Ghouls will like wandering the halls of the monastery, but they will love the Museo di Storia Naturale di Pisa. No petting zoo this, although local families do bring their young’uns here in droves, especially over the weekends. Come on a weekday afternoon, when the tide of school groups has ebbed, and you will have free range of a strange and wonderful place inhabited by long-ago giraffes, would have been monsters and could have been babies. And the largest collection of whale skeletons in Italy.
Real and frescoed windows
The collection is property of the Universita’ di Pisa and, having been founded in the late 1500’s by Ferdinand I de Medici, is one of the oldest museum collections in the world. Later members of the de Medici family dipped into its stores for their curiosity cabinets and gradually the museum fell into disrepair. In the mid 1800’s director Paolo Savi, a zoologist, geologist, ornithologist and excellent taxidermist turned the museum into one of the greatest natural history collections in Europe. The collections were moved to Calci in 1979.
The ground floor is a long, narrow space with rough terracotta floors, formerly used for storing the monastery’s olive oil and wine.
The first museum section has assortments of naturalia and artificialia in elegant antique vitrines that are a bit lost in the architectural context but draw you for the sheer oddity of their contents: well-endowed bats, monkey teeth, eggs, shells, minerals and bird’s feet: this place has it all, often on original turned wood stands and with hand written labels.
It also has a fine collection of glass jellyfish by Leopold Blaschka (also famous for his glass flowers at the Harvard Museum of Natural History) who supposedly reproduced the real creatures that the Grand Duke Leopold fished when they were sailing together.
The collection and it was put together for science, but when you’re looking at Paolo Savi’s theatrically gory 19th century taxidermy tableaux it can be hard to keep that in mind. The spectacle is vicious and delicious, created to illustrate ferocious beasts’ natural inclinations, not to candidate them as teddy bear material.
Here a python eats a spatula whole. There a condor pecks out a donkey’s juicy eyeball. It’s a dog eat dog world, survival of the fittest years before Darwin set off on his travels.
The Paolo Savi section also displays his wax reproductions of internal organs and his specimens in jars. All are still in original cabinets with hand-blown glass and inlaid wood.
You’ll find a baby horse, flayed, splayed and displayed, turtle lungs, donkey hearts, tapir uterus and frogs caught in the act. And even stranger things like a walrus bladder and penis.
The sad death of the Grand Duke’s giraffe prompted its complete dissection and preservation.
And after the scary taxidermy the snails in bell jars seem almost cuddly.
There are meteorites and quartzites, primates, locally sourced dinosaurs and an anthropologist’s studio too.
Giraffes are always looking down on me.
The top floor of the building was an open space used for drying olives and grapes. Today it has been glassed in and houses a collection of 27 cetacean skeletons. It’s hard to describe the beauty of this simple space. Old, cracked terracotta tiles, views out onto the Certosa, its orchards and the surrounding hillsides. White-washed beams and bleached bones.
When you compare the backbones and ribs of the skeletons with the beams and scantlings of the building you really wonder who stole whose construction methods. The bones are stenciled with the places and dates they were found and are held in place by custom-forged iron structures.
The 24mt blue whale has Pinocchio, the greatest Italian liar, in her belly.
Other uniquely Italian touches are in the room dedicated to “La Terra fra Mito e Scienza,” The Earth between Myth and Science. There you’ll find an Ark of taxidermy animals with Noah himself mending his fishing nets; there’s even a Holy Spirit dove flying in with an olive branch. Also present: a unicorn and the Cyclops Polyphemus.
On site there is also a small aquarium and a dinosaur park complete with roars.
Suggested reading: Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi