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Home page > Natural History Museum > History > Origin of the Museum and its development

Origin of the Museum and its development in the Age of the Enlightenment

The arrival in Florence of the young Grand Duke Peter Leopold of Lorraine in 1765 led to the museum project to create a “Palace of Science” where collections related to all the scientific disciplines would be organized in a unified manner according to an exhibition design passing from the earth to the sky. The scientific development was entrusted to the Trentine naturalist Felice Fontana.

The site of the nascent museum had to be the noble Palazzo Torrigiani (purchased in 1771) in Via Romana which was close to the Grand Duke’s residence Palazzo Pitti. The complex restructuring of the building was entrusted to the architect Gasparo Maria Paoletti.

When the museum opened in 1775, it contained a rich collection of naturalistic specimens classified according to the Linnaean system.

A large space was dedicated to the display of scientific instruments, especially those of experimental physics which were used to demonstrate the basic laws of Galilean and Newtonian mechanics. There was also a large collection of physics machines, some of them designed by Fontana himself and made by the young craftsmen trained in the museum.

The ancient physics instruments from the Medici collections also found a place in the museum: ornate astrolabes, solar and nocturnal clocks, compasses, drawing tools and the instruments that had belonged to Galileo, as well as the collection of scientific glassware (especially thermometers, barometers and aerometers) associated with the activities of the Cimento Academy. These objects are now housed in the Galileo Museum.

The museum itinerary ended with the stairs leading to the “Torrino”, the astronomical observatory better known as La Specola which began operations in 1807. A Botanical Garden was created for the study of botany and was later expanded to include part of the Boboli Gardens.

The visibility and the careful positioning of the objects constituted the teaching tools that allowed self-study. The collections were meant not merely to satisfy the “curiosity of the people” nor to serve only their owner, but were to be used for “true education and public utility”. The specimens had to be “made to speak for themselves” so that each visitor could “know all by himself, without a teacher”. Thus, according to the intentions of Diderot and D’Alambert, science was placed at the service of actions aimed at improving the living conditions of the population and consequently the economy of the Grand Duchy.

The success following the Museum’s inauguration and the interest shown by foreign scientists prompted Peter Leopold to finance a trip to France and England by Fontana and his assistant Giovanni Fabbroni. This mission, which ended in 1779, allowed them to establish a strong network of relationships not only with leading scholars but also with the makers of scientific instruments. Hence it became necessary to expand the available spaces to make room for the scientific instruments coming from England and the chemistry laboratory was also enlarged.

Felice Fontana then became completely absorbed in the creation of the extraordinary collection of wax models. The most challenging part was the construction of the human anatomical models illustrating the entire body: the muscles, the internal organs, the anatomy of the eye, ear, nose and heart. Botanical waxes or “artificial plants”, true masterpieces of manual art, were made so that the plants would be available all year round for teaching purposes.

The wax model collection was accompanied by very colourful mixed media panels designed as explanatory treatises for the individual preparations. As confirmation of their teaching purposes, the illustrations were provided with numbers referring to explanatory sheets kept inside small metal drawers placed under the display cases and available to the visitors.

The great success of the Museum is evident from the impressive number of visitors, with more than 7000 in the first year of opening. The Museum was open from 08:00 to 13:00 for “the people of the city and countryside who may enter as long as they are neatly dressed”. The visitors included a surprising number of women (about 30%), which provides a socially and historically important perspective.

The Museum was a must for foreign travellers, a true tourist attraction: the Guides to the City of Florence in the late 18th century used by those taking the Grand Tour suggested a visit to the Museum to observe the world and man in the light of new scientific discoveries.

The events that shook Europe at the end of the 18th century also had serious consequences on the management of the Museum. Ferdinand III of Lorraine left the Grand Duchy of Tuscany upon the arrival of Napoleon’s troops. In 1807 the new government established the Lyceum of Physical and Natural Sciences within the Museum, creating six chairs (astronomy, physics, chemistry, mineralogy and zoology, botany and comparative anatomy). The museum collections were annexed to the respective departments and became a support for teaching, thus marking the end of the Enlightenment vision of the Museum inspired by the unity of knowledge.

 
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