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Jellyfish floating in glass tubes

A Catalog of What Was Lost in the Fire of Alexandria


Sir Thomas Browne took up the Renaissance preoccupation with the intellectual treasures lost in Alexandria, and built this extraordinary catalog of ghosts.

Even with the proliferation of digitized books and historical documents; the fact that we have at hand priceless works that had been buried under the dust; and that we can consult manuals of centuries past, it’s possible that we’re entering an era without memories.

In our present, information is so overwhelming that every day we try to conserve less: the technology for the reproduction of materials makes this a present continuous. Will we have access to the texts and images that we exchange and then forget because they are safe in ‘the cloud’? Maybe not. But we won’t miss them either precisely because when we change the way we perceive the past we change the way we tell the story. But the loss of books and artifacts, the loss of information, was catastrophic in the past, and we’d do well to remember that.

The Library of Alexandria burned in the first century AD and with it the vastest collection of irreplaceable and priceless objects that humanity has collected in History. Many Renaissance scholars devoted themselves to remembering what was lost. And if there was no record of something, then they’d simply invent what they thought was missing. Among these scholars was the great Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682).

Illustration of scholar Sir Thomas Browne

His vast knowledge in areas such as embryology, anatomy, ornithology, ancient history, literature, etymology, archeology and pharmacology (a true “Renaissance man”) perhaps made him particularly sensitive to these losses. Musaeum Clausum is a catalog/chimera on the loss of precious intellectual treasures. It’s a chimera somewhere between an actual record and a work of the imagination.

Painting of cabinet with paintings and historical artifacts.

Browne’s catalog, assembled with equal parts fervor and melancholy, speaks of fragmentation, of leisure and loss, but also of eccentricity and comedy. Among his papers is an “underwater section” showing the bottom of the Mediterranean and algae that grows there; another describes a moonlight battle between the Florentines and the Turks; others are “pieces of ice or snow” depicting an alien landscape inhabited by arctic creatures; the fire of Constantinople; still others are caricatures, portraits and even representations of the dogs of the Sultan Ahmed. Curiosities are even more peculiar: a ring found in the belly of a fish or a Homeric battle between frogs and mice clearly described in the jawbone of another fish.

Browne was a master of educated curiosity. He was attracted overall toward a philosophy of antiquities, and to any past and existing knowledge, resurrected and protected from the ravages of time and neglect. His goal was the restoration and repair of truth, and the Musaeum Clausum reads like a luminous evocation of what might have been in the collection of the Library of Alexandria had it not disappeared in the fire. In this book, as in none other, a pervasive feeling is that among the thousands of forgotten things, the ghosts of the inanimate are evoked.

Rescuing things from a fire, even an imaginary fire, has always been a human vice (or perhaps a lucky weakness). Its heyday was during the Renaissance, and Sir Thomas Browne left the best record of this extravagance. We may be entering an era without memories, but it will be worth exercising our faculty of memory, even if only to delay the imminent effect that a continuous present will have our way of telling the story.

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