237 Scholar in a Polish study

The Jagiellonian University in Kraków, one of the oldest in Europe, has a museum of scientific instruments and works of art in the picturesque, fortress-like Collegium Maius. This summer it is holding an exhibition of both kinds of objects, in a display called The scholar and his study. A good opportunity to see artists and scientists taking on their respective unequal challenges, and a good excuse, for those who need one, to visit Kraków.

The Jagiellonian University in Kraków, founded in 1364, is about the same age as New College, Oxford. It has quite a different atmosphere, though. Instead of the open quads of Oxford, modelled on monastery grounds, the Collegium Maius of the Jagiellonian University is more like a keep, a small version of Wawel Castle, which towers above it. The fortified gate is a reminder that intellectual freedom has to be protected and sometimes fought for.

Like every university, the Jagiellonian has accumulated scientific, cultural and artistic treasures in the course of its history, and like every university it tended to treat these collections more like obsolete working materials than the precious objects that they are. It takes an academic mover and shaker with vision to found a worthy university museum, and Kraków fortunately produced such a personality in the mid-20th century, the art historian Karol Estreicher. Thanks to him, the Collegium Maius was restored to look the way it did when Nicholas Copernicus studied there at the end of the 15th century, tooling up to launch the heliocentric theory of the universe. Estreicher converted most of the building into a museum, although enough classes are still given there to make sure that there are always students in the courtyard.

Johan Michael Bretschneider, In the scholars' study, Wroclaw

Johann Michael Bretschneider (1656-1727), In the scholars’ study. Wrocław, National Museum in Wrocław

Johan Michael Bretschneider, Scholars in a study, Poznan

Johann Michael Bretschneider (1656-1727), Scholars in a study. Poznan, National Museum in Poznan

This summer, until 25 August, the museum is holding a mixed exhibition of paintings from all over Poland and scientific instruments from its own holdings under the title The scholar and his study. It is a wonderful illustration of humanity trying to outdo itself. The scientists are attempting, with beautifully wrought but totally inadequate instruments, to measure celestial distances and determine the composition of chemical compounds. The artists try to suggest the meaning of scientific work they do not really understand. My favorite entries in the catalogue are a pair of paintings by Johann Michael Bretschneider (1656-1727) of scholars in large, messy studies that are overfull with documents, pictures and open books. The scholars are obviously terminal victims of information overload, but they nonetheless study gamely on. The paintings also suggest that despite all their brave talk of studying nature directly and questioning the value of established authority, scholars and scientists still derive most of their knowledge from books.

The provenance of the Bretschneider paintings, which were bought by the Prussian state in 1829, when Silesia, in western Poland, was part of Prussia, brings the nostalgic and cruel history of this part of Central Europe to life. The canvases moved from one institution in Wrocław (Breslau) to another, from the Silesian Society of Native Culture, which displayed its collections in the stock exchange, to the Picture Gallery of the House of the Estates of Silesia to the Schlesisches Museum der bildenden Künste, where "the paintings were omitted from all of the six editions of the museum’s catalogue." One of them was moved after the war by the Communist Ministry of Culture to Poznan; the other painting, still in Wrocław, is now published, a bit apologetically, for the first time since 1863.

If you have a weakness for the cultural history of science, you should fly up and back to Kraków this summer. (SkyEurope has direct flights from Amsterdam a few times a week.) Take three or four extra days for the rest of Kraków, which is one of the most charming cities in Europe. If you do follow this excellent advice, I have one request. Do not tell anyone in Poland that the Biblical version of creation is taught in biology class in Dutch high schools, as I learned to my horror last week. Copernicus would turn over in his grave.


© Gary Schwartz 2005. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 2 July 2005

30 June was my last day as director of CODART. From now on, I am semi-retired. As it happened, that day there was a reception at the Royal Palace in Amsterdam for the opening of the summer exhibition, Stadhuis van Oranje, where Loekie and I had a chance to exchange a few words with the queen. Afterwards, Ronald de Leeuw invited us to the spectacular house he shares with Gerlof Jansen and then to an impromptu dinner for four. Chatting first with the queen and then with the director of the Rijksmuseum about CODART and about retirement was a pretty classy way of ending my last day on the job. It helped to ease whatever pain I might otherwise have felt about being sent off into retirement at 65.

All that painful it isn’t, I must say. I am continuing to work for CODART as webmaster for two days a week, and I have enough projects for the rest of the week to fill my time even if I live as long as the oldest person in the world, Hendrikje (Henny) van Andel-Schipper of Smilde, who turned 115 last week. At least as important is the satisfying feeling that I am leaving behind a solid institution, and leaving it in good hands.

The column that would otherwise have appeared in two weeks is being skipped by Het Financieele Dagblad. The next installment will come out four weeks from now. I’m not complaining. Now I can use the month of July, during which I am on vacation from CODART, to emerge from my own study with a manuscript of the Rembrandt book that Mercatorfonds is publishing next year. Have a good summer.

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