Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities


“No other work at the beginning of the 18th century offered such a comprehensive survey of the diversity of living beings as [Albertus] Seba’s Thesaurus.” So write Rainer Willmann and Jes Rust in “The Zoology and Botany in Albertus Seba’s Thesaurus,” their introductory essay to Taschen’s gorgeous reproduction of Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities (the proper title of which actually begins Loccupletissimi Rerum Thesauri Accurata Descriptio…; thus “Thesaurus“). Seba’s was neither the first curiosity cabinet nor the last, but its scope, temporal position, and historical influence make it one of the most important, and a fitting subject with which to debut this site, to which I bid you all welcome.

Born in the East Frisian town of Etzel in 1665, Seba was an apothecary—an early pharmacist trained in the practice of creating medicines from vegetable, animal, and mineral ingredients. Traditional recipes were usually followed, which required apothecaries to keep a store of ingredients at hand. For example, theriac, which the 2nd century physician Galen had declared to be a sixty-four-ingredient compound, was considered able to cure any illness known to mankind. “Theriac has two principal virtues, one is that… it preserves the healthy, the other that it cures the sick,” wrote  Bartolomeo Maranta in On Theriac and Mithridatum (1572). Theriac’s ingredients included viper flesh, cinnamon, and opium, and it was used to treat everything from snake bites to plague.

Renaissance apothecaries strove to restore ancient medicine by obtaining the exact theriac ingredients cited by Galen. The wealthier you were, the more exotic and expensive the materials in your medicines would be. Otherwise you might receive a garlic and onion vegetable cure, the “theriac of peasants and the poor,” as it was called by the physician Lodovico Settala (1552-1633). Collecting specimens from abroad was thus a fundamental part of the apothecary’s trade. Many apothecaries also “continued the search for new methods, collecting natural specimens from distant lands, studying them, and testing their potential uses,” writes Irmgard Müsch in “Albertus Seba’s Collection of Natural Specimens and its Pictorial Inventory,” the other of Taschen’s two introductory essays.

<strong>Volume I, Table 57: Flying foxes, a red-headed manakin, and a homalopsine colubrid snake.</strong>

Volume I, Table 57: Flying foxes, a red-headed manakin, and a homalopsine colubrid snake.

Unsurprisingly, this collecting often took on a life of its own. Seba obtained specimens from correspondents in such far-flung locales as Sri Lanka, Virginia, Greenland, and the Dutch colony of Batavia. He would also hustle down to the Amsterdam docks (he became a citizen in 1697) to buy souvenirs from sailors who’d just returned from distant voyages. Snakes, lizards, frogs, and other animals had to be preserved in alcohol, and wouldn’t always arrive in the most pristine condition. Sometimes the alcohol would evaporate, and there was always the possibility that the alcohol would be consumed by thirsty (and apparently not very squeamish) seamen.

By 1717, Seba’s collection was massive enough to draw the attention of Russia’s tsar, Peter the Great, to whom Seba had been providing medicines for several years. Peter the Great purchased the collection for 15,000 guilders (approximately €146,000 or US$215,000 in 2008). It included 72 drawers full of shells (much like the tulipomania of the early 17th century, the conchyliomanie, or shell craze, of the early 18th century had made these quite valuable), 32 drawers containing 1,000 European insects, and 400 jars of animal specimens preserved in alcohol. Seba also engineered the sale to Peter of the curiosities collection of Frederik Ruysch for an even greater sum: 30,000 guilders. The two collections were housed together in Peter’s Kunstkamera, along with mineral collections, malformed infants, and other natural and human curiosities and rarities.

But it’s not this collection that’s featured in the 449 color plates of Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities. After the sale to Peter, Seba started an entirely new collection (as did Ruysch), this time focusing on marine animals, insects, and reptiles. Seba’s second collection would eventually be even larger than his first.

<strong>A Southern common opossum from Volume I Table 39 and a lesser sulphur-crested cockatoo, hawk-headed parrot, tricolored blackbird, helmeted manakin, and hummingbird from Volume I Table 59.</strong

A Southern common opossum from Volume I Table 39 and a lesser sulphur-crested cockatoo, hawk-headed parrot, tricolored blackbird, helmeted manakin, and hummingbird from Volume I Table 59.

In 1731, Seba signed a contract with the agents of two publishing houses to create a book with 400 illustrated plates depicting his collection. The first two volumes of this four-volume work came out in 1734 and 1735, but Seba’s death in 1736 delayed the publishing of the final two volumes until 1758 and 1765, respectively.

Though separated by only twenty to thirty years, the first two and last two volumes of Seba’s Thesaurus were released into very different scientific environments, for Carolus Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae had been published in 1735. Linnaeus’ system of binomial nomenclature—the assignation of Latin scientific names to species—marked an important transition, a movement toward specialization and closer examination of biological forms. However, Linnaeus’ systematization owed much to Seba’s curiosity. The first edition of Systema Naturae recorded 549 species. It cited Seba’s Thesaurus 284 times.

