Florike Egmond on Re-discovering the Gessner & Platter animal drawings

This follows on from an earlier blog about the discovery of the original drawings for Conrad Gessner’s Historia animalium by Dr Florike Egmond. Here is her story of how this came about!

Amsterdam University Library Albums iii C 22-23

Drawing of a tiger, Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam, Ms. III C 23, 8 © Amsterdam University Library. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Most historians who work with original sources dream occasionally, I suppose, of discovering some really important historical document or object. A browse through the stacks of a library or archive, a poke in an attic, or however we imagine it, followed by sudden realization that this is the real thing. That is not quite how it went in my case. But it was no less exciting for that.

I first saw two obviously old, but anonymous and undated albums with animal drawings for the first time some twenty years ago, in the early 1990s, when I was still a historian specializing in criminal and social history of the 18th century. It was thanks to the marvellous 16th-century albums depicting marine life made by Adriaen Coenen (1514-87), the son of a Dutch fisherman, that I had begun to change subject, field and century – discovering the exciting world of early modern natural history. With hindsight, Coenen and his works changed my life. Without the humble Coenen, who drew fish and marine animals from life, but also copied many of Gessner’s drawings and vernacular texts (since he had no Latin) into his own illustrated albums, there would have been no re-discovery of the Gessner-Platter albums.

While learning about 16th-century natural history during the early 1990s, I looked in a very unsystematic way for letters and albums concerning living nature from the early modern period in any library and archive that I had time to visit: I was not searching for new sources, but for material that could help me find a context for Coenen’s work. Knowing that the most interesting material can often be found in the strangest places in catalogues and inventories, often under the headings, Varia, Curiosa, or Additions, those sections usually were my starting point in the libraries I visited. Just before the section Varia and under the heading Mathematical and Natural Sciences of the manuscript collections of the Remonstrantse Kerk in Amsterdam University Library I found the two albums, anonymous and undated, but otherwise adequately catalogued. And that was that. No discovery, no illuminating moment.

Conrad Gessner

Portrait of Felix Platter by Hans Bock (1584)

I was still a beginner in sixteenth-century natural history and knew very little beyond the most obvious things about Conrad Gessner or Felix Platter. I assumed that the albums might be Dutch or German copies after Gessner’s printed works, and did enough research to know that there was no literature about them at all. Quite a few of the drawings struck me as a bit clumsy: others were marvels of precision and colouring; all were watercolours; every image was cut out  and pasted in the albums. But the images did stick in my mind – enough for me to want to return to them eventually, when time and my various jobs allowed. It took twenty years, during which Coenen was always around and kept on fascinating me, leading me during the early 2000s to a big research project on his and Conrad Gessner’s contemporary, the famous botanist Carolus Clusius. Without that project I would not have been involved in the current and again Leiden-based research project Re-reading the Book of Nature. After the years of focusing on correspondence, Clusius’ networks, European exchanges of naturalia, collecting, patronage and many other social and cultural aspects of early modern natural history, the time had come in which I could concentrate on images of animals and plants. And that meant returning to the albums in Amsterdam.

Drawing of fish from Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam, Ms. III C 22 110,© Amsterdam University Library. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Together with my husband Peter Mason, whose interest in early images of eskimos had originally made us discover Adriaen Coenen and his work, I returned to Amsterdam, this time from Rome where we had moved in the meantime. Without new technology, the generous permission of the Amsterdam Library to take digital photographs, and the possibility to compare these images unhurriedly with fully digitized printed works by Gessner and other naturalists on internet still nothing would have happened. With a complete set of hundreds of photos of the albums we returned home to Rome. During the hot Roman summer of 2010, slatted shutters closed, and regularly interrupted by days on the beach, I worked my way through deciphering the annotation in the albums and comparing the hundreds of images — Album iii C 22 contains 225 sheets with coloured drawings of fresh-water and salt-water fish and other aquatic creatures, such as shells, whales, corals, sea urchins, crabs and lobsters, besides some sea monsters; volume iii C 23, has 144 sheets with coloured drawings of four-footed beasts, insects, reptiles and amphibians; the category of birds is absent – with the thousands of images in the many printed editions of Gessner’s Historia Animalium on internet. To start with, I was simply curious and had hopes of being able to date the albums more closely. The annotation certainly looked pre 18th-century. And I had some hopes that they might be an early Dutch or perhaps German example of collecting and depicting naturalia inspired by or partly based on Gessner’s illustrations. But the annotation – in Latin and German – soon quashed that hope. There was nothing Dutch about it. The Latin abbreviations looked more early than late 17th century; the annotation contained references (as already noted in the catalogue entry) to dates ranging from the 1550s to 1610 – really almost too long to span the working years of a single person; there was annotation in the first person referring to dates just before and after 1600 (when Gessner was long dead); Gessner was referred to by name; and there were references to Basel and some other locations in Southern Germany, Switzerland, and the Alsace.

