Natural history museum La Specola zoology section
La Specola Museum is one of the sections of the Natural History Museum of the University of Florence. The museum is located in Palazzo Torrigiani, in via Romana 17 in Florence. Right here, in the former Bini palace, the Royal Museum of Physics and Natural History was established in 1775, of which the Specola Museum is the direct heir. When that museum was closed, the zoology and anatomical sections remained here, while the other collections flowed into other museums. The name La Specola derives from the observatory built by the Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo on the roof of the building.
The first 6 rooms of the zoological collection are dedicated to invertebrates, specifically porifers and coelenterates, molluscs (with pearly objects from the Medici collections), arthropods, worms and echinoderms. There are two rooms dedicated to reptiles with an exhibition of turtles and crocodiles (including some giant specimens from the Galapagos and a mummified crocodile from ancient Egypt), amphibians and scales. There follow the two rooms dedicated to fish and the 5 rooms on birds where there is a practically complete collection of Italian avian fauna. It closes with the section dedicated to mammals.
The two most particular and interesting pieces of the collection dedicated to mammals are a rare specimen of white rhinoceros and the so-called “Boboli hippopotamus” which, as the name implies, lived for a few years in the Boboli Gardens after being given to the Grand Duke of Tuscany in the second half of the eighteenth century. At the time no one in Florence had ever seen a hippopotamus, so the stuffer made extensive use of imagination in modeling the body of the animal to which he made paws similar to those of a dog.
Here there are also many hunting trophies, now exhibited in the Hall of the “Conte di Torino”, which were donated to the museum by the Savoy family. In total, the La Specola Museum has over three and a half million animals, but of these only a small fraction, about five thousand (however not a few!), Are exposed to the public. Numerous extinct and other endangered animals are also found here. Among these are the African wild ass, the aye-aye, the thylacine (definitively extinct in Tasmania in the 1930s), the great auk, the migratory columbus and the Carolina parakeet.
Anatomical wax collection
Among the numerous collections of the Museo della Specola, the most valuable is probably the anatomical one. This is a unique collection in the world for its antiquity and vastness. There is something similar only in Vienna, where however we find pieces made by the same Florentine artisans who created the works of the Specola.
All the pieces in this collection were made between 1771 and the mid-nineteenth century. At that time anatomy was taught and learned using corpses to be dissected, but the Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo, known for being an enlightened ruler, together with the director of the museum Felice Fontana, decided to replace the corpses with statues and wax models in able to faithfully reproduce the human body.
About 1400 of these extraordinary models were made by various modelers such as Clemente Susini, Francesco Calenzuoli and Luigi Calamai, who in the work were joined by anatomists such as Egisto Tortori, Tommaso Bonicoli, Filippo Uccelli and Paolo Mascagni.
Only a part of the anatomical waxes of the Specola are exposed to the public; some are located in the Faculty of Medicine in Careggi, others in the Galileo Museum. The rooms where the waxes are located are kept at a constant temperature of 18 degrees in order to guarantee perfect conservation and avoid damage to the material. This collection also has its “strong” pieces. Among these stand out some whole figures such as that of the so-called “Spellato“, a whole body made without skin, with muscles and blood vessels in sight.
The procedure used to create these wax models is also interesting. At the base of the whole procedure were the corpses of the Santa Maria Nuova hospital from which clay models were made first and then plaster casts. These plaster casts were finally filled with a mixture of waxes, resins and dyes whose exact composition is still unknown today.
In the same section we also find the models of pathological anatomy which represent an exceptional testimony of what the health conditions were in Florence in the years around the end of the eighteenth century. Do not miss the so-called Waxes of the plague, small representations by the Sicilian ceroplast Gaetano Giulio Zumbo. Less “scientific” than the others, these waxes are very suggestive for the seventeenth-century way in which the horrors of the plague and the decay of bodies plagued by disease are portrayed.
The Specola museum also houses a small late-neoclassical jewel by Giuseppe Martelli, which however is only open on special occasions. This is the so-called Galileo’s Tribune, commissioned by Grand Duke Leopold II of Lorraine for the third Congress of Italian Scientists in 1841. Dedicated to the great Pisan astronomer, the tribune is a sort of scientific mausoleum, where you can admire some paintings dedicated to scientific knowledge in addition to the statue of Galileo. In 1998 Galileo’s Tribune hosted Viaggio nel cosmo, a documentary TV series conducted by the great science communicator Piero Angela.
Hall of skeletons
Another environment of great impact is the Hall of Skeletons, which houses the bone structures of many animal species, among which we find elephants, a sperm whale and a humpback whale, which among other things is the largest among all those that exist. can be admired in an Italian museum. In the display cases on the sides there are various complete skeletons of birds, fish, reptiles and mammals, including humans.
Born at the end of the eighteenth century as an astronomical observatory, the Specola tower is composed of various rooms such as the Sala della Meridiana and the Sala Superiore Ottagona which were used for observing the stars and the sky. Inside, various objects from the Medici collections are exhibited, wax botanical models, some sheets from the Central and Cesalpino Herbarium and two painted canvases by Bartolomeo Bimbi.
The exhibition “Mineraliter. Pietre mirabili tra Medici e Natura” proposes a journey to discover the world of stones and minerals. Some of the pieces on display come from the Medici collections while others come from various Italian regions and the rest of the world.
La Specola Museum: opening hours and prices
Currently the Specola museum is not open to the public and therefore cannot be visited. This is because the museum is currently undergoing restoration and refurbishment. The redevelopment work began in September 2019 and the reopening of the Specola is scheduled for summer 2023.