Book review by Harold J. Cook in: BMGN (2011) dl. 126-2. ‘De wijze koopman. Het wereldwijde onderzoek van Nicolaes Witsen (1641-1717), burgemeester en VOC-bewindhebber van Amsterdam’.
About Nicolaes Witsen the following English articles were published in Lias, a periodical for “Sources and documents relating to the early modern history of ideas”:
- ‘The significance of nepotism, patronage and book dedications in the life of the Amsterdam burgomaster Nicolaes Witsen (1641-1717)’. This article is published in Lias Vol. 25/1 (1998) as: ‘Nepotisme, patronage en boekdedicaties bij Nicolaes Witsen (1641-1717), burgemeester van Amsterdam’.
(Chapter 8 of the book contains alterations and amplifications, and was based on this article)
- ‘From the study of Nicolaes Witsen (1641-1717). His life with books and manuscripts’. Lias 21-1 (1994). Click here
(Chapter 9 of the book contains alterations and amplifications, and was based on this article)
- ‘Nicolaes Witsen and Gijsbert Cuper. Two Seventeenth-century Dutch Burgomasters and their Gordian Knot’. Lias 16-1 (1989). Click here
(Chapter 7 of the book contains alterations and amplifications, and was based on this article)
The significance of nepotism, patronage and book dedications in the life of the Amsterdam burgomaster Nicolaes Witsen (1641-1717)
Previous to the French period Amsterdam was governed by a council of four burgomasters. Each year three of them were elected by the ones retiring or stepping down, while one remained in office for the purpose of continuity. Together they could dispose of 3200 jobs and offices. The distribution of these offices occured by rota, which implied that a burgomaster, for the three months that he was in the chair, had all the positions at his disposal which were vacant at that moment.
Between 1682 and 1706 Nicolaes Witsen was burgomaster of Amsterdam for a total of 13 times, finding himself in a position which gave him considerable power and prestige. He was also an ardent lover of science. He published a map of Siberia (‘Tartary’) and wrote voluminous studies on shipbuilding and geography. Both qualities (mayor and scholar) were in his case indissolubly connected. By handing out favours he was in a position to oblige a variety of people, who in turn helped him with his investigations. This system of patronage and the providing of services in return also had an effect on the Republic of Letters. Most clearly this can be seen in the tradition of book dedications. Usually such a dedication was addressed to the person to whom the writer felt an obligation and from whom he expected benefits. Written in the form of a letter, subject to the rhetorical rules, the writer requested consent for the dedication and protection of their book.
At least 52 persons turned to Witsen for this purpose. The authors concerned were clients, graduate students, scholars and persons whose income depended on the booktrade, like publishers, writers, poets and translators. In all cases they acknowledged their gratitude for services rendered. Except in the case of a business relation, the personal loyalty to the patron was unquestioned, though expressions of gratitude rendered to deceased members of the family and requests for additional favours may suggest otherwise. The writer of a dedication had to consider a number of factors before approaching a possible patron for a book: an interest shown in the subject, the position of the gentleman, as well as the generosity to be expected of his favours. The dimension of such a choice is apparent when one considers those who handed out dedications regularly, such as publishers and professional writers. Repeatedly the names of so-called friends of the leading faction are found in their dedications. The dates of the dedications addressed to Witsen provide us with additional information: the first known dedication dates back to 1658, when Witsen was only a student without functions, but as the son of a burgomaster he was useful as a mediator. On the other hand, after his last mayorship, Witsen hardly reappears in dedications. The reason can be found in the changing political situation. His faction had to make way for the Corver brothers, and with the death of his nephew, the burgomaster Johannes Hudde in 1704, Witsen also had lost his influential support. For his favourites it became clear that Witsen would not return to office and that they consequently could not count on his influence any more. The reaction of the authors was immediate: as a patron for their dedications Witsen did no longer exist.