The Great

06 09 peter the greatToday is the the birthday of Peter the Great, who was born on this day in 1672. I’ve mentioned Peter a few times already when I wrote about about the Dutch artist Maria Sibylla Merian, Frederic Ruysch and the Alaska Purchase. His official title is so ridiculously long that I’m not even going to tell you what it was. So I’ll just stick with ‘Emperor of all the Russias’. But what would you think if I told you that the Emperor of all the Russias spent eighteen months of his reign travelling around Europe in disguise working in dockyards? Well, I am going to tell you that, in a minute.

Peter inherited the throne from his half brother and, from the age of ten, shared the title of Tsar with another step brother. But the real power behind the throne, literally, was his older step sister. There was a hole cut in the back of their double throne and she used to sit behind it and tell them what to say. She later tried to overthrow both of them and got sent to a convent. Then, in 1696, his brother died and Peter became sole ruler. Like anyone who goes about calling themselves ‘the Great’ he wasn’t an entirely good person. He once personally beheaded two hundred people with an axe. But let’s not focus on that.

He seems to have spent most of his reign either trying to start a war or fighting one. His problem was, that although Russia was a vast country, full of all sorts of resources that people might want to buy, exporting them was difficult. What Peter really wanted were ships, he really liked ships, and the only place he could have ships was the port of Arkhangelsk on the northern coast. That wasn’t ideal, because it was ice bound for a large part of the year. What he needed was either a bit of Sweden or to overthrow the Ottoman Empire so he could have access to the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. So he thought it might be a good idea to start some wars. But he would need allies.

In 1697, Peter organised his ‘Grand Embassy’ which was an entourage of around two hundred and fifty people, including himself. They set off on an eighteen month journey around Europe looking for support for his plan. The Tsar was travelling incognito, calling himself Peter Mikhailov. But I don’t imagine his disguise fooled many people as Peter was unusually tall at 6′ 7”. They didn’t have much luck. People were far too worried about who was going to be the next King of Spain after the unfortunate Charles II, who wasn’t very well at all.

It wasn’t a wasted journey though, because Peter got to see Europe. Russia was, at that time, still stuck in the Middle Ages. The Renaissance had passed it by. Peter was the first Russian ruler to leave his country in a hundred years and he was impressed by what he saw. When I try to imagine what that would have been like for him, I think about how I would have felt if someone had given me the internet in 1973. Peter loved two things, well, three things, but we’ll get to that. He loved ships and he loved the ‘cabinets of curiosity’ that wealthy people had begun to collect. When he visited the Netherlands, which was a massively important sea-faring nation, he managed to get hands on experience on how ships were built He also recruited skilled workers, who would be able to help him with his plans for a Russian Navy.

06 09 peter and jacobBut it was also in the Netherlands that he got to see how Europeans really lived. In Amsterdam, he met Jacob de Wilde who had a huge collection of books, statues and scientific instruments. Peter was fascinated. Jacob’s daughter made this engraving in commemoration of their meeting. There, he met Jan van der Heyden, who invented the fire hose. That might not sound very significant, but Peter’s capital, Moscow, was a wooden city and fires were quite a problem. He also met one of my favourite Dutch anatomists, Frederik Ruysch, who taught him how to catch butterflies and how to pull teeth. On a second, later, visit, he bought up Ruysch’s entire, extremely odd, collection and shipped it back to Russia.

After that, Peter went to London, where he also studied shipbuilding, in the dockyards of Deptford. This brings us to Peter’s third favourite thing. Drinking. Peter and his men were lodged in a house that belonged to John Evelyn. If you want a historical handle on him, he’s the other man, apart from Samuel Pepys, who wrote a diary that tells us about the Great Fire of London. John Evelyn loved his home, and had spent many years creating its beautiful garden. Peter and his entourage, which I now realise I’ve neglected to mention, included six trumpeters, four dwarves and a monkey, managed to drunkenly wreck the entire place during their short stay. They broke the windows and doors. They tore and burnt the tapestries and ripped up the mattresses. They blew up the kitchen floor. After they left, every single one of the fifty chairs in the house had gone missing. In the garden, they tore up Evelyn’s bowling green and they destroyed his pride and joy, a holly hedge, which they wrecked by pushing each other through it in wheelbarrows. Evelyn was paid £305 9s 6d in compensation, including £3 for “wheelbarrows broke by the Czar”

During his stay in London, he also met with Edmund Halley, of comet fame, who probably helped a bit with the wrecking of Evelyn’s house, so there’s a side of him we haven’t seen. While in England, Peter also visited Manchester. I couldn’t find out what he did there, other than learn how proper cities were built. Despite his behaviour, Peter left England with the gift of a ship and an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford, in Law, of all things.

