Curious

07 18 rudolph ii portraitHoly Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, was born on this day in 1552 in Vienna. Rudolph was also King of Germany, King of Bohemia and King of Hungary. He became something of a recluse, rarely leaving his palace in Prague. He ruled at a difficult time when, as Holy Roman Emperor, he was meant to be Catholic, but a lot of his subjects were not. He tried to occupy the middle ground and it didn’t really work out too well for him. He was eventually deposed by his more ambitious brother. All this makes him sound rather dull, but he really wasn’t.

Rudolf was an enthusiastic patron of both the arts and sciences. This meant his court harboured all sorts of interesting people. Under his rule, Prague had a reputation for being full of dissidents, heretics and heliocentrists. The idea that the earth might go round the sun, instead of the other way round was not a popular one. In 1599, he made Tycho Brahe, who is probably my favourite astronomer ever, his court astronomer, after he was exiled from his home country of Denmark. But Rudolph was also fascinated by alchemy and the occult. Both of these subjects were, at the time, every bit as credible as astronomy. In the 1580s, he was visited by the famous mathematician and alchemist John Dee along with his questionable friend Edward Kelley, who Rudolph later locked up in a castle.

07 18 rudolf IIThe Emperor was an extremely keen collector of both art objects and scientific instruments. As well as collecting well-known artists like Dürer and Brueghel, he commissioned many new pieces. This unusual portrait on the left is Rudolph as Vertumnus, the Roman god of the seasons. The artist’s name is Giuseppe Arcimboldo, he did a lot of paintings like this, but mostly they have titles like ‘winter’ or ‘the librarian’. This is the only one I could find that is of a specific person.

Rudolf amassed an amazing ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ that included one hundred and twenty astronomical and geometrical instruments and more than sixty clocks. His collection was the finest in Europe and it occupied three large rooms of his palace. As the private collection of a recluse, not many people got to see it, so we can’t be sure of everything that it contained. Certainly he kept a live lion and a tiger, which roamed freely about the castle. We know this because there are documents relating to the payment of compensation to those who had been attacked by them or, if it had gone particularly badly, to their families. Rudolf himself insisted that he owned a grain of earth from which God made Adam, two nails from Noah’s Ark, a basilisk and some dragons.

Rudolf never married, but it is rumoured that he had numerous affairs at court with both men and women. He had several illegitimate children, one of whom seems to have suffered from schizophrenia and did some terrible things. Rudolf was a member of the Habsburg dynasty, who suffered terribly from inbreeding and do not have a happy history of mental stability. Rudolph himself seems to have suffered from bouts of melancholia, which was common in his family. Two of his favourite objects were a cup made of agate, which he believed to be the Holy Grail, and a six foot long horn, which came from a narwhal, but Rudolf thought it had belonged to a unicorn. When he was at his lowest he liked to take these two things, draw himself a magic circle with a Spanish sword, then just sit in it.

Some believe him to be one of the owners the Voynich Manuscript, a very interesting document which I mentioned briefly when I wrote about Edward Kelley. It has been carbon dated to some time in the early fifteenth century and is written in an unknown language. It has defied all attempts to translate it. Most of the illustrations are botanical and there are some with what look like star charts. But some are really weird. There are a lot of drawings of naked women that also feature an elaborate system of pipes. They seem to be conveying something really specific, but we have no idea what. So, naturally, they make everyone who sees it really want to know what it says. It seems to contain information about plants, medicine, biology, astronomy and cosmology. It doesn’t appear to be written in code, but rather in some, now lost, language that is possibly Middle Eastern in origin, but no other examples of the language have ever been found. If you’ve never come across it before, you can find a facsimile here

07 18 voynich cropped by me.

Rudolf, as you may gather, was a deeply superstitious man. Tycho Brahe once informed him that he shared a horoscope with his favourite lion cub. When it died, years later, the Emperor shut himself up in his rooms and refused all medical attention. He died three days later. His successors were less enthusiastic about his collection. It was packed away and forgotten about. Later, much of it was stolen when Swedish troops attacked Prague Castle in 1648 and many of its items later ended up in the hands of Queen Christina of Sweden.

