The Resurrection of the ‘La Specola’ Museum

A display case at the La Specola Museum

Florence’s La Specola (via Romana 17) reopens February 26 after pre-Covid closure for renovations and expansion. The works, both enlarging the space and restoring much of the collection, allow visitors to explore two new wings of the science and natural history museum. The new sections, dedicated to mineralogy in addition to depictions and dissections of plants and flowers in wax, contain never before displayed works. 

La Specola (which means observatory in Italian) claims an interesting historical distinction, that of the first European science museum to open its doors to ordinary citizens if they “looked clean.”  The Tuscan ruler Grand Duke Peter Leopold, in line with theories of the Enlightenment, opened the collections on February 21, 1775, aiming to educate Florentines in science and the natural laws of nature. 

The wax collection, the largest in the world, contains numerous works of human anatomy in detail with various body parts and organs and their entire nervous, circulatory, skeletal-muscular and reproductive systems. Recently restored anatomical waxes created by Gaetano Zumbo in the 16th century, reveal his knowledge of medical physiology. Of particular interest historically were the wax models of nude women in erotic poses, but with their stomachs and chests open to display their inner workings.

The museum contains the Salone degli Scheletri, a large room with 120 display cases exhibiting 3,000 skeletons of numerous species, including mammals from all over the world. A curiosity from history, a stuffed hippopotamus that once lived in the Boboli Gardens as the family pet, towers over some of the smaller specimens. In addition, visitors can see the elephant that was displayed in the Loggia dei Lanzi of Piazza della Signoria when it was alive. 

Galileo has his own space, the Tribuna di Galileo, where his statue honors the great Tuscan scientific pioneer. Frescoes line the walls, depicting events in the life of the great scientist.

Visitors should take advantage to ascend to the top floor, called Il Torrino, an astronomical tower with a giant telescope. A fine 360-degree view over Florence rewards any who make the climb.

The curators of La Specola invite the citizenry to come and explore the renovated and expanded collection 249 years after the original opening. Cleanliness inspections are not planned, but surprises and fascinating displays are guaranteed. (Rita Kungel)

Hours are 9 am – 5 pm daily, closed Monday; admission €10, reduced €5.