Nicolaes Witsen and Shipbuilding in the Dutch Golden Age by A. J. Hoving (translation Alan Lemmers) 310 pp., 313 b&w images (mostly drawings), 9 tablesTexas A & M University Press, College Station, TX 77843-4354, 2012, $120 (hbk), ISBN 798-1603442862
Article first published online: 4 FEB 2013
© 2013 The Authors. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology © 2013 The Nautical Archaeology Society
International Journal of Nautical Archaeology
Volume 42, Issue 1, pages 227–228, March 2013
How to Cite
Rieth, E. (2013), Nicolaes Witsen and Shipbuilding in the Dutch Golden Age by A. J. Hoving (translation Alan Lemmers) 310 pp., 313 b&w images (mostly drawings), 9 tablesTexas A & M University Press, College Station, TX 77843-4354, 2012, $120 (hbk), ISBN 798-1603442862. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 42: 227–228. doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12008_14
- Issue published online: 4 FEB 2013
- Article first published online: 4 FEB 2013
This book by model-maker and ship historian A. J. Hoving, who is in charge of the restoration of historic models in the Navy Collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, offers an enthralling reading of Dutch shipbuilding from the l7th century through his treatment of Nicolaes Witsen's major publication of 1671, Aeloude in Hedendaegsche Scheeps-bouw in Bestier (‘Ancient and Modern Shipbuilding and Management’) with a second revised and expanded edition in 1690.
Let's begin with Hoving, author of the work under review: teaching in a technical establishment before joining the prestigious Rijksmuseum, Hoving devoted a great part of his leisure to building ship-models and, in particular, to the construction of models of 17th-century Dutch vessels such as the pinas and the personal yacht (jacht, a Dutch invention). In point of authenticity and historical rigour, each model relied on original documentary sources which, in addition to shipbuilding contracts (bestekken) and shipwrights' notes (certers), was above all Witsen's treatise. Beyond creating as precise models as possible, Hoving also tried to reproduce in miniature experiments in construction using the ‘shell-first’ technique found in the North Holland shipyards on the banks of the river Zaan and in Amsterdam. The model-maker's research gave way to publications in various international journals such as IJNA, Model Shipwright, Neptunia etc. Chapter 3 of the new book entitled ‘Contracts as Historical Sources’ (pp. 205–216) is partly devoted to the presentation of historic model construction as a research method. In 1994, after many years of study and model-making, Hoving published the synthesis of his research on Witsen in Dutch. The much more difficult task of rendering it in English has fallen to Alan Lemmers, linguist and ship historian, with the title Nicolaes Witsen and Shipbuilding in the Dutch Golden Age, the subject of this review.
Let us now examine the central theme of this book: Nicolaes Witsen and his Aeloude in Hedendaegsche Scheeps-bouw in Bestier. In the first chapter, ‘Introduction’, Hoving gives an excellent description of Witsen the man and of his work. Nicolaes Corneliszoon Witsen (8 May 1641–10 August 1710) was from the Amsterdam upper-middle class. One of the original features of the first Dutch treatise on shipbuilding is that its author was entirely independent, directly or indirectly, of the technical and cultural background of the shipbuilders, in contrast to the second ‘great’ Dutch author of the 17th century, Cornelis van Yk, a master shipbuilder in Delfshaven (present-day Rotterdam). In 1697, in Amsterdam, Van Yk published his De Nederlandse Scheeps-bouw-konst Open Gestelt (‘Dutch Naval Architecture Unveiled’) in which he describes the ‘frame-first’ method of construction specific to the shipyards of South Holland. Witsen, trained in law, was 13 times burgomaster of Amsterdam. A diplomat and scholar with a strong humanist background he had various diplomatic responsibilities, including that of acting as guide to the Tsar of Russia, Peter the Great, during his visit to Holland in 1697.
Witsen's knowledge of naval architecture came firstly from his reading (notably in the library in Leiden of the famous humanist Isaak Vossius), from the study of iconography (in particular the numismatic collection of his brother Johan), and finally from what we would call today ‘ethnographic research'—meetings and discussions with shipbuilders of his own region, among the most famous being Jan Jacobszoon Vijzelar of Harlingen. It is from these specialists that he collected the documentation of their ‘shell-first’ method of construction. In fact, only the lower part of the hull towards the bilge was built ‘shell-first’ by a method that was characterized by a provisional assembly of the bottom carvel planks with nailed cleats; then, by the introduction of floor timbers and ‘floating’ knees (without connection between them) and the disassembly of the wooden cleats, completed by filling the holes left by the nails with small pegs (the so-called spijkerpennen). Its presence there, moreover, acts as an ‘architectural footprint’ giving identity to a wreck during excavation.
