Curious for Nature: Accademia dei Fisiocritici and its Museum of Natural History

Accademia dei Fisiocritici

A journey in science, history and curiosity accessible to everyone

The Accademia dei Fisiocritici and its Natural History Museum

The Museum belongs to one of the oldest scientific institutions in Italy, the Siena Academy of Science known as Accademia de’ Fisiocritici, founded in 1691 by the Sienese physician Pirro Maria Gabbrielli (1643-1705), professor of theoretical medicine and botany.
The Academy and its Museum are housed in an ancient monastery: the building was confiscated in Napoleonic times and donated to the Academy in 1816.

The bell-gable and cloister reveal the origins of the museum building: a Camaldolese monastery, known as Monastero della Rosa.

The members of the Academy met regularly to discuss scientific topics and seek to understand natural phenomena by means of experiments. They coined the name Fisiocritici, meaning “researchers in natural phenomena”, from two Greek words.
Since its foundation, the Academy has promoted scientific knowledge through regular meetings, the journal “Atti dell'Accademia” and other scientific publications, regular exhibitions of its collections, and educational activity mainly addressed to schools. The Main Hall, the ceiling of which is decorated with neoclassical frescoes often hosts public events and presentations.

The Academy converted the monastery into a suitable space for gatherings, scientific meetings and the display of its collections. The display cases are typical of 19th century museums, making the institution a "museum within a museum".

The Geological Section is on the ground floor and holds geological collections of fossils, minerals and rocks.
The Zoological Section is on the first floor and houses collections of stuffed animals (especially birds and mammals), skeletons and spirit specimens.

A room on the first floor, connected to an attic, contains the Anatomy Section dedicated to the Tuscan anatomist Paolo Mascagni.

The staircase to the left of the entrance to the Main Hall provides access the lower ground floor, with a permanent testimony of Siena’s geological history and a space for temporary exhibitions. Restored in 2001, these rooms are largely excavated in Pliocene marine sandstone that formed about 4 million years ago.

At the bottom of the stairs there is a “Galilean itinerary” dedicated to astronomy and a collection of ceramic artefacts ranging in age from 15th to 19th century (found during removal of the dump of the Monastero della Rosa).

The itinerary ends in a large circular cistern that collected rainwater for the monastery, now used for educational activities and astronomy lessons aided by a modern electronic reproduction of the Solar System.

The cistern leads to an hypogeum with Etruscan urns and to a classroom containing a modern reconstruction of a historic vacuum pump. The space also contains several educational collections and an area dedicated to temporary exhibitions.

Situated around the perimeter of the ground floor, the Geology Section includes various collections of Tuscan fossils and a rich collection of minerals and rocks.

The collection, a fine example of 19th century museum culture, includes a first nucleus that was probably put together in the first half of the 18th century, and later supplemented with important natural specimens from the Siena countryside, including minerals, rocks and fossils.

The Academy gradually received many donations that were placed in display cases, classified with numerical and letter codes inscribed on enamelled iron tags, and organized in glass jars, small trays, tubes and ampoules, in accordance with display techniques of the period.

A tour of the paleontological collections should start from the Ambrogio Soldani Room. The display cases along the walls show the museum’s most ancient paleontological collections including fossil leaves and remains of primitive plant bark from two deposits of the Carboniferous period (360-300 million years ago): Saint Etienne in the Loire region (France) and Iano (Tuscany).

Another display case shows Jurassic ammonites (200-145 million years ago) from Liguria, Tuscany and Umbria, other ammonites and rostra of belemnites of unknown origin and a collection of fossil fish from Castellammare di Stabia (southern Italy) dating to the Cretaceous period (145-65 million years ago).

The next display case contains Eocene (56-34 million years ago) fossil fish from the “Pesciara” of Bolca (northern Italy) and important Miocene (23-5 million years ago) fossil vertebrates from lignite deposits of Grosseto and Siena (including the remains of a crocodile, turtle, boar, otter and monkey).

