This is my review of Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook.
The idea of using paintings mainly by Vermeer as a cue to explore aspects of the development of trade in the seventeenth century and "the dawn of the global world" is an interesting approach. Although I was expecting the focus to be on the Dutch East India company, there is a good deal about French and Portuguese colonisation.
One problem for me was that the links often seem too tenuous. Vermeer's hat serves as "the door inside the painting which we will open", the point being that it is probably made of beaver which became available when the Frenchman Champlain began to trade with the Huron Indians in the course of his search in what is now Canada for a route through to the Pacific and the wealth of China. Too much of the commentary on the paintings is speculation: "..we don't know whether he owned that particular hat".. his wife was hard up after his death "and might well have sold it" and so on.
There's a kind of banality in much of the analysis: "the stories I have told in these pages have revolved around the effects of trade on the world, and on ordinary people. But between the world and ordinary people is the state which was powerfully affected by the history of trade and had powerful effects in turn". Isn't the reader likely to know this already? Is this an example of an academic underestimating the general reader?
Perhaps an avoidable downside of its thematic approach, the book rambled too much for me and I was left frustrated by the dullness of what could have been gripping.