email a friend iconprinter friendly iconThe Name Giver
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Six years later, following Linnaeus's posthumous instructions, his widow sold his library, his manuscripts, and most of his collections to a buyer who would care for them well. That buyer, a young Englishman named James Edward Smith, founded a scientific society to receive the treasures and called it the Linnean Society of London (its spelling derived not from his original name but from the noble version, von Linné), where they lie protected in a basement vault but available in physical (and, soon, digitized) form to scholars. Linnaeus himself would approve; knowledge, he believed, is meant to be communicated and used.

Linnaeus's country home, Hammarby, remained in the family for a century and then was bought by the Swedish state to be made a museum. Although his house near the university in Uppsala has also been saved, and lately restored, Hammarby conveys a more vivid sense of his character, his foibles, his loneliest joys. Inside the old farmhouse, overlooking muddy crop fields, his collection of walking sticks is on display. So is the red skullcap he often wore over his short-cropped hair, in lieu of a formal wig. There are portraits of his four daughters, his son, and his pet monkey, in no particular order of fondness. His wife and he kept separate bedrooms at opposite ends of the second floor. His is tucked away, accessible only through another room that functioned as his study.

The bedroom, preserved much as he left it, contains a small curtained bed of the sort known in Sweden as a himmelssäng, a bed of heaven. Against the west wall is a wooden desk and, above it, a window. The walls are covered with flowers.

That is, they are wallpapered wildly from floor to ceiling with large floral images cut from books. The plants are robust, exuberant, some of them garish, some elegant, all suggesting fecundity and fruition: pineapple, banana, magnolia, lily, cactus, papaya, frangipani, and others. Many of these hand-colored engravings came from paintings by his old friend Georg Dionysius Ehret. Rare and magnificent, they would be collectibles in their own right, even absent the association with Linnaeus. But, once bright and crisp, they are now faded, smeary, streaked with the punishments of moisture and time. On the day I visited, accompanied by a botanical curator named Karin Martinsson, still another damp January chill hung in the air.

Linnaeus was warned that such damage would occur, but evidently he didn't care. He wanted the pictures around him. Never mind if they decayed. So what? His own body was doing that too.

Even now these antique prints could be peeled carefully off, Martinsson told me, and preserved under better conditions. But that's not going to happen. "Taking them down from the walls," she said, "would be like ripping the heart out of Hammarby." Left as is, the heart of the house reflects the heart of its original owner: full of plants. The pilgrims who visit this room during the tercentenary year—presumably there will be many, from around the world—can look at that improvised wallpaper and sense an important truth about the lifework of Carl Linnaeus.

It wasn't just about knowledge. It was about knowledge and love.

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