A library like an ark

The Italian author Umberto Eco was spotted on the premises to draw inspiration for his bestselling books; the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, specialising in works of Hermetic philosophers, alchemists and mystics, is reopening after a year’s closure

Article by Anniek van den Brand, 9 december 2011

Businessman, art collector and millionaire Joost Ritman (70) is the owner of the Amsterdam Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, a library which has been closed the past year following a business conflict with Friesland Bank. Last year in November the bank seized the collection, but from next week students, writers and visitors are once more welcome to the library.

At the age of 23 Joost Ritman, the son of an Amsterdam business family with a flourishing firm in polishing and catering supplies, was presented with a book by the early seventeenth-century German shoemaker and mystic Jacob Böhme. In its time, the work, entitled Aurora, was condemned as heretical by contemporary church leaders, and manuscript copies of the work circulated secretly. The collected edition of Böhme’s work was only published after his death, inAmsterdam in 1682.

Ritman was given the copy of Aurora by his mother, who thought her son might be interested to read the work. She was right: ever since he was sixteen, Joost Ritman was an avid browser ofAmsterdam’s antiquarian bookshops, searching for rare copies of works of mysticism and spirituality. His guiding motto was: Who knows himself, knows the All.

By hindsight, Aurora marked the beginning of what was to become the world-famous Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica. The collection kept in the library on Amsterdam’s Bloemstraat consists of 23,000  books, many of which are very rare and valuable, together presenting a tradition of five thousand years of Western spirituality. The core of the collection is made up of manuscripts and printed books by Hermetic philosophers, mystics, alchemists and Rosicucians, who often forfeited their lives or their liberty to propagate ideas which went against the religious current. A major work in the collection is the Corpus Hermeticum, a parchment copy of which, printed in 1503, is lying side by side with the famous illustrated polyglot Bible of 1587.

An embassy of the free spirit, is what Ritman calls his internationally prized collection. Not only academics value the collection. The Italian author Umberto Eco searched the shelves to draw inspiration for his famous novels.

The collection Ritman built up is valued at some 35 million euros. Part of the collection has been national heritage since 2005. These state-owned books were lifted from the library last year, at the height of Ritman’s conflict with the bank, and transferred to the Royal Library in The Hagueby order of the state secretary of Culture Halbe Zijlstra. The owner himself had to sell some 350 books from his collection to the value of 13 million euros to fulfil his financial obligations. These books were mainly incunabula, the oldest printed books, which he claims are also to be found in other Dutch libraries. But a copy of the first illustrated edition of Dante’s La Divina Commedia, printed in 1472, is also gone.

The most important thing, Ritman says, is that the library is now unencumbered by debts, and independent. In spite of sensitive losses, the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica has not lost any of its strength, Ritman asserts, though he continues to hold that the state-owned part belongs in Amsterdam with the rest of the books. The capital, after all, has always been a haven for freethinkers, where many works banned in other places were printed without hindrance – like Aurora.

The library is his life’s work, says the mature collector and proprietor. Building his collection has engaged his leisure moments for almost half a century. Even when banks reproached him for being more focussed on his books than on his business. Nonsense, is Ritman’s response, who describes himself as a born businessman. How else would he have been able to build a multinational company operating in the global arena of the airline industry? His company Helios MPPD is a multimillion euro concern, supplying disposables to 350 airline companies all around the world.

He financed the library with the fortune he has built. And he has always been true to his word, he says. The only thing he wanted was to serve wisdom with his financial assets. The library is a heavenly carriage, an ark. Try explaining this to financial people; they fail to see the point, they speak a different language. When you are faced with circumstances beyond your control, you have to bear the burden – this much Ritman has learnt from life. He thinks of the library in terms of a living organism going through various phases of growth and finding its own way. There are troubles to be encountered and withstood, as there are in the life of every person. The books have always lived a life of adventure, and he was there to protect them against the storm, the lightning and the blows.

The library has a staff of five, with Ritman’s daughter Esther Oosterwijk at the head as director. Ritman has built up a treasure house, he says, a reflection in manuscript and print of the most significant moments of life on earth. According to him, the authors in his library knew how to kindle a spark into a flame which turned into a wholesome fire. He is firmly convinced it is a fire which can warm and illuminate the world. Ritman wants everyone to share in that light and in that warmth; general visitors, people from the universities and the museums. There are now closer ties with the University of Amsterdam and its University Library and there are also sound relations with a network of museums.  His work will be carried on, Ritman says. The library will continue to find its niche. The books are safe.

From Monday 19 December, the library on Bloemstraat 15 in Amsterdam is once more open to the public. Opening hours: Monday to Friday 10.00 – 12.30 and 13.30 – 17.00.  The renovated website will be online from 16 December at: www.ritmanlibrary.com

Translation of an article in Trouw, 9 December 2011, p. 33.