The room is dedicated to the Camaldolese Abbot Ambrogio Soldani (1736-1808) and displays specimens connected with his activity as a naturalist scientist. He is considered a pioneer of micropalaeontology, the science of microfossils, namely the remains of unicellular organisms such as foraminifera. His portrait, examples of his microfossil collection and copies of his main works are on the table in the centre of the room.

Besides Soldani’s microfossil collection, the table at the centre of the room also contains a “Sienese meteorite”. In 1794, a meteor shower fell in the area of San Giovanni d’Asso near Siena: some of the meteorites were studied by Soldani who concluded that they did not match any rock of terrestrial origin. Although this conclusion was controversial and opposed by other eminent naturalists, his theory was later verified.

The paleontological collections continue around the cloister. Display cases 7 and 8 contain many specimens of marine mammals collected from Siena Pliocene outcrops, including remains of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and beaked whales).

The fossil remains of land mammals are on display in the cloister. Many come from the Siena countryside (Pliocene rhinoceroses, deer, horses, antelopes and elephants), the Val di Chiana (Pleistocene hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses and mammoths) and the upper Valdarno (Pleistocene antelopes, bisons, horses, bears and hyenas) and testify climatic conditions different from the present. Two remarkable pieces are the mammoth tusks in glass containers displayed in the cloister corridor.

The display cases of the cloister also offer an overview of invertebrate biodiversity in the Pliocene basin of Siena. The collection includes solitary and colonial madrepores, calcareous tubes of polychaetes, crustacean fragments (barnacles and decapods), brachiopod shells, sea urchins and an almost complete starfish. The largest group is that of molluscs. Pliocene fauna featured greater diversity and variety than the present Mediterranean marine fauna. Many groups typical of tropical or sub-tropical seas have disappeared from the Mediterranean due to global cooling beginning in the middle-late Pliocene.

Marine fossils are also represented by fish teeth found in Pliocene outcrops of Volterra and Siena. Most belong to cartilaginous fish.

Several shark species still existing today, such as the great white shark, the short fin mako shark and the tiger shark, are represented from the Sienese Pliocene along with other extinct species.

Besides fossils, the Geology Section also contains collections of rocks and minerals, many representative of the geology of southern Tuscany.

Despite the interest of the Academy for local geology, the collections also contain specimens from abroad.

The materials are displayed systematically, and the geological and mineralogical collections, mainly displayed in the rooms around the cloister, should be viewed starting with the general mineral collection.

The exhibition continues with regional collections of rocks and minerals, such as those from Siena province, Mount Amiata, the mineral district of southern Tuscany and others.

Bolar earths (from the Latin "bolaris": "in the shape of small clods of earth") consist of ochre sediments exceptionally rich in arsenic which are particularly common in the region of Mount Amiata: their peculiar colouring – ranging from yellowish brown to a variety of darker browns, reds and even greens – determined their use in the fabrication of natural and high quality pigments generically classified as “terra di Siena naturale” (natural Sienna pigment).

The collection consists of 60 samples of bolar earth specimens including slabs, calcined material and powders (displayed in their original glass jars).

An interesting collection includes the entire range of ornamental stone (known commercially as marble) used to build the Siena cathedral. Building started in 1179 and continued for several centuries. The dark green stone is “serpentinite”, the red stone is “rosso ammonitico” and the yellow stone is marble, such as “giallo di Siena” (yellow marble of Siena): they all come from Tuscan quarries, many in Siena province.

The Zoology Section on the first floor includes collections of stuffed animals, skeletons, spirit specimens, mollusc shells and entomological boxes.

The collections are arranged systematically in rather crowded display cases. This kind of set up does not optimise presentation of the pieces, but has enabled the exhibition as a whole to survive in an arrangement that is fairly similar to the original one.

The stuffed birds and mammals are the core of the collections, as more than other specimens these two groups have attracted the interest of scholars and the attention of collectors.

Some of the specimens belong to animal species that are now extinct (Eskimo curlew) or threatened with extinction (slender-billed curlew, European sea sturgeon and others).

