Compiling lists in times of cultural crisis

Case

Compiling lists in times of cultural crisis

The Panpoëticon Batavûm’s 300 writers roamed the world

In times of cultural crisis, Dutch people make lists of national idols and draw up literary canons. That’s what we’re doing right now, in the current crisis. Lieke van Deinsen, (Radboud University) an authority on Dutch, has turned the 18th century inside out and made the remarkable discovery that ‘we’ were doing that even then. ‘Compiling lists of the best literary works is a much older custom that we thought.’

Computervisual of the Panpoëticon in an 18th century mansion, by Timothy De Paepe & Lieke van Deinsen, 2016.Computervisual of the Panpoëticon in an 18th century mansion, by Timothy De Paepe & Lieke van Deinsen, 2016.

The 18th century in the Netherlands invariably invokes the adjective ‘enfeebled’. Weak and feeble in the squelchy waterlogged delta. Political unrest and diminishing economic perspectives were the norm. The impressive successes of the Golden Age which had transformed the Republic into a great power in Europe were things of the distant past. The Republic was sinking through its own feet of clay, under the weight of French baroque and rococo. Hardy seafarers and crafty merchants had made way for powdered wig wearers in Frenchified tailoring. Completely enfeebled, wouldn’t you say?

Van Deinsen: ‘The clichéd traditional view is that fear of foreign influence and a lack of interest in the country’s own Dutch literary past characterised the time. But my research has revealed that precisely such a period of cultural crisis provoked lively debates about the country’s national literary heritage.’

Mythical ‘Golden Age’

The Dutch literary canon – literary masterpieces and their authors – is mainly described as a product of the 19th century. Only then was the 17th century proclaimed to be a mythical ‘Golden Age’ and that was when literature buffs definitively placed Joost van den Vondel on a pedestal.

As a counterweight for the dominant idea of the 18th century being an era of obsequious imitation and cultural decline, the historians Wijnand Mijnhardt and Willem Frijhoff, among others, presented an alternative vision some 35 years ago. They noted a different trend – precisely in the period in which the French influence on the Republic had reached its peak. Under the threat of French cultural imperialism, a counterculture arose in which a shared Dutch cultural identity could be expressed.

Did you know? Around 1800 Literature buffs organised elections to find the best Dutch poet. They went in search of the highlights of Dutch literature in the domestic environment of book collections and private libraries.

List with masterpieces in literature

Van Deinsen concluded that long before 1800, there were canon-formation mechanisms at work which remained almost unnoticed due to the persistent focus on the 19th century. How did people come to define the national taste in Dutch literature in the 18th century? An apparently modern approach, such as drawing up lists of the best literary works or acclaiming the best writer turns out to be much older than was thought.

Van Deinsen: ‘Literature buffs in those days organised elections to find the best Dutch poet. They went in search of the highlights of Dutch literature in the domestic environment of book collections and private libraries. An ideal and typical example of an 18th century collector who actively set out to safeguard literary heritage for posterity was Gerard van Papenbroek. He opened his extensive literary collection, which included unique original manuscripts by P.C. Hooft, to anyone who was interested.’

European book market

Eighteenth-century men and women of letters actively promoted the Dutch language and literature, partly because the Republic had been forced to step aside as the centre of the European book market. There was not only growing competition from printers and publishers from surrounding countries; the market for the overabundance of Latin and French works that had traditionally been printed in the Republic was shrinking dramatically. The intellectual debate in Europe was after all increasingly being conducted in the various national languages. By necessity, Dutch publishers began focusing on a mostly Dutch-speaking, and therefore smaller, readership.

