Tuesday, 7 August 2012

What's another word for Thesaurus?

Seba - Thesaurus - Title page
                             I’ve written about beautiful books and strange books and favourite books in the past, but one of the most beautiful, strangest and favouritist books has to be the wonderful Loccupletissimi Rerum Thesauri Accurata Descriptio, (Accurate description of the very rich thesaurus of the principal and rarest natural objects) a four volume masterpiece by Albertus Seba, (hereafter referred to as the Thesaurus, which is not a dinosaur but Greek for a treasure house). 

Albertus Seba

Seba was a Dutch apothecary and natural history collector, who had Dutch sailors bring him specimens back from their voyages. This was partly because apothecaries used natural ingredients in their remedies, rather than synthesising medicines from chemicals, but also Seba was interested in the specimens for their own sake. He amassed an enormous collection, from which he commissioned artists to make copperplate engravings (some 446), to which he added commentaries. 

Seba was a very successful apothecary, treating amongst others the Russian Tsar Peter the Great, and advertising and selling his cures in newspapers, the success of which made him a great fortune. He would meet the Dutch ships returning to Amsterdam and treat the sailors in return for curiosities, or buy whatever they had to offer. 

From about 1500 onwards, there was a fashion for Kunstkammern or Cabinets of Curiosities, which originated in the Italian courts but spread throughout Europe. These cabinets were built up from all sorts of oddities, both natural and man-made, including coins, figurines, pictures, books, scientific instruments, shells, minerals, and whatever else was thought odd and interesting, the point of which was to collect a microcosm of the entire world, representing what was known and what was worth knowing. 

As the world expanded by the great voyages of discovery, all manner of curiosities and oddities found their way into the Cabinets, raising questions and inspiring speculation, inviting comparisons and seeking connections. Seba’s collection was known and celebrated for its diversity throughout Europe and beyond – Peter the Great visited Seba and bought the entire collection for 15,000 guilders from him for his own cabinet. 

Seba set about amassing an even greater second collection, and from 1734 he began to publish his Thesaurus – Volume One featured plants and animals from Asia and America, along with creatures both real and fantastical, Volume Two consisted mainly of snakes, and Volumes Three and Four, published posthumously, featured marine life and insects respectively. The enormous cost of production was partly covered by offering the works by subscription, by which subscribers would pay in advance for copies, which they would then receive at a discount, the full price being 160 guilders for all four volumes. 

The prints were initially published in black and white, although buyers would pay professional colourists to apply watercolours, increasing their aesthetic value as well as their value as a scientific reference. Linnaeus visited Seba twice in 1735, and used parts of the collection as the basis for his own system of classification of the natural world. 

Books like those by Seba allowed the public to see creatures from areas of the world that were being newly discovered by Europeans, which they would not have the opportunity to see otherwise. By presenting them in this fashion, ordinary people could experience the wonders that were being brought back from the new worlds, and one can easily empathise with the sense of awe and wonder that such sights must have aroused. 

Many of these organisms had never been seen before in Europe, and Australia was yet to be explored (Cook would not land there until 1770, although Dutch mariners had made landfall as early as 1606). Some of the illustrations are very peculiar, as the unfamiliarity of the specimens caused some speculation by the artists – what inspired the hydra can only be guessed at. 

Reflecting the curiosity that lay behind the building of cabinets, some of the plates include freaks of nature and monstrous abnormalities, such as two-headed creatures. Other pictures show the beauty of the subject to their fullest effect, and are minor works of art in their own right. 

As examples of the copperplate engravers’ art, they are of the highest quality – it is thought that thirteen different artists worked on the plates - and there are 175 double page plates amongst the total. The commentaries were published in Latin-French and Latin-Dutch versions, in order to be accessible to as wide an international audience as possible, the first two volumes written by Seba himself, in consultation with other naturalists. 

Following Seba’s death in 1736, the collection was sold to raise the funds to print the third and fourth volumes of the Thesaurus, with parts finally being displayed in the Zoological Institute in St. Petersburg, the Natural History Museum in Stockholm, the Zoological Museum in Amsterdam and the British Museum in London.

Click on the pictures to embiggify.

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