Exotic shells from the Dutch Colonies inspired many painters during the era of European exploration and discovery. The perfection and beauty of their forms and colours could be seen in shell cabinets and in wonderfully illustrated books on natural history such as those in the Fagel Collection. This library belonged to the Fagel family of the Netherlands and is now part of Research Collections in the Library of Trinity College Dublin.
We met Georg Wolfgang Knorr (1705-1761) in the Fagel Spring Blog with his Regnum Florae, and now we move with him to the kingdom of shells. Knorr was a German paleontologist, artist, engraver and collector who lived and worked in Nuremberg, which was a centre of production for fine natural history books, and he published a number of scientific works there. He created this wonderful collection of drawings based on the cabinets of curiosity and other amateur collections of natural history specimens in Holland and Germany in the early 18th century. This volume is richly illustrated with copper engravings with original hand-colouring.
Shell cabinets, and cabinets of natural history objects in general, became very popular in the 17th century and Dutch collectors were to the fore. It was the era of exploration, discovery and commercial activity by the Dutch East India Company in Asia and exotic items from the tropics were brought home, exciting great curiosity. Conchology flourished as a science and as an amateur pursuit with the discovery of shells of brilliant colours and unusual shapes in great variety and distribution. Those who could afford to collect widely, built multi-compartmented cabinets for preservation and display. Also called wunderkammer, these wonder-collections could include insects, metals and unusual and rare items such as corals, fossils, horns and tusks.
Georg Eberhard Rumpf (or Rumphius) (1627-1702) was one of the great tropical naturalists of the seventeenth century. Born in Germany, he spent most of his life working for the Dutch East India Company, stationed on the island of Ambon in eastern Indonesia. He was the first to document the tropical marine life, minerals and shells of the area and his classic text of natural history D’Amboinische Rariteitskamer was the first modern work on tropical fauna.
In the busy scene depicted in the frontispiece of the Fagel copy, sea creatures and exotic shells are being presented to a group of collectors who are carefully examining the specimens at the central table. Cabinets with drawers stand to either side, and assistants are engaged in placing some of these treasures into a cabinet at the back, with a distant landscape seen behind them.
Ambon was an important trading centre in the 17th century, particularly for the Moluccan spice trade. This map of the island with an inset plan of Castle Victoria is by Francois Valentyn.
The author’s instructions on “How one should gather and clean shells” set out the procedures in detail and we find out that it can be a risky business as “Searching on rock beaches is just as much trouble and effort as on the flat, sandy beaches,because there one must be constantly afeared of the large Sea Killer, the Kaiman, and if one has to go through some marshy holes, then one can easily step on the sharp Sea Hedgehog or Sea Apples, or on the poisonous Ican Swangi fish.” (Chapter 39, Book 2)
It is now generally accepted that all of the plates for Rumpf’s book were designed by the famous naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, who was one of the greatest illustrators of natural history of the day. She accepted a commission to draw the illustrations for the Amboinsche Rariteitkamer using shells from notable Dutch collections of the period.
Merian, a German-born illustrator and entomologist came across exotic insects in the cabinets of natural history collectors in Amsterdam. In 1699, she set sail for Surinam in South America, which was then a Dutch colony, with her younger daughter Dorothea. There, they studied the life cycles of Surinamese insects and their metamorphosis. After two years, she returned to the Dutch Republic, where she published Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname), considered to be one the most beautiful books on natural history ever published in the Netherlands.
Benjamen Fagel (1642-1706) was a lawyer in The Hague, secretary of the Dutch Court of Auditors and councillor in the Court of Holland. His collection includes shells, zoophytes, insects, minerals and horns. The catalogue is especially interesting as it shows the contents of a typical cabinet of natural curiosities of a professional gentleman of the late 17th century; he was a member of the Fagel family whose extraordinary library is now among the collections in the Library of Trinity College Dublin.
The illustrated treatise below on Lithology (stones) and Conchology (shells) was one of the earliest efforts to classify and catalogue corals, shells and molluscs under the general term ‘conchology’ in the Linnaean system of classification. Antoine-Joseph Dezailler d’Argenville (1680-1765) was avocat to the Parlement de Paris and secretary to the king. He was a connoisseur of gardening and natural history in general. In addition to the scientific study of the shells he was also concerned with the best ways of displaying these specimens in the cabinets of curiosity which were very much in vogue at the time of publication.
Information on the Fagel Collection: https://www.tcd.ie/library/fagel/
More images from Merian’s surinam insects: http://www.tcd.ie/library/fagel/insects-and-their-metamorphosis/
Albertus Seba’s collection of exotic plants and animals in his cabinet of curiosities: http://www.tcd.ie/library/fagel/cabinet-of-curiosities/
Lead image: Detail from Allegory on the Abdication of Emperor Charles V in Brussels by Frans Francken II (1581-1642) oil on panel. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Regina Whelan Richardson is an Assistant Librarian in the Department of Early Printed Books, working on the Fagel Collection.
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