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Vol. 13, No. 1, 2014
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russell shorto's

reviewed by


Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham and A New Yorker at Sea. Nick’s reviews are available at



If you have ever gazed at a genre painting by Rembrandt or Vermeer and wondered why these artists almost always lionized ordinary people while ignoring the nobility, then you need to read this book. If you have ever chuckled about Amsterdam’s open prostitution or marijuana shops or if you think that America in 1776 was the world’ s first modern democracy and solitary beacon of freedom and civil rights, then you need to read this book.

In his compelling narrative (A History of the World's Most Liberal City), Russell Shorto explains that because early Netherlanders had to retrieve their land piece by piece from the water, they escaped the land ownership- based feudal manorial system. No land so no noble overlords; only groups of ordinary people struggling together to make a living. Starting around 1000 A.D. these lowland inhabitants, with uncanny talent for commerce, cultivated an egalitarian society that quickly prospered because they were repeatedly convinced that working together was a magic formula for economic success and social stability.

When powerful neighbouring European bosses in the person of the Spanish monarchy and the Catholic Church tried to move in and control these Dutchmen in the 16th century, they banded together and fought back. They warred against Charles V, his son Philip ll, and other Spanish monarchs for 80 years and threw out the authoritarian Catholic religion in favor of the new spirit of Protestant independence. And, incredibly, while the Amsterdammers were opposing these formidable opponents on into the middle of the 17th century, they managed to develop a new cooperative sea-inspired mercantile system-- the famous Dutch India Companies or VOC -- that initiated modern capitalism and became the envy of the world.

Who are these people?

The answer can be found in Shorto’s book which is not a dry, fact-ridden historical treatise but a gripping page-turner. He chronicles carefully but in the style of Herodotus not Thucydides. His tale of the Amsterdam populace pulling together against all odds is remarkable. His ardent conversational prose reveals Rembrandt’s psychological genius portraying the essence of this Dutch individualism as he paints The Night Watch (1642). His contextualization of the great Spinoza’s philosophy, whose insistence on reason over belief becomes a symbol of this Dutch Golden Age, is penetrating. And his account of Amsterdam as the Xanadu of liberalism with Descartes, Locke, Van Gogh and other leading artists and intellectuals moving to the city to experience its egalitarian wonders, is fascinating.

We see the startup of the world’s first stock market activity in 1602 at the home of shipping merchant Dirck van Os. Immediately, Amsterdammers not only invest in the ship traders but begin to speculate on the fate of the spice harvest by inventing derivatives -- financial securities derived from stock -- and other products such as futures, call options, short selling and repos. This is all happening while Holland is at war with Spain and Portugal and hordes of citizens are being murdered and tortured by Spanish Inquisitors.

The pursuit of freedom, the atmosphere of economic and social liberalism, and the quest for all things intellectual, run rampant in Amsterdam’s streets. A huge influx of publishing houses (in the 17th century Holland had some 100 publishing houses printing half of all the books in the world) begins to flourish (Galileo’s Discourses, too radical for European publishers, finds a home in Holland); the Blaeu family who become the world’s leading cartographers run Europe’s biggest printing press. The city is enjoying huge wealth and prosperity but, as evidence of its commitment to equality, rich people live next door to servants since a show of opulence is considered bad taste.

Throughout Shorto utilizes narrative techniques which underscore the historical drama. He withholds the names of immortals (Rembrandt, Descartes, Spinoza) until after he has delivered an introductory c.v. He cleverly intersects the lives of characters who each represent a different segment of society. We meet, during the amazing Golden Age, Dr. Nicolaes Tulp who has changed his name from Pieterszoon to take advantage of the tulip craze as he forges a successful medical career and is appointed a government official. His publicized anatomy experiments become front page news as they are captured in a painting (The Anatomy Lesson) by a local artist. We meet a poor widow Geertje Dircx who, after her sailor husband dies, moves to Amsterdam to try to support herself. She moves around the city, gets a job and becomes an example of the possibility of upward mobility. We are introduced to Jan Six a cloth dyer who uses a ‘smart marriage’ to become a ‘society maven.’ The marriage is to the daughter of Nicolaes Tulp. Later in the story, Tulp’s wife dies and he begins a liason with his housekeeper Geertje Dircx. Jan Six becomes the patron of the same local artist who painted Tulp’s anatomy experiment. And as he researches, Russell Shorto visits an abode in Amsterdam -- “a fifty-six room semi palace” -- which contains possibly the world’s greatest collection of art in a private house. It is the home of the cloth dyer Jan Six and in addition to works by Bruegel, Hals, and at one point, Vermeer, it contains a portrait of Six by the aforementioned local artist whose name is Rembrandt. Shorto includes an interview with the present-day caretaker whose name, of course is Jan Six.

