Through the Spyglass

While watching Admiral, the lavish Dutch film about the great Michiel de Ruyter (1607-1676), Lieutenant-Admiral of the Dutch Fleet during the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the mid-seventeenth century, all I could think about was spyglasses. He had one on deck, of course, as did everyone around him, and it also seemed as if we were watching these epic naval battles through them from the shore. So in addition to seeing spyglasses on the screen, I felt like I had one, and was therefore able to get very close to this meticulously made-up world (sometimes too close–see below). Admiral is not a great film by any means (although its original Dutch version, titled Michiel de Ruyter, is probably a lot better as the English dubbing is really distracting; I would have preferred subtitles), although it is very engaging one. It’s also not a great historical film: the history is off and compressed; no one ages or is the right age.The peripheral royal characters, the foppish Prince William III of Orange and the decadent King Charles II of England, are just caricatures, but very watchable caricatures nonetheless. And fair warning: the violence is explicit as the film recreates one of the most horrifying events in European history, the lynching of Johan and Cornelis de Witt by an organized Orangist mob in 1672. I really wish I had looked away sooner. Nevertheless, for all the violence and the video-game attributes of the film, it does present an interesting corrective to the dominant British or French perspective one usually sees in historical films and the acting and material details are really wonderful. Like our founding fathers, Michiel de Ruyter is on the money in the Netherlands, so not just anyone could play him: the Dutch actor Frank Lammers was perfect. And I also started to think about naval formations for the very first time.

Admiral Film Poster 2015

Admiral Michiel_de_Ruyter_1607-1676


Admiral Spyglasses Still

The poster for the 2015 English-language film; Ferdinand Bol, Michiel de Ruyter as Lieutenant-Admiral, 1667, Rijksmuseum; Juriaenn Jacobsz., Michiel de Ruyter and his family, 1662, Rijksmuseum; a still from the film with spyglasses.

As you can see in the contemporary paintings above, de Ruyter’s spyglass was like an extra appendage: he wields it even in the family portrait. A century or so later it will be commonplace to see admirals and sea captains pictured with their spyglasses, but this is a new composition/characterization in the seventeenth century–the telescope was invented by Dutch spectacle-makers (NOT Galileo) for maritime purposes only a few decades before the beginning of de Ruyter’s career. It’s almost like a national symbol for the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century, when it was commonly referred to as the “Dutch Telescope”. From this time until well into the nineteenth century it’s fairly difficult to find a portrait of a sea captain without a spyglass by his side: it looks like this is yet another legacy of the Dutch Golden Age.

Some Anglo-American sea captains of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, spyglasses in hand:

Admiral Warren NMM

Captain Sir Edward Vernon NMM

Sea Captains nineteenth century

Thomas Hudson, Admiral Sir Peter Warren, 1748-42, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich; Francis Hayman, Captain Sir Edward Vernon (who later became an Admiral, SWOON), c. 1753-56, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich; and two mid-nineteenth century merchant captains from either side of the Atlantic: an anonymous English merchant captain, c. 1830 and portrait of Captain John Howland of New Bedford (1802-46) by an unknown artist, New Bedford Whaling Museum.

6 responses to “Through the Spyglass

  • Shelby Hypes

    And PEM has a wonderful 17th cc red and black lacquered spyglass made in Japan for the Dutch. If I recall correctly, it’s actually papier maché! Japanese Export Art section, up on the balcony roughly above where the netsuke are in the Japanese collection below.

  • Piper B

    The portrait of Cpt. John Howland is my favorite. Something about the simplicity of the painting that draws me in. It doesn’t hurt the subject is quite handsome! Off topic…I was watching the latest episode of Finding Your Roots, with Harvard Prof. Louis Gates. One of his guests was Neil Patrick Harris. Evidently, NPH is descended from a 16th century woman, from Germany and was accused of being a witch. After three years of trial she was burned at the stake. NPH and Gates, both thought this was amusing, actual laughter, after revealing this info. Neil loves magic so thought this was awesome. I was appalled. When has enough time passed that a real flesh and blood person becomes a fictional character? The research showed that this poor soul was trying to kill off her animals to keep disease from spreading to other animals on her property. They had hoof and mouth disease! It was just infuriating! Maybe I should be sharing my outrage with NPH and Gates!

    • daseger

      Howland is very handsome, like Vernon–that’s why I put them in there! There were certainly enough sea captains with spyglasses to choose from……I’m glad you brought up that show, Piper, which I dislike intensely. Gates lost all credibility with me after the “Affleck affair” in which he gave in to the actor who did not want it known that there were slaveholders in his family. I think you should complain to WGBH; I think we all should.

  • Piper B

    My PBS station in NJ is WNET. It covers NY and NJ, but you are right. I totally get your frustration when Halloween rolls around. I don’t know how you don’t just pack and leave your beloved Salem for a few days..LOL.
    Yes, Gates and Harris just looked liked two buffoons. When Gates handed Harris his genealogy, which was more extensive than any I had seen before on the show. His response was that he was glad there was a lot of sex going on!! I mean come on! And ditto with the Affleck case.

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