Slovenia’s Legendary Renaissance Man – Janez Vajkard Valvasor

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Sure, with parents named Bartholomäus and Anna Maria Freiin von Rauber one can make the fairly accurate assumption that Janez Vajkard Valvasor wasn’t of pure Slavic blood. Born in Ljubljana in 1641, Janez was quite probably as Austrian as it got at that time, and as such doesn’t exactly fit the criteria for this little project. Still, this is my tome and I’ll cry if I want to, so swivel. The guy is arguably the most important natural historian in the history of Slovenia too, so ladies and gentlemen I present to you Janez Vajkard Valvasor.

We mentioned the being born in Ljubljana thing already, so we’ll pick it up from there. Janez was the 12th (yes, that is a twelve) child of those two mentioned above, although they were wealthy enough to pump those things out at will. We can’t exactly celebrate the birthday of Valvasor (which translates as ‘carrier of the feud’) as we don’t know the exact day on which he made his debut on the planet, but we do know that he was baptised on May 28th 1641 so let’s go with that. It wasn’t all bells and whistles for the guy however, as his Papa died when he was just 10. Mama went when he was 16.

After graduating from high school at the age of 17 Janez decided that he wasn’t interested in continuing his education in an academic setting, and decided instead to head off on his travels around the continent. His proto-interrail journey would last a whopping 14 years, including a couple of stints fighting wars for the Austrian Empire. His sojourn came to an end when he married the equally un-Slovene sounding Anna Rosina Grafenweger in 1672, at which point he acquired the splendid Bogenšperk Castle. Here he set up a copper-plate engraving press and printing shop, starting the odd business but mostly adding to his vast library and writing his own books.

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And boy did he write. Valvasor’s best known work is without doubt the wonderfully-titled ‘Glory of the Duchy of Carniola’, a 3532 page (spread over 15 volumes) love letter to Carniola that included a whopping 528 illustrations, 24 appendices and the first ever written description of a vampire in Europe (we dealt with that already). The tome showed off Valvasor’s credentials as a true polymath, covering history, geography, medicine, biology, topography, culture, folklore and a whole lot more. It was all meticulously researched, marking it out as something of a pioneering piece of work when it was published in 1689. You could say that it was the first great travelogue, but if you can sit down to read a 3000+ page book you’re a better individual than I.

This wasn’t the only book published by Janez of course. He wrote further books depicting the towns and castles of the region, going into more detail on Slovenia than anyone before or since with the possible exception of Yuri Barron, Will Dunn and James Cosier. Janez considered himself a baron, and was so highly respected that nobody bothered to stop and tell him he was getting a little carried away with such a title. In 1682 he also published a three-part book focusing on that most cheery subject of death, entitled ‘Theatrum Mortis Humanæ Tripartitum’. The first part of the book spoke of the dance of death, before the second dealt with ways of dying. The final instalment was a lovingly-compiled collection of pictures of folk being tortured by devils.

All of this publishing brought Janez hordes of debt however, and he was forced to sell Bogenšperk in order to ward off those after his knee-caps. He also had to flog his vast library of more than 10,000 books, his more than 8,000 valuable prints and his collection of mathematical instruments, minerals, fossils and old coins. Oh how he would have longed for a Kickstarter had he known what one was. Actually, Kickstarter, there’s a point…

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Janez Vajkard Valvasor would also become a fellow of the Royal Society in London in 1687, but that isn’t why he is so fondly remembered in Slovenia. He was the nation’s first great natural historian, a rich dude who spent his entire life trying to get other people to understand the true wonder of the land, his pleas falling on death ears in his time before everyone eventually began waking up to the natural glory of Slovenia. He was a Slovene historiographer before that was even a thing, the main source for olde Slovene history and a damn fine soldier to boot. He died in Krško in 1693, aged just 52 years old.

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