October 11, 2003

Some Serpentine Specimens

Albertus Seba (1665-1736) was a Dutch apothecary and collector, who, in the 1730s began a project to publish a fully-illustrated catalogue of his renowned collection of naturalia. Seba oversaw the production of the first two volumes of this opus, Locupletissimi Rerum Naturalium Thesauri Accurata Descriptio…, issued in 1734 and 1735. Two further volumes were issued posthumously, in 1758 and 1765.

Vol. 2; Tab. XVI; 1 - unidentified snake from the Americas according to Seba; 1,3 - blunt-headed tree snake.

In 2001, Taschen books published a splendid volume, entitled Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, reproducing all of the 446 copperplates from a hand-coloured copy of Seba’s Thesaurus belonging to the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, (the Dutch national library), in the Hague. I obtained a copy of it earlier this year.

Vol. 2; Tab. LIII; 1-3 Unidentified snakes from, according to Seba, Java, Martinique and Cuba respectively.

Seba was an avid collector who cultivated contacts in such far-flung locales as Sri Lanka, Greenland, Virginia and Batavia, the better to obtain information about specimens that might be added to his ‘cabinet,’ moreover:

…he supplied departing ships with cases of medicines and treated their crews. It is related how, whenever a ship arrived in port, Seba would hasten down to the harbour without delay and administer medicines to the exhausted sailors. Any natural specimens that they had brought with them he would then be able to purchase for a good price, or accept in exchange for his medications.
Vol. 2; Tab. LVIII; Unidentified snakes, from Asia, Guadeloupe and Japan respectively, according to Seba.

In 1717 Seba scored a spectacular success when he negotiated the sale of his entire collection as it then stood to the visiting Tsar, Peter the Great. It comprised ‘72 drawers full of shells, 32 drawers displaying 1,000 European insects, and 400 jars of animal specimens preserved in alcohol.’ The proceeds of this sale were invested in a second collection, even more extensive than the first.

Vol. 2; Tab. LXXIV; Garden Tree Boa.

Seba’s collection, and by extension his Thesurus reflected his particular fascinations: Vol. 2 is dominated by images of reptiles, and of snakes in particular (as exemplified here), whilst Vol. 3 is given over, for the most part, to specimens of marine creatures.

Vol. 2; Tab. LXXXI; Emerald Tree Boa.

Due to the great size of the book, I was unable to make any satisfactory scans of its illustrations, and resorted instead to photographing some of them, with results that are not, alas, that much better. Click on the images to view much larger versions of the same.

Vol. 2; Tab. CII; Royal Python.

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Posted by misteraitch at October 11, 2003 11:33 AM | TrackBack