The "Enlightened" Museum
On 21 February 1775 the Grand Duke Peter Leopold of Lorraine established the Imperial and Royal Museum of Physics and Natural History, the first naturalistic museum to be open to the public and, at the same time, the first to present nature in its entirety. Visitors could go from the earth (mineralogy) to the sky (astronomy) walking through anthropology, botany and zoology.
The idea of gathering in one place the "natural productions" present at the Uffizi dates back to 1763, when the Florentine naturalist and scientist Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti, on behalf of the grand-ducal government, prepared the first catalogue of all the naturalistic findings in the Gallery. In 1765 with the arrival in Florence of the young Grand Duke Peter Leopold came to life the museum project that lead to the creation of the "Palazzo della Scienza", the noble Palazzo Torrigiani where it still has its headquarters the "La Specola" section of the Museum. The building was purchased in 1771 and renovated in four years by the architect Gasparo Maria Paoletti.
As its first director, Felice Fontana, a naturalist from Trentino, wrote: "this emerging museum embraces not only all of nature in its widest range but also all that which is most beautiful, most useful and ingenious that men have known to find or imagine great".
A large space was dedicated to the exhibition of scientific and experimental physics instruments from the Medici collections and Fontana himself designed machinery and tools made by young artisans who were specially trained within the museum. The Royal Museum could also count on an impressive collection of naturalistic products to be displayed for visitors, mineralogical finds, fossils, monstrous specimens but also plants and flowers in the garden inside the Palace. The six rooms dedicated to the wax anatomy models presented the entire human body: the muscles, the internal organs, the anatomy of the eye, the ear, the nose and the heart. After 1780 Fontana engaged himself in the hard work of constructing artificial plants made out of wax. The museum visiting itinerary concluded with the stairs leading to the Torrino, the astronomical observatory better known as Specola, which was really operative from 1807 onwards.
The collections should not only satisfy the "curiosity of the people or serve its owner but must be directed towards true education and to the benefit of the public". The specimens had to "speak for themselves" so that everyone could "know everything just by themselves, without a professor".
As Diderot and D'Alembert had hoped, science was put at the service of improving the living conditions of the population of the Grand Duchy. For example, the collection of wax models was accompanied by tables made in mixed technique, very colourful, designed as an explanatory treatise to individual preparations: the drawings were provided with numerical references that referred to sheets of explanations, available to visitors in small metal drawers placed underneath the display cases.
Fontana's great dream, the establishment of an Academy of Sciences inside the Museum, shattered against the will of Peter Leopold. Nonetheless, the Museum and its collections became a must for the Grand Tour and the work to expand the collections continued throughout the years. At the end of the eighteenth century, all the guides of the city of Florence suggested a visit to the Museum to observe the world and man in the light of the new scientific discoveries. Many intellectuals, including the Marquis de Sade, have left in their writings accurate testimonies of their visit to the Museum.
The great success of the Royal Museum is evidenced by the significant number of registered entries. Between 1784 and October 1785 there were over 7,000 visitors, of whom around 30% were women. The opening hours were from 8 am to 1 pm for "the people of the city and countryside that could be admitted as long as they were properly dressed". And research has shown that 83.7% of visitors belonged to the "third state".
From unitary naturalistic knowledge to the scattered "specialist" collections
At the end of the eighteenth century, the events that shocked Europe caused serious consequences to the management of the Museum as well. Ferdinand III of Lorraine abandoned the Grand Duchy of Tuscany at the arrival of the Napoleonic troops. Napoleon himself visited the Specola and ordered 40 cases of waxes as well as a wooden statue for Paris, which never made it to their destination and are still today in Montpellier.
In 1807 the new government established the Lyceum of Physical and Natural Sciences inside the Museum, creating six professorships (astronomy, physics, chemistry, mineralogy and zoology, botany and comparative anatomy). The museum collections were annexed to their respective courses and became a support for teaching, thus marking the end of the Enlightened approach of the Museum inspired by the unity of knowledge.
With the restoration of the Lorraine government in 1814, the experience of the Lyceum ended and the Museum was destined to be a place for the "private pleasure" of the Grand Duke. Around 1820 the "Poccianti Corridor" was built (named after the architect Pasquale Poccianti) which, connecting the Museum to Palazzo Pitti, represented an elevated walkway unique in the world that linked science and art, continuing through to the Vasari Corridor that stretched from Palazzo Pitti, to the Uffizi ending at Palazzo Vecchio.
In 1829, with the appointment of the director Vincenzo Antinori, the Museum returned to being an institution at the service of science and public education. The birth of the new disciplines that studied the distribution of animal and plant species with respect to the territory led to a strong increase in zoological and botanical collections, making it necessary to re-distribute the spaces of Via Romana. The "enlightened favour" of Grand Duke Leopold II towards the natural sciences saw on the Tuscan soil the organization of a number of congresses of the Italian Scientists, long before the Unification of Italy.
