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A preposterous mix? Willem Otterspeer covers the University’s history one more time

The biographer of Leiden University, Willem Otterspeer, has a new book out. In ‘De stad, de dood en de dichters’ (The City, Death and the Poets) he combines his love for the University and poetry with autobiographical reflections. ‘With my magnifying glass I discovered yet more new details in the prints.’

The joy of writing bursts from the 336 pages. In his characteristically thorough style, Otterspeer analyses the University to the core, serves up appetising details and rectifies historical mistakes while he’s at it. What did he want to add to the four substantial volumes on Leiden University – Groepsportret met dame (Group Portrait with Lady) – that he has already written? From an armchair in his attic office in the Academy Building, books right up to the ceiling, he says: ‘I felt the need to condense everything I knew about the University’s history and myself into one topic one more time: the four prints by Woudanus from 1610.’ These prints show the Hortus, the School of Fencing, the Anatomical Theatre and the Library.

What motivated the first founders?

De stad, de dood en de dichters begins and ends with autobiographical reflections. Otterspeer studied history and philosophy in Utrecht in 1975 and was not planning on coming to Leiden at all. That was until he visited an exhibition at the Rijksmuseum on four centuries of Leiden University. ‘It was love at first sight with these four prints. That was the beginning of my fascination with Leiden University. I love the collecting culture that is so clearly visible on these prints that depict curiosities like exotic animals, plants and shells.’

Anatomical Theatre, engraving by Willem Issacsz. van Swanenburgh after Johannes Woudanus (first ed. 1610). Leiden University Library

Preposterous mix

Otterspeer retired six years ago. One question he had not fully answered in all those years was what really motivated the first university administrators. Why did they commission prints with all these curiosities? Did they see a link or was it a ‘preposterous mix’ – as anatomical pathologist Tom Barge termed the inventory of the anatomical theatre almost a century ago? Otterspeer: ‘I wanted to find out what the thoughts of the first founders were. Only in recent years did it dawn on me: Jan van Hout and Janus Dousa, the founders of the first university institutions, were both poets and they were inspired by the 14th-century Italian poet Petrarca. It was Petrarca’s way of thinking and poetry – associative and comparative, contrasting and expressive – that inspired them and that they translated into institutions that capture the imagination. The city had to start afresh after the devastating siege and they did so by starting a new university. In my previous works I did not know quite what the motivation behind this was. That turned out to be academic creativity and creative interaction between the city and university.’

The key holder, on the right by the balustrade, with four keys.

Discovering details with a magnifying glass

Such insights didn’t come out of thin air. Although Otterspeer has known these prints for almost half a century, he still occasionally grabs his magnifying glass to study them more closely. ‘This is how I’ve discovered new details in recent years. For instance, in the anatomy print the claviger, the key holder, has four keys in his hand. I think this is another nod to the four prints and the four institutions and that you have to see them in their context.’ But others have also made new discoveries in recent years. ‘A wonderful dissertation by Gregory Grämiger has been published. He discovered that Carolus Clusius planted his plants in the Hortus in a rhyming scheme. I could put that to good use in this book about the relationship with poetry. New discoveries can suddenly place the subject in a new context: you suddenly see new patterns and symmetry.’


Speaking of patterns: connoisseurs of his work will notice that he sometimes reverts to beautiful phrasings that he already used in Bolwerk van de vrijheid (Bastion of Freedom), his first volume of Groepsportret met dame. Like his description of the ‘beautiful but strange’ foundation day on 8 February 1575 and his evocative and sensory description of the inauguration procession. Is this book a kind of luxury selection of truffles from his own work? ‘Yes, that’s one way of putting it. But I mainly quote the truffles of others. There are hundreds of hidden references to other authors in this book, exactly as Lipsius and all those other writers featured in it did. With these little quotations of myself, I show I am part of a tradition. It has become a kind of Bildungsroman.’

De stad, de dood en de dichters, Prometheus Publishers

Text: Linda van Putten

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