By Sonia Brodi (University of Florence)
The zoological museum “La Specola” is the oldest science museum in Europe and is one of the six departments of the Natural Sciences Museum of Florence. It is still located in Palazzo Torrigiani (on via Romana 17, near Palazzo Pitti), the original seat of the Imperial and Royal Museum of Physics and Natural History, founded in 1775 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany Pietro Leopoldo; the Museum was, just as it is today, open to the curious eyes of the public.
The name, La Specola, was derived from the construction of an octagonal astronomical observatory (specula in latin means observatory), which was commissioned by the Gran Duke and which is still present in the highest part of the building. In the entire complex we can find: the rich zoological and anatomical collection, the impressive Room of the Skeletons, the garden, the library of animal biology, the zoology laboratory, the Tribune of Galileo, and two temporary exhibits, one of which displays minerals from the Giazotto collection, and the other, which is curated by Cristina Conticelli, Stacy Hopkins, Filippo Buratti, and Giovanni Maffucci, and is on graphic design, drawings, and jewelry inspired by the world of insects. The Tribune of Galileo was constructed in honor of the scientist in 1841 in a Neoclassical style: harmonious, balanced and geometric. Walls, pendentives, vaults, and pavements are all completely covered in decoration, ranging from paintings, to marble, to chandeliers, to busts. In the interior, there is, additionally, a sculpture representing the standing figure of Galileo, carved by Aristodemo Costoli.
Clearly, the part of the visit that occupies the most time is that dedicated to the permanent collection on the second floor, which holds numerous specimens of animals from around the world, as well as anatomical reconstructions in wax. There are 34 exhibition rooms, and all are numbered: 24 for zoology and 10 for the wax models. Passing the ticket desk and the bookshop, you enter into a world, which is, at the same time, both silent and apparently connected to life. You receive the impression of being Phileas Fogg, as you travel from one country to another, from one habitat to another, from sea to land. Imagination and curiosity soar. The specimens are conserved in wood and glass cabinets, subdivided by species and each one possessing its own label. At the beginning, we find coral, crabs, starfish, and large shells. Additionally, in a little cabinet, there are some pieces from the Medicean collections of natural treasures, such as shells that were either transformed into cameos, or that functioned as cups and saltcellars, for they boasted refined metal settings. Following this, there is a myriad of colorful butterflies and insects of every kind: particularly sensational are those that in order to camouflage themselves, they appear as leaves, bark, branches, and thorns! Furthermore, in an intriguing cabinet, there is a reproduction of a house, in which all of our probable, unexpected, unwanted, and minuscule “co-inhabitants” are identified.
From the VIII room, the specimens change in both type and size: we encounter large herbivores and carnivores. Lining up before our eyes are gazelles, otters, jaguars, dibatags, hyenas, zebras, manatees, reindeer, gorillas, kangaroos, armadillos, sloths, and many others. Particularly impressive are the largesse of a rhinoceros and of a walrus, and the majesty of a tiger and a lion, accompanied by a lioness and cubs. The realism obtained by the expression and the posture of certain animals is exciting and sometimes almost frightening. A famous object in the collection, related to the city of Florence, is the hippopotamus of room X, which is traditionally believed to have lived in the menagerie of the Boboli Gardens around the end of the XVII century: one can clearly see the mark left by the rope that held it.
In room XVI, the numerous specimens of birds, from those most known and familiar, to those lesser known such as pelicans, ostriches, emus, griffins, a bearded vulture, etc. We find also eggs, nests, and an interactive game that allows you to listen to and identify various bird songs. Other animals that impress me, and that one does not meet with every day, were the crocodiles, caymans, two giant tortoises from the Galapagos Islands that sit back to back in the center of the room, and the various specimens of sharks, terrifying even though they are taxidermied!
The remaining rooms contain drawings, plaster casts, and the wax anatomical models created between the end of the VIII century and the beginning of the XIX century. One can not wander through these rooms without stupor and without a minimum of repulsion, especially for the most impressionable ones. They are represented accurately in regards to the muscles, nerves, organs, and bones, and this is not only true for the human models, but also for the various studies of animals. More over, one room is completely dedicated to maternity.
Now, however, I would like to talk about the not to be missed exhibit of minerals on the first floor, showcasing the Giazotto collection, and that has been extended until June 30, 2012. there are 500 specimens from mines from all over the world: South Africa, Brazil, Afghanistan, China, etc. In a sort of anteroom, we are welcomed by an enormous amethyst originating from Bolivia, and by an introduction to the exhibit. As soon as you move the heavy curtain aside, you seem to enter into a Wunderkammer, surrounded by a wonder of diverse colors that jump out from the black background. The lights and the reflections of the crystals make the vision even more intriguing and enchanting; by looking at the mirrors or by concentrating your sight on one of the minerals, you meet with a kaleidoscopic vision. In the next room, there are two films that illustrate the extraction of the minerals, which is the expensive and difficult work that is behind the objects that we can comfortably see in a museum. it is incredible to admire the perfection and the geometry of nature that is apparent in this involved display of rubies, quartz, emeralds, topazes, and sapphires. Any image or photograph cannot perfectly render the colors and the magic of this exhibit. I strongly recommend this museum for the richness and the diversity of the objects displayed; in addition, I would like to emphasize that students from the University of Florence receive free entry!
For more information, see the museum’s website: http://www.msn.unifi.it/mdswitch.html