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Strange Floral Food

04 02 maria sibylla merianToday I am celebrating the birthday of Maria Sibylla Merian, who was born in 1647 in Frankfurt. Maria was a painter and a naturalist with a particular interest in insects. Her family ran one of the largest publishing houses in seventeenth century Europe. When she was three, her father died and her mother remarried. Her step father was a still life painter named Jacob Marrel and he encouraged her to paint. At thirteen, she began to paint the plants and caterpillars that she found near her home. She became interested in their life cycles and what sort of plants they fed on.

At that time it was commonly believed that, as Aristotle had suggested, insects sprang fully formed from mud, dew or even books by a process that was known as spontaneous generation. People thought that caterpillars came from cabbages and maggots from rotting meat. Insects were thought of as generally awful and, apart from a handful of academics nobody had really wanted to have a proper look at them. So Maria’s interest was an unusual one.

04 02 maria's catapillar bookAt sixteen, she married one of her step father’s apprentices but, although they had two daughters, it wasn’t a particularly happy union. They moved to Nuremberg and she continued to paint, her flower illustrations were also used as designs for embroidery. Also she gave drawing lessons to young women from wealthy families. This gave her access to a lot of splendid gardens where she could continue her insect studies. Between 1675 and 1677 she published three volumes of flower paintings called ‘Neues Blumenbuch’ (New book of flowers). In 1679 she published a book about the metamorphosis of insects. ‘Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung’ (The Caterpillars’ Marvellous Transformation and Strange Floral Food) was particularly popular amongst high society, especially so because it was written in German. It was ignored by scientists for the same reason. They couldn’t take it seriously unless it was in Latin.

04 02 maria's caterpillarsAfter six years of living in a religious community, where it turned out her husband wasn’t welcome, she moved to Amsterdam with her daughters in 1691 and was divorced from her husband a year later. There she continued to teach. One of her pupils was Rachel Ruysch, daughter of Frederick who I mentioned a few days ago. Rachel helped him decorate his peculiar anatomical specimens and later became a well known flower painter. In Amsterdam, Maria had access many ‘cabinets of curiosity’ which were a sort of forerunner of the museum. She certainly saw Frederick Ruysch’s collection. But what she was particularly interested in were the amazing collections of insects and tropical plants that had been brought back from the Dutch colony of Suriname in South America. But rather than look at a single butterfly, pinned to a board and isolated from it’s environment, she decided she wanted to study them in their natural habitat.

By 1699 she had been able to secure permission from the government to travel to Suriname and spend five years illustrating new species of insects. This was rather unusual, as official expeditions were only made for political, economic or military reasons. People just didn’t go exploring for purely scientific purposes, not even the men. She funded the journey herself by selling 255 of her paintings and when she went, she took her youngest daughter with her.

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There, Maria travelled around the colony, sketching the animals and plants. She recorded the local names for them and found out what all the plants were used for. She also criticised the Dutch colonists for their poor treatment of the local population. In 1701, she contracted malaria and was forced to return home. In her two years she had discovered and documented many new species that were unknown in Europe and in 1705 she published ‘Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium’. which illustrated her findings.

During her life she described the life cycles of 186 insects and her illustrations were unusual in that they depicted the whole life cycle in a single illustration together with the plant that the insect feeds on. She painted, not just a single specimen,but a tiny ecosystem. Peter The Great was a huge admirer of her work and many of her paintings still reside in academic collections in St Petersburg.

The Art of Dying

03 28 ruyschToday is the birthday of Frederick Ruysch who was born in 1638 in The Hague. Someone who had himself painted pulling the insides out of a dead baby might seem like an unlikely candidate for ‘Why Today is Brilliant’, but bear with me. Ruysch is the last of three peculiar Dutch anatomists who I first stumbled upon last summer. They all studied at the university of Leiden in the 1660s. I have written about Reinier de Graaf and Jan Swammerdam elsewhere and how they fell out about who had discovered that humans had ovaries. As anatomists, what they really needed were corpses to dissect, but they were difficult to come by, had a disappointingly short shelf life and were rather expensive. They all became involved in finding a way to preserve anatomical specimens. They devised a way of injecting melted wax into blood vessels. When it cooled and set, they had something that they could dissect. It was a method that revealed delicate structures that had never been seen before. They stained the wax red to make the results a bit more lifelike. While de Graaf and Swammerdam were arguing about the nature of human reproduction, Ruysch was doing something else. He was making dioramas out of body parts.

