought him in Smirna (Izmir).

A fragment of the manuscript which mentions Huvedi Dimitri (shared by Mark Ponte on Twitter).

Dimitri had come to Holland as Elias’s slave, but had heard that there was no such thing as slavery in Amsterdam. A Greek merchant named Augustus de Miter had convinced him that Holland was “a free country”. He urged Dimitri to leave his master, and was willing to reimburse Joan Elias for Dimitri’s freedom. De Miter even wanted to give the Polish boy some money, so that he might travel home to his family. Just to be sure, he “violently” dragged him to a church and made him swear his tale was true. Some time later, Joan Elias visited another notary in Amsterdam, declaring that he would “set his slave free once more, relieving him of all servitude and slavery”. This may be a reference to Dimitri.

Much remains unclear about Huvedi Dimitri. The sources say he was “born in Poland”, and he may have identified himself as Polish as well, but what that would mean and where exactly he came from is uncertain. Dutch definitions of “Poland” could refer to the eponymous Kingdom or to the entire Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and notions of nationality were fuzzier than they are now. Perhaps Dimitri was born in the southern lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In those territories, most of which belong to modern-day Ukraine, Tatars frequently performed raids and enslaved the local population. Dimitri may have been captured during such a raid and then sold on to someone in the Ottoman Empire. His name, which of course is not Polish, may have been given to him in captivity.

To this day, most of what we know about the presence of Poles in seventeenth-century Holland focuses on free and wealthy noblemen. The notary deeds from Amsterdam offer a valuable new perspective on less fortunate individuals from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, who could also reach Holland, but had entirely different experiences. In addition, Dimitri’s story shows that slavery in Amsterdam was not condoned.

The notary deeds were found by historian Mark Ponte. For more information, see his blog post.

Polish Royalty on a 16th-Century Jug Found in Delft (NL Embassy in PL)

Back in the 16th-century Netherlands, the high and mighty often used waterproof stoneware jugs, which were practical and fancy signs of wealth. A few years ago, during the construction of a parking garage in Delft, an example was found which has a fascinating link to Poland: it is decorated with the portrait of King Stephen Báthory, who ruled the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from 1576 to 1586, as well as with several coats of arms, including those of Royal (Polish) Prussia and the city of Gdańsk. Moreover, it is dated 1586 and carries the maker’s initials: JEM, which points to Jan Emens Mennicken. Mennicken was a prolific potter from the Duchy of Limburg, in modern-day Belgium. His stoneware jugs were of the highest quality, and can be found in multiple museums.

Since the jug was apparently made for the Polish market, it is unclear how it ended up in Delft. Perhaps it was bought by a Dutch merchant in Gdańsk? Another intriguing explanation has to do with diplomacy. In 1586, the year of the jug’s production, Báthory sent an ambassador to the Netherlands. This Krzysztof Głoskowski was meant to persuade the Dutch to stop their revolt against the Spanish Habsburgs. He delivered a Latin speech before the States-General, which at that time assembled in… Delft! The exchange of gifts was an important part of diplomatic practice. It is possible, though uncertain, that Mennicken was commissioned by the Polish court and/or the city of Gdańsk to produce the jug, after which Głoskowski may have offered it to the States-General as a token of friendship, a reminder of the importance of Gdańsk as a trading partner of the Dutch and a symbol of Báthory’s authority.

A 3D reconstruction of the jug can be viewed here.

*I originally wrote this post for the social media outlets of the Dutch Embassy in Poland. This was post no. 42.

1737: A Polish Calamity and Dutch Solidarity (NL Embassy in PL)

In late January 1737, a large part of Poland was hit by a flood and subsequent famine. A severe storm broke dykes along the Vistula and Nogat rivers, and the water covered vast tracts of land between Gdańsk and Toruń. Cities and villages were destroyed, people and cattle perished, and farmlands were made unusable. The Dutch historian Jan Wagenaar described the terrible calamity which had befallen the Poles. He tried to arouse sympathy and stimulate his Dutch readers to donate money for the victims, many of whom were left homeless and died of hunger or disease. In some parts of the country, the water receded only after the Summer.

Gdańsk and its surroundings, Nürnberg ca. 1720

The following year, Wagenaar published an account of the help sent from the Dutch Republic to Poland. After pleas from Poland, merchants from Holland with commercial ties to Gdańsk and other Polish towns had initiated a relief campaign. According to Wagenaar, they collected around 15.000 Dutch guilders: a considerable sum for that time. The money was transferred to Gdańsk and then distributed by ministers of diverse denominations: Catholics, Calvinists, Mennonites and Lutherans. Wagenaar claimed that the Dutch relief campaign saved thousands of lives, and described how Polish farmers from various towns were given bread, beans and all kinds of cereal, for which they were extremely grateful: “Many did not know that there was a place called Holland and were astounded to receive help from a land of which they had never even heard before. Others called it a miracle of divine providence that they now obtained grain from a land towards which they used to send their own abundant produce.” This final comment is a reference to the grain traditionally exported from Poland, which was vital to the economy of Holland since medieval times.

