Florence, Museo di Biomedica, Museo di Anatomia Teratologica

Museo di Anatomia Teratologica

Only in Italy will you find copies of Michelangelo’s Young and Bearded Slaves (the originals are in the Museo dell’Accademia and were intended to embellish the tomb of Pope Julius II) at the entrance to a hospital building but, come to think of it, they are fitting visual metaphors for the eternal battle of man against illness. The University of Florence’s Museo di Biomedica is located in a fascist era building at the Careggi Hospital: you’ll know you’re there when you see the Slaves. The collection is divided into two sections, the Museo di Anatomia Teratologica and the Museo di Anatomia Patologica, located on the top floors of twin wings of the beautiful but decaying building. Both are only open by appointment so call 055 2756444 at least a week in advance of your desired visiting date. Tours cost a flat fee of 30 euros (whether you’re one person or 25) and are guided. Our guide was a newly graduated entomologist and a very pleasant person.

The Museo di Anatomia Teratologica

While the building that houses the MAT was probably built in the 1940’s and hasn’t been touched since, most of the collection inside is from about the 1840s and is still housed in fabulous old wooden display cases with the original hand-blown glass. The MAT opens with a small tribute to Filippo Pacini, an anatomist and student of Paolo Savi’s. Pacini discovered Pacinian corpuscles, sensory organs in the nervous system, when he was just twenty-three and first isolated cholera in 1854- only getting official credit for it in 1965. There is a cholera slide of Pacini’s and a wax model of his corpuscles by Remigio Lei. In another room you’ll find his fascinating models of spinal fluid and the central nervous system.

Teratology is the study of abnormalities, but what is normal? Entering the large, sunlit room of the museum you first see an antique display case filled to brimming with human skulls that are labeled “teschio di genovese,” “teschio di milanese,” etc. Because if you’re from Florence and in Florence you’re possibly normal, if you’re in Florence but from, say, Genoa or Milan you’re probably strange and maybe your brain or the shape of your skull could be a tip off as to why.

Skulls from all over Italy and a cast of a Medici cranium

There is a rather lovely blue and white enameled German brain slicer amongst other scientific instruments purchased back in the day to aid this study of gray matter.

A brain slicer, you never know when it might come in handy

Most of the adults who “donated” their bodies to science were executed criminals and this could explain where the framed pieces of tattooed skin, one dedicated to “Firenze,” came from.IMG_1725

Other exhibits are exsiccated or in alcohol, all are still on antique turned wood mounts or in hand-blown glass jars. Hand-penned labels in lovely cursive script identify “Giano bifronte,” Janus with two faces (in Roman times the god of all beginnings, here in a glass jar,) and brutally refer to malformed babies, Siamese twins etc as “mostri,” monstrosities.

A section of this museum is donated to a singular man who some considered a mostro himself, Girolamo Segato. He gets a post unto himself.

Suggested reading: Bram Stoker, The Jewel of the Seven Stars


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