I moved to Florence in 1988 to work on my dissertation on Renaissance gardens. While a lot of my time was spent trolling through the Medici archives in the basement of the Uffizi, I also managed to find my way into every museum, church, collection, convent and any other space containing artwork in the city.
There was one quirky collection that I only managed to get to near the end of my two years in Florence. Yet it is the one museum I make an effort to go back to every time I’m in town (which is pretty often). While I haven’t been to the Uffizi or even the Pitti in ages, La Specola makes my hit list every time. While in town last week, updating Eat Florence, I made sure to stop by between tripe sandwiches and plates of ribolita.
To say it is a slightly weird collection is putting it mildly. I’ve always been drawn to the strange and wonderful world of collecting. (In fact, my dissertation was on 16th century art-filled garden grottoes) If you visit the Uffizi – or the Louvre or Prado for that matter – you’d think that Kings and Queens, Princes and Princesses, and any other person with money spent all their time collecting paintings (with a bit of sculpture thrown in). But collecting wasn’t always about buying the latest Leonardo, Michelangelo or Velasquez.
La Specola is a miraculously intact collection started in the 16th century, of specimens of the natural world. And by specimens I’m talking everything from bugs and butterflies, to rhinos and leopards. While these collections were pretty common pursuits for the wealthy and curious back in the Renaissance, most of them have been dispersed or are stored away and forgotten.
La Specola remains on view in all its original, creaky (and now fluorescent bulb-lit) glory.
Officially called the Museo di Storia Naturale di Firenze, it was opened in 1775 by Grand Duke Peter Leopold and contains all sorts of natural exotica collected by various Medici. It was, in fact, the first Wunderkammer of its kind opened to the public. And still, today, remains pretty wunderful.
When my daughters Sophie and Emma were younger , this was the museum we would always hit first on any trip to Florence. They loved the psychedelic butterflies and brilliant beetles and pretended to be scared by the somewhat mangy looking lions. The huge hippo (once a private pet of the Medici kept in the Boboli garden) was particularly fierce/funny.
But the real attraction was being completely grossed out and slightly petrified by the collection of extraordinarily creepy anatomical waxes which fill the last four rooms of the museum. Housed in their original wooden cabinets, these gruesome 17th century works of art were used to teach medicine. Copied from real corpses, I can’t actually believe I regularly brought my kids there.
While Sophie and Emma were particularly drawn to the blood and guts, I couldn’t get over the fact that the ‘corpses’ were perfectly coifed and even bejeweled. As if, after taking a tour of the rest of the museum, they opted to lay down, have a nap, and perhaps get just a bit dissected.
Via Romana 17