"Many have observed and many still expect to observe, but not everyone has observed well, and others do not know how to observe, nor perhaps do they know how tricky the art of observation is, easily misunderstanding one thing for another, being blinded by the light, or not looking with due attention and diligence at what is to be looked at".
Why put on this exhibition?
For a very simple reason: because the University of Padova was the first in the world to acquire a collection of objects, archaeological and natural finds and instruments which could quite rightly be "a school for anyone who wants to become a master in the rare things that Nature creates […] or who wants to merely carry out a virtuous exercise in learning, to demonstrate with evidence the truth of the doctrines printed in the Books of Nature and to teach Natural and Medical History to youth".
These are the words of Antonio Vallisneri, who was called to Padova to the Chair of Practical Medicine exactly three centuries ago, in 1700. He was an emblematic figure of the eighteenth-century scientist and started the collection which is one of the best examples of those scientific "gabinetti" (laboratories) destined to become, in the space of a century, university research laboratories where the experimental method in which Galileo was a master, became daily practice for scientists.
Collecting rare and ancient objects or things of aesthetic value, both natural and man-made, became very popular in European culture in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This time period witnessed the birth of Kunst und Wunderkammern "Rooms of Art and Wonders" in which the aim was to collect objects of astonishing originality which would stir and amaze visitors, as well as preserve the memory of Antiquity - indisputable aesthetic canon also for the modern.
Antonio Vallisneri's museum, however, was intended to satisfy what he described as "filosofica curiosità" (philosophic curiosity), i.e. a curiosity which was not, so to speak, an end in itself, but rather a stimulus to get to know nature.
This new definition, which certainly went beyond the Wunderkammern, was in full harmony with the cultural climate in Padova. In the mid-sixteenth century, the Serenissima (Venetian Republic) fostered the creation of one of the first botanical gardens linked to a university, in order to systematically cultivate medicinal plants. At that time, in Padova there was already the intention of adding to the Horto medicinale (The Medicinal Garden) a "small theatre where all of the wonders of Nature can be on display as if in a small world"…"to the advantage and benefit of the scholars of this rare profession".
During this same period, Fabrici d'Acquapendente constructed the first permanent Anatomical Theatre in Padova and Galileo Galilei taught Maths to students of the "Universitas artistarum". This was the climate in which Herbert Butterfield said, as is known, that here such research developments were made on nature with the application of the experimental method "to justify the notion that - if it were possible to assign a single place the honour of having been the home of the scientific revolution - this honour should go to Padova" (The Origins of Modern Science, 1958).
In 1733, Vallisneri's son, Antonio Junior donated his father's collection to the University and, as professor of Natural Sciences there, took care of it until 1777. In 1740, in Padova, Giovanni Poleni's Teatro di Filosofia Sperimentale (Theatre of Experimental Philosophy) was established. This was the first Italian example of a real Physics laboratory at a University. The 400 instruments that Poleni had collected were indispensable for his teaching and research in various fields of the Physical Sciences and the relative technological applications, research which made him one of the greatest engineering minds of his century.
The origins of the nineteenth-century scientific gabinetti and experimental laboratories of the Institutes of the University thus lie in the Vallisneri Museum and the collection of Poleni's instruments.
The material which has come down to us today is an important component of the historical-scientific collections of the University of Padova. Some of the items exhibited here, which are subdivided by theme, come from the original nucleus of the Vallisneri museum and Poleni's collection of instruments. Since only a part of the objects on display can be identified as undoubtedly belonging to the original nucleus of Vallisneri's museum, using the "catalogue" written by Vallisneri himself we have completed this exibition with some objects coming from elsewhere.
The objects and instruments exhibited have been illustrated with the words of Vallisneri himself, so as to set them in the scientific context of their time. Furthermore, to help create a better understanding of the exhibition, whatever else may be considered significant has been integrated with Vallisneri's words.
© Università degli Studi di Padova - Centro Musei Scientici