Peter had to cut his visit short because of a threatened uprising back in Russia. On his way, he managed to forge an alliance against Sweden with the King of Poland, who was called Augustus the Strong. The rebellion was over by the time he got back, but he set about modernising his country. He outlawed arranged marriages amongst the nobility. He made them wear wigs and European clothes. If he caught them wearing coats with long sleeves, he cut them off with a pair of scissors. He also tried to make them shave off their long beards. Anyone who wanted to keep their beards had to pay a ‘beard tax’ and keep a token with them to prove that they’d paid it. On one side it said ‘the beard tax has been taken’, on the other, ‘the beard is a superfluous burden’.

He also changed the calender in 1699. The Russians had an odd calender, based on the Byzantine one. They reckoned the year from the supposed date of creation. So for them, it was the year 7207. He also changed the date of New Year from September 1st to January 1st, something we didn’t do in England until 1752. So December 31st 7207 was followed by January 1st 1700. It was a big change for everyone. Peter had taken up the practice of smoking and when people saw him with smoke coming out of his mouth, some thought their Tsar had been captured and replaced by the Devil.

Maybe, we’ll leave Peter there. Just before he picks up that axe and starts swinging it. And before he starts forcing everyone to build him a big city in the middle of nowhere. Except, I have one more wild story to tell you. In 1701, while visiting his friend Augustus the Strong, they went on a three day drinking binge which ended with a cannon-shooting competition. Augustus won.

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.


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.

Money for Nothing, Gold for Free

03 30 alaskaIn the early hours of March 30th 1867 the United States agreed on a deal to purchase Alaska from the Russians. There were those who thought that it was a waste of money. But the price of $7.2 million was ridiculously low, amounting to around two cents an acre. The Russians really wanted to sell. Although Alaska isn’t very far from the east coast of Russia, it was a long way from their centre of government and their colony there was hard to defend. They feared they would lose it anyway, perhaps to the Americans, perhaps to the British, who had territories just next door in British Columbia. The Russians had, in the 1850s, lost to the British in the Crimean War and they definitely didn’t want them to have it.

03 30 seal skin notesRussia’s interest in Alaska stretched back to the previous century. It was one of the final acts of Peter The Great, in 1728, to send an expedition to find out if Russia was attached by land to North America. He sent a man named Vitus Bering who, after an incredibly difficult journey, found out that is wasn’t. In the 1730s, Bering set out on another journey, this time crossing the strait that now bears his name. He reached Alaska in 1741, but died on the return voyage. What the Russians were particularly interested in was the fur trade and they quickly colonised the coast of Alaska and set up trading posts. They set up a company called The Russian-American Company which dealt in walrus ivory and animal skins. It had it’s own flag and it’s own unusual currency which was made from seal skin. Their relationship with the indigenous people of Alaska was, to say the least, strained and by the nineteenth century, they were facing competition from British Columbia. Russian America became too expensive to maintain and it was just too far away.

When it was suggested that the United States acquire the territory, some Americans felt the same way about it. They too were recovering from the effects of war. They were trying to pull their country back together following the American Civil War. Alaska, which they considered to be a wasteland, was not even connected by land to the rest of the United States. Dissenters thought the land would be worth nothing. They thought it wasn’t worth having even if the Russians were giving it away. They called it ‘Andrew Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden’. They also called it ‘Seward’s Icebox’ and ‘Seward’s Folly’. Andrew Johnson was their president and William Seward was Secretary of State. It was Seward who signed the treaty. Those in favour of the agreement were happy to see yet another ruling country kicked off what they increasingly thought of as ‘their’ continent and it is likely they hoped the British would be next.

03 30 nome gold rushThe Alaska Purchase turned out to be a good thing for America. Alaska is huge and, overnight, the country had become 20% bigger. $7.2 million is a pretty good deal, even if it does include quite a lot of lakes and glaciers. America easily recouped the money from the fur trade. But then, in 1896, gold was discovered in the Klondike on the border between Alaska and Canada. Thousands of prospectors travelled through Alaska. It was a gruelling journey over steep mountain passes and when they got there, they weren’t allowed in unless they had a year’s worth of food supplies with them. So, plenty of boom towns sprang up along the route and there was a good living to be made by anyone prepared to help them carry all their stuff. Then, in 1899, there was a second rush at Nome on the coast. Much of the gold found there was just lying around on the beach. Over the years, the area surrounding Nome has produced around 112 metric tonnes of gold. Not bad for two cents an acre.

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