03 28 vesaliusHis work was not entirely unprecedented. There were anatomical texts that showed bodies in dramatic poses. Take a look at this one from ‘De humani corporis fabrica’ by Andreas Vesalius which was published in 1543. But Ruysch had found a way of presenting actual specimens. He found a material that was even better than wax for injecting. It reached even the tiniest of vessels and, when coloured, gave a life-like quality to the whole specimen. He was pretty secretive about it, so no one is quite sure what it was. It may have included Berlin blue, mercury oxide and clotted pigs blood. But I’ve also come across mentions of spirits of Zeus and Poseidon. I have no idea what these are, if you do, I’d love to know. Later, he invented a clear liquid that he used to store his body parts in jars. It kept them soft and more life-like. He referred to it as ‘liquor balsamicum’ and I haven’t a clue what was in that either. It must have been good because some of his wet specimens still survive after more than three hundred years.

Ruysch amassed a huge collection of anatomical specimens. Initially, they were used only for medical study but when non-medical people heard about them, they wanted to see for themselves. He eventually displayed them in a series of cabinets in a private museum. Physicians were allowed free admission and, if they were particularly interested, could attend lectures given by Ruysch. The general public would pay an admission fee and be shown around by his daughter.

So far I have only mentioned anatomical specimens in the vaguest terms, and I promised you dioramas…

L0023489 F. Ruysch, Opera omnia anatomico-medico...
image credit: wellcome images

The centre piece of each cabinet was a little tableau, each of which conveyed some idea of the fleeting nature of human life. The main feature of these were foetal skeletons arranged in various poses. They would be playing the violin, clutching a string of pearls, weeping into a handkerchief. Ruysch actually had access to a lot of foetal skeletons as, in 1668, he was made chief instructor to the midwives of Amsterdam. (He managed to collect and preserve foetuses at all stages of development.) The rest of the scene was made up from bladder, kidney and gallstones for rocks, preserved blood vessels for trees and preserved lung tissue for grass and bushes. Even the handkerchiefs that his tiny skeletons were weeping into were made from the membrane that covers the brain. It all seems rather macabre, but this was not Ruysch’s intention at all. He saw them as beautiful objects that would: “allay the distaste of people who are naturally inclined to be dismayed by the sight of corpses.” It worked too. His anatomical preparations, partly teaching aid, partly works of art, did go a long way towards dispelling some of the stigma attached to the study of anatomy.

 

As well as doctors and the general population of Amsterdam his museum was frequented by the rich and famous. In 1697, he was visited by Peter the Great. Peter had a keen interest in all things scientific. Ruysch taught him how to catch and preserve butterflies and they had a common interest in lizards. The Tsar liked what he had seen so much that he returned for a second visit in 1717 and bought the entire collection for 30,000 guilders. Ruysch’s collection was installed in Tsar Peter’s Kunstkamera in St Petersburg where it helped to introduce ideas of European Enlightenment and modern sciences to Russia.

Ruysch immediately began to build a new collection. After his death in 1731, it was sold to Augustus the Strong, King of Poland. It is from Peter the Great’s collection that some of Ruysch’s specimens still survive. If you visit this site, you can see some photographs of a few of them. There is the hand of a child clutching the heart of an unborn baby. To cover the place where the hand was cut off there is a beautiful lace cuff that was probably made by his daughter. Some of the site is in English, though you will have the advantage of me if you speak Dutch. Sadly none of his dioramas have survived the test of time but luckily, they were carefully recorded in a series of drawings by Cornelius Huyberts, which is a good thing, otherwise you might not have believed me.

