Curiosity and ingenuity - Scientific Collections and Experimentation at Padova in the 18th Century
 
Vallisneri
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The Vallisneri Zoological CollectionAnimali Visita la collezione


The Vallisneri Museum must have contained a wealth of valuable zoological specimens, according to what can be gathered from the list of the collections in the first volume of the Opere (1733), and from the Indice compendioso delle serie diverse del Museo Vallisneri (Compendius Index of series other than the Vallisneri Museum) which is in the Padova University Library. Further evidence of this can be found in an enthusiastic epistle by the Florentine doctor Alghisi, student in Padova and regular correspondent of Vallisneri's. In addition to several examples of common animals there were also exotic animals, from the Indies, Asia and America, which had been donated by travellers, diplomats and missionaries. There were also several examples of "monsters" with limbs or other parts of the body missing or in abundance, collected by Vallisneri to be studied and not merely to indulge in what was fashionable among seventeenth-century collectors.

Antonio Vallisneri Junior, Prefect of the Museum which had become, in his words, "Pubblica Scuola della Storia Naturale" ("Public School of Natural History"), enlarged it with other important zoological finds: several animals from the province of Quito in the Americas were donated by G. Coletti in 1756-57; a giant leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) which appeared on the beaches of Ostia in 1756, the Typus later described by Linnaeus in the XII edition of Systema Naturae (1766), was donated by Pope Clement XIII; an incomplete skeleton of a sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), stranded in the area of Zara in 1767, was given to the Museum by the Republic of Venice.

Unfortunately, the death of Vallisneri Junior (1777) was followed by a long period in which the teaching of Natural Sciences was suspended and the collections were left in the hands of the custodian Giovanni Fabris. During this period the only acquisitions of zoological interest were the finds from the Padovan monastery San Giovanni da Verdara and some examples of Adriatic fauna which had belonged to the Abbott Giuseppe Olivi, a famous Veneto naturalist.

In 1806 the teaching of Natural History was taken up again by Stefano Andrea Renier, who enlarged the collections and compiled the first catalogue of the objects present. This was continued with great diligence by his successor Tomaso Antonio Catullo.

The changing fortunes of the Gabinetto di Scienze Naturali (Cabinet of Natural Sciences) led to the irreparable damage or loss of many of the objects of the original Vallisneri collection. The first to deteriorate were clearly the most fragile specimens, i.e. those which were the most difficult to preserve such as anatomical parts, taxidermised animals and animals preserved in liquid.

Not many of the objects exhibited today can be traced, according to the old catalogues, to the second half of the seventeenth or the eighteenth century and only a few can safely be said to have belonged to Vallisneri Senior: the two carved Nautilus, the rhinoceros horn, the narwhal's tusk and the two ostrich eggs. Though the other objects are considerably old, they are exhibited here only as representative of Vallisneri's choices as a collector and of his scientific interests, which can be deduced from his works.

The most important specimen from the time of Vallisneri Junior exhibited here is no doubt the turtle, next to which there is the skeleton of a female captured in the Adriatic in 1958. The suggestion he made in 1759, that the turtle be placed where it can be observed from up close, has thus been respected.


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