The Museum of Natural history is one of the hidden gems of Florence
Nestled amongst the countless "must-see" sights of Florence is a museum with a difference: introducing the Museum of Natural History, otherwise known as La Specola. But this is unlike any other historic site. An attraction not for the squeamish, this hidden gem features a rich display of bizarre zoological taxidermy and a gruesome selection of anatomic wax works dating back to the 17th century.
The History of La Specola
In addition to their opulent collection of artistic treasures, the Medici family were also keen collectors of natural treasures: generations accumulated a wide range of fossils, animals, minerals and exotic plants. In 1775, poised to share their unique items with the people of Florence, these prized possessions were moved to a block of buildings close by the Pitti Palace: this building became known as La Specola.
The museum was the first public museum in Europe and, until the 19th century, the only scientific museum specifically created for the public. The attraction was cutting edge for its time, with opening hours, guides and keepers.
Even today, the wax anatomical collection is considered one of the largest and best known in the world!
What will you find in La Specola?
Nowadays the museum is broken down into two main parts: the zoology section (spread across 24 rooms) and the anatomic waxes (featured in 10 rooms).
The zoology section features recently acquired and old examples of animals preserved across the centuries through the process of taxidermy (including ones that are now extinct!). One of the most intriguing is the hippopotamus that was allegedly given to the Grand Duke in the second half of the 17th century and lived for a short period of time in the Boboli Gardens!
But it’s the wax collection that really makes the museum stand out from the crowd. An art introduced in Florence by Ludovico Cigoli (1559 – 1613), the anatomic wax works have always been the pride of the museum. Created to serve as a resource for medical students to reveal what lied beneath the human body without having to directly observe a cadaver, these creepy models reached their maximum period of technical and scientific accuracy in the 18th century.
Different to any commercial wax work collection past or present, these uncannily realistic models of dissected corpses were made through a labour-intensive process that included pressing plaster against the individual organs of a recently deceased cadaver to create a cast. Wax would then be poured into the moulds before each organ was meticulously painted and varnished. Next all the body parts would be assembled into a wax torso and overlaid with muscles and membranes which were either painted or simulated with thread.
The final effect was (and is!) chillingly realistic. Picture raw and glistening muscles sunk between knobbly bones, trapped in a winding path of intricate veins: a sight not for the faint-hearted!
The museum also houses a special area dedicated to the famous Tuscan scientist, Galileo. Designed and built in 1841 by architect Giuseppe Martelli, the so-called Tribune of Galileo celebrates his work and displays his instruments in a glorious room decorated with frescoes and sculpted with inlaid marbles that portray some of the most important Italian scientific discoveries from the Renaissance period through until today.
Don’t Miss Out!
If you only get to see one thing, make it the impressive Venus collection. A huge point of interest for the museum since it first opened its doors, it features naked women posed in old-fashioned semi-erotic poses with their abdominal skin removed and their internal organs on show for the world to see. These gutted and sensually splayed female forms (with their ribcages and stomachs pulled apart) were a favourite of the Marquis de Sade on his 18th century visit to the museum: today they still provide a haunting experience for all who feast their eyes upon their chilling form.
The museum La Specola is open 9:30am – 16:30pm Tuesday – Sunday. Ticket price for adults is 6 euro, with children aged 6 – 14 and seniors over 65 at 3 euro. Children under the age of 6 can enter for free. For more information, call: 055 205 5930. Address: Via Romana, 17, Firenze.
Attention: the museum will be closed for renovation works starting in September 2019