In 1700, Amsterdam was the epicentre of global trade. Ships of the Dutch East India Company returned to port laden with fine spices, exotic foods, delicate porcelain and rare metals from China, India and South-East Asia.
The company’s ships also brought a host of strange animals, mostly as dried skins or as specimens preserved in alcohol. The profusion of discoveries stimulated new ways of understanding and ordering nature, and an artist’s skill was needed to document the exotic creatures and re-create their imagined lives.
Georg Eberhard RUMPF (1627–1702)
T. LAMSVELT, illustrator
The Ambonese curiosity cabinet
1st edition, Amsterdam, 1705
Georg Eberhard Rumpf (1627–1702)
Georg Eberhard Rumpf (Rumphius in Latin) was a merchant for the Dutch East India Company on the island of Ambon, now part of Indonesia. Despite being blind, Rumpf assembled and classified an extraordinary collection of plants and animals using his own system of classification. D’Amboinsche Rariteitkamer was published in Amsterdam three years after his death.
Albertus SEBA (1665–1736)
Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri accurata descriptio
Accurate description of the very rich thesaurus of the principal and rarest natural objects
1st edition, Amsterdam, 1734
Albertus Seba (1665–1736)
Albertus Seba of Amsterdam was a pharmacist and compulsive collector. His business was ideally located adjacent to Amsterdam’s busy waterfront and his fascination with the ‘rarest natural objects’ grew while searching out exotic new material for the preparation of drugs.
Seba created a great ‘cabinet of curiosities’, the pre-cursor of the modern museum, and commissioned the publication of this immense natural history collection. Seba’s four-volume Thesaurus provided a vivid picture of Europe on the cusp of a scientific revolution.
A number of artists produced the etchings; hard-bodied animals such as molluscs were accurately depicted but the forms of animals were often distorted. The plates were hand-painted at the discretion of the purchaser, making every volume unique. Individual images sometimes bore little relationship to the living colours of nature.
Carl von LINNEAUS (1707–78)
L. LECHE, illustrator
2nd edition, 1761
Carl von Linneaus (1707–78)
Carl Linnaeus visited Albertus Seba’s cabinet of curiosities in 1735. The richness of the collection informed his division of natural objects into three kingdoms: Animale, Vegetabile and Lapideum (animals, vegetables and minerals). His system of classification enabled all living things to be distinguished by their genus and species names, thus creating a unique identifier. The Linnaean binomial system still transmits knowledge across the barriers of language, culture and time.
Though modest in appearance, Linnaeus’ publications mark a critical turning point in the development of modern science. He is best known for his identification of plants by their sexual parts, but his division of animals into six classes, as set out here, was less enduring. These have been expanded and refined by subsequent generations of biologists, who nevertheless emulate Linnaeus’s clarity of mind.