'Belle van Zuylen' (Isabella Agneta Elisabeth van Tuyll van Serooskerken) 1740-1805. She is considered one of the greatest Dutch literators in her era. She didn’t end up in the Panpoëticon because she was ‘too French’. Portret painted by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1766) hangs in Musée d'art et d'histoire de Genève'Belle van Zuylen' (Isabella Agneta Elisabeth van Tuyll van Serooskerken) 1740-1805. She is considered one of the greatest Dutch literators in her era. She didn’t end up in the Panpoëticon because she was ‘too French’. Portret painted by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1766) hangs in Musée d'art et d'histoire de Genève

At the same time, French men and women of letters monopolised the debates about the arbitrary nature of aesthetic taste. The focus on ‘taste’ as a national product – and therefore not as a universal principle, so the consensus went – certainly grew, but not all national tastes were considered to be equal. French authors considered French literature from the time of Louis XIV to be the absolute aesthetical climax. Authors in the Republic also tackled the question of what could be said to be characteristic of Dutch literary taste.

Van Deinsen: ‘The high point of national literary awareness is the Panpoëticon Batavûm, a wooden collectors’ cabinet in which the portraits of over 300 writers were assembled. Contemporaries visited the collection and were full of praise for this monument to the Dutch literary canon. Incidentally there was no place in it for Belle van Zuylen, whom we now consider to be one of the greatest of her era. She was considered to be ‘too French’.’

The writers cabinet

Computervisual of an opened closet with on the inside the allegorical grisaillepainting by Jacob de Wit, by Timothy De Paepe & Lieke van Deinsen, 2016.Computervisual of an opened closet with on the inside the allegorical grisaillepainting by Jacob de Wit, by Timothy De Paepe & Lieke van Deinsen, 2016.

The painter and engraver, Arnoud van Halen (1673-1732) of Amsterdam started this remarkable project around 1700. Other than many of his contemporaries, he did not amass fossils, stones, coins or books, but collected portraits of Dutch poets. He painted them on metal plates measuring about 9 by 11 centimetres. They included the Frisian poetess Sibylle van Griethuysen, the Flemish poet Willem Ogier and Jeremias de Decker of Amsterdam.

His collection grew so vigorously that Van Halen commissioned Simon Schijnvoet to build a wooden cabinet to give his portraits a home. The cabinet contained dozens of wooden plateaus, each holding 11 portraits in chronological order. Each time visitors removed a plateau from the cabinet, they found themselves looking at a piece of Dutch literary history. New portraits followed year on year, even after Van Halen’s death.

Louis Napoleon thought it was a nice collection of historical significance, but of insufficient aesthetic quality. And you can hardly blame him.’
- Lieke van Deinsen

The collection of 300 portraits remained intact for almost a century and a half, even surviving the notorious gunpowder explosion in Leiden in 1807 until, in the middle of the 19th century, its new owner broke up the collection to sell it. The wooden cabinet was probably burned as firewood. Van Deinsen: ‘When people went peddling the collection, even King Louis Napoleon couldn’t see the point of it.  He thought it was a nice collection of historical significance, but of insufficient aesthetic quality. And you can hardly blame him.’

Rijksmuseum

After that, the portraits roamed around Europe in large or small incomplete collections. About a hundred have been located. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam was able to acquire a few dozen portraits. Since the reopening of the Rijksmuseum, 22 have been on view in exhibitions open to the public. Some are stored in the archives. ‘It’s a shame that the portraits have been hung vertically. They were intended to be laid horizontally, neatly side by side as an episode in literary history. Nevertheless, it is absolutely fantastic that they are on display in this pantheon of Dutch culture.’

The cabinet has been resurrected, albeit in two dimensions, thanks to magnificent digital reconstructions (www.schrijverskabinet.nl).

Lieke van Deinsen (1987) defended her doctoral thesis on Friday, 12 May at Radboud University, as part of the Vidi project ‘Proud to be Dutch. The role of war and propaganda literature in the shaping of an early modern Dutch identity, 1648-1815’ supervised Dr Lotte Jensen. Van Deinsen is now working in the Research Services department at the Rijksmuseum.


The photo in the banner shows Lieke van Deinsen in the Rijksmuseum next to portraits of writers from the Panpoëticon Batavûm.