On the trail of Isaac Vossius

This week sees publication in EMLO of the correspondence of the Dutch philologist, manuscript collector, and polymath Isaac Vossius. Son of the eminent scholar G. J. Vossius and his second wife, Elisabeth Junius, Isaac amassed over the course of a lifetime what was considered to be one of the era’s greatest collections of books and manuscripts and, ultimately, his collection was bought in 1710 for the sum of 36,000 florins by the University of Leiden, where it resides today.

EMLO’s catalogue of Isaac Vossius’s correspondence, containing 1,702 letters in total, was pieced together by Cultures of Knowledge’s Postdoctoral Fellow Robin Buning, largely on the basis of his research in three archives: Amsterdam University Library, Leiden University Library, and Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The letters encompass the full spectrum of Vossius’s interests: he published editions and commentaries on classical as well as contemporary authors; he conducted historical studies; he was regarded widely as an important scholar in ancient geography, patristics, and chronology. Although Isaac caused controversy with a series of treatises on the age of the earth, in later years he shifted his focus to mathematics and natural philosophy. A religious libertine, just prior to his death in Windsor in February 1689, Vossius is recorded as refusing the sacrament until the pleas of his fellow canons convinced him that this was something he should receive, if not for the good of his soul in the life hereafter, then at least for the sake of their reputation.


Detail from a etching by the circle of Romeyn de Hooghe, printed in a pamphlet entitled ‘Den Hollandschen Verre-Kyker’. 1671. (Source of image: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, obj. no. RP-P-OB-79.466)

Unfortunately we know nothing about Isaac Vossius’s appearance: no portrait is thought to survive. Of course it’s possible that an image will emerge, perhaps from his years spent at the court of Christina of Sweden, or from the last two decades of his life in England. It is conceivable also that a portrait or print depicting him exists but is mislabelled and lies tucked away masquerading as someone else. We can but hope. And, whilst on the subject of identifying people, EMLO users might be interested to note that we shall be posting shortly a list of early modern individuals for whom little information is available at present but about whom a scholar or project would like to know more. I shall write in a future blog about this ‘wanted list’, but in the meantime should anyone wish to add a name — or names — please be in touch and let me know. Details of those seeking information will not be made public and should fellow scholars be able and willing to help, responses will be forwarded straight to the scholar or project posting the name. For now enjoy Isaac Vossius, but please keep an eye open for his portrait! It would be good to meet him face to face.