When Gian Gastone de' Medici died in 1737, the Habsburg-Lorraine family became the sovereigns of Tuscany. At the initiative of Grand Duke Peter Leopold (1747-1792), the scientific collections were rearranged. Starting in 1769, they were moved from the Uffizi Gallery to the Imperial and Royal Museum of Physics and Natural History near Palazzo Pitti, inaugurated in 1775 under the direction of Felice Fontana (1730-1805). To the original Medicean core collection were added, over the years, apparatus built in the Museum's workshops, such as dividing machines, various instruments used in physics, wax anatomical models, workbenches and cabinets, as well as precision instruments imported from abroad. Some of these objects can be seen here, in the original display cases of the Physics Museum. The Museum also had an astronomical observatory, directed at one time by the renowned astronomer and optician Giovanni Battista Amici (1786-1863). In 1841, under the direction of Vincenzo Antinori, the most ancient part of the collection was placed in the Galileo Tribune. The collection continued to grow until 1859, when the last Grand Duke of the Lorraine dynasty, Leopold II, left Tuscany, never to return.
The Spectacle of Science
Spectacular effects were typical of many aspects of 18th-century science. The high society of the time, avid for innovation and entertainment, was fascinated by the phenomena of experimental physics. In salons and courts - such as the one we see replicated at the back of the room - the laws of nature were illustrated by travelling lecturers who taught science through spectacular demonstrations. Using air pumps, planetariums, solar microscopes and machines for studying impact, they offered courses in physics that avoided the abstruse language of mathematics. Their lectures, often staged like theatrical performances, were real social events. Over the course of the century, the newly invented electrostatic “rubbing” machines were used in amusing “electric soirées,” where the demonstrators staged spectacular performances based on attraction, repulsion, shocks and sparks experienced by the ladies and gentlemen on their own bodies.
Teaching and Popularizing Science
This room contains instruments and machines designed to illustrate the basic principles of mechanics, hydraulics, electrostatics and optics to a vast public. In the 18th century, the cultural vogue that stimulated curiosity for spectacular experimental demonstrations also led to a demand for new educational instruments. The models for studying mechanics displayed in the first room faithfully reflect those described in the treatises of the most famous eighteenth-century scientists and demonstrators. They remained in use, with few modifications, up to the first decades of the 20th century. In the second room are displayed educational instrumentation for optics, hydraulics and pneumatics, electromagnetism and electrodynamics. The industrial production of educational instruments, with centres of excellence in London and Paris, remained limited in Italy, so that numerous collections were formed mainly of instruments purchased abroad.
The Precision Instrument Industry
In the 18th and 19th centuries the production of precision instruments for astronomy, geodetics, surveying and navigation was concentrated mainly in Britain, France and Germany. The British instrument maker Jesse Ramsden (1735-1800) invented the first machine for precisely dividing graduated scales. In Bavaria, Joseph von Fraunhofer (1787-1826) produced the finest optical-quality glass ever made. In Italy, only Giovanni Battista Amici (1786-1863) was able to design original optical instruments, many of them displayed in this room. They include excellent microscopes and exceptionally long telescopes. These innovations went to improve the instrumentation of the astronomical observatories founded in Italy starting from the first decades of the 18th century. The Florence Observatory (1780-1789), annexed to the Museum of Physics and Natural History, aspired to compete with the great astronomical centres of Greenwich and Paris. It was equipped mainly with instruments of British make.
Measuring Natural Phenomena
The triumph of the experimental method in the 17th century and the development of new instruments led to rapid progress in the study of natural processes, demonstrating the laws that governed them and revealing phenomena imperceptible to the senses. The first room contains instruments used for atmospheric measurements, for studying the phenomena of light, and for microscopy. Barometers and thermometers allowed increasingly precise measurements, while microscopes vastly enhanced the powers of vision, revealing amazing aspects of the microcosm. In the 18th century new instruments were invented, not only to observe nature, but also to act on it, creating new phenomena. Electrostatic machines attracted enormous interest, opening new horizons to scientific research. Then in 1800 the invention of the electric battery heralded the age of electrodynamics and electrochemistry. In the next room are displayed numerous instruments used to study electric current and its effects. Within a few decades, this study led to crucial discoveries, giving birth to electromagnetism, whose practical applications were to trigger a new industrial revolution.
Chemistry and the Public Usefulness of Science
Starting in the second half of the 15th century, the Medici Court attracted many alchemists to Florence, providing them with avant-garde factories and laboratories. Of the immense Medicean collection of alchemists' instrumentation, very little has survived: only a few glass vessels used by the Accademia del Cimento (1657-1667), and the great burning lens donated by Benedetto Bregans in 1697 to Cosimo III (1642-1723) to experiment with the combustion of gemstones, displayed here on the stand at the centre of the room. On the wall behind it hangs the “table of chemical affinities”, emblematic testimony to the Lorraine dynasty's interest in pharmaceutical chemistry. The numerous instruments used in theoretical and experimental chemistry also come from the Lorraine collection. Atmospheric chemistry especially, with the discovery of hydrogen and a method for determining the amounts of oxygen and other gases present in the atmosphere, favoured the development of new measuring instruments, such as Alessandro Volta's (1745-1827) electric pistol and hydrogen lamp, Felice Fontana's (1730-1805) evaerometro, and Marsilio Landriani's (1751-1815) eudiometer.
Science at home
In this room we can see how, starting in the 18th century, scientific instruments entered the homes of the upper classes. The vogue for experimental science created a new market for instrument makers who, along with one-of-a-kind pieces produced for collectors, introduced a series of standard instruments furnished with kits of accessories. In the large display case, containing an antique vetrine from Lorraine times, are compound microscopes, reflecting telescopes and electrostatic machines, which were used in the domestic sphere for cultural entertainment and self-learning. Some instruments - splendid table clocks, elegant globes, finely decorated barometers and thermometers - became furnishing items, displayed as symbols of cultural and social status. Extravagant objects such as telescopes for ladies equipped with ivory cosmetic boxes, and telescopes for gentlemen disguised as walking sticks, could also be found in upper-class homes.
Curator — Filippo Camerota
Curator — Giorgio Strano
Photo — Museo Galileo Photographic Laboratory
Video — Museo Galileo Multimedia Laboratory
Editor — Marco Berni