The invertebrate collection includes a series of spirit and desiccated specimens. The central display cases mainly contain sea organisms, including sponges, madrepores and other cnidarians, fanworms, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, sea stars, ascidians and crustaceans.

The arthropod selection is particularly rich and includes an Atlantic horseshoe crab, a large homarus, a coconut crab, and a collection of entomological boxes with local and exotic insects.

The mollusc collection consists mainly of tropical sea shells. Other specimens are land and freshwater molluscs from Tuscany and marine molluscs preserved in spirit.
Some specimens from the Philippines, including a huge tridacna, were seized by the Italian judiciary as illegal imports.

The historical fish collection consists mainly of Italian species commonly found in Sienese fish markets. The freshwater species are a good selection of Siena ichthyofauna prior to the introduction of alien entities. Marine species include a small group of cartilaginous fishes (sharks and rays) and several bony fishes.

The herpetological collection is made up of amphibians (mainly Italian species) and reptiles (local and exotic species). Many reptiles (chameleons, monitor lizards, a python and a crocodile) were collected in Africa during the colonial period.

With over 3000 specimens (representing more than 800 species), the bird selection is the most valuable collection in the Zoology Section. Displayed along three sides of the floor, this collection is almost entirely on view and is mostly composed of stuffed specimens.

The Museum’s ornithological collection is the third most important in Tuscany after those of the Universities of Florence and Pisa. It is the only one that has been completely studied again in recent years.

The collection includes almost all the current (and sometimes locally extinct) birds of southern Tuscany, including some vagrant and rare species. The rich selection of exotic animals, which entered the Museum thanks to 19th century private donations, is of less scientific importance due to an almost total lack of data regarding origin. However, it is valuable from an educational standpoint.

Two interesting specimens are New Zealand parrots at risk of extinction: the kaka, known for its social behaviour, and the kakapo, a large flightless bird.

After the ornithological collection, the mammal collection is the second most important in the Zoological Section (almost 700 mostly stuffed specimens, representing about 150 species). The exotic species group includes many extremely interesting animals and testifies intense past acquisitions.
Two remarkable specimens are the skeletons and stuffed preparations of a platypus and an echidna. There is also a rather large collection of primates representing almost all the main groups.

A taxidermy laboratory attends to the preparation, maintenance and restoration of the specimens. Today, collecting policy is regulated: the museum only acquires animals killed by cars, dying in captivity or of natural causes or seized by customs or judiciary.

The zoological collections of the museum are not all on display. Part of the material, including most spirit and confiscated specimens, is in storage, where it is available to researchers.

The Anatomy Section in the attic includes the Paolo Mascagni Room with his anatomical pieces, books, plates and archive material.

Paolo Mascagni (1755-1815) carried out anatomical studies in the School of Anatomy. These included dissection of cadavers of destitute people. He focused on the lymphatic system, the organization of which was almost completely unknown. Thanks to an innovative procedure, Mascagni was able to study lymphatic system structure for the first time. He described it in his book “Vasorum lymphaticorum corporis humani historia et ichnographia”, published in 1787.

The “Anatomia Universa” (1823-1831), an atlas for students of Medicine at which Paolo Mascagni worked for about 30 years, comprises 44 plates illustrating the entire human body, organs included. In this unique publication offering a life-size description of the human figure seen from the front and back, every plate is accompanied by a counter-plate with numerical references and explanatory captions. The iconographic perfection of this anatomical atlas, a masterly combination of art and science, was achieved by careful appointment of illustrators.

The octagonal cabinet houses Mascagni’s desiccated anatomical preparations from the second half of the 18th century, with lymphatic vessels in full view.

The technique Mascagni employed was simple but very difficult to perform: mercury was injected with a capillary-fine glass catheter. The catheter formed a right angle at one end and mercury was channelled through the lymphatic vessels by force of gravity. After a fixation procedure, the preparations were then immersed in conserving solutions to preserve the hard and soft parts.

