In September last year, I heard of the Amsterdam Ritman Library or Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica for the first time. I had been wanting to see the exhibition ‘Alchemy on the Amstel‘ (until 20 September 2013) ever since, and last week I finally got a chance. On a sunny afternoon I cycled to the library, hidden away in a side street of the Prinsengracht, a stone’s throw from the Westerchurch.
In stark contrast to the hustle and bustle outside, just metres away from the throngs of tourists queuing for the Anne Frank house, the Ritman Library is an oasis of silence. Founded by the Amsterdam businessman and maecenas Joost R. Ritman (1941), the library holds a unique collection of hermetic books and manuscripts with a focus on the Christian tradition. The collection covers areas as diverse as alchemy, Rosicrucian works and Gnostics, from the Middle Ages to the present day.
The current exhibitions at the Ritman Library, ‘Alchemy on the Amstel: On Hermetic Medicine in the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic’ and ‘A Curious Tsar: Peter the Great and Discovering the Secrets of Nature in Amsterdam’ (in conjunction with the exhibition ‘Peter the Great: an Inspired Tsar’ in the Amsterdam Hermitage), are small but rich. They give the visitor a quick but thorough insight in Amsterdam as a centre of trade and knowledge in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Concise bilingual catalogues help the visitor to put the works on display in context.
Although this is a library exhibition, there are not just manuscripts, books, and other printed works on display. In one of the display cases, a small cup and a stony clump of material with a metal-like shimmer caught my eye. They turned out to be an antimony cup and a lump of antimony (Sb2S3), a lustrous grey metalloid often found in ores together with either sulphur or mercury. This combination appealed to alchemists, as sulphur and mercury were considered the basic alchemical elements. Moreover, as antimony could cleanse the most precious metal, gold, from impurities, alchemists reasoned it could also cleanse and cure God’s most precious creature, created after his own image: man.
Hence Paracelsus (1493-1541) and many of his followers advocated the use of small amounts of antimony in iatrochemical drugs, although they were well aware of the fact that it is highly poisonous. Antimony cups like the seventeenth-century one on display at the Ritman library were used since antiquity to make antimonial wine by soaking regular wine in it for one or more days. This antimonial wine was a tried emetic, but antimony cups were forbidden in England and France for much of the seventeenth century as the use of a wine too acidic would result in a lethal concoction. This prohibition was sometimes circumnavigated by creating antimony cups from tin with a small amount of antimony. In France antimony cups became legal once more in 1658, after Louis XIV was cured from typhoid fever with antimonial wine.
The aim of this this exhibition, dispelling some of the misconceptions surrounding alchemy with a general audience, is certainly met. And for historians of alchemy and chemistry, the Ritman Library is a true treasure trove. Like many other cultural institutions, the library faced major financial challenges over the past years. All the more reason to support it by paying a visit – you will not be disappointed.