A Curious Tsar: Peter the Great

What history books don’t tell you about Peter the Great


Did you know that the personal physician of Peter the Great was involved in alchemy?

“Erskine, the Tsar’s trusted personal physician from 1706 until his untimely death in 1718, was a ‘chymical physician’, i.e. a follower of Paracelsus.”

Did you know that Peter the Great was fascinated by nature’s secrets in Amsterdam?

On his first visit to Amsterdam in 1697-1698, for example, Peter the Great visited all of the city’s finest Cabinets of Curiosities, including the renowned collections of Jacob de Wilde (1645-1721),

Download now. It’s free!

The 13-page freely downloadable document includes more details on how the famous tsar got immersed in the unique cultural and scientific life of Amsterdam.

“It seems the Russian monarch was enthralled by the myriad displays of nature’s wonder, man’s ingenuity and God’s benevolence on show in the city.”



Come and visit our exhibition in the Ritman Library!


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

Exhibition 11 March – 13 September 2013



The Hermitage on the Amstel in Amsterdam is celebrating 400 years of relations between Russia and the Netherlands with a major exhibition on ‘Peter the Great: An Inspired Tsar’. Running parallel to this exhibition, The Ritman Library has opened a new exhibition on ‘A Curious Tsar: Peter the Great and Discovering Nature’s Secrets in Amsterdam’. In the city on the Amstel the Tsar visited several of the anatomical collections and cabinets of curiosities that had been brought together by prominent citizens: ‘One can imagine Peter the Great experiencing Amsterdam as a grand and wondrous Cabinet of Curiosities’. It is known that Peter picked up practical ideas in the Republic which he later implemented to modernize his own country. It is perhaps less well known that he was also greatly impressed by the splendour of the cabinets of curiosities as expressions of God’s glory. Thus Peter the Great acquired the collection of Albert Seba, an apothecary who still embraced the Renaissance belief in the microcosmos-macrocosmos analogy.

Another gem is the Dutch translation of the Pinax microcosmographicus, a work by the German physician Johannes Remmelin and the first medical ‘pop-up book’ to reflect microcosmic and macrocosmic relations (The Ritman Library collection). The Tsar’s personal physician, the Scotsman Robert Erskine, also owned a later edition of this work. Erskine is another focus of this exhibition: as the Tsar’s trusted physician he mediated in the purchase of cabinets of curiosities and as a follower of Paracelsus he treated Peter the Great with iatrochemical medicines. He owned an exceptional library in the field of alchemy and hermetic philosophy – a number of works from the collections of The Ritman Library which were also to be found in Erskline’s private library will be on show.

Alchemy on the Amstel: on Hermetic Medicine in the Golden Age of the Republic

Prolonged to 13 september 2013

Paracelsus is one of the surprising connections between the new special exhibition on the Curious Tsar and the current exhibition on Alchemy on the Amstel. Anatomy is another one: apart from the renowned Amsterdam anatomist Frederik Ruysch, whose anatomical cabinet was visited by the Tsar, the Republic counted a number of notable anatomists, one of whom was the chymical physician Theodor Kerckring. In Alchemy on the Amstel, Kerckring is presented as a devoted chymical physician and follower of Paracelsus and Hermes Trismegistus. The exhibition also focuses on antimony as an example of a iatrochemical medicine that was both famous and infamous. Paracelsus had recommended antimony as a powerful medicine against many cures, but the remedy also had many enemies. In the Dutch Golden Age many alchemists were preparing chemical medicines in laboratories in Amsterdam; apothecaries who offered such remedies were known by the sign of the salamander in a fire basket: it was believed that the salamander survived in the flames and fire was indispensable in the laboratory. Followers of Paracelsus in the Republic, such as the inspiring physician Franciscus de le Boë Sylvius, are also highlighted in an exhibition which has much in common with the world of the curious Tsar who visited Amsterdam twice, in 1697-1698 and in 1716-1717.

Opening hours The Ritman Library: 

Tuesday to Friday 10:00 – 12:30 and 13:30 – 17:00.

Address: Bloemstraat 13-19, 1016 KV Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Tel. +31.20.6258079

€ 5 Day Pass, € 30 Annual Pass, € 50 Friends Pass (incl. Annual Pass)

Tours: Every first Thursday of the month (in March on Thursday 14) at 14:30, to be booked in advance at bph@ritmanlibrary.nl.

Press information:  for more information and images please contact Rixande Oosterwijk at bph@ritmanlibrary.nl.



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