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  • Writer's pictureBen West

A Brief History of La Specola in Florence

What is La Specola?

La Specola is a museum established in 1775 that now displays a vast collection of wax models and skeletons.

La Specola

La Specola History

La Specola is one of the many collections that make up Florence’s Natural History Museum and has several diverse parts, the most striking of which are reminiscent of a vintage horror film. This particular section of the museum houses over 500 anatomical wax models of corpses dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, which are still displayed in their original caskets. Copied from the newly dead, the models are crafted with astonishing realism, as they were intended to promote educational and scientific learning without the need to resort to the direct and distasteful observation of a corpse. They include Venuses, waxes of naked women in semi-erotic poses but with their stomachs and rib cages pulled out, open to the world. It’s no surprise that the perverted Marquis de Sade was a fan of these, and the German writer Goethe and Emperor Leopold were also keen visitors to the museum.

The museum is housed in the Palazzo Torrigiani, built by Baccio d’Agnolo in the early 16th century and later bought by Luca Torrigiani, a successful trader of luxury goods. In the 1770s, the palazzo was acquired by Grand Duke Peter Leopold as a place to gather all the ‘natural products’ housed in the Uffizi Gallery. The building also included a small tower with an astronomical observatory (or specola), from which the museum gets its modern name. When it opened in the 18th century, it was one of the first public museums in Europe and celebrated as a thing of beauty: for example, parts of the building are decorated with frescoes and pietra dura, an inlay technique using coloured stones to create images. Here they show some of the main Italian scientific achievements from the Renaissance to the late 18th century.

Today, the museum contains objects from the Medici collections, such as fossils, vases, bowls, and wax models of flowers and plants. There’s also an extensive zoological collection, which includes some impressive taxidermy. Here you’ll find some now-extinct specimens, such as the Tasmanian Tiger, as well as a 17th-century stuffed hippopotamus that lived for some years in the nearby Boboli Gardens.

Surprisingly, this fascinating, eclectic museum is overlooked by many, and visitors can often enjoy a tour of the exhibits within surprisingly quiet galleries.

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