03 28 diorama 1

Going to Need a Bigger Cabinet

01 15 british museumThe British Museum opened to the public for the first time on this day in 1759. It was the world’s first national museum. Unlike other national collections at the time, it didn’t belong to a king or to the Church and was freely open to the public. The museum was opened after a man called Sir Hans Sloane left his huge cabinet of curiosities to King George II, on condition that it be available to the public. As he had spent a lifetime gathering over 71,000 items, he wanted his collection to be kept intact. Sloane was a physician who began collecting plants and books about plants, but his cabinet also included coins, jewellery, fish, birds, mammals, scientific instruments, paintings. His interests were wide ranging. After working in Jamaica, he also gathered a lot of cultural artefacts from the Americas. He gave his cabinet in exchange for £20,000 which was to be given to his two daughters. It was actually worth around £80,000 but still The King was reluctant, he wasn’t a fan of the arts and sciences. In fact he hated ‘bainting and boetry.’ The government weren’t terribly keen either but eventually they raised the money with a public lottery. For many years after it opened, it was still referred to as a ‘cabinet’ rather than a museum.

01 15 ole worm cabinet of curiostiesThere had been many cabinets of curiosity all over Europe since the sixteenth century. They were really the forerunners of the museum. They sound like small things, kept in cupboards, but actually they were whole rooms stuffed with anything and everything that the collector was interested in. They usually belonged to royalty or nobility. It was its owner’s world in microcosm and represented his power and influence. Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II had one that included a live lion and tiger who roamed about freely. We know this because there are records of the compensation paid to those injured by the animals or to the families of their victims.

The British Museum is a far less dangerous place to visit, but it does still represent the power that the British Empire once had. We have stuff from all over the world there and certainly some things we definitely shouldn’t have. But they are, at least, safe and well preserved. Before the museum opened, three other libraries were added to the collection. These included some very rare books. From the library of Robert Cotton, we have the Lindisfarne Gospels which were saved after the dissolution of the monasteries. We also have the only copies of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ and ‘Beowulf’. It’s really a pity the British Museum didn’t get it’s act together sooner as, in 1731, the world’s only copy of Beowulf was very badly damaged in a house fire and around a quarter of the Cottonian Library was either damaged or destroyed completely.

01 15 montagu houseThe original museum was located in a seventeenth century mansion called Montagu House which was on the same site as the present museum. Before it opened, there was much debate among the trustees over who should and should not be allowed to see it. They weren’t very sure about letting in servants, or members of the lower classes in general, in case they upset the museum’s more refined visitors. Eventually they decided just to take a good look at everyone. If they were smartly dressed, well-behaved and didn’t appear to be under the age of ten, then they would be issued a ticket and allowed in. But only in groups of not more than fifteen and they must be accompanied at all times. One group each hour between 10 am and 2 pm. That’s a whole seventy-five visitors a day.

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Now there are thousands of visitors there every day and we can wear what we like. The size of the building and the collection has also expanded massively. It’s one of my favourite places to visit in London and this seems like an excellent opportunity to share with you a couple of my current favourite exhibits. The massive gold ship is actually a combined clock and table decoration. It also played music and fired its canons. Every home should have one. Unfortunately, it no longer works. There are three clockwork mechanisms inside. One for the clock, one that played a drum inside and has bellows to operate a tiny organ. The third made it travel across the table. When it stopped and fired all its guns, the guests knew that dinner was about to be served. It was made in about 1585 by Hans Schlottheim. It’s just the sort of thing Rudolph II would have loved and, for a while, everyone assumed it was his, but it seems to have belonged to an Elector of Saxony.

My second offering is far less grandiose, and easily missed. There is a set of tiles depicting scenes from the early life of Jesus. It appears that people who knew young Jesus had a bit of a hard time. Especially if they did anything to upset him. There seem to be quite a few people suddenly falling down dead. If you go and look at this exhibit, you can see Jesus being slapped by his teacher and Jesus pulling a boy out through a keyhole so they can play together. The one I like best though, pictured below is captioned: “Left: Jesus makes pools by the River Jordan. A bully destroys one and falls dead. Right: Jesus restores the boy to life by touching him with his foot. But it is clearly a picture of Jesus kicking him. So I think of it as ‘the picture of Jesus kicking a boy back to life’.

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