Albertus Seba

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Albertus Seba was a Dutch pharmacist, zoologist and collector. Born in 1665, Seba grew up near the ocean, and at a young age was captivated by the diversity of life living in the sea.

Seba moved to Amsterdam as an apprentice and opened around 1700 a pharmacy near the harbour. Seba asked sailors and ship surgeons to bring exotic plants and animal products he could use for preparing drugs. Seba also started to collect snakes, birds, insects, shells and lizards in his house. From 1711 he delivered drugs to the Russian court in Saint Petersburg and sometimes accepted fresh ginger as payment. Seba promoted his collection with the head-physician to the tsar, Robert Arskine, and early 1716 Peter the Great bought the complete collection. Seven months later seventeen trunks arrived in Russia. With Seba as an intermediate, Frederik Ruysch, a famous botanist, again sold his collection to the tsar. A special building was designed, and from 1728 till 1830 both collections were exposed in the Kunstkammer. With the acquisition of the two collections, the Russian Academy of Sciences had two modern, very well-documented collections at its disposal.

Albertus sometimes accepted fresh ginger as payment. Mmm…

Seba commissioned high quality, painstaking illustrations of nearly his entire collection, which were turned into engravings for publishing. Thesaurus was his biggest project, and one he didn’t live to see the completion of. His commissioned works hold a high level of esteem for nature collectors and artists alike, showing a great attention to detail and a certain whimsy and layout which remains relevant to this day.

Seba’s Thesaurus was a beautiful publication, in a large part because the boundary between art and science was still pretty fuzzy. Animals posed artfully, and shells were arranged in decorative patterns. Some of the work was fanciful or even folly, such as the many electric-blue snakes and the seven-headed hydra, yet much of it exhibited an almost unprecedented attention to detail and accuracy.