The Dutch relief campaign of 1737 was a novelty, because it bridged different religious groups: previous campaigns were organised only for members of the same denomination. People in the Dutch Republic felt solidarity with the Poles and voluntarily supported the victims, no matter their religious beliefs. They thought that God would reward their generosity, and possibly hoped that Poland’s swift recovery would benefit the grain trade.

*I originally wrote this post for the social media outlets of the Dutch Embassy in Poland. This was post no. 41. It is based on a forthcoming academic article by historian Adriaan Duiveman.

1863: Dutch Politics and the Polish Uprising Against Russia

160 years ago, the January Uprising broke out: an insurrection against Russian rule that took place in multiple parts of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which had been dismembered in the late eighteenth century. The uprising started in the night on 22 January 1863, in the Russian-controlled Kingdom of Poland, where several layers of society harboured a desire to regain independence from Russia. The revolt was finally triggered by the sudden forced conscription of Polish activists into the Russian Imperial Army – which was actually meant to suppress the rising tide of patriotism.

The uprising was followed closely by foreign politicians and media, including in the Netherlands. During the November Uprising of 1830-31, Dutch sympathies had been generally anti-Polish and pro-Russian: inspired by the nearly simultaneous Belgian Revolution, Dutch commentators routinely labelled the Polish insurrectionists ungrateful and unruly. I wrote about these reactions in November 2021.

Artur Grottger, The insurrectionist’s farewell, 1866

In the 1860s, things were different. The Belgian historian Idesbald Goddeeris has shown that Dutch responses to the January Uprising were far more diverse.* It took several months before any action was taken by the Dutch government, however: in May, the Dutch ambassador in Saint Petersburg presented a note of protest at the court of the tsar, in accordance with for example France and Britain. The event sparked a debate in the Dutch Lower House of Parliament, as the orthodox Protestant opposition attacked the liberal government for their action. In response, several MP’s defended the decision to support Poland (in spirit) by praising the Polish struggle for freedom. Some even compared it to the Dutch Revolt against Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However, others suggested that the Poles were aiming for the impossible, and were making themselves unpopular by using violence. King Willem III even explicitly supported the Russian tsar. Meanwhile, several Dutch publications once again framed the Poles as an unruly, anarchic, and even uncivilised and immature people, who actually profited from foreign occupation. In effect, the Dutch mix of Polonophilia and Polonophobia in the 1860s was principally guided by different political interests. No actual help was sent to Poland, however.

The January Uprising was the longest-lasting revolt in partitioned Poland. It was mainly fought as a guerilla war, encompassing many hundreds of battles and skirmishes. It  ended in 1864, with the defeat of the insurrectionists. Tens of thousands of Poles, Lithuanians, Belarussians and Ukrainians were killed or sent off to Siberia. Following the defeat of the uprising, the russification of the rebellious lands was intensified. In 1867, what little autonomy the Kingdom of Poland had had was abolished completely.

The diplomatic efforts of Western powers to stop Russia had been fruitless.

*See: Idesbald Goddeeris, ‘Poland and the Netherlands in the 19th century’, in: Hellema, R. Żelichowski, B. van der Zwan (eds.), Poland and the Netherlands. A Case Study of European Relations (Dordrecht: Republic of Letters Publishing 2011), 41-54.

History in Service of Diplomacy: Foreign Affairs Minister References my Research

Historical Droste effect: I found out that the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Wopke Hoekstra referenced a paper of mine – on poetry as a diplomatic tool in 17th-century Dutch-Polish relations – in a speech he gave at a modern Dutch-Polish diplomatic event, last April:

Hoekstra placed himself in that same 17th-century tradition by quoting the famed Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel, who praised Gdańsk in 1635 to boost the grain trade. Almost 400 years later, Vondel’s poem thus once again served to bolster Dutch-Polish relations. Also, Vondel’s definition of Gdańsk as “queen of the northern region” is a translation of a Latin verse about Gdańsk by the Polish poet Sarbiewski/Sarbievius, published in 1634. In other words: Hoekstra quoted Vondel quoting Sarbiewski. This is some serious intertextuality! Moreover, my own paper on early modern diplomacy has become part of the modern diplomatic process. And so have I: the fact that I’m a “Dutch historian” is especially relevant in this context (Hoekstra missed the opportunity to say that I’m also Polish, however).

