The resurrection of a library

Article by Claudia Kammer – PHILOSOPHY.

The Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica long risked being dispersed. Now, the widely acclaimed collection of Joost Ritman is once again accessible. ‘This is an embassy of the free spirit’.

The Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam has two bronze busts representing Cosimo de’ Medici and his grandson Lorenzo. They were fifteenth-century Florentine bankers and generous supporters of the arts and sciences. These two men are a source of inspiration to former businessman  Joost Ritman (70), founder and owner of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica.

Around 1462 Cosimo ‘il Vecchio’ commissioned a translation of a collection of texts from Greek into Latin which had been brought to Italy from Alexandria by a monk. At the time it was believed that the works originated in Antiquity and had been written by an Egyptian sage called Hermes Trismegistus, who was to have lived before Moses. The Hermetic teachings that are now known as the Corpus Hermeticum regard God, the cosmos and man as one animate whole.

Interest in the Corpus Hermeticum thrived under Lorenzo de’ Medici, as is attested by the numerous responses produced. The Hermetic teachings were regarded as the source of both biblical faith and Greek philosophy, until it was demonstrated in the seventeenth century that at least a part of the Hermetic corpus was in fact written not earlier than the first centuries A.D.  From then on, Hermetism became the preserve of a small circle of adepts, especially Rosicrucians and Freemasons.

Joost Ritman comes from a family of Rosicrucians. He began collecting rare old books when he was sixteen, but his enthusiasm was really fuelled when his mother gave him a copy of Aurora, a work by the German Protestant mystic Jacob Böhme (1575-1624). The work also fed his interest in Hermetic  philosophy. In fifty years’ time he collected not only the essential works of Hermetism, but also related currents such as gnosis, theosophy, non-Western philosophy and  kabbalah. The core of the collection, however, consists of the Corpus Hermeticum. Like Cosimo de’ Medici, Ritman commissioned a translation of the Corpus Hermeticum, in Dutch, in 1990.


The library, which is located on Amsterdam’s  Bloemstraat, was closed for a year but will re-open on Monday , to the great relief of the academic staff and students of the Chair in Hermetic Studies at the University of Amsterdam. For a year now, they have been unable to consult essential source material and reference works.

’An embassy of the free spirit’, is how Joost Ritman calls the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica. In the past fifty years, he purchased printed books and manuscripts in the field of Hermetic philosophy and Esotericism wherever he could find them, building a renowned collection which has attracted scholars  from all over the world. The unique collection is unparallelled in scope and depth. These works essentially testify to the inseparable bond existing between creation, the creator and all living things, Ritman says. ‘It’s up to us human beings to learn to perceive it. My library is a tool to help stimulate this awareness.’

In November 2010, Friesland Bank seized the library following a business conflict with Ritman, who had placed his library down as collateral on a loan. When he put up the fourteenth-century Rochefoucauld Grail manuscript up for auction, the conflict with the bank was born.

The news of the attachment of the library unnerved Zijlstra, the liberal party State Secretary of Culture. Fearing that Friesland Bank might want to auction off the collection, he ordered the removal of 4,000 of the 27,000 books from the library. These 4,000 books had been sold by Ritman to the State in 2005 to settle a tax debt. The books in fact never left the library, but were given in loan to Ritman by the State.

In December 2010 the 23,000 books which were  still Ritman’s property were moved by Friesland Bank to a safety deposit of Christie’s auctioneers. The library on Bloemstraat was locked, a note on the door informing visitors that the Bibliotheca was closed due to’retrocataloguing’. It sounded like a lame excuse, but it was no such thing, Ritman now explains. ‘By retrocataloguing we mean dissociating the State part from the Ritman part of the collection. The initial separation was carried out with undue haste, and we are still in the process of finding out whether the books are where they are supposed to be.’

Nothing in the library at present suggests it was in a dismantled state for the better part of a year. Occasionally taking a book off the shelf to illustrate a point, Ritman explains: ‘It took us three months to put all the books back on the shelves. It doesn’t mean the job is done, however. I would like to make sure that the two parts of the collection are reunited, so that they are once again accessible to the public as a whole.’

