Albertus Seba’s Amazing Cabinet of Natural Curiosities
Getting a private viewing of the King Bird of Paradise, or how to set the exchange rate for flying squid.
By Kirstin Butler
Lying at the intersection of art and science, the practice of natural illustration has long been the recipient of Brain Pickings adoration. So we swooned over the recent release of Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, a reproduction of the unequalled collection of Amsterdam apothecary Albertus Seba. Born in the mid-17th century, Seba spent decades gathering a wunderkammer of birds, insects, reptiles, and exotic plants for use in his drug preparations.
One hundred years before the eminent German naturalist Ernst Haeckel was even born, Seba had published two volumes of engravings of his compendia; the last two wouldn’t be finished until after his death in 1736. Seba’s internationally famous cabinet of animals, insects, and plants was coveted by prominent collectors, but eventually purchased by Czar Peter the Great for display in Russia.
Seba’s fantastic assortment no longer exists as a whole — its parts scattered throughout the globe, and some of its individual specimens extinct — but, happily, the images do. The professional pharmacist and amateur zoologist commissioned illustrations of every single item in his collection. In gorgeous reproductions of the original color plates, we get to see detailed drawings of Phasmatodea (or Walking Stick, as the insect is colloquially known), three-banded armadillo, and snakes from Suriname. And while a complete edition of Seba’s visual thesaurus was sold at auction for nearly half a million dollars, we can happily enjoy it for far less.
A spectacular exhibition of 18th-century natural history, Cabinet of Natural Curiosities will enchant the curious cross-disciplinarian and bring a bygone era of scientific study back to life.
Published July 12, 2011