What might have Rembrandt done with a Google account?

Searching The Web Four Hundred Years Ago

Rembrandt stored his skulls in a room alongside his art studio. And not just those of humans, but of animals of every variety, along with fur pelts, jewels, feathers, costumes, armor, roman busts, and weapons. Of all the things in his home, this raised the most questions upon our visit. Was it the calling card of an eccentric old artist squandering his money on rare curiosities? He did go bankrupt before he died, after all. Or rather, could these artifacts offer us a glimpse into what the medieval equivalent of a search engine might have looked like?

You have to picture life in the 17th century as it was: short, harsh, and brutal. People didn't live very long and few of them had reason to venture more than a few days from the place of their birth. Human knowledge was thus strictly limited to local affairs and peasants lived, as some historians have put it, in "a world lit only by fire." Do you know then why most medieval lions look so cartoonish and goofy? It's because the artist was at least ten degrees removed from anyone who had ever actually seen a real one. They couldn't just look it up, so they made it up. 

And so you come to understand Rembrandt's plight: how to make good on his promises to paint the world's greatest biblical scenes without any insight into what St George's dragon might have looked like? The answer he found was to run up a tab with the Dutch East India company ordering hitherto unseen monitor lizards from the barbarous isles of the India. He stuffed his house with oddities that might help him make better visual sense of the unknown world so that his paintings could truly come to life.

His locker, in essence, was a repository for information on the natural world. A walk-in compendium, of sorts, with items that few in Europe would have seen. And all of this would have been gathered painstakingly through trading networks stretching across the known world to the Shoguns of Japan and the Kingdom of Siam. A sort of ancient 24k modem connected to all of the coastal global city-states where pictures, when requested from a sympathetic VoC trading vessel, might take literal years to "upload" and arrive at his door.

This idea fascinates me. Especially as I google "cartoonish medieval lion" on my smartphone and get 173,000 hits in just a few seconds. We each of us have access in our pockets to more information than all the civilizations on this Earth had up until this year. And I wonder to myself, what can we do with that power? Hopefully more than paint better lions


With so much great material in Amsterdam, expect another few posts this week!