My curiosity increased, I continued comparing images, and realized that by far the larger number of those that could be matched with illustrations in Gessner was reversed: mirrored those illustrations. And I reread my old dossiers as well as more recent literature on Gessner, his connections, and on other Swiss naturalists. At some point during that very hot summer, after several months of work the penny – finally – dropped, when I added up Latin + German, Basel and Platter, the dates, the ego-annotation, the too long time span, and especially the reversals. The list of clues sounds almost as disparate as the famous ones constructed by Agatha Christie. Obvious, once you know it … But I still remember what the moment of realization felt like, and that was indeed one moment: it suddenly hit me, all the clues came together, they formed a perfect pattern in which nothing was unaccounted for, no loose ends, everything fell into place. And if that sounds like a cliché, it is. These must be albums put together by Felix Platter, collector, naturalist and famous physician in Basel, with a core of images collected by Gessner and used by the latter as models for the illustrations in his Historiae Animalium acquired, to which Platter added many more images collected by himself. A collection within a collection.

Florike with her arm in a sling, at the paper mill in Basel

What followed after that was exciting in a different manner: I started writing up all the evidence, trying to argue against myself, testing out on Peter the possibilities of overlooking something, a loose thread after all, or of just missing something really obvious. And then came the most important tests of all: what about the handwriting of the annotation; and even more crucially, what about the watermarks? If the paper dated from afterPlatter’s lifetime, my hypothesis would collapse completely. If the annotation was by someone else, it would have to be revised in a complicated way. This meant a trip to Basel and Zurich, which Peter and I undertook together – I with an arm in plaster, having slipped and dislocated my elbow after a day’s swimming.

The “blind test” in Switzerland was amazing, especially thanks to the generous help of the Gessner expert Dr Urs Leu in Zurich Zentral Bibliothek, and Dr Lorenz Heiligensetzer of the manuscript department in Basel University Library. By then I had been in mail contact with both, saying that I thought I had some original documents possibly connected with Gessner or Platter, but nothing more. When shown a series of images and detailed shots of the annotation neither had any doubt; it was Platter’s handwriting. In Basel we could compare the annotation of the albums with original letters by Platter and the inventory of his collection, which proved to be a further valuable source of information and confirmation.

Platter’s House in Basel, Photo by F. Egmond

And finally, we went to visit one of the oldest still existing paper mills in Basel, Baseler Papier-Mühle St Alban-Tal, which was already working in Platter’s day, is still in use, and now also functions as paper museum. That was the location of the final test of the watermarks and paper. Without revealing the nature of the material, we showed Martin Kluge, the paper expert at the museum, photos of the various watermarks in the albums. And his response left no doubt – even though it took a lot of further fine-tuning and comparative research of watermarks: those were Basel watermarks, referring to the leading families of paper makers in Basel during Felix Platter’s lifetime. To find out that much just after visiting Felix Platter’s still extant house in Basel and right on the spot where some of that paper was probably made, was almost as exhilarating as the instant of “discovery”, twenty years after actually seeing the albums for the first time.

What came afterwards was a very long process of reading up on much more literature, re-checking the watermark information, going once more through all images and annotation, and putting all of the evidence and more information into words that emerged from the further research concerning the context. Whoever would like to read the result, please look on the site of the Journal of the History of Collections for the electronic publication (spring 2012), ‘A collection within a collection. Rediscovered animal drawings from the collections of Conrad Gessner and Felix Platter’ and the accompanying digital dossier with many more images. The paper version will appear in 2013.

Drawing of a hare from Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam, Ms. III C 23, 48, © Amsterdam University Library. Please do not reproduce without permission.


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10 Responses to Florike Egmond on Re-discovering the Gessner & Platter animal drawings

  1. J.L.Mente says:

    Absolutely fascinating!

  2. Pingback: Florike Egmond’s Lecture at the University of Oxford | Origins of Science as a Visual Pursuit

  3. Natalie Zemon Davis says:

    A wonderful adventure, Florike, and so well recounted. I look forward to the article. Natalie Zemon Davis

  4. Kristina Taylor says:

    It just confirms how far behind England was in scientific research and collecting to those clever Continentals. Here in the UK we have a lot to learn about this. When can you come and do a lecture in London on this.

  5. Flavia Galli Tatsch says:

    Nice adventure and article. Flavia Galli Tatsch

  6. Pingback: Cultures of Knowledge: An Intellectual Geography of the Seventeenth-Century Republic of Letters» Blog Archive » Letters, Images, and Collecting in Natural History

  7. Christel Verhas says:

    Quite a story, you’ve dug in well! A real historian with a nose for connections!

  8. Paula Findlen says:

    Such a great reminder that there is still more to discover in the archives, especially in the hands of a historian who knows what she’s doing. Congratulations, Florike!

  9. Pingback: Original drawings for Gessner’s Historia animalium | Origins of Science as a Visual Pursuit

  10. Knap gedaan,florike,
    bert broecks

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