The attic houses the collection of Francesco Spirito’s “petrified pieces” and a small collection of domestic animals with malformations (including stuffed Siamese calves and lambs). Spirito’s collection comprises 70 petrified pieces of normal and pathological human and animal organs. His technique consisted in treating the anatomical piece with dilute potassium silicate solution; the preparation then had to be desiccated, soaked in vaseline and finally coated with special protective varnishes.

The botanical room displays a selection of seeds, fruits, resins, rubbers, roots, trunk sections and exsiccata, some of which date back to 1865-1870.

The Botanical Section also includes a collection of terracotta mushrooms in the Francesco Valenti Serini Room and lichen specimens in the Biagio Bartalini Room, both on the ground floor.
The Francesco Valenti Serini Room includes part of a rich collection of terracotta mushrooms made by the Sienese physician of the same name.

Knowing that many people died after eating poisonous mushrooms, Valenti Serini (1795-1872) devoted himself to the study of the subject putting together a collection of drawings and terracotta reproductions designed to teach the common people (who at the time were mostly illiterate) to tell poisonous from edible mushrooms.

Wonders and Curiosities
The rooms on the ground and lower ground floor display several minor collections and rarities.

The mineral water collection from the Siena area was assembled in 1862 for the 10th Congress of Italian Scientists with the purpose of illustrating the many sources of thermal water in the Siena area.
Originally composed of 44 bottles, the collection now only has 26, with sealed tops covered in parchment and elegantly handwritten labels. The bottles bear a red, green and white ribbon to commemorate the Italian Unification.

The archaeological collection includes stone objects and copper and bronze utensils from the areas of Siena, Perugia and other unknown sites dated Mid-Palaeolithic (130,000-40,000 years ago), Neolithic (6th-4th millennium B.C.) or Eneolithic (3rd millennium B.C.) and early Bronze Age (18th century B.C.).

The same display case includes some Etruscan and Roman objects, including a Pompeian loom in volcanic stone, the head of a bronze male figurine and a zoomorphic figure in bronze lamina, both of unknown origin.

The Pirro Maria Gabbrielli Room contains records of the Academy, such as painted portraits and photographs of some Academy Presidents, old scientific implements, curious finds and gifts collected over time (such as a half coconut shell that Napoleon used as a cup, fine byssus cloth gloves, weapons and tools that belonged to native South American peoples).
It also displays the Academy emblem: a touchstone, highly compact microcrystalline flint common in the Siena area and used since ancient times to tell real gold from fake gold. It was chosen as emblem because it represents the separation of truth from false beliefs by the study of natural phenomena.

Byssus cloth is a fibre produced with filaments secreted by a marine bivalve mollusc, Pinna nobilis, to secure itself to sandy seabeds. Its takes on bronze tones in the shade, gold tones in the light and becomes almost invisible against the light.
The gloves, entirely made of byssus cloth (also known as “sea gold”), are a rare and valuable example of such artefacts. They were a present from King Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies to Louis Philip King of France in 1845; the latter eventually gave them to Baron Michele Chiarandà of Palermo, who donated them to Count Carlo de Vecchi of Siena who left them to the Accademia dei Fisiocritici in 1864.

The lower ground floor of the Museum offers a wide range of collections, all rather unique and heterogeneous, and all sharing a common educational purpose. There is a collection of fake gems, a collection of crystal models in wood and Swarovski crystal, a collection of minerals and rocks used for teaching Natural Science in the period 1941-1978, collections from Tuscan mines and foundries and a “Galilean itinerary” devoted to astronomy.

The “Galilean itinerary” shows objects associated with the study of the Earth and other bodies, including ancient world maps, telescopes, armillary spheres and an 18th century model of the Solar System.

In the classroom on the lower ground floor there is a modern reproduction of a vacuum pump made in the late 17th century by Pirro Maria Gabbrielli on the model of Irish physicist Robert Boyle. At that time the Academy began organizing private and public experiments that continued throughout the 18th century. Today the model is used regularly for public demonstrations and educational purposes.

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