Special event – ‘Wonderful Worlds of botany, alchemy and esotericism’ 22 March 2013 1

Wonderful Worlds of botany, alchemy and esotericism

On 22 March about 55 people attended the special afternoon devoted to the two exhibitions currently showing in The Ritman Library: ‘A Curious Tsar‘ and ‘Alchemy on the Amstel‘. Director & librarian Esther Ritman introduced the three speakers who had kindly agreed to offer what proved to be fascinating presentations: Dr Esther van Gelder, Dr Rina Knoeff and Dr Jozien Driessen van het Reve.

Esther van Gelder curated Leyden’s Luxuriance, the exhibition still running in Museum Boerhaave until 6 May 2013, and introduced the audience to the wonders of botany. She also shed light on the collectors and networks helping to spread the ‘green discoveries of the Golden Age’ by focussing on two eminent apothecaries, Christiaen Porret and Albertus Seba. Rina Knoeff dispelled some of the myths still surrounding Herman Boerhaave, the greatest scientist of the Dutch Republic of the 18th century. Far from being an enemy of alchemy, Rina Knoeff showed the audience that Boerhaave himself was in search of the Philosophers’ Stone… Jozien Driessen led the audience through a maze of misconceptions to glean the truth about her two heroes: Robert Erskine, personal physician to the Tsar, and Jacob Bruce, scientific advisor to Peter the Great. The afternoon ended with a tour of the two exhibitions by curators José Bouman and Cis van Heertum, who dwelt on favourite items in A Curious Tsar and Alchemy on the Amstel.

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Dr. Esther van Gelder: A World of Wonder: Green Collections in the Golden Age
Scientific research and the culture of collecting were closely linked in the Golden Age.

The chief collectors of natural curiosities were apothecaries, a professional group with a marked interest in all kinds of natural objects and an exceptional international network of trade and other contacts. This presentation will focus on two outstanding apothecaries in Leiden and Amsterdam: Christiaen Porret and Albertus Seba. Their knowledge, expertise and collections have greatly contributed to the flourishing of natural history in the Dutch Republic. Scientific curiosity, a sense of wonder, esthetics, love of gain and status were close companions in this pursuit.

Rina Knoeff: Herman Boerhaave and the Philosopher’s Stone

Herman Boerhaave is famous for having been the most scientific physician of his time – the implication being that he wanted nothing to do with unscientific ideas floating around in the domain of alchemy, for instance. This picture needs correcting: Boerhaave was a passionate practitioner of both chemistry and alchemy. What is more, he often prescribed the results of his experiments to his patients. This presentation will shed light on Boerhaave as a practising alchemist – although he may have been sceptical about the possibility of transmuting base metals into gold, he secretly hoped the Philosopher’s Stone did exist.

Jozien Driessen van het Reve: Was Peter the Great fascinated by Esotericism?

After having scrutinized the libraries of Tsar Peter and his intellectual advisors Robert Erskine and Jacob Bruce, the British researcher Robert Collis came to the conclusion that Peter and his trusted advisors were not enlightened but esoterically inclined, interested in alchemy rather than chemistry and in astrology rather than astronomy. The conclusion is wrong and is biased by an incorrect interpretation of scientific practice in the seventeenth century.

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