In the 16th century Siena had more academies than any other Italian city, with at least thirty. This lively cultural atmosphere was mainly due to the fact that, unlike other cities such as Florence, there was no court in Siena to attract circles of intellectuals, who consequently remained independent of the political system. The social, corporatist spirit which had already become a great tradition in the city received new impetus from scholars of many different disciplines, who formed clubs and academies of a humanistic nature.
Two of these fellowships which are still in existence today were founded as far back as the early 1500s: the Accademia Senese degli Intronati - the oldest academy in Italy, whose purpose was to “promote the study of history, literature and art in the city, the province, and the former State of Siena,” and the Congrega de’ Rozzi, which was founded to cultivate interests relating to “human letters, the historical disciplines and the arts, especially as they relate to the theatre,” and subsequently became an academy in 1690.
Over the following century, interest and curiosity in disciplines other than the strictly humanistic gradually increased, as part of the wave of revolutionary science that was sweeping through Europe at the time. The Accademia delle Scienze di Siena introduced a new type of fellowship in 1691 that focused solely on scientific research, and was dubbed the "Fisiocritici."
The initiative came from Pirro Maria Gabbrielli, a professor of theoretical and botanical medicine at the University of Siena, assisted by a group of students and colleagues united by a common interest in research and experimentation. In contrast to the rigid schematics of the past, the principal objective of the Fisiocritici was to demonstrate the falseness of beliefs, superstitions, and all pseudo-knowledge based on Aristotelian dogmas. This new academy was probably considered subversive to Siena’s cultural environment at the time, which viewed innovators with suspicion.
The members coined a name for themselves based on a Greek term: “Fisiocritici”, or scholars and researchers of nature in a critical capacity. They chose the touchstone as their emblem - the method of identifying real gold and silver that had been used since ancient times, and a Latin verse for their motto: “veris quod possit vincere falsa,” which means truth overcomes falsity.
Gabrielli’s objective was to extend Sienese culture outside the province and make contact with intellectuals in other cities, including Rome.
The Fisiocritici started holding scientific meetings from the outset, during which they took turns to present the findings of their research. Some of these meetings were open to the public, which gave everyone the chance to become acquainted with new scientific discoveries.
In the second half of the 18th century the Accademia became an important focal point for experimentation in Siena and a forum for discussion among scientists, and gained great prestige in Europe. Some of the greatest scientists and intellectuals of the day were Fisiocritici: Algarotti, Ximenes, Spallanzani, Volta, Paolo Mascagni, Soldani, Morgagni and Metastasio from Italy, and others such as Linneo, Van Swieten, Cuvier and Lagrange from other European countries. The Accademia had all the prerequisites for a modern-day social network: it brought together people from different cultural and geographic backgrounds to discuss their interests and facilitate exchange and collaboration.
The “Atti” was first published in this period (1761). This is one of the longest-running scientific reviews in Italy, and was revered all over Europe as a means of disseminating research activity. The first volume was devoted to pioneering experiments in transplanting smallpox, which laid the foundations for treatment by vaccine. Half a century later, in 1808, the abbot Ambrogio Soldani published an article in the 9th volume of the review that put forward the very first theory on the extra-terrestrial origin of meteorites.
In the field of botany, Giuseppe Bartalini produced the first catalogue of wild plants native to Siena and its surroundings, as well as an illustrated herbarium that is still on view at the Accademia. Following this, Sienese physician Francesco Valenti Serini created 1619 terracotta models of fungi in full-relief, and 165 in bas-relief, from his original sketches, for the purpose of teaching a largely illiterate population how to distinguish edible mushrooms from toxic and poisonous ones.
Over the intervening centuries the Accademia has witnessed a variety of events but has never lost sight of its original purpose. The scientific meetings that once formed the principal activity of the Fisiocritici continue to this day, alongside a series of other educational activities and events open to the general public. Computers have replaced pen and ink, and the internet now performs the function of the scientific letters and memoranda that the Accademia’s archives abound with. New technology now operates in conjunction with the original communication tool - printed publications.
In addition to “Atti”, which is now published online as the “Journal of the Siena Academy of Sciences,” the Accademia also publishes a series of “Memorie,” or memoranda, on historic scientific topics, and the review “Etrurianatura,” which is distributed free of charge to schools and visitors to familiarise non-specialists with subjects from nature, the natural sciences and the environment.
Public demonstrations of experiments with the vacuum machine still continue to even greater acclaim, and are particularly popular with children.
The range of activities provided for youngsters and groups of school children has broadened considerably over recent years, thanks to collaborations with institutions within the Accademia’s extensive network, like the Fondazione Musei Senesi, the Orto Botanico, the University of Siena and the Regional authority of Tuscany.
In order to disseminate knowledge to as many different people as possible, the Accademia has now become an all-inclusive cultural space that even organises events outside the strictly scientific, such as concerts, theatrical performances, educational games for children, exhibitions of figurative art, and more besides, with the aim of breaking down the barriers that have been erected between “scientific culture” and “human culture” over the centuries, and facilitating a return to “global knowledge.”
In addition to being valuable tools for disseminating knowledge, the exhibits on show at the Museo are also a useful source of comparative data for research carried out at other museums, universities and national and international institutions, where they are often requested for study purposes.
This is the result of many scientists, naturalists and collectors voluntarily donating their collections to the museum to form part of its heritage and be of use to the scientific community.
Baron Bettino Ricasoli, for example, a Fisiocritico and statesman at the time of the newly-unified Kingdom of Italy, donated his extensive collection of stuffed birds to the Accademia in 1853.
Ambrogio Soldani’s microfossils, which are displayed in a chest of drawers built specially to house them in the 19th century, are perfect testimony to the importance of the collection. To prevent the precious collection being lost after the demise of the abbot, a scientific commission was established, led by the famous French naturalist Georges Cuvier - founding father of modern paleontology, which agreed the collection should be kept by the Accademia dei Fisiocritici.
There’s an amusing anecdote - an example of science “networking” - concerning the long journey made by one of the museum exhibits: the remains of a fossilised otter skull. Discovered in the Miocene lignite of Grosseto and described in 1862 by geologist-botanist Giuseppe Meneghini, it was given on loan to a Scottish colleague, Charles Forsyth Mayor, who took it with him on numerous journeys around Europe, until it disappeared without trace. Almost a hundred years later, palaeontologist Johannes Hürzeler from the University of Basel recognised it from a description published by Meneghini as one of the exhibits at the Geological Museum of Lausanne, and it was returned to the Fisiocritici in 1988.
The museum has been conducting research into cetaceans for several decades, in conjunction with the university in Siena and the Osservatorio Toscano Cetacei (the Tuscan cetacean observatory). By salvaging beached specimens, the Fisiocritici have been able to compile one of the biggest cetacean collections in Italy. Originally destined for exhibition in the museum, the specimens are now requested for study purposes by researchers in many different countries. A close collaboration has been established with the ecotoxicology research group at the University of Siena, and investigations carried out at the museum’s zoology lab have been useful in analysing levels of contamination in the organs of marine mammals and determining the causes of death, with a view to conserving the species.
MARIO DE GREGORIO