On permanent display in our Tapestry Gallery at any one time are 6 of the 12 volumes of 750 watercolors that constitute the Historia naturalis, an exquisitely illustrated encyclopedia of the world’s plants, animals, and birds. This extraordinary compendium—generously placed on long-term loan from a private collection—was compiled at the turn of the 17th century for Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II of Prague by his personal physician, the extraordinary late Renaissance polymath Anselmus de Boodt.
When Emperor Rudolf died, leaving many bills unpaid, the frustrated De Boodt took all 750 watercolors back to his native Bruges. In his will, he left them to two nephews, who were allowed to sell everything except the portfolios of drawings of “dieren, vogels, en bloemen” (“animals, birds, and flowers”). These, he instructed, were to remain together and pass to each generation’s male heir. They did just that for nearly two-and-a-half centuries. Since then, they have changed hands, other than by inheritance, only two other times!
If knowledge of God’s kingdom—every plant, bird, and animal—was the goal of the scholars at the intellectual Prague court, it is surprising to find dotted among the watercolors a few fantasy images of mythical beasts, including sea monsters, plants that grow out of snakes, and a dragon drawn from “the one in the possession of Rudolph.” Yet beware of seeing fantasy where there is none! The latest rotation includes what was previously described as an “unidentified plant” with little skulls. Yet the inscription, Antirrhinum, provided the clue to identifying the shrunken heads as the seedpods of the common snapdragon. The next rotation, scheduled for December 2019, will include another one of nature’s little jokes, an orchid with little green birds’ or ducks’ heads, which I was able to recognize as a Laughing Bumblebee Orchid (Ophrys bombyliflora).
— Jane Turner, Head of the Rijksprentenkabinet