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Originally published Friday, February 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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The world through the work of a Dutch master

"Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World" by Timothy Brook Bloomsbury Press, 273 pp., $27.95 Stories of ethnic cleansing...

Special to The Seattle Times

"Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World" by Timothy Brook

Bloomsbury Press, 273 pp., $27.95

Stories of ethnic cleansing, human trafficking and illegal immigration, of corporate power and the uneven effects of free trade, have become so prevalent as to define our understanding of the post-Cold War world. But, as Timothy Brook shows in his elegant and quietly important book, "Vermeer's Hat," such stories have been with us for centuries — our global world is much older than we typically think.

The paintings of the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, who died more than three centuries ago, would seem a strange place to go in search of today's globalized era. Even Brook, a distinguished scholar of Chinese history, admits the decision is personal and arbitrary. But in Brook's hands Vermeer's canvases, together with a painting by a second-rate contemporary and an old chipped Delft plate, are just bright lures to catch our attention before he takes us on his rich, suggestive tours of the 17th-century world.

An oversize hat in Vermeer's "An Officer and a Laughing Girl" leads to a history of the trade in North American beaver pelts; a brightly colored dish in "Young Woman Reading a Letter" launches an examination of the European craze for Chinese porcelain. Maps and a globe in the artist's "The Geographer" and the weighing of coins depicted in his "Woman Holding a Balance" become points of departure for chapters on the growth of international trade and the role of silver in the world economy.

According to Brook, the thread that tied all these elements together and gave birth to the global age was China, specifically the lure of its mythical wealth, which, he claims, "haunted the seventeenth-century world." (Brook regrettably abandons himself on occasion to such grand if empty pronouncements: Was the 17th century really "the age of improvisation"? Was "the fire within seventeenth-century souls" really "to pawn one's place of birth for the world of one's desire"?)

It was the hope of finding a passage to China through North America that inspired the explorations of Samuel Champlain, explorations that were supported by the beaver trade, whose felt was prized for making hats. It was the European demand for Chinese porcelain that unleashed a cutthroat competition among the Dutch, Portuguese and Spaniards to control the trade. It was the need to pay for Chinese goods that fed the feverish mining of silver in the Andes, most of which ended up in the new entrepôts of Macao and Manila.

Brook depicts a world coming alive with movement, of diverse peoples and cultures engaging in sustained contact for the first time. Many of these interactions were bloody, and "Vermeer's Hat" doesn't shy away from them — Champlain's battles against the Mohawks, the Spaniards' brutal treatment of the Indians in South America, the massacre of 20,000 Chinese in Manila in 1603.

Yet, just as important, what Brook does to great effect is to show the myriad ways people from different parts of the world managed to work together, to see how their lives intersected in such a manner that cooperation trumped killing.

In the end, this is the book's ultimate lesson. In recounting these tales of international trade, cultural exchange and foreign encounter, Brook does more than merely sketch the beginnings of globalization and highlight the forces that brought our modern world into being; rather, he offers a timely reminder of humanity's interdependence.

"If we can see," he concludes, "that the history of any one place ultimately links to the history of the entire world, then there is no part of the past — no holocaust and no achievement — that is not our collective heritage."

Douglas Smith's "The Pearl: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great's Russia" will be published this spring by Yale University Press.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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