The books which were removed last year by order of Zijlstra were taken to the Royal Library in The Hague. Although they are available to readers, it’s an awkward situation for Hermetic philosophy students at the University of Amsterdam. ‘The strong point of the Bibliotheca Hermetica Philosophica has always been that the works are to be found in one place, making it possible for students and staff to carry out a careful study of source material and secondary literature’, Hermetic philosophy Professor  Wouter Hanegraaff explains.

‘Divine spark’

The Rosicrucians, to Joost Ritman belongs, are interested in promoting social and religious renewal. This Christian movement, which has roots going back to the seventeenth century, holds that salvation is not to be expected from a Saviour, but from individual awareness – gnosis –, as they believe that each man possesses a ‘divine spark’. Ritman likes to dwell at length on this ‘divine omnipresence’. ‘There is a life energy running through all that exists, like a “transpiration stream” passing through everything, whether it’s a plant, an animal, or a human being. Revelation contains within itself a hidden life force.’

This ‘infinite fire’ is also the theme of the re-opening exhibition now on show in the library. The showcases offer highlights from the collection, beautifully illustrated manuscripts and rare printed books, indicating the richness of the library’s holdings.

Ritman considers it his main mission to guarantee the continuity of the library and to ensure that it remains open to all. ‘It’s an infinite source of knowledge for the mind. The motto of the library is: ”ad fontes”, back to the sources’, he says. ‘The material value may be confined, but there are no limits to its immaterial riches.’

Ritman is inspired by the seventeenth-century ideal of the wise merchant, the ‘mercator sapiens’. For the past twenty-five years, he has privately funded not only an expanding library but also a budding research institute and a publishing house, In de Pelikaan. Twice already it landed him in financial troubles. In the 1990s he still owned De Ster, a family business which specialized in producing plastic disposables for the airline industry. His company, his art collection and the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica existed as a single legal and fiscal structure. The dividends of De Ster were used to pay off the loans that were taken out to finance the art collection and the library, with the shares acting as collateral for new loans to make new purchases. In Ritman’s view it was the way the material world could be made to serve the world of the spirit.

When the airline industry hit a slump in the 1990s and the new management of his former bank showed itself unappreciative of the financial construction supporting the library, Ritman got into trouble. He was fired as the director of De Ster and he almost lost his library.

Almost, because a support campaign by the national and international academic community helped turn the tide. Umberto Eco, who spent days in the library picking up inspiration for his novel Foucault’s pendulum, was one of the authors who raised their voices to protect the library. In addition, the then state secretary of Culture Aad Nuis  (Democratic Party) placed the library on the national cultural heritage list, which prevented the sale of books abroad. The Council for Culture still ruled in 1997 that Ritman’s book collection was ‘an irreplaceable and essential part of Dutch cultural heritage’.

The conflict between Ritman and his former bank was eventually resolved in 1999. Already in 1995 Ritman had already auctioned part of his art collection to save the library. This time his company, De Ster, was sold, but he got his Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica back in return.

In 2000 a Centre for the History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents was instituted at the University of Amsterdam. The Chair was funded by a Dutch private citizen and a loyal visitor of the library, Ms R. Basten, who put up a million guilders annually. Wouter Hanegraaff was appointed professor. The library’s importance for the academic community was now fast growing. In 2005 Van der Hoeven (Christian-Democrats, Minister of Education, Culture and Science) and Zalm (Liberal Party, Minister of Finance) in a concerted effort paid 18,75 million euros to purchase a cross section of the collection, thus ensuring the continuity of the library. The works were immediately given in loan to Ritman’s library.

