André Klukhuhn – Light 





The Republic of the Seven United Netherlands 11



The Radical Dutch Enlightenment 17

Censorship 22

René Descartes and Cartesianism 25

Baruch Spinoza and Spinozism 40



The Scientific Worldview 67

Glass, Glasses, Lenses and the Eye 72

The Dutch Spyglass or Telescope 80

Galileo Galilei 84

Geometric Optics 103

Johannes Kepler 109

René Descartes 113

Christiaan Huygens 114

Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein 121

The Microscope 138

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek 140



The Visual Arts 159

Perspective 160

Painting 168

Camera Obscura and Camera Lucida 171

Sculpture 174

Architecture 175

Spatial Perspective and Awareness  179

The Caravaggio’s and the Chiaroscuro 184

Johannes Vermeer 187

Vermeer, Van Leeuwenhoek and Huygens 191

Literature 198

Joost van den Vondel 198

Constantijn Huygens, Snr 201

Pieter Cornelizoon Hooft 204

Music 219



Acknowledgements 233

References 237

Index 249

Light, The Dutch Republic as the Cradle of the Enlightenment by André Klukhuhn



[Introduction, Pages 11-13]


Light takes place in and around the 17th century, the period in European cultural history that largely coincides with the early Enlightenment. This period is also known as the Golden Age in the history of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands: a patch of swamp, ringed with white dunes and blond beaches, in a river delta barely covering forty-thousand square kilometres, situated partially below sea-level and held dry by windmills. The at most one and a half million residents were busy engaging in an unprecedented political experiment. In France and England, their neighbours apprehensively beheld the new, prosperous state without a king, without a court of nobles, governed instead by a people comprised – as was often said – of nothing but merchants, fisherman, cheesemakers and tulip traders. Nevertheless they excelled in nearly every area of culture – and that after the costly Eighty Years War with the Spanish, by whom they had been far outnumbered, and which they had fought in defence of freedom under the leadership of eminent strategist Willem van Oranje and his sons, the half-brothers Maurits and Fredrik Hendrik. Armies were primarily composed of mercenaries, and those with the money to pay these soldiers for long enough were usually the ones to triumph in the end. That was how the Republic managed to defeat the allied forces of the three surrounding powers, France, England and Germany, after the two-year-long Franco-Dutch war.


The Republic’s colonial empire, where most of the big money was made, stretched from Brazil to Africa, from Guyana and the Antilles to the West Coast of North America, and later even from Indonesia and India to Japan. This global network was maintained by the East and West Indies Companies’ combined fleet of 160 war- and merchant-naval ships that sailed the world’s oceans. Known among their competitors for their greed, the Dutch earned their reputation by sending out merchant ships on Christian holidays, not without inspiring the saga of the Flying Dutchman: a ship that, having left the harbour on the first day of Easter, was possessed by the Devil and from then on doomed to sail around the Cape of Hope for eternity.


To just mention the most important names, Renes Descartes and Baruch Spinoza dominated philosophy; as Christiaan Huygens and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek did the sciences; Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer and Frans Hals did painting; Joost van den Vondel, Constantijn Huygens and Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft did literature; and Jan Pieterszoon did music. Light played a fundamental role for most of them. How could the light in that period concentrate itself so brilliantly in such a small, core area, giving that land a crucial position in world history and bringing about a revolution the likes of which the world had never seen? With what means were the so-trusted and holy heavens, which had enveloped the world since ancient times, blown to smithereens and the Christian angel choirs of the Middle Ages robbed of their concert podium? How were the age-old positions of power held by the nobility and clergy undermined, and the physical and spiritual space allowed to expand to an apparently unlimited scope?


Though the academic Jacob Smit presumes, in his biography of Constantijn Huygens Snr, that we will never know exactly why it was that art and science, as well as trade and industry, enjoyed such an unprecedented bloom, one of the keys to this puzzle lies buried in the extraordinary sand enriched by eons of glacial and riverine erosion. This sand, so characteristic of the Dutch landscape, formed the raw-material for the glass with which the craftsmen in Middleburg made the highly-prized lenses used in building telescopes and microscopes. These new optical instruments not only opened the previously unknown worlds of macro- and microcosms for scientific exploration, but they also fundamentally influenced and changed the arts with the camera obscura, and then later the camera lucida. In fact, it was the very invention of optic instruments right then and there, in the most ‘illuminated’ part of Europe, that opened the eyes and tapped the source from which all of our current knowledge concerning four-dimensional time and space stems – from the Big Bang and black holes to elementary particles, nanotechnology and superstring theory.


However, the most important reason as to why the Dutch light managed to ignite lay in the prevailing intellectual freedom with regards to religion and philosophy as compared to the other European powers. It was this freedom that created a safe homeland for Descartes and Spinoza, both refugees of religious violence, and a fertile seedbed for their revolutionary thinking.


Translated by  Haico Kaashoek