In July this year I visited the Hortus Botanicus and the Special Collections Library of the University of Leiden. I wanted to experience both the Hortus and the first catalogue of it in person. I am lucky because the hortus has been reconstructed in its sixteenth / seventeenth century form and its first representation in book form, as catalogue from 1601, is still available in the library. To experience these in first person is vital because that was in a sense their purpose. They are both teaching aids, and were then part of a new teaching method that aimed to study not only from books, but after life. Looking, experiencing and testing the real thing (for example, the human body or plants for medicinal usage) instead of relying on knowledge in books passed down from greek and roman philosophers.
For example can you recognise the plant from this illustration (taken from a coloured copy of Cruydt boeck by Rembertus Dodonaeus, the standard work of the time)?
I am intrigued by the links between the design of the library, catalogue and hortus. The catalogue includes a map of the hortus. It is populated with figures showing how it is used and it marks the planting beds so that the position of each plant can be catalogued. Each plant can then be found back just like a book in the library. The index gives then an overview of all plants. The really clever part of the catalogue design is the open boxes on each page where the user of the book can write in the names of the plants. This makes it a study aid or work book for the student and at the same time creates a framework for cataloging the position of all the plants, which are constantly changing. The catalogue is the size of a pocket book so it is easy to carry with you.
I viewed a few copies in the library and they were the copies from Pieter Paaw (Keeper of the Hortus, and professor of anatomy and botany) who has written in a really neat handwriting the names of plants in it. Clearly not done in the garden but after a stock take. So instead of having to print a new book each year, they could take a blank copy and write in the plant names. All the copies together show then the development of the garden and log the dynamic nature of a collection.
The design of the catalogue with open boxes to be written into was not new but Paaw adapted it from an example he came across while studying in Padua, Italy. I will follow this trail in my study visit to Padua.
There is actually a lot to pick apart from my visit to Leiden and I will take some time to go through some of the literature I found to research the background story of the hortus and its context. For instance the sixteenth / seventeenth century is known for all the collections of curiosities and cabinets of naturalia created by scholarly collectors and the aristocracy. These were connected to libraries and the idea that one could make a collection of ‘everything’, collect all books, or all plants, or at least a sense of wanting to gather as much knowledge as possible to be able to read ‘the book of Nature’. Within all of this lies a complex web of religious, scientific, or aesthetic motivations or we can look at it as a status symbol.
One book in the library caught my eye (finding things by chance is still one of my favourite strategies of gathering information): Egmond, F., & Coenen, A. Het visboek: de wereld volgens Adriaen Coenen 1514-1587. The book reproduces illustrated manuscripts by Adriaen Coenen who collected stories, beached whales and other extraordinary marine creatures and produced several manuscripts of his findings. It is full of fact and rumours but Adriaen Coenen produced one of the first catalogues of whales. It gives an insight into what the state of the gathering of knowledge about our world was like in the sixteenth century.