It would be superfluous to make an issue of the fact that the ‘shell-first’ construction method in North Holland, described in detail by Witsen and further commented upon at length by Hoving, underlines that, without any plan, the overall design of the hull rests on certain rules of proportion drawn from practice and experiment. Here where the phases of design and construction are closely inter-dependent the Dutch shipbuider ‘… started with a general mental image [only] of the vessel’ (p. 15). There are many more comments on ‘shell-first’ construction to quote but let us move on.
It is important to make clear that only the 200 pages of Witsen's first edition (1671) devoted to North Holland shipbuilding have been translated and discussed by Hoving in his ch. 2 ‘How Ships are built in Holland today’ (originally the title of Witsen's ch. 8). The ship taken as exemplar by Witsen is a pinas of 134-foot length, the l22 sequences of its construction being precisely and methodically described. Witsen chose this type of fast trading vessel of average tonnage from the middle of the 17th century as he regarded it as an ‘architectural reference model’, making it possible to build other trade and war ships while only varying a few architectural parameters and leaving the basic ‘global’ design of the pinas unmodified. The technicalities and plans reconstituted by Hoving are presented in an Appendix.
Despite Witsen's choice to make as clear and complete as possible the ‘shell-first’ construction of the pinas, his text tends sometimes to digress from the subject to other naval construction topics to return some lines later. Reading Witsen's text therefore presents certain difficulties. To make comprehension easier, Hoving choses to re-organize the original text and to gather together only those passages describing the 122 construction sequences and eliminating all the interesting digressions. Hoving discusses each of Witsen's paragraphs, the most important of which compare the ‘shell-first’ construction method of North Holland shipyards and the ‘frame-first’ system described by Van Yk. Hoving adds to this study by drawing on the research involved in his own model-making. To avoid any confusion between the various reading levels, extracts from Witsen's book are printed in the old typography while Hoving's modern commentary on Dutch ship construction in Witsen's day is printed in modern type. Furthermore, the discussion specific to the 134-foot-long pinas is presented in a ‘box’ insert.
It is necessary to underline the importance of the illustrations; an essential complement to the text. Witsen's original illustrations are systemtically matched with the words, the precise captions in full. In addition, some of Witsen's figures are clarified by Hoving's own drawings. The principal sequences of ‘shell-first’ construction especially are illustrated by very beautiful and accurate drawings by Gerald de Weerd and by Anton v. D. Heuvel. The only criticism of the illustrations is of the ‘very average’ reproduction quality of the research model photographs of the jacht (figs 3.3 to 3.11) and of the de Brak (figs 3.15 to 3.21).
A particularly interesting addition to Hoving's study is the Appendix (pp. 237–249) by Deiderick Wildeman ‘Variants in the Two Editions (1671, l690) of Witsen's Treatise of Shipbuilding’. A very useful and comprehensive glossary is included with the Notes gathered at the end of the book giving the Dutch terms used by Witsen in neat and precise definitions.
In conclusion and above all must be emphasized the essential contribution this book makes to the history of 17th-century Dutch naval architecture. This a history that goes well beyond the boundaries of the Netherlands since Dutch shipyards and Dutch shipbuilders contributed massively to the fleets of the maritime nations of the time and notably that of France. It is important to realize that from the end of the l7th century Witsen's treatise had a strong echo in France and was the inspiration of two works published in French, the Dictionnaire de marine (‘Dictionary of the Navy’) by Nicolas Aubin published in Amsterdam in 1701, and L'art de bâtir les vaisseaux et d'en perfectionner la construction (‘The Art of building ships and how to improve construction’) by David Mortier and also published in Amsterdam, 1719.
From now on, thanks to the erudite mediation of model-maker-become-historian A. J. Hoving, no nautical archeologist or maritime historian of 17th-century shipbuilding can be unaware of the 122 construction sequences of a Dutch pinas built ‘shell-first’, nor misunderstand the technical subtleties of the native Dutch shipbuilders of Amsterdam and the Zaan river.