(Seba had actually requested Linnaeus’ help with the preparation of the fishes section of Volume III of his Thesaurus, a volume dedicated to shells and marine organisms. Linnaeus declined, as he had begun working on his Hortus Cliffortianus, a catalogue of the garden of George Clifford III, a director of the Dutch East India Company and a member of the Clifford family of English bankers who had emigrated to Amsterdam in the early 17th century. Linnaeus recommended his friend Petrus Artedi for the job. Two months after beginning work with Seba, Artedi fell into a canal and drowned while walking home at night from Seba’s house.)

Despite Linnaeus’ early reliance on the Thesaurus, Enlightenment scientists would become increasingly dismissive and even scornful of the efforts of collectors like Seba. “It is indicative that even Linnaeus hesitated to cite Seba’s work in the tenth and twelfth editions (1758, 1767) of his Systema Naturae,” write Willmann and Rust. The encyclopedic and seemingly random quality of collections like Seba’s was thought to be confused and amateurish. Yet as the book Possessing Nature by Paula Findlen points out, the Enlightenment worldview failed to account for the cosmological significance of early museums. Irmgard Müsch concurs: “The ideal cabinet of curiosities constituted an attempt to produce an overall picture of this world, the cosmos… The aim was to bring together—at least in representative form—the most complete collection possible of all things knowable and worth knowing.” And as Denis Diderot wrote, “The order of a cabinet cannot be that of nature; above all nature affects a sublime disorder.”

The illustrations in the four volumes of Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, divided as they are into the pre- and post-Linnaean epochs, reflect that what the scientific world gained in clarity it lost in charm. In particular, the first volume features many lively, incongruous, ingenuous, and aesthetically inspired compositions in which plants, snakes, butterflies, birds, and other creatures appear together. (Inspiration was clearly drawn from the colorful, action-packed work of artist Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717) and her 1705 book about the insects of Surinam, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium.) Oddities such as Siamese goat twins and a seven-headed hydra are also included in Seba’s first volume. Anthropomorphized facial features predominate, and differences in scale are sometimes bizarre. The animals were invariably dead and/or unfamiliar, making accurate representations sometimes difficult.

<strong>One of Maria Sybilla Merian's famous action scenes that inspired the illustrations in the first volume of Seba's collection.</strong>

One of Maria Sybilla Merian's famous action scenes that inspired the illustrations in the first volume of Seba's collection.

The illustrations in the subsequent volumes of Seba’s Thesaurus are generally more conventional, so for the sake of interest and time, I’ll close this post by providing a few highlights of the first volume:

• Table 30, Figure 2. Felidae description: “Wild cat from America, resembling the tiger. This beast is so ferocious and mean that it hunts down other animals, pounces on their faces, gouges out their eyes with its long and sharp claws, peels off their skin, and feeds itself on their blood; the cat devours them in deep holes that it has dug and in which it lives.” An inaccurate description as it turns out, and impossible to believe anyway about such a cross-eyed little creature.


• Table 32 features five moles, plus one of the volume’s rare glimpses of a skeleton (Eurasian common mole). Beneath it lies a cheetah about to scratch the underside of its jaw, a motion one assumes was modeled on a housecat sleeping lazily next to the illustrator.


• Table 33 is the original home of the jaundiced-looking fellow whose image presides over this literary and pictorial log of naturalia and artificialia. He’s a two-toed tree sloth. Like the sloth on Table 34, he’s standing/walking upright. Linnaeus and others assumed that sloths were a type of monkey.

• Table 45 and its Siamese deer twins. The next table features “Siamese goat twins” and “Siamese twins of young small cats.”


• Table 48, Figure 2. This “small cat” is a prime example of how the wide-eyed anthropomorphizing could venture into children’s cartoon territory.


• Table 49 hosts some very amused-looking (yet nonetheless deceased) hedgehogs.


• Table 102, Figure 1. Hydra description: “Here we see a representation of the animal held to be a serpent with seven heads. A stranger, who did me the honour of visiting my cabinet of natural curiosities in 1720, was the first to give me a picture of it. This stranger told me that he had seen the original animal in Hamburg, that it resembled a serpent with seven raised heads, each of which had its mouth gaping wide open to reveal an arsenal of large and small teeth, having in addition only two feet and a long tail, such that although it was thought to be a serpent with seven heads, it nevertheless looked more like a dragon than a snake.

“I do admit that these relations seemed quite paradoxical to me and had more the flavour of myth than truth. But in the following year, Mr. F. Eibsen, a preacher of the Holy Gospel in a town called Wursten in the Duchy of Bremen, who came one day to see my cabinet, told me the same thing about this hydra and promised to obtain a drawing of this animal for me, which was easily done, since he had connections with the owners of the hydra, the merchants Dreyern and Hamble in Hamburg. He informed me that it had formerly belonged to Count von Königsmark, and that subsequent to his death it was then inherited by Count von Leeuwenhaupt.

“Having heard that the hydra was being offered for sale for ten thousand guilders, which [Eibsen] confirmed, I was inspired by the sheer size of the sum to obtain an authentic illustration. Mr. Eibsen kept his word and procured me the copy I wished. I do admit, though, that not absolutely trusting it, I wrote to my friend Mr. Jean Freder from Notorp near Hamburg. This very judiciously curious natural historian, who had seen the same hydra with his own eyes, assured me that it was definitely not the work of art but truly that of Nature. This friend also sent me a copy in life size and very well illuminated. This latter was used to produce the figure I present here.”


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