Friday, 21 May 2010

A visit to Leiden

While staying in Amasterdam for a couple of days, I spent some hours in Leiden, the birthplace of Gerard van Swieten. Just half an hour by train from Amsterdam (and ten minutes from Schiphol airport), it was quite easy to go there for some sightseeing. There is a route that takes you on a walk lasting about two hours around town, the 'Leidse loper'.

I was there on Ascension Day, and people were at church, so it was probably a very quiet Leiden I visited. Unfortunately it was grey and pretty cold, but it was a very welcome change from the busy capital. One of the places you pass by on the walk is the old prison with a square where people were executed, as seen in the photo above. One of the houses in the background is the old Latin School where Rembrandt was a pupil. Unfortunately, I am not that well versed in van Swieten's biographical history, so I am not quite sure whether he was a pupil there as well.

One is left in no doubt of Leiden's role in the advancements of science, especially if you visit the old botanical gardens from around 1590, and the Boerhaave museum. The museum traces the scientific revolution in various sciences, including physics and medicine, and anyone who has studied e.g. mechanics will enjoy studying the experimental setups on display. And everyone will be horrified to see the surgical instruments on display. On exhibit is a reconstruction of the Leiden Anatomy Theater, originally constructed in 1593 and displaying various human and animal skeletons:

'In 1593 the University of Leiden was one of the first to build an anatomy theatre in Europe. It was constructed in a former church, which had fallen to the city of Leiden after the Reformation.

In the winter the professor of anatomy conducted public dissections of corpses. During the summer months there was no teaching and the theatre was turned into a kind of museum containing human and animal skeletons. There were also curiosities such as Egyptian mummies and Roman antiquities. It was a place where visitors could stand in amazement and ponder the transience of life.

In the 19th century the anatomy theatre closed down, leaving no trace. What you see here is an actual-size reconstruction of how it must have looked in about 1610, based on manuscripts and prints. The skeletons are also modern, but a few of the curiosities have survived.'

I noticed no mention of van Swieten anywhere, but popular vampires had, of course, set their mark, in this case on a bag on display in a shop window as seen below.

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