Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Bodies in Florence

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Bodies in Florence

Article excerpt

Sometimes it's nice to have a second chance. In 2007, I spent several days in Florence, but never got around to visiting the Zoological Museum. I have to admit to getting sidetracked by the art, of which there is a great deal in Florence, to say the least. By one estimate, 20% of the great art in the world is in Florence. In 2008, I could only spend a day in the city, but I did manage to visit the Zoological Museum which is also called "La Specola" or The Observatory, because of the astronomical observatory which was part of the site until the late 19th century (Poggesi, 1994). As with so much of Italy, this museum has a long history. It was established in 1771, but the beginning of its collections goes back to the time of the Medici family in the 16th century. It opened to the public in 1775 in a renovated palazzo and was originally called the Museum of Physics and Natural History. Over the years, many of its holdings, such as those relating to Galileo who was born in Florence, have been moved to other sites.

All that remains at La Specola are the zoological and anatomical collections, much of which date back to the early years of the museum. This is what makes the site so special. Walking into it is like walking into a 19th-century exhibition space. The first room, with an ornate ceiling befitting a palazzo, is devoted to invertebrates, most displayed in glass jars filled with preservative. Hanging alongside them are prints of Ernst Haeckel's illustrations of the same species from his Art Forms in Nature (1904), another slice of biological history. After a couple of rooms of invertebrates, I walked into a stunning room of large wood-trimmed glass cases filled with mounts of mammals. This reminded me of some of the rooms in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard which also has old-style exhibits. There are obviously problems with this kind of display--there is no overarching theme relating the specimens, and little information presented about them. Yet, they are lovely and I'm glad some of them still exist as a reminder of how the 19th century viewed the living world. After several mammal rooms, there's an area which has obviously been updated, with two dioramas depicting African habitats and a display on African ecology. This is just about the only intrusion of the 20th century into La Specola.

This room is followed by more mammals, then five rooms filled, really filled, with birds. Next come the reptiles. By this time, I was beginning to worry that what I had come to the museum to see, wasn't there. Maybe I was mistaken and was in the wrong place. After the reptiles came fish, including some in a beautiful wood-trimmed glass case with an arched top--it would look great in someone's dining room. After the fish, I finally got my first glimpse of the wax anatomical models I was looking for, and I could immediately appreciate why the museum is organized the way it is. These models are obviously the glory of La Specola and the best has been saved for last.

Wax Models

The first director of the museum was Felice Fontana, a chemist and physiologist who had a wax modeling workshop set up even before the museum opened. For about 100 years, this facility produced the most accurate and exquisite anatomical models ever made. There are over 900 of them on display at the museum today. This was the first thing that surprised me, just the sheer number of models. There are seven rooms full of them. They range from entire bodies to single organs or organ parts. I know it's trite to say that pictures just don't do them justice, but here, this is very true. I've seen numerous photos of these models, particularly in Encyclopaedia Anatomica (During & Poggesi, 2001) which is devoted to the collection, but these just cannot convey the realism and artistry displayed here. And if pictures can't communicate adequately, then my words certainly won't either. However, I can't stop myself; I found the whole experience so exciting that I have to share it. …

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