In conclusion, the speech shows how the study of history and literature can be used to pursue political and economic interests via international diplomacy. “Valorisation” of humanities research doesn’t get much more explicit than this.

My paper was published here, in Legatio: The Journal for Renaissance and Early Modern Diplomatic Studies in 2019.

Hoekstra’s speech can be found here.

Amsterdam 1928: Gold Medal for Polish Poetry (NL Embassy in PL)

Recently, I wrote about Dutch-Polish sporting history, specifically regarding the Summer Olympics of 1928 in Amsterdam. Another fascinating anecdote from that event concerns poetry and art. Back then, the Olympics also included cultural contests. Medals were awarded for artistic works inspired by sport, in several categories: architecture, literature, music, visual arts and sculpture. The gold medal in the category of literature was won by the Polish author Kazimierz Wierzyński, who had written a series of fifteen poems entitled Laur olimpijski (the Olympic Laurel). The poems discuss several sporting disciplines, such as the 100 meters sprint and discus throwing, but also applaud specific contestants. One of the poems describes a race by female athletes. Furthermore, the Polish artist Władysław Skoczylas won a bronze medal in the category of drawing.

The picture shows the front and back of the gold medal as awarded during the 1928 Olympics. Wierzyński won a similar medal.

*I originally wrote this post for the social media outlets of the Dutch Embassy in Poland. This was post no. 40.

Opinie in de Volkskrant: Solidariteit met Oekraïne vereist ook meer waardering voor Oost-Europa

Herwaardeer Oost-Europa en reken af met de stereotype negatieve, neerbuigende beeldvorming, want die speelt Poetin in de kaart, stel ik in een opiniestuk in de Volkskrant. Ik ga in op de geschiedenis en invloed van die beeldvorming, en waarom die moet veranderen: “Oekraïne en de andere landen in het oosten van het continent vormen geen koloniale ruimte, speelbal of buffer, maar zijn volwaardige, autonome staten met rijke geschiedenissen en eigen culturen. Deze nieuwe beeldvorming is cruciaal voor de westerse solidariteit met Oekraïne op de lange termijn en de democratische toekomst van heel Europa.”

Wie er online niet bij kan, leze de papieren versie:

Amsterdam 1928: The First Olympic Polish Gold (NL Embassy in PL)

Poland and the Netherlands share a rich history in sports. Right now, for instance, the two countries together host the Volleyball World Championship for women. An interesting older Dutch-Polish connection relating to women’s sports dates from 1928, when Amsterdam hosted the Summer Olympics. It was the first time women were allowed to participate in athletic and gymnastic events at the Olympic competition. The world champion in the field of discus throwing, the Polish Halina Konopacka, won the gold medal in that discipline, smashing both her personal and the world records. In addition, it was the first Olympic gold medal ever won on behalf of Poland. Konopacka was considered a beautiful athlete, which earned her the nickname “Miss Olympia”.

The picture shows a colorized photograph of Konopacka in action during the 1928 Olympics.

*I originally wrote this post for the social media outlets of the Dutch Embassy in Poland. This was post no. 39.

Groningen 1869: Recreating Sobieski’s Entry into Vienna in 1683 (NL Embassy in PL)

On this day in 1869, the city of Groningen witnessed a wondrous spectacle: the re-enactment of the entrance of King Jan III Sobieski of Poland into Vienna, in September 1683. At 7 pm, a masquerade of over seventy lavishly clad Dutch students began its passage through the city center, both on foot and on horseback. Such student masquerades were a common phenomenon in the nineteenth-century Netherlands, and they often portrayed specific historical events. An accompanying booklet enthusiastically relates Sobieski’s victory over the Turks at the Battle of Vienna, on 12 September 1683, and it also lists the masquerade’s participants, the roles they played, and the route they took through Groningen. Moreover, the booklet contains a small print based on a larger, colored illustration by the local artist Otto Eerelman. It depicts the masquerade as a long string of men in historical costumes of Polish and Austrian or German soldiers and clergymen, many wielding sabers, war hammers, lances, and flags. At the center of the print stands the masquerade’s main figure: Sobieski. Naturally, the print gives a fictional impression of the event, but one can imagine the excitement the masquerade must have caused in Groningen, which for one evening in 1869 played the role of Vienna welcoming Jan III Sobieski in 1683.

*I originally wrote this post for the social media outlets of the Dutch Embassy in Poland. This was post no. 38.