Ritman would rather not talk about the transactions necessary to preserve his library. He recently sold some 300 works from his library which were valuable but of minor scholarly interest.  He also sold other assets. The only thing Ritman wants to say about the matter is that he is retiring from the Helios family business which was founded by the Ritmans and their cousin Jons Hensel after the sale of their previous company, De Ster. The farewell party was held this week, in nearby Westerkerk. ‘We have managed to solve the problems as a family’, he says. ‘I’m passing on the torch to the third generation, so I can focus on the well-being of the library.’

Ship in a storm

Joost Ritman is now only surrounded by family members in the library: his daughters Esther (director and librarian) and Mirjam (art historian and curator of the Ritman Art Collection) and his granddaughter Rixande. Ritman had to let go the academic staff formerly connected to the library. ‘The library is like a ship in a storm’, he says. ‘We had to steer it to a safe haven. The crew originally consisted of seven people, we are now carrying on with four. We are hiring our former staff on a freelance basis.’

To prevent attachment of the collection in the future, a new organisational structure has been designed for the library. The ownership of the collection has been entrusted to a foundation headed by the Ritman family. The right of usage of the library is held by a second foundation, which has an ANBI status, an official accreditation for charities, making donations tax deductible. The board is made up of Ritman’s daughter Mirjam, former Education and Culture minister Hedy d’Ancona, and Amsterdam notary public Maarten Meijer.

Looking for partners

’I’m looking for partners willing to help us ensure the future of the library’, Ritman says. For some time now he has been conducting talks with representatives of the University of Amsterdam. On several occasions they have indicated their willingness to look after the collection, though they are unable to buy it. ‘The Vrije Universiteit and the Amsterdam council would also be eligible partners’, says Ritman. He fervently hopes that the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science might be willing to enter once again into a formal relationship with Ritman as it has done in the past. So far the Ministry has not been very forthcoming: the 4,000 books that were taken from the library are still kept in the Royal Library, and the re-opening of Ritman’s library has done nothing to change this. ‘The confidence is gone’, says professor Wouter Hanegraaff. ‘It needs to  grow.’

Yet Ritman is not throwing in the towel. He is full of plans for his library. ‘We want to digitize the collection, so that we do not only provide a service for the academic world, but will be able to embrace a much wider public across the world’, he says. ‘We also want to start a sort of Wikipedia for Hermetic studies , an open source project inviting contributors worldwide to share.’ For a start, the library has a new website, where people like professor Hanegraaff will be posting weblogs regularly. ‘The library has risen from its ashes like a phoenix’, says a content Ritman. ‘It’s a victory of mind over matter.’

MA programme in Hermetic Studies

The collection of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica is generally regarded as unique. It is the only place in the world where it is possible to study and compare the essential primary and secondary works of Hermetic philosophy and related currents under one roof. The academic importance is reflected in the growing number of scholarly initiatives (conferences, series of monographs, books and articles). Wouter Hanegraaff, professor of the History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents, underscored the significance of the library at the reopening ceremony: ‘Libraries like these serve as our collective memory. Without them we cannot recall who we are. In the last few decades, currents which were previously marginalized, rejected knowledge, have fast become a focus of academic research. It’s impossible to fully understand the history of chemistry without a knowledge of alchemy, which was still regarded as a pseudo science in the 1960s. A similar reappreciation of mystical currents is taking place within the humanities.’

He believes the Ritman library has a coherence that is truly unique. ‘The value of the collection exceeds the sum of its parts. There may be rare books that can be found in other libraries in the world, but not in such concentrated form. It allows you to take books and manuscripts off the shelves to compare the texts on word level. It may sound antiquated but it can yield great results.’ A few textual variants in editions of the Crater Hermetis, a work by the Renaissance philosopher Lazzarelli, for instance, led to a drastic revision of the traditional view on Renaissance Hermetism.

The library is of great importance to the University of Amsterdam because it offers an MA programme in Hermetic Studies which attracts some 20 to 25 students a year. ‘We also get many applications from abroad. It’s the only MA programme in Hermetic Studies in the world.’


Translation of an article in NRC Handelsblad, Science section, pp. 8-9, 17-18 December 2011