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The Paleontological Collections are part of the Geological and Historical Collections of the Italian Geological Survey of ISPRA (Istituto Superiore per la Protezione e la Ricerca Ambientale – Higher Institute for Environmental Protection and Research). They constituted, and still constitute today, the most conspicuous and precise memory of the vast study and research program launched after the unification of the country for geological knowledge of the territory and industrial and infrastructural reorganization.
In 1873, the Royal Geological Committee, whose aim was to promote the collection of fossils and rocks during the survey works for the Geological Map in order to create a litho-paleontological museum, set the guidelines for the compilation of the Geological Map of the Italian territory, through the work of the Royal Geological Survey. Thus the foundations were laid for a systematic collection of fossil finds on the Italian territory. Only after 1877 did the first surveys of the Italian territory begin, in particular in Sicily and Sardinia, which at the time represented the largest mining basins in Italy. The first stratigraphic survey refers to the excavation campaign conducted by Giuseppe Meneghini in the Iglesiente area, in Sardinia, during which several fossil remains were sampled in the Paleozoic rocks, the oldest in Italy. These fossils, consisting mainly of Cambrian trilobites, were studied and published by Meneghini himself, and formed the first nucleus of the prestigious collection still preserved in ISPRA.

The numerous surveying campaigns that followed throughout Italy, increased the collections of thousands of fossil finds, sampled and systematically ordered by many scholars, such as Meneghini himself, Curioni, Canavari, Lotti, Viola, Clerici, Checchia Rispoli, Crema, Di Stefano, just to name a few. In the same period, the Geological Committee also oversaw the acquisition of private collections such as, for example, the prestigious Giulio Curioni collection, composed of thousands of fossil finds, rocks and minerals from Lombardy. This collection includes numerous fossils belonging to different taxonomic groups, among which are noteworthy the precious Lariosaurs of Perledo (Lecco), amphibian reptiles from the Triassic period, ancestors of the dinosaurs.

The fossil finds coming from the excavation campaigns for the Geological Map of Italy, first sorted and classified at the paleontological laboratory of Pisa, were sent in 1886 to the new paleontological laboratory, directed by Mario Canavari, at the Geological Agricultural Museum of Rome. This laboratory then officially became, in 1896, the Paleontological Cabinet of the Museum. In the new museum was set up an exhibition room dedicated to paleontological collections with classified fossil finds, organized in a taxonomic and regional order, while in the new spaces assigned to the Cabinet, finds in the study and ordering phase were placed. In this period great impulse was given to the paleontological study of the finds in relation to stratigraphy and cartography; scientific activities were disseminated and popularized through numerous specialist works on the various taxonomic groups by the greatest scholars such as Meneghini, Checchia Rispoli, Crema, Curioni.

In the following years, and for a long period, the paleontological collections had a substantial increase through the contribution of the finds collected by geologists, among the best known in the specialized literature, in the long survey activity carried out – on behalf of the Geological Survey of Italy – for the realization of the Geological Map on a scale of 1: 100,000. They were also increased thanks to significant donations, exchanges and purchases with similar national and foreign scientific institutes.

Currently the paleontological collections consist of about 100,000 finds, distributed in numerous collections, many of which are of considerable importance both for their scientific content and for their historical and museum profile. The preserved fossil finds are represented by vertebrates and invertebrates (marine and continental), and by plants, lived from the Paleozoic era to the Quaternary era. Among these are 244 type fossils, unique specimens of reference for the world taxonomy represented mainly by trilobites and, subordinately, echinoderms, ammonites, bivalves, gastropods, reptiles and fish.

The entire paleontological heritage is divided into four main macro areas:

General Collection (about 76,000 finds), consisting of specimens belonging mainly to the invertebrate group, collected during the survey activities for the realization of the Geological Map of Italy, and in research campaigns in the former Italian colonial Africa; but also the result of exchanges, purchases and donations.

Historical Collections (about 20,000 finds), prestigious collections, established since the birth of the paleontological laboratory, represented by various taxonomic groups with regional location, that were since last century subject of studies and publications by illustrious scientists. They are defined both with the name of the group they belong to (Collections Graptolites, Ammonites, Rudists, Ichthyofauna) and with the name of the scholar who established or studied them (Collections Bonarelli, Canavari, Checchia Rispoli, Curioni, Malatesta, Meneghini-Rasetti). Enormous value has the presence in these collections of almost all the preserved “Types” represented by trilobites, echinoderms, ammonites, bivalves, gastropods, reptiles and fish.

Vertebrates Collection (about 3,000 specimens), mainly consisting of finds belonging to the Plio-Pleistocene mammal fauna, coming from deposits of the Roman countryside, Tuscany and Sicily.

Plants Collection (about 600 finds), it includes both isolated specimens and several collections of fossil vegetables from Italian and foreign localities including, of particular value, the Paleozoic ones from the coal mining basins of Germany, Poland and Sardinia, as well as from the permian-triassic deposits of Tuscany.

Following the events that led to the closure of the historical headquarters of the Geological Agricultural Museum, currently, after 150 years of history, this huge paleontological heritage, a precious record of life in Italy over the various geological eras, is now boxed in 64 wooden cases and 13 among special crates, packaging and pallets, and stored in the warehouse.

Read more

Virtual Museum of Geological and Historical Collections
Paleontological Collections
Catalog: The Type Fossils preserved in the Paleontological Collections – Collezioni Museali, 2015

Texts: Roberta Rossi – Chief of Museum Activities Area – ISPRA Traslation: Alberto Compagnone – Museum Activities Area – ISPRA Images: Photographic Archive of the Museum Activities Area – ISPRA