Alchemy on the Amstel in the press

De Echo, 28 November 2012

Translation of an article by Hans Tulleners which earlier appeared in De Echo, a local Dutch newspaper.

Some libraries – the chronicler has been taking a close look at yet another library – come into existence in rather special ways. Take the story of businessman Joost Ritman, whose parents ran a polishing wax firm on Bloemgracht. They were also members of a Rosicrucian society. Joost Ritman inherited two things from his parents, which is their firm, called De Ster, and their interest in things mystical. He began collecting at a young age after his mother had presented him with an antiquarian work by a renowned German mystic.
With the income from the company that flourished under his leadership – polishing wax having been replaced by plastic disposables for the catering industry – he put together a collection in the field of Western spirituality of the past 2,000 years.
In 1984 Ritman decided to make his private collection accessible to the public and the books moved to Bloemstraat 15. In 2000, two further buildings were added to the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica (BPH) and turned into a stylish library by a Flemish interior decorator. Ritman collected ca. 20,000 books, which can be consulted on the premises as the books cannot be taken out. Rare printed books and manuscripts are made available on request.
One of the library’s major collecting areas is alchemy, that occult science which in the popular imagination has always been surrounded by mystery and ritual. Currently showing in the library on Bloemstraat is a small and fascinating exhibition under the title ‘Alchemy on the Amstel’ . In the 17th century, Amsterdam was a major international trade hub, a city also widely known for freedom of religion, freedom of thought and freedom of the press. Amsterdam was at the same time a centre of the arts and sciences, which certainly attracted its share of rebellious folk and ‘wayward thinkers’.
In this period, many alchemists were active in Amsterdam and apothecaries sold iatrochemical medicines in their shops. The sign directing customers to such shops was a salamander in a fire basket. The Ancients already believed a salamander could survive in the fire.
Alchemy is a subject that raises eyebrows nowadays, though one way of looking at it is to regard it as a precursor of chemistry. The curator of the exhibition at any rate hopes the exhibition is able to dispel some of the misconceptions surrounding alchemy.
What has been brought together by businessman and collector Ritman in the past decades is altogether unique and should never be lost to this city. There were plans to move the library to the Huis met de Hoofden on Keizersgracht, but financial setbacks have so far frustrated these ambitions. The ‘Embassy of the Free Spirit’, therefore, is not yet to be found on Keizersgracht 123, but still resides on Bloemstraat.
Both the exhibition and the library can be visited Mondays-Fridays from 10.00-12.30 and 13.30-17.00. Entrance 5 euros.

Koorddanser year 29 – no. 302 – DECEMBER 2012

Translation of an article in Koorddanser

Alchemy on the Amstel

Amsterdam –The Ritman Library is currently showing an exhibition on unique occult medical works mainly from the collection of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica which runs until 17 May 2013. Most of these books were printed in the Golden Age and deal with hermetic medicine. The exhibition has been organized in conjunction with Leyden’s Luxcuriance: Green Discoveries in the Golden Age, in Museum Boerhaave. In addition, the University Library of Leiden is showing an exhibition on the history of pharmacology until 31 December 2012, showing amongst other works pharmacopeia, rare botanical works and works on the Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541). Unlike modern science, the science of the early modern period was actively concerned with spirituality and the occult.


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