Exhibition – ‘A Curious Tsar: Peter the Great’


‘A Curious Tsar: Peter the Great
and Discovering the Secrets of Nature in Amsterdam’

Exhibition 11 March – 20 September 2013 in The Ritman Library

The city of Amsterdam is getting ready to celebrate 400 years of relations between Russia and the Netherlands with a major exhibition opening on 9 March 2013 in the Hermitage in Amsterdam devoted to ‘Peter the Great: an Inspired Tsar’. Running parallel with this exhibition’s theme, The Ritman Library will open a special exhibition ‘A Curious Tsar: Peter the Great and Discovering the Secrets of Nature in Amsterdam’ on 11 March 2013.

Most people are familiar with the story of Peter the Great learning how to build ships in Zaandam in 1697 at the age of 25. ‘Tsar Peter’s house’, a small wooden house where he stayed incognito for over a week, still stands as a memento of those days – afterwards he went on carpenting on the wharfs of the Dutch East India Company.

Drawing by Isaac de Moucheron and Ludolph Bakhuizen, Pavillion on the Binnen-Amstel for the Fire works in Honour of Tsar Peter, August 24, 1697 (Koninklijk Oudheidkundig Genootschap, Amsterdam)

It is less known, however, that in 1697-1698 Tsar Peter was cordially received by the Amsterdam burgomaster and ‘Russia expert’ Nicolaes Witsen, who acted as his guide in the city on the Amstel. Witsen introduced him to a number of townsmen with renowned collections, especially cabinets of curiosities: exotic animals that had been stuffed or preserved in bottles, plants from distant countries and anatomical preparations.

The tsar was so intrigued that he decided to buy some of these collections wholesale for his own kunstkamera which was established in St Petersburg in 1714. The collection that captured everybody’s imagination was that of Frederik Ruysch, a renowned physician and anatomist who owned more than 2,000 artistically decorated preparations, mainly of children and babies who did not at all look frightening but managed to move the spectator instead, dressed as they sometimes were in a pretty little collar or wearing a bib.

Frederik Ruysch, Opera omnia anatomic-medico-chirurgical. Amsterdam, Maria & Hendrik Janssonius van Waesberge 1737

Ruysch kept his anatomical collection in his house on 15, Bloemgracht, the later birthplace of the founder of The Ritman Library, Joost R. Ritman. When he visited Amsterdam for a second time in the years 1716-1717, Peter the Great bought this entire collection and also that of the apothecary Albert Seba, whose collection was mainly comprised of animals and plants. Peter was advised in his choice by his personal physician, Robert Erskine, who was a follower of Paracelsus and a practising iatrochemist.

The small but succinct exhibition in The Ritman Library focuses on the alchemical books owned by Robert Erskine and on the – religious – motives underpinning the urge to collect cabinet of curiosities. The Scottish physician to the Tsar and the collectors of these curious objects from nature were all engaged ‘reading the Book of Nature’: all wondrous creatures in nature can teach us something about the Creator who had made them, it was believed at the time.

In addition to a number of alchemical and hermetic works from the collections of The Ritman library, the exhibition features a coloured copy of Seba’s catalogue and an example of one of Ruysch’ preparations – in print, though: for the real thing you need to travel to St Petersburg!

‘A Curious Tsar: Peter the Great’ shows printed works and engravings highlighting this remarkable Tsar and his personal physician and their shared interest in the wonders of the world.

The exhibition on Peter the Great will be part of our major exhibition ‘Alchemy on the Amstel‘, which has been prolonged until 20 September 2013.

11 March – 20 September 2013
Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, Bloemstraat 13-19, AMSTERDAM

Exhibition catalogue:
A Curious Tsar: Peter the Great and Discovering Nature’s Secrets in Amsterdam
by Cis van Heertum and José Bouman
Preface by Robert Collis
ISBN 978-90-71608-27-8
Price: € 10,00 Language: English

Available in The Ritman Library and in our webshop.

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