Monkey Business with Tulips

I just flew over the fabled tulip fields of Holland.  Sadly, I only had a short layover in Amsterdam airport. But I fondly remember a tulip-season trip to Holland three years ago. Tulips were everywhere, in all their glory.

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Museums have traditional arrangements of tulips, like this one which only a very wealthy family would have enjoyed in the past. Each precious bloom has its own place in a towering Delft vase, a luxurious work of art in itself.

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During that trip, I hopped a train for a short ride from Amsterdam to the nearby town of Haarlem, especially to visit the Frans Hals Museum.  Frans Hals was a contemporary of Rembrandt; they competed for the same clientele of wealthy Dutch citizens during the Golden Age of Dutch painting, in the 1600s.  His namesake museum has many Hals paintings, plus work by other artists of his time.

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But my favorite piece in the Hals museum was the little oil painting of monkeys going bananas over tulips. It was based on an all-too-true historical event. (In the Dutch Golden Age, they didn’t have Twitter or “Saturday Night Live”).

“A Satire of Tulip Mania” by Brueghel the Younger, Public Domain

“A Satire of Tulip Mania,” by Breughel the Younger, was painted in 1640, just after the debacle of the tulip boom and bust cycle.  This was the seventeenth-century equivalent of the dot-com boom and bust, or the subprime mortgage boom and bust. It was probably the first modern instance of rampant speculation in a commodity, followed by a crash. At the height of the frenzy, a single tulip bulb sold for ten times the annual income of a skilled craftsman.

Brueghel dressed his gullible monkeys in contemporary clothes and showed them facing debtor’s court and even urinating on discarded tulips, turned from priceless to worthless overnight. Then as now, greed leads straight into monkey business.

Today the tulip trade is much more stable.  The museum had spectacular arrangements of tulips and other spring flowers in every room.

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I’m plotting a return trip to Holland–one where I can get out of the airport and into the tulips.

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