From 18 March until 29 April 1999
(closed on 5 April)
The University Library has dedicated an exhibition to the life and work of Gerardus Joannes Vossius (1577-1649).
He was the first rector of the Amsterdam Athenaeum Illustre, the illustrious school which was founded in 1632
and is the precursor of the Universiteit van Amsterdam.
It is 350 years ago that Vossius died 'in harness' after a fall from a ladder in his library on Oudezijds Achterburgwal. We talked to the organizer of the exhibition, dr J.A.A.M. Biemans, keeper of manuscripts in the UB.
How did the UB acquire the Vossius collection?
"After the death of Vossius the family kept his letters, personal papers, and all his unfinished manuscripts. Before 1716, his grandson Gerardus Joannes Vossius Jr. donated most of the manuscripts and part of the letters to the Remonstrant Church of Amsterdam, which in turn gave this collection on loan to the Universiteit van Amsterdam, after the Athenaeum Illustre had been promoted to university."
What can visitors expect in this exhibition?
"Besides all kinds of exhibits concerning the life and work of Vossius, the exhibition also pays attention to the rather laborious and costly conservation of the Remonstrant manuscript collection. This collection is of great scientific importance and deserves to be well kept. But that's not an easy task. First we did some experiments on how best to restore the manuscripts of and about Vossius, and this gave us a good impression of the possibilities and the costs involved. The exhibition shows examples of manuscripts which have not yet been restored as well as those that have.
The conservation of Vossius's Catalogus Librorum was quite a bold venture. This unique document could hardly be consulted without damaging it: pages became frayed, corners curled and collected dirt and would then tear. Bits of paper crumbled off, and when texts had been written in the margin, parts of these texts would be lost together with the paper. To protect the paper, the pages were strengthened in the damaged and fragile spots with a kind of Japanese paper which is as strong as it is thin. In order not to frustrate book-historical research we consciously endeavoured not to make these bits ‘as new’ again, for example by removing all the dirt. In this way Vossius's catalogue has been thoroughly restored and put together again conserving all traces of the original binding. Even the pins which Vossius used to add pages - the paper clip had not yet been invented - have stayed in place. And folds in letters were not removed. After treatment the manuscripts and letters have been photographed one by one and each has been wrapped in acid-free material. In future most researchers will be able to make do with the photographic reproductions. In this way consultation of the original material is limited, which is conducive to its survival.
By the way, the exhibition shows not only manuscripts and prints, but also paintings, engravings, coins, and other objects. Together they tell us much about Vossius's life and scientific work."
Coudl you tell us something about his personal life?
"His life had high points, but also great adversities. Gerard Jan was born in Heidelberg, where his father was a clergyman. But when, after some travelling around, the family settled in Dordrecht, his parents died soon after each other. Together with his sister, he was raised by the widow of a clergyman. He certainly did not have a carefree childhood. Also later in his life he suffered great sorrows: of all his children only his son Isaac survived him. He also lost many friends during his lifetime. Domestic worries, illness, and death did not make his work easier for him. Still, Vossius has written much and for many he was a great support, both privately and scientifically."
Could you describe his 'career'?
"Vossius was first headmaster of the Grammar School in Dordrecht. Then he went to Leyden, where he became governor of the State College, and later - in spite of a serious conflict about a theological text - professor of rhetoric and history. Some time later he also taught Greek. In 1630 the magsitrate of Amsterdam asked him to come here as the first rector and professor of the new Athenaeum Illustre. It was especially the financial prospect - so this must have happened a long time ago... - which enticed him into making the change. Vossius has published a great deal: handbooks on Greek and Latin grammar, rhetorics and poetics, he also wrote about Greek and Latin historians, and published many theological treatises. He corresponded with people from all walks of life and advised them on various subjects. In the exhibition you can, for example, see the correspondence between Vossius and Grotius."
Vossius was also a keen collector of books.
"Indeed, apart from his work, Vossius's library is of great interest. His father had laid the foundations for a nice collection; all his life Vossius continued to collect books. A booklet - which is also exhibited - shows that in the last years of his life he registered conscientiously who borrowed which book. The size of his library obviously made this necessary. In his Catalogus Librorum he also noted the price he paid for his books: it must have been a small fortune. Naturally, Vossius used the books for his own work, but he was always ready to lend them to others. You could even say that his library and study in Amsterdam became a centre of learning, which scholars, friends, and students loved to visit. Vondel and Hooft also belonged to the lucky ones."