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'The Anatomical Preparations of Frederik Ruysch' has been launched on the University'of Amsterdam's website. A fascinating glimpse into the strange wonders of the human body.

30 November 2009 saw the launch of the virtual exhibition The Anatomical Preparations of Frederik Ruysch on the University of Amsterdam's website.

Human preparations from the 17th century

The internet exhibition showcases a representative section from the collection of 916 human preparations created by Amsterdam-based anatomist Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731). Ruysch was famous throughout Europe for his preparation skills.

Ruysch felt that existing books on anatomy and the illustrations they contained did not provide 'enough light'. In response, he took up the scalpel himself in order to ‘explore dead bodies'. He produced over 2000 human preparations in the years 1665-1717. Due to their exceptional quality and beauty, his works are often referred to as the ‘Rembrandts of anatomical preparation'.

Ruysch stored his preparations at home, either embalmed or in alcohol. They represented the tangible evidence of his findings. Those skeptical of his drawings would receive an invitation to his home in order to inspect his collection in person. Ruysch's private museum was visited by fellow doctors, physicists and philosophers as well as aristocrats and royalty. He published lavishly illustrated guidebooks - Thesauri Anatomici - for his guests, in which he described each of the preparations in detail.

Heritage from Saint Petersburg and Amsterdam united online

In 1698, Ruysch had the honour of welcoming Tsar Peter the Great to his museum. Simply admiring Ruysch's work did not satisfy his appetite - in 1717, the Tsar purchased his entire collection, and had it shipped to Russia. He paid Ruysch the then astronomical fee of Dutch 30,000 guilders.

In order to house the collection, the Tsar built a Kunstkamera in Saint Petersburg, which would eventually become his Imperial Academy of Science. In doing so, he introduced Russia to the European Enlightenment and to modern science.

The Kunstkamera still contains 916 human preparations. However, the accompanying descriptions by Ruysch, the Thesauri Anatomici, went missing in the 18th century, constituting the loss of all his knowledge of the preparations.

The University of Amsterdam's Special Collections still contains a set of Thesauri. When Anna B. Radzjoen, curator of the Kunstkamera, heard of their existence, she came up with the idea of reuniting the preparations with their original descriptions. The online exhibition is the first fruit of her efforts: for the first time in 250 years, the preparations stored in Saint Petersburg have been reunited with Ruysch's original descriptions.

International research group

The virtual exhibition came about through collaboration between the University of Amsterdam's International Frederik Ruysch Research Group and the Saint Petersburg Kunstkamera. The researchers matched the preparations with their original descriptions. This proved to be more difficult than they had initially expected, as characteristic plants and animals had been removed from the bottles containing the human preparations.

The first results of their work can be viewed on the new website. The researchers assembled a register of Ruysch's descriptions, created a searchable database and wrote a series of brief explanations of Ruysch's work.

The majority of funding for the research project was provided by the Wilhelmina E. Jansen Fonds. The remaining financial contributions were provided by the Prins Bernard Cultuurfonds, Stichting dr Hendrik Muller's Vaderlandsch Fonds, the Kattendijke/Drucker Stichting and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs / Dutch Embassy in Moscow.