Geert Mak

The Lives of Jan Six

Compelling history of an Amsterdam dynasty, the Buddenbrooks of the Netherlands

Having written on the rise and fall of a village, a country, a continent and a world power, popular historian Geert Mak has now come to what is closest to his heart: his own city of Amsterdam. He describes its history through the life and legacy of the art collector and patrician Jan Six (1618-1700).

In 1586, Jan Six’s Huguenot grandfather fled persecution in France with his family for Amsterdam. By the time Jan was born, the family had risen to prominence and wealth through the success of their cloth-dyeing works and the spectacular growth in the cloth trade. Jan built on the family fortune and became a major patron of the arts during the Golden Age. His extensive art collection included the portrait that his friend Rembrandt painted in 1654, a painting which is still considered one of Rembrandt’s best.

Mak tells the story of the Six family and the city of Amsterdam through their major collection of paintings, complementing them with other unique sources: Jan Six’s notebook containing recipes, anecdotes, religious reflections to dirty jokes; the Kleine Pandora, Jan’s album amicorum, containing work by the poet Joost van den Vondel (considered the Dutch Shakespeare) and drawings by Rembrandt; and the many manuscripts which Jan collected throughout his long life.

Later descendants of the Six family became burgomasters and scientists, they amassed great riches and lost them. Geert Mak examined everything kept by the Sixes – four centuries’ worth of letters, diaries and shopping lists, right down to their ball books – and has worked it all into the history of the Sixes, this Amsterdam Buddenbrooks-type dynasty avant la lettre. All this against the background of Amsterdam’s Golden Age, its ambitions and limitations, grandeur and the ever- present fear of decline.

This book on the Amsterdam elite is actually about ‘difference and inequality’, to quote Mak in his epilogue. Fortunately, it is about far more: about people and their longings, their ambitions and disappointments; even so, the quotation is true: in the four centuries that Mak describes, equality for all people under the sun could not be taken for granted. Nor were those of the most prominent families any more free in their dealings, trapped in the demands of their caste as they were.

De Volkskrant


Geert Mak

Geert Mak (b. 1946) is one of the Netherlands’ most popular writers. His books have been translated into 22 languages; well-known English titles include Amsterdam, My Father’s Century, In Europe, In America: Travels with Steinbeck, and The Many Lives of Jan Six. He has won wide critical acclaim…

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De levens van Jan Six (2016). Non-fiction, 349 pages.
Words: 137,000

English sample available
German pdf available

Themes: history


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