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In 1841 the participants of the the Third Congress of Italian Scientists, held at Florence, accepted the proposal to establish a National Central Collection of Mineralogy and Geology within the Royal Museum of Physics and Natural History of Florence, recognizing that, in the words written by Igino Cocchi in 1871, rocks and fossils were the necessary «seeds of the Geological Map». Twenty years later, in the year of the Italian unification, the project was scaled down to only fossils giving life to the Italian Central Italian Paleontological Collection, still seen today in Florence

The history

In 1861, Igino Cocchi, disciple of Leopoldo Pilla (first Professor of Geology of Italy) and Pietro Savi, both protagonists of the 1841 congress, obtained unanimous approval from a national Giunta Geologica for the establishment of an Italian Paleontological Collection and Central Library in Florence. The Giunta had the explicit task of setting the rules to draw the first Geological Map of Italy. Getting to work, Cocchi took on the revision of the catalogue of fossil shells consisting of 2880 pieces, and set out to expand it with numerous acquisitions from several localities, and with his own collections from Tuscany and many important geological sites in Europe. Indeed, the creation of the Geological Map of Italy could not do without knowledge of the paleontology of the kingdom, the basis of a valid stratigraphy, and this necessity compelled most of the Italian geologists to take action. Thus, the first decade after Italian unification saw the most intense production of systematic works, especially on “Tertiary and Secondary” faunas, in which the Italian peninsula is rich. They were also the years in which a very large amount of material came to Florence from all parts of Italy, collected and sent by most geologists active at the time. A large part of the collections that now enrich the Florentine museum was both the fruit and the research tool of this golden period of Italian paleontology. The first volume of the catalogue was published in 1872, dedicated to the geologically youngest remains. When the Royal Geological Committee was transferred in Rome in 1873, the Florentine collections lost their centrality. Not so for the geologists active in town, who continued to increase the collections up to more than 200.000 specimens, particularly under the guidance of Carlo De Stefani, director of the Geological Institute of Florence from 1888 to 1924. In 1880, the geological and paleontological collections had been transferred, from their original location at the “Specola” to Via La Pira 4, near San Marco Square. In 1924 they were ordered in the rooms at the second floor, expressly built to house them, in the chronostratigraphic order hoped for by the early “Italian Scientists”.

The collections

In 1862-1863, the Piedmontese geologists Angelo Sismonda, Luigi Rovasenda and Giovanni Michelotti sent a large collection from the Tertiary deposits of Piedmont (Turin hill, Tortona) and Liguria (Albenga, Savona), with more than 5000 specimens. In 1866, Giuseppe Scarabelli sent both marine and terrestrial fossils from the Tertiary of Romagna, while abbot Antonio Stoppani brought to Florence a good sample of the Pliocene fauna of Lombardy. From 1861 to 1868, there arrived the fossil marine invertebrates collected and identified by Giuseppe Seguenza and his son Luigi (material is particularly valuable considering that the original collections were lost during the 1908 Messina earthquake).

In the same years, cavalier Roberto Lawley, a student of the Pisan Vittorio Pecchioli, donated his rich collection of marine vertebrates of the Tuscan Pliocene, with cetaceans, selachians and invertebrates. Moreover, the rich collection of Pliocene invertebrates of his teacher, together with Tertiary invertebrates from important European regions, arrived in 1875 accompanied by valuable handwritten catalogues. To supplement the European collections initiated by Targioni and greatly enhanced by Cocchi and Pecchioli, new material was purchased from the main dealers active at the time, such as Louis Saemann in Paris and Bernard Strüntz in Bonn.

In 1880, the Geology and Paleontology Laboratory of the Royal Museum of Physics and Natural History, was transferred to San Marco Square, while the collections remained at La Specola in via Romana, to be definitively transferred to San Marco in 1890.

Selected texts

«To accomplish the task to form at this Royal Museum of Physics and Natural History, a Geological and Mineralogical Collection from the various parts of Italy, we establish that […] for Secondary terrains, the fossils follow the rocks of each formation, but that for Tertiary terrains the fossils form a separated series. […] That the geologists are prompted to send fossils from Secondary terrains, the determination of which is very important, and up to the present day little advanced for the difficulty to carry out the necessary comparisons. […] Italian geologists who are not present at the Congress are invited to send rocks, minerals and fossils from their countries as well»

Savi P. and Sismonda A. (1841). Proceedings of the Third Congress of Italian Scientists, held in Florence in September 1841.

«The Grand ducal Museum at Florence contains a collection of Mammalian remains from the Pliocene deposits of the Val d’Arno, unrivalled in Europe both for their abundance and for the perfect condition in which they are preserved. Elsewhere paleontologists are compelled to grope their way by the faint light of mutilated specimens; there the fossil remains of the same forms are presented entire. A good monograph, liberally illustrated, upon the fossil Mammalia of the Val d’Arno would reflect as bright a lustre on the Italian diadem, as do the chefs-d’oeuvre of the Tribune or the Galleries of the Palazzo Pitti»

Hugh Falconer, 1865 (read at the Geological Society of London)

In the web

Proceedings of the Third Congress of Italian Scientists

On the map

The “Sistine Chapel” of Fossils

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.

Cocchi I. (1871). Brevi cenni sui principali Istituti e Comitati Geologici e sul R. Comitato Geologico d’Italia per servire da introduzione al I volume delle Memorie. Memorie del Regio Comitato Geologico d’Italia, 1: 3-33.

Cocchi I. (1872). Raccolta degli oggetti de’ così detti Tempi Preistorici. Cataloghi della collezione centrale italiana di paleontologica, 1, Civelli, Firenze, 104 pp.

Corsi P. (2003). La Carta Geologica d’Italia: agli inizi di un lungo contenzioso. In: Vai G.B., Cavazza W. (eds.), Four Centuries of the Word Geology. Ulisse Aldrovandi 1603 in Bologna. Minerva: 271-300.

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