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The Stoppani Collection was often considered a collection which had been lost, known only from lithographs amongst the plates which illustrated his publications. The collection, located in the Museum of Natural History in Milan, which was Stoppani’s most important legacy to posterity, was, in effect, entirely destroyed by bombing during the Second World War. However, some few specimens kept elsewhere, escaped destruction. This is a small testimony to the original collection, and one which still merits the name of “Stoppani Collection”.

Antonio Stoppani was born in Lecco in 1824, and grew up in the vicinity of the steep Triassic slopes of the Grigna mountain massif. He was ordained abbot in 1848, and in the same year took part in the anti-Austrian uprising which culminated in the “Cinque Giornate” (Five Days) in Milan. A strong advocate of reconciling the dogmas of the Catholic Church with Positivist thought, Abbot Stoppani was, above all, one of the founding fathers of Italian geology, and a great populariser of the natural history of our country during the time of the formation of national identity with his celebrated Il Bel Paese. Conservazioni sulle bellezze naturali la geologia e la geografia fisica d’Italia. Stoppani dedicated a considerable part of his studies to the places and to the territory in which he grew up and where he began his academic career. From 1858 to 1860 he published a monograph on the Limestone of Esino, Les pétrifications d’Esino et de Lenna, in which he described 317 species of fossils he had discovered and catalogued, defining 214 new species and describing another 92 already defined by other writers. These were ammonites, gastropods and lamellibranchs of great importance for the compilation of the book, and the central focus of this great geologist’s private collection.

The young Stoppani kept his collection where he lived and undertook his philosophical studies, the seminary high school in Monza. The Abbot died in 1891, and his collection remained at the seminary until 1930, the year in which it finally closed, when they were packed and transferred, without much care, to the new seminary of Venegono Inferiore in the province of Varese. Meanwhile, most of the finds upon which he had based his studies were distributed between different locations, amongst which the most important was the Museum of Natural History in Milan, of which Stoppani was Director from 1882 until his death. In 1943, during the Second World War, the building was seriously damaged by bombing, and his collections were lost. Only 88 specimens related to 45 different species (fossil molluscs of the Limestone of Esino), which had been transferred to the University of Milan for study, escaped this disaster. But, forgotten at Venegono, were the even earlier specimens from Stoppani’s time at the high school, waiting to be rediscovered.

In 1952 a Museum of Natural History dedicated to the memory of Antonio Stoppani was officially inaugurated within the complex of the Seminary of Venegono Inferiore. The nucleus of the existing paleontological collection, which can be seen today, is made up of specimens transferred from the seminary of Monza. Some fossils are accompanied by a small autograph label, others with Stoppani’s handwriting on the specimen itself. Even when lacking the original label, other specimens can be attributed to the Abbot, for example Pinna miliaria, from its imperfections and from the fractures in the rock which are identical to those in the lithograph on page 387 of the Studi geologici e paleontologici sulla Lombardia and in Table 9 of Paléontologie Lombarde, from the end of the 1850s.

The Stoppani bequest held by the Museum of Natural History in Venegono is today made up of 422 items belonging to the first Stoppani Collection, and was catalogued recently. Amongst the items which are worthy of note are the pliocene molluscs of San Colombano, some slabs with fish from Bolca, the reptiles from Besano (VA), and the famous pétrifications d’Esino: gastropods, lamellibranchs and bivalves of the Lombard Triassic, from the alpine foothills in Piedmont, exhibited in their own cabinet.

Further reading

Garassino A. (1992). Catalogo dei tipi del Museo Civico di Storia Naturale di Milano. Atti della Società italiana di scienze naturali e del Museo Civico di Storia Naturale di Milano 133, 245-260.

Gentili E. & Pieroni V. (2011). Memorie di Antonio Stoppani nel seminario di Venegono. La scuola cattolica 3/2011, 431-454.

Pieroni V. (2014). I fossili raccolti da Antonio Stoppani conservati nel museo del Seminario Pio XI di Venegono Inferiore.

Stoppani A. (1850-1860). Les pétrifications d’Ésino; ou, Description des fossiles appartenant au dépot triasique supérieur des environs d’Ésino en Lombardie; divisés en quatre monographies comprenant les gastéropodes, les acéphales, les brachiopodes, les céphalopodes, les crinoïdes, les zoophytes et les amorphozoaires, par l’abbé Antoine Stoppani (…) avec une carte géologique et les figures des espèces lithographiées d’après nature. Bernardoni, Milano.

Stoppani A. (1857). Studii geologici e paleontologici sulla Lombardia. Turati, Milano.

Words by Luca Jaselli translated by Stuart Wallace
Photos by Luca Jaselli, kind permission of Museo di Storia Naturale “Antonio Stoppani”, Venegono Inferiore (VA)