Believe It or Not

In the summer and early fall of 1593, the Dutch scholar Joseph Scaliger made a triumphal progress north toward Leiden, the Dutch city where he would spend the years until he died in 1605. Leiden University was the Duke of its day: a hard-driving, ambitious institution, wealthy, aggressive, and dedicated to taking its place on the cutting edge of science and scholarship. Scaliger, for his part, was a great academic celebrity who made a splendid catch for the university’s dedicated, ambitious curators. The most erudite scholar in Europe’s great age of erudition, he had recreated the calendars and histories of ancient nations from Mesopotamia to Mexico, using both texts and astronomical evidence with dazzling virtuosity. A brilliant researcher, Scaliger detested both the pomposity of teachers and the drudgery their calling required. He accepted the professorship in Leiden only on condition that he would not have to teach. Amazingly, he received this unheard-of privilege, along with a huge salary and many other privileges: clear evidence of the esteem he enjoyed, his employer’s readiness to innovate, and the value of chutzpah in the academic life.

As Scaliger made his way from one northern Dutch city to another, meeting and greeting the local notables, he had one remarkable experience, which stayed with him for the rest of his life. In Enkhuisen, he visited the collection or “cabinet” of curiosities that belonged to the well-known doctor and traveler Bernardus Paludanus. Twelve years later, he vividly described what took place in Paludanus’ house to the young French students who lodged with him:

Paludanus in Enkhuisen has a complete mummy, the body of an Egyptian, that was buried more than 3000 years ago. Now that is a real antique. Someone persuaded Gourgues [Scaliger’s traveling companion] that it belonged to one of the kings of Egypt. He adored the mummy, and wrote about it to his father as if he had seen the relics of the body of a saint. Paludanus—who is half a Catholic—saw this, and showed Gourgues that it was false.

Paludanus possessed one of the richest collections of natural specimens and human antiquities in Northern Europe. A visitor of gentle birth and learning like Scaliger, who turned up equipped with a proper letter of recommendation, could depend on being admitted and shown objects so old or strange that they had—as Scaliger remarked—something like the luster that had once clung to Catholic saints’ relics. Paludanus’ museum made an ideal scene for lively, learned conversation, with all its normal twists and turns—from serious discussion of ancient objects like the mummy to the teasing of the gullible young, like Scaliger’s friend.

Though fascinating, Scaliger’s adventure was not unusual. A network of museums like Paludanus’ grew up across Europe in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. From Oxford to Vienna, from Naples to Nuremberg, kings and merchants, doctors and professors set spaces aside for collections of the wonderful works of nature and art. The rooms they …

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