Origin of the Museum and its development in the Age of the Enlightenment
The Imperial and Royal Museum of Physics and Natural History was established in 1775 by Grand Duke Peter Leopold of Lorraine and was one of the first museums in Europe to open to the public and the first to present nature in its entirety.
The idea to gather in a single location the “natural products” present in the Uffizi Gallery dates to 1763, when the Florentine naturalist and scientist Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti compiled the first catalogue of all the naturalistic specimens in the Gallery on behalf of the grand-ducal government.
The arrival in Florence of the young Grand Duke Peter Leopold of Lorraine in 1765 led to the museum project to create a “Palace of Science” where collections related to all the scientific disciplines would be organized in a unified manner according to an exhibition design passing from the earth to the sky. The scientific development was entrusted to the Trentine naturalist Felice Fontana.
The site of the nascent museum had to be the noble Palazzo Torrigiani (purchased in 1771) in Via Romana which was close to the Grand Duke’s residence Palazzo Pitti. The complex restructuring of the building was entrusted to the architect Gasparo Maria Paoletti.
When the museum opened in 1775, it contained a rich collection of naturalistic specimens classified according to the Linnaean system.
A large space was dedicated to the display of scientific instruments, especially those of experimental physics which were used to demonstrate the basic laws of Galilean and Newtonian mechanics. There was also a large collection of physics machines, some of them designed by Fontana himself and made by the young craftsmen trained in the museum.
The ancient physics instruments from the Medici collections also found a place in the museum: ornate astrolabes, solar and nocturnal clocks, compasses, drawing tools and the instruments that had belonged to Galileo, as well as the collection of scientific glassware (especially thermometers, barometers and aerometers) associated with the activities of the Cimento Academy. These objects are now housed in the Galileo Museum.
The museum itinerary ended with the stairs leading to the “Torrino”, the astronomical observatory better known as La Specola which began operations in 1807. A Botanical Garden was created for the study of botany and was later expanded to include part of the Boboli Gardens.
The visibility and the careful positioning of the objects constituted the teaching tools that allowed self-study. The collections were meant not merely to satisfy the “curiosity of the people” nor to serve only their owner, but were to be used for “true education and public utility”. The specimens had to be “made to speak for themselves” so that each visitor could “know all by himself, without a teacher”. Thus, according to the intentions of Diderot and D’Alambert, science was placed at the service of actions aimed at improving the living conditions of the population and consequently the economy of the Grand Duchy.
The success following the Museum’s inauguration and the interest shown by foreign scientists prompted Peter Leopold to finance a trip to France and England by Fontana and his assistant Giovanni Fabbroni. This mission, which ended in 1779, allowed them to establish a strong network of relationships not only with leading scholars but also with the makers of scientific instruments. Hence it became necessary to expand the available spaces to make room for the scientific instruments coming from England and the chemistry laboratory was also enlarged.
Felice Fontana then became completely absorbed in the creation of the extraordinary collection of wax models. The most challenging part was the construction of the human anatomical models illustrating the entire body: the muscles, the internal organs, the anatomy of the eye, ear, nose and heart. Botanical waxes or “artificial plants”, true masterpieces of manual art, were made so that the plants would be available all year round for teaching purposes.
The wax model collection was accompanied by very colourful mixed media panels designed as explanatory treatises for the individual preparations. As confirmation of their teaching purposes, the illustrations were provided with numbers referring to explanatory sheets kept inside small metal drawers placed under the display cases and available to the visitors.
The great success of the Museum is evident from the impressive number of visitors, with more than 7000 in the first year of opening. The Museum was open from 08:00 to 13:00 for “the people of the city and countryside who may enter as long as they are neatly dressed”. The visitors included a surprising number of women (about 30%), which provides a socially and historically important perspective.
The Museum was a must for foreign travellers, a true tourist attraction: the Guides to the City of Florence in the late 18th century used by those taking the Grand Tour suggested a visit to the Museum to observe the world and man in the light of new scientific discoveries.
The events that shook Europe at the end of the 18th century also had serious consequences on the management of the Museum. Ferdinand III of Lorraine left the Grand Duchy of Tuscany upon the arrival of Napoleon’s troops. In 1807 the new government established the Lyceum of Physical and Natural Sciences within the Museum, creating six chairs (astronomy, physics, chemistry, mineralogy and zoology, botany and comparative anatomy). The museum collections were annexed to the respective departments and became a support for teaching, thus marking the end of the Enlightenment vision of the Museum inspired by the unity of knowledge.
End of the Enlightenment vision, the Museum becomes ever more “specialized”
The Lyceum experiment ended after the restoration of the Lorraine government in 1814 and the Museum was destined to become a place of “private pleasure” of the Grand Duke. The “Poccianti Corridor” (named after the architect Pasquale Poccianti) was built around 1820 and connected the Grand Duke’s residence Palazzo Pitti with the Museum. It is the southward continuation of the Vasari Corridor which passes from Palazzo Vecchio through the Uffizi to Palazzo Pitti, creating a raised walkway unique in the world that connects art and science.
In 1829 the appointment of Vincenzo Antinori as Director provided the Museum with the opportunity to return to being at the service of science and public education. The birth of new disciplines studying the distribution of animal and plant species in various geographical areas led to a strong increase in the zoological and botanical collections, necessitating a new distribution of the spaces in Palazzo Torrigiani. The “enlightened favour” of Grand Duke Leopold II toward the natural sciences led to the organization in Tuscany of congresses of Italian scientists long before Italian unification. The III Congress of Italian Scientists was held in the Museum In 1841 and that occasion saw the inauguration of the Galileo Tribune, the secular temple dedicated to the great scientist. The Congress agreed on the proposal by the Palermitan botanist Filippo Parlatore for the establishment of a Central Herbarium to gather in one place the Italian local flora and thus favour the exchange of scientific knowledge and specimens. Lodovico Pasini proposed the similar formation of a Central Collection of Italian Minerals and Rocks but it was never realized.
