Peter the Great Kunstkamera
Dissection of corpses was forbidden in Russia. This changed when Peter I attended anatomy lessons in Amsterdam in 1697-1698 and realized how much physicians could learn about the human body from the examination of cadavers. He reformed the law so that it was no longer blasphemous to acquire knowledge about the human body by dissecting corpses.
Peter I was eager to learn as much as possible, and wanted others to do so. He assembled a comprehensive collection of animals , plants and minerals from across the known world, and later also thousands of human samples preserved in alcohol. In 1718 he ordered that deformed human and animal fetuses be delivered to him so that they could be studied. He wished to dispel the belief that these were monsters created by the devil. Peter I kept his collection in a European modeled Kunstkamera, which was arranged like a visual encyclopedia. It was not a freak show, as some suggested, but a study room.
Two Dutch natural-scientific collections, that of Albert Seba (1665-17736) and Frederick Ruysch constitute the basis of Peter the Great Kunstkamera natural-scientific collections. Both Ruysch and Seba had obtained animals, plants and shells from around the world for their collections in Amsterdam. As a physician, Ruysch also kept a selection of different parts of the body preserved in alcohol or embalmed.
Seba, an Amsterdam apothecary, concentrated on collecting naturalia (natural-scientific collections) along with occasional artifacts made by indigenous inhabitants of Asia and America (artificalia). He supplied medicines to the imperial court in St.Petersburg and in 1715 he offered his collection for sale to the tsar. Peter bought it a year later and during the same year the collection arrived in St.Petersburg.
In 1717, while in Amsterdam, the tsar bought another large collection, that of Frederick Ruysch.
The Ruysch Collection
Tsar Peter I attended Frederick Ruysch's anatomical lessons in the winter of 1697 - 1698. These classes were given at the anatomical theatre in Amsterdam's Weight House for several days in succession, until the cadaver began to decompose.
Frederick Ruysch also devised a way to conserve parts of the body for longer periods. He created wet and dry preparations by injecting the blood and lymph vessels with a special liquid of secret composition.
"See for yourself", was his motto. In other words: not to believe anything based on another's authority, without having seen it with one's own eyes. The motto in his guest book was "Vene, vidi et judica nil tuis oculis" (Come, see and judge, believe only your own eyes).
Russian teratological collections*
Tsar peter I encouraged research into deformities and tried to debunk the superstitious fear of monsters. He issued an ukaz ordering malformed infants to be sent to the imperial collection. This included deformed animals as well as human babies. Commonly refereed to as monsters, these malformed creatures were prepared as exhibits and placed on public display. In the enlightened spirit of the time, Peter I believed that deformed children were accidents of nature. Deformities were not the devil's work, or God's punishment, but simply exceptions to the laws of nature.
First decorators of the Kunstkamera exhibitions halls
The Kunstkamera was decorated by Dorothea Maria Gsell, the first woman to be commissioned by the Academy of Sciences that peter I founded in 1724. Dorothea's task was to provide a decorative arrangement for the exhibits in the Kunstkamera, to make watercolours of the objects as well as to guide visitors and answer their questions.
She was the daughter of the famous Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). The latter was fascinated by the growth and study of insects. In her native Frankfurt she had published a richly illustrated book "Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium" (The Metamorphosis of Surinam Insects). Later she was commissioned by collectors to draw insects from the collections of Ruysch and Seba. When Merian diedi in 1717 in Amsterdam, Peter I invited Dorothea Maria and her husband, Georg Gsell to come to Russia.
The cultural context of this exhibition is illustrated by means of a specially devised multimedia presentation. The visitors can choose several topics such as "anatomy" by Andreas Vesalius, "monsters" by Ulysse Aldrovandi, a journey through the magnificent European Kunstkamersland an explanation of the various techniques that were used for storing precious objects.
The presentation of the Ruysch specimens in the eighteen century style is the result of ten years of cooperation of the Kunstkamera with the Amsterdam Historical Museum.
Sponsors of the exhibition:
Wilhelmina E.Jansen Fund, Amsterdam
Mondriaan Foundation, Amsterdam
Prince Bernhard Cultural Foundation, Amsterdam
Society fro the Advancement of Physics, Medical Sciences and Surgery, Amsterdam