Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities: Discover One of the Most Prized Natural History Books of All Time (1734–1765)

In the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, a Euro­pean could know the world in great detail with­out ever leav­ing his home­land. Or he could, at least, if he got into the right indus­try. So it was with Alber­tus Seba, a Dutch phar­ma­cist who opened up shop in Ams­ter­dam just as the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry began. Giv­en the city’s promi­nence as a hub of inter­na­tion­al trade, which in those days was most­ly con­duct­ed over water, Seba could acquire from the crew mem­bers of arriv­ing ships all man­ner of plant and ani­mal spec­i­mens from dis­tant lands. In this man­ner he amassed a ver­i­ta­ble pri­vate muse­um of the nat­ur­al world.

The “cab­i­nets of curiosi­ties” Seba put togeth­er — as col­lec­tors of won­ders did in those days — ranked among the largest on the con­ti­nent. But when he died in 1736, his mag­nif­i­cent col­lec­tion did not sur­vive him. He’d already sold much of it twen­ty years ear­li­er to Peter the Great, who used it as the basis for Rus­si­a’s first muse­um, the Kun­stkam­mer in St. Peters­burg.

What remained had to be auc­tioned off in order to fund one of Seba’s own projects: the Locu­pletis­si­mi rerum nat­u­ral­i­um the­sauri accu­ra­ta descrip­tio, or “Accu­rate descrip­tion of the very rich the­saurus of the prin­ci­pal and rarest nat­ur­al objects,” pages of which you can view at the Pub­lic Domain Review and the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art.

This four-vol­ume set of books con­sti­tut­ed an attempt to cat­a­log the vari­ety of liv­ing things on Earth, a for­mi­da­ble endeav­or that Seba was nev­er­the­less well-placed to under­take, ren­der­ing each one in engrav­ings made life­like by their depth of col­or and detail. The lav­ish pro­duc­tion of the The­saurus (more recent­ly repli­cat­ed in the con­densed form of Taschen’s Cab­i­net of Nat­ur­al Curiosi­ties) pre­sent­ed a host of chal­lenges both phys­i­cal and eco­nom­ic. But there was also the intel­lec­tu­al prob­lem of how, exact­ly, to orga­nize all its tex­tu­al and visu­al infor­ma­tion. As orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished, it groups its spec­i­mens by phys­i­cal sim­i­lar­i­ties, in a man­ner vague­ly sim­i­lar to the much more influ­en­tial sys­tem pub­lished by Swedish sci­en­tist Carl Lin­naeus in 1735.

Lin­naeus, as it hap­pens, twice vis­it­ed Seba to exam­ine the lat­ter’s famous col­lec­tion. It sure­ly had an influ­ence on his think­ing on how to name every­thing in the bio­log­i­cal realm: not just the likes of trees, owls, snakes, and jel­ly­fish, but also the “parax­o­da,” crea­tures whose exis­tence was sus­pect­ed but not con­firmed. These includ­ed not only the hydra and the phoenix, but also the rhi­noc­er­os and the pel­i­can.

Eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry Euro­peans pos­sessed much more infor­ma­tion about the world than did their ances­tors, but facts were still more than occa­sion­al­ly inter­mixed with fan­ta­sy. Giv­en the strange­ness of what had recent­ly been doc­u­ment­ed, no one dared put lim­its on the strange­ness of what had­n’t.

Note: A num­ber of the vibrant images on this page come from the Taschen edi­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Bio­di­ver­si­ty Her­itage Library Makes 150,000 High-Res Illus­tra­tions of the Nat­ur­al World Free to Down­load

Ernst Haeckel’s Sub­lime Draw­ings of Flo­ra and Fau­na: The Beau­ti­ful Sci­en­tif­ic Draw­ings That Influ­enced Europe’s Art Nou­veau Move­ment (1889)

Behold an Inter­ac­tive Online Edi­tion of Eliz­a­beth Twining’s Illus­tra­tions of the Nat­ur­al Orders of Plants (1868)

A Curi­ous Herbal: 500 Beau­ti­ful Illus­tra­tions of Med­i­c­i­nal Plants Drawn by Eliz­a­beth Black­well in 1737 (to Save Her Fam­i­ly from Finan­cial Ruin)

Explore a New Archive of 2,200 His­tor­i­cal Wildlife Illus­tra­tions (1916–1965): Cour­tesy of The Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Soci­ety

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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