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The collection that belonged to Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti, born in Florence in 1712, included the collections owned by his father, Benedetto Targioni Tozzetti, and by his teacher Pier Antonio Micheli, bought in 1739. Great naturalist, dubbed by Alberto Fortis “the Tuscan Plinio”, Giovanni Targioni was charged in 1763 od the reordering of the Natural History collections of the Granduke of Tuscany. When he died, his son Ottaviano inherited and reordered the collections together with the Catalogue of Natural Productions. Today we can recognise which specimens belonged to his father through original handwritten labels, a minimum part of one of the most important museums of Europe of the Eighteenth century.

In 1739 the Florentine Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti, prefect of Magliabechian Library, was appointed Pier Antonio Micheli’s successor as director of the Botanical Garden. In the city, he was considered a man of learning and was a member of the most authoritative societies such as the Colombaria Academy (with the nickname «L’abboccato») and the Georgofili Academy, which he co-founded. A great collector of natural objects, owner since 1739 of the entire collection of his teacher Pier Antonio Micheli, and heir to the collection begun by his father Benedetto Targioni Tozzetti, he began in 1750 to compile the Catalogue of the Mineralogical Collection of the museum created in his house in via Ghibellina, consisting of 11 volumes where the fossils were included among the minerals. Because of his fame, the Granduke Francesco II of Tuscany charged him with the compilation of a Catalogue of the Natural Productions of Tuscany in 1763, so as to re-order the granducal collection that had accumulated without inventories and «provisionally stored in some confusion and without method in a room called the “shell room” and in another small room under the staircase of the Pitti corridor». This work, crystallizing the taxonomic and genetic concepts of one of the greatest naturalists of the 18th century, and at the same time laying the foundation for the establishment of the future Museum of Natural History in 1775, was pioneering in the field of museology. The total number of pieces was 3449, divided among animals, vegetables (as plants were then called) and fossils (2340 animals, 375 plants, 734 fossils). True fossils were here listed among the animals, at the end of the entries referring to extant forms, while the term “fossils” was kept for stones and minerals. Based on field observations made during his travels, and according to a theoretical and methodological system he had developed in the meantime, Targioni concluded that fossils were valuable evidence for an understanding of life in the past, recognizing for example the true antiquity of the Tuscan elephant remains in his Relazioni di viaggi at the half of the century. The argument was so strong and novel that Targioni felt compelled to publish in France a Léttre addressed to Count Buffon (1707-1788), who then cited in his Époques the vertebrate fossils of Tuscany known thanks to the Florentine scholar.

The fossils that belonged to Giovanni Targioni’s original collection can be recognised thanks to his handwritten labels tied with a lace to the fossils. Numbers written in each label correspond to entries in the handwritten catalogue.

Selected texts

«Studying Nature on books and on one’s desk, one will easily get satisfied by speciose Systems invented up to this moment to explain the structure of this Globe of ours, and the formation of mountains: but if one will take the time to observe natural productions on their native places, and check by himself what mountains really are, he will doubt about any System»

«Another vast cemetery of elephants has recently been discovered in the lower Valdarno near Cerreto Guidi; one can say that these elephants of the lower Valdarno are not those of Hannibal, and they confirmed my conjecture that they are of the ancient race that inhabited Europe».

«These bones give us greater insight to trace their origin, they are of many elephants of different ages and sizes dispersed here and there in the horizontal strata of sand and clay […] and they are mixed with the fossil shells of marine origin, which are commonly referred to as diluvial […] animals that once, long before any human memory, were native to Tuscany, and for many centuries since then are no more. Such are the elephants, the hippopotamuses, certain immense unknown animals, of which one finds buried the Bones and the Teeth, &c., and we can add the Bears of which the race has now disappeared from among us».

Others said about him

«The living Tuscan Plionio, the most scrupulous observer, among those that Italy had, of Nature’s operations on mountains» – Alberto Fortis (1778)

Further reading

Cioppi E. & Dominici S. (2010). Origin and development of the geological and paleontological collections. In Monechi M. & Rook L. (Eds.), The Museum of Natural History of the University of Florence. The geological and paleontological collections. Firenze University Press, Firenze, 18-55.

Dominici S. (2009). Steno, Targioni, and the two forerunners. Journal of Mediterranean Earth Sciences 1: 101-110.

Cipriani C. & Scarpellini A. (2007). Un contributo alla mineralogia settecentesca. La Collezione di Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti. Olschki, Firenze, 200 pp.

Targioni Tozzetti G. (1749-1754). Relazioni di Viaggi fatti in Toscana. Stamperia Imperiale, Firenze, 6 volumes.

Virtual exhibition – Museo Galilei

Words by Stefano Dominici
Photos by Saulo Bambi (Archives of the Natural History Museum, University of Florence)