In 1841 the third Congress of Italian Scientists was held in the Museum and the Tribune of Galileo, the secular temple dedicated to the great scientist, was inaugurated in that occasion. The Congress welcomed the appeal of the botanist Filippo Parlatore from Palermo to create a general herbarium of the local Italian flora that, gathered in a single place, would have favoured the exchange of scientific knowledge and findings. Similarly, the proposal to create a "geological and mineralogical collection of the various parts of Italy" was accepted. The project was subsequently realized, albeit limited to fossils only, in 1861, with the birth of the Central Italian Collection of Paleontology, now housed in the headquarters of Via La Pira.
The end of Antinori's direction in 1859 coincided with the fall of the Lorraines and the second War of Independence. In the same year was founded in Florence the Institute of Higher, Practical and Advanced Studies and the Museum became the seat of the scientific section of the newborn Institute, thus becoming a research laboratory as well as a place of collection and public use of naturalistic specimens. The direction of the Museum passed to Cosimo Ridolfi. Under his management, the teaching took on increasing importance and the museum collections were entrusted to the care of the professors of the respective disciplines.
In 1865 and for three years the management was in the hands of the physicist Carlo Matteucci, a supporter of the experimental disciplines, strongly critical of the costs of maintaining the naturalistic collections and the suitability of the Specola's spaces for research. Thus it began the division and specialization of the various disciplines: chemistry and physics felt increasingly distant from the natural sciences. The naturalists - having become either zoologists, botanists, geologists or mineralogists - claimed their own autonomy not only in scientific and administrative terms but, above all, in their requirements for new spaces.
In the following years the collections of Palazzo Torrigiani, the first seat of the unitary museum, were moved to different palaces around Florence. In 1872 astronomy was the first discipline to migrate, together with its museum collection, from La Specola to the new Arcetri Observatory. After the death of Filippo Parlatore in 1877, the Museum no longer had a director and the collections were aggregated to the various scientific institutes. The Zoological Museum remained at La Specola, while the Cabinets of Geology, Paleontology and Mineralogy with their collections were transferred in 1880 in Via La Pira, near piazza San Marco where they are still located today.
The Institutes of Chemistry and Physics found a place in via Gino Capponi, where the Museum of Anthropology founded by Paolo Mantegazza was also located since 1869. Also in 1880, the Giardino dei Semplici, in via Micheli, the current Botanical Gardens, founded in 1545 by Cosimo I de' Medici, was assigned to the Institute of Higher Studies and became the place where plants were gradually transferred from La Specola. The moving was completed in 1905.
In 1930 also the historical collections of instruments of physics and astronomy left La Specola to be transferred, in the then Institute and Museum of Science History, today the Galileo Museum. Finally, in 1932, the Museum of Anthropology moved from Via Capponi to Palazzo Non Finito in Via del Proconsolo, where it is still located today.
The Short Twentieth Century
During the twentieth century, the Museum continued the slow path of disintegration commenced in the previous century with the Napoleonic vicissitudes on the one hand and epistemological reductionism on the other. The Museum was perceived as a mere collection of objects or, worse still, as a bulky burden requiring space, funds and personnel for its maintenance. Therefore, the collections were not increased and many rooms were destined instead to host the laboratories and classrooms necessary for the growing student population.
The rebirth of the Museum began in the 1970s when a new sensitivity to nature flourished and public attention to environmental issues grew with definitive awareness of the limited nature of the planet Earth's resources. The natural findings then returned to be a fundamental element for studying, comparing and learning. In 1971 the Accademia dei Lincei advances the idea of constituting a "National Museum of Natural History" in Florence, thus recognizing the absolute prominence in the Italian scientific museum panorama of the naturalistic collections now scattered throughout the town. A project that was never completed, despite the numerous attempts made over the years by mayors, rectors and ministers.
In 1984 the University of Florence arranged the reunification of the scientific collections and established the "Museum of Natural History of the University of Florence" of which Curzio Cipriani took on the direction until 2003. Cipriani relaunched the Museum, increasing its collections and paying attention to its fundamental didactic function not only for university students but also for all levels of education starting from primary education.
At the end of Cipriani's mandate, the University, in accordance with the Code of Cultural Heritage and Landscape, modified the Museum's rules, which until then had been managed in a federative form with six sections each of which was allocated its own financial and human resources. The new Regulations introduced the office of Chairman, held for two terms by Giovanni Pratesi, while the administrative management was held on an interim basis by University executives.
Since then the number of visitors continued to rise exponentially and, in parallel, the offer of educational visits for schools of all levels and the community has increased considerably, adapting to the new needs.
Today the Museum of Natural History has become part of the Management Area dedicated to the Valorisation of Cultural Heritage, in fact, becoming the backbone of a nascent University Museum System.