The end of Antinori’s directorship in 1859 coincided with major political upheavals: the fall of the Lorraines, the provisional Tuscan government and the Second War of Independence which initiated the events leading to Italian unification. The Institute of Advanced Studies was founded in Florence in the same year. The Sciences section was established in the Museum, which thus became not only a place of public use of the specimens but also a research laboratory. Teaching took on increasing importance and the museum collections were entrusted to the professors of the respective disciplines.
Under the direction of Cosimo Ridolfi (1860-1865), the Museum played an important role in the large national and universal expositions whose purposes were to present the products of industry, agriculture, crafts and nature to the general public.
The subsequent directorship of the physicist Carlo Matteucci until 1868 caused the Museum many difficulties. Indeed Matteucci, a supporter of the experimental disciplines, was highly critical of the cost of maintaining the natural history collections and the lack of suitable space for research in the La Specola building.
At the end of the 19th century, many of the collections housed in La Specola were transferred to other premises
Thus began the dispersion of the various teaching courses: disciplines such as chemistry and physics felt increasingly distant from the natural sciences, even though they all had the common denominator of the strong trend towards specialization; the naturalist had become either a zoologist or a botanist or a geologist or a mineralogist and he demanded both scientific and administrative independence but above all new spaces. The concept of the unitary museum was in decline and there began a period of some 20 years in which the collections were transferred to various Florentine buildings. In 1872, astronomy became the first discipline to have its museum collection moved away from La Specola, in this case to the new Arcetri Observatory.
When Filippo Parlatore died in 1877, the Museum no longer had a director and the collections were affiliated to the various scientific institutes. The Zoological Museum remained at La Specola, while the Laboratories of Geology and Palaeontology and of Mineralogy with their respective collections were moved in 1880 to the Piazza San Marco area where they are found today. The Institutes of Chemistry and Physics were moved to premises in Via Gino Capponi.
The Museum of Anthropology, founded by Paolo Mantegazza in 1869, was moved to its definitive site in Palazzo Nonfinito in 1932, while the story of the Garden of Simples (presently the Botanical Garden) is very complex. Founded in 1545 by Cosimo I de’ Medici, it experienced periods of splendour alternating with periods of decline related to its various uses. In 1880 it was assigned to the Institute of Advanced Studies and under the direction of Teodoro Caruel the plants of the Botanical Garden of La Specola were gradually transferred to the present-day site which was completed in 1905.
In 1930 the collections of ancient instruments of Physics and Astronomy were transferred from La Specola to the Institute and Museum of the History of Science, presently the Galileo Museum.
During the 20th century, the Museum underwent a constant decline that can be attributed to excessive reductionism, i.e. the thorough study of ever smaller parts of natural objects which however lost sight of the specimen as a whole. Thus the museum, as a collection of objects, became less important, becoming instead a burden requiring funds and personnel for its maintenance and occupying too much space for the exhibition areas and storerooms. The collections were no longer increased and many rooms were used to house the laboratories and lecture halls required for the growing student population.
The rebirth of the Museum
The rebirth of the museum began in the 1970s thanks to the renewed sensitivity to nature and the environment around us. There was the realization that the Earth does not have infinite resources and all its essential components must be protected. The naturalistic specimens that were deemed unnecessary became once again a key element for study, comparison and learning.
In 1971 the Lyncean Academy proposed the establishment of the “National Museum of Natural History” indicating Florence as the site since the Academy recognized the absolute pre-eminence of the naturalistic collections of our Museum within the Italian museum world.
In 1984 the University of Florence decided on the reunification of scientific collections and established the “Museum of Natural History of the University of Florence”. Curzio Cipriani was the museum director until 2003 and those 20 years saw the revival of the Museum, an expansion of the collections and a greater attention to teaching, not only for university students but also for those of elementary and high schools.
The project for an Italian National Museum took form at the end of the 1980s and the University of Florence, the owner of the collections, stated that it would be honoured to make its collections (anthropological and ethnographic, botanical, geo-palaeontological, mineralogical and zoological) available to the proposed institution. The Municipality of Florence indicated the zone of the former slaughterhouses (ex-Macelli area) as the site of the new museum and the Ministry of University Education set aside funds for the project. Unfortunately, despite the good prospects, the project was never realized. Over the next decade, the strong development of the University of Florence saw the creation of the scientific complex at Sesto Fiorentino and that of the Economics and Law Departments in the Novoli district. Hence various ideas were presented for the construction of new premises for the Museum which would have allowed the reunification of part of its collections. Unfortunately, these projects never came to fruition. At the end of Cipriano’s directorship, the University, in accordance with the new Code of Cultural and Landscape Heritage, revised the regulations of the Museum, which up to then had been managed as a federation with six sections each with its own funding and personnel. Giovanni Pratesi became the new president of the Museum while the museum administration was temporarily entrusted to some University managers. During Pratesi’s two terms, the Museum experienced a extraordinary revival and the number of visitors grew exponentially. The creation of the Educational Services resulted in an expansion of the educational programs for schools of all levels and for the general public.
Present and future
The current president of the Museum is Guido Chelazzi. The recent transfer and merger of some University departments has allowed the recovery of vast spaces in the La Specola building which the University has allocated to museum activities. This will allow the initiation of a process that should finally result in the transfer of some important collections from Piazza San Marco to La Specola: the first will be the botanical wax models followed by the mineralogy collections.