Now a million-euro business with thousands of employees, the University of Amsterdam started out as a small academy with two lecturers. That academy, the Athenaeum Illustre, had humble premises in the Agnietenkapel on Oudezijds Voorburgwal; but its two pioneering lecturers, Caspar Barlaeus and Gerardus Vossius, revealed themselves to be academic heavyweights.
In 1632 they held their inaugural addresses. In his address, Vossius defended the utility of history. It was a subject in which he was passionately interested, but that was true of many things. The theologian, philologist and historian Gerardus Joannes Vossius (1577-1649) was what is known as a homo universalis – a very widely educated man. His publications spanned a large part of scholarship as it was at the time.
Back to the source
Vossius became one of the most important Dutch humanists. The rediscovery of classical literature had inspired a new academic approach: back to the source! But what was the most reliable version of a text, and how should it be published? Vossius had been trained in this new approach in Dordrecht and Leiden, and he continued to follow it in Amsterdam. He summarised his knowledge systematically in flawless Latin and ensured that it could all be used by the scholars of his day.
Vossius’s first publication had been a handbook on rhetoric. During his years in Leiden, there followed a few studies on the history of the church, a treatise on historiography and two dictionaries, among other things. In Amsterdam he really got into his stride. For example, he published a Latin grammar, a book on pagan ritual and a consideration on the purity of the Latin language. He also published no fewer than three books on the theory of the poetic arts.
A broad network
Vossius’s wide interests are not only evident from his publications, but also from the dozens of his manuscripts that have been preserved. They are real ‘working manuscripts’: you see a scholar deleting, improving and adding text while reading and studying. In addition, hundreds of letters to and from Vossius are kept at the Special Collections. They attest to the broad network that he had built up and the way in which that network was maintained. Vossius’s friends included Hugo Grotius and Pieter Cornelisz Hooft.
The University of Amsterdam possesses two seventeenth-century portraits of Vossius. The artists are unknown; one of the portraits is dated 1636. In addition, Vossius is immortalised, together with Caspar Barlaeus, in fraternal fashion, in a stained glass memorial window in the Agnietenkapel, made by Willem Bogtman in c. 1920.