As trading vessels sailed into Amsterdam in the first half of the 18th century, an apothecary named Albertus Seba could often be seen scurrying to meet the ailing crews. Seba was strange. Most medicine men waited for the sick to come to them, but he went after the business, going aboard to deal with scurvy and other illnesses picked up in far-off parts. When it came time for his patients to pay, he didn't ask for silver pieces, or gold, or even the cargo that had somehow snuck from the hold into a sailor's private trunk. No, he preferred that dead fly squished between the pages of a book or even the deformed human fetus that some crewmate - drunk? deranged? - had brought on board in Curaçao. The weirder the better, it seemed. The apothecary called himself a collector of curiosities.
Over the last two decades of his life, Seba amassed one of the best collections of oddities in Europe, as is evident in Cabinet of Natural Curiosities (Taschen; 588 pages). The book reproduces, for the first time since the 18th century, the Thesaurus, the four-volume illustrated inventory of the creatures that filled the jars, drawers and shelves of Seba's shop.
In his day, he wasn't the only one obsessed by the glorious diversity of nature. "Nature had become fashionable," writes Krzysztof Pomian in Collectors and Curiosities, his study of the collecting craze. The hobby, which had begun among doctors and pharmacists in the 16th century, was taken up by European aristocrats who had lots of time and money. They could afford expeditions in search of an Alpine butterfly or a rare wildflower. But Seba networked. He wrote to contacts in the far reaches of the Dutch Empire, inquiring about the local animalia.
He pumped patients for information and specimens.He bartered his duplicates like rare stamps: Trade a brush-footed butterfly for one ichneumon wasp?
Seba had won a reputation as a first-rate collector long before the first volume of the Thesaurus was published in 1735. In fact, that inventory was based on his second collection. The first had been bought by Russia's Peter the Great in 1717 for the princely sum of 15,000 guldens, but the second collection made the first look like an amateur plaything. Seba expanded on his earlier specialties, shells and insects, building one of Europe's finest sets of conchs, the shells that became the rich man's Beanie Baby in the 18th century. He also put new emphasis on marine life and reptiles. So important were these holdings that Carolus Linnaeus, who invented modern scientific nomenclature for flora and fauna, reportedly used them as one of his sources.
Many of the copperplate prints in the Cabinet show Seba's sense of whimsy. Though he recruited artists to do the actual etchings, he was closely involved in their design. He liked to place predators in the same frame as their prey. He would also add a single skeleton to a page of full-bodied chameleons. His fetish for the fantastic shows most clearly in his inclusion of a few truly weird specimens. Some, like the Siamese-twin goats or the fetuses - elephant, sheep, pig, mouse and that Curaçaoan baby - may have been real. Others, such as a seven-headed reptile (labeled Hydra), could not have been part of his - or any other - collection.
The books were published to order, in black-and-white, in the buyer's choice of bilingual editions: Latin-Dutch or Latin-French. Those looking to splurge could hire artists to hand-color the images. The originals from which the Cabinet was copied - now part of the Dutch Royal Library's collection - were painted by the Hague-based J. Fortuyn. Another hand-painted Thesaurus by Fortuyn sold at Sotheby's last January for $511,000.
Seba's grand agglomeration broke apart in 1752, when his heirs sold the collection to finance the publication of the last two volumes of the Thesaurus, which finally came out in 1758 and 1765. The publication of the Cabinet brings them all back together, capturing much of the optical magic that must also have dazzled Seba's eye. Who could look at the pattern of turquoise diamonds on the whipsnake's back or the marbling on a triton's trumpet shell and not marvel? To see them is to understand - maybe Albertus Seba wasn't so strange after all.