Residing on the same street where Dirck van Os lives, a young Flemish teenager Catalina Trico prepares to marry Joris Rapalje and sail to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. The date is January 24, 1624. What follows is an account of their life in their new city which contains the same liberalism as Amsterdam. He identifies the neighbourhoods of the new colony i.e. Breukelen (Brooklyn), Vlackebosch (Flatbush), Boswijck (Bushwick) and one which I am particularly interested in Vlissengen (Flushing) where I have lived for decades.

The Dutch policy of tolerating religious differences – one of the hallmarks of their extraordinary liberalism – is replicated in their new colony in a famous petition called the Flushing Remonstrance which is considered the first statement of religious freedom in America. Imagine my reaction to this tidbit which I had never known about. Indeed, if New York City has unique multiculturalism and social egalitarianism most of the origin of these traditions can be traced back to the Dutch founders.

Throughout its history, Amsterdam has had to constantly fight off its more powerful neighbours. After the Spanish and Portuguese came the English and the French (in 1806 Napoleon installed his brother Louis as King of Holland) and, in the final occupation, the Nazis. Throughout Shorto’s account we see the Amsterdammers struggling with these invaders and arguing among themselves as to what might be the best way of dealing with them. In addition, they have to deal with the usual social, economic and political problems common to all nations. But as they struggle they steadfastly maintain and defend their notions of religious tolerance, liberal immigration (with 178 nationalities represented the city was recently named the most ethnically diverse in the world) and intellectual exchange.

The liberal tradition continues unabated to the present. Amsterdam women were among the first to champion sexual freedom: the story of Aletta Jacobs leading the fight for birth-control devices and women’s suffrage and Hirsi Ali, a Muslim immigrant from Somalia, who became a member of the Dutch parliament and has led the fight against the sexism of radical Islam. Shorto explains “She insisted that the commitment to reason and individual freedom that Amsterdam had fostered is more vital than ever as a weapon against religious superstition.”

We read of the “double Dutch” method for sexual activity – girls taking birth-control pills and boys using condoms -- resulting in one of the world’s lowest rates in teen pregnancy and one of the lowest rates of abortion. When it comes to exposing the young to sex scenes in the cinema the Dutch are more liberal than the Americans but unlike the latter they are very wary of cinematic violence. Unlike the Americans, Dutch don’t shield youngsters from sexual scenes in movies but considering the violence that Americans think is okay as a much greater threat to children. We encounter the concept of gedogen which means technically illegal but officially tolerated-- a system that mirrors human imperfection. We observe Dutch physicians being disinclined to prescribe anti-depressants and other medicines. We are told that, contrary to erroneous notions of drug use in Holland, 22. 6 percent of the Dutch have used cannabis while in America the figure is 40.3 percent. And we read that in 2001 the mayor of Amsterdam performed the world’s first same-sex marriage.

Shorto might have included more dates as he kept piling on stories and characters (I kept turning back pages to check when exactly an event occurred). He ignored the role of the English parliament in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. He is overly critical of the experiment of kraken or squatting which allowed people to take up residence in empty buildings (the policy was repealed in 2010). This and other experiments merely show the citizens bravely trying to push the envelope of liberalism. But these are minor points.

Wisely, the author is quick to point out some of the contrarieties of Amsterdam society. He recognizes that the rich merchants form an oligarchy of power in some areas but never betray the essential egalitarian nature of Dutch society. He notes that the dialogues among Amsterdammers regarding government, civil rights and justice have often been contentious and sometimes violent. What else is new? But the narrative of his beloved adopted city continually hearkens to Spinoza’s titanic tradition of reason over belief and emotion and that alone warrants a unique place for Amsterdam in human history.



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