Thursday, 1 September 2016

Postcard from Florence 2: La Specola

La Specola? No, not a fizzy drink, or some form of bribe paid to opticians, but a museum. Florence is full of galleries and museums, of course, from the Uffizi on down. On a city-based holiday in a hot climate, restricted to walking or public transport, a good supply of air-conditioned interiors is an important feature. Shops will do, but you can only pretend to be browsing the upscale goods for so long. Museums and galleries are perfect.

We had booked Uffizi tickets weeks in advance – you have specify a day and a half-hour entry time-slot – but still had to join a queue to collect our pre-booked tickets, and then queue again to enter the hallowed precincts. Ditto all the major attractions. At peak times the centre of Florence looks like an amusement park, with lines of fun-seekers going round the block for the most popular rides. After a bit, you begin to suspect that Stendhal Syndrome* has less to do with being overwhelmed by too much art than with the effects of excessive queueing in Italian sunshine.

It was therefore a pleasant surprise to discover a museum that required neither pre-booking nor queueing and which – having grown weary of endless Annunciations, Crucifixions, Lamentations and Depositions – contained no art. At least, no art of the kind that turned Stendhal's brain to dizzy jelly. Although if the idea of brains turned to jelly makes you feel even slightly queasy then La Specola – or, to give it its full title, The Museum of Natural History of the University of Florence, Zoology Section, "La Specola"("The Observatory") – is probably not for you. Frankly, normal people do not travel to Florence with the aim of admiring cabinets of ancient stuffed animals and especially do not relish the prospect of examining one of the world's great collections of wax models of human anatomy and pathology. But then you and I have never pretended to be normal, have we?

Taxidermy and taxonomy are standard museum fare, of course, though I was never going to pass up an opportunity to refresh my cast of crows, hawks and any other beasts that might come in handy for photo-collages. In La Specola I was particularly taken by an array of snakes and amphibians bottled in formaldehyde. If you admire the museological photography of Rosalind Wolff-Purcell then you'll understand the attraction. There's something strangely peaceful and almost mystical about these pale, preserved individuals dreaming away the centuries in what appears to be suspended animation, like voyagers in deep space. And where else are you going to see the truly badly stuffed hide of the Medici's pet hippopotamus?

Detailed wax anatomical models are rather less common, however, and this is a particularly spectacular collection. There are 1400 items copied from dissected corpses in the 18th century and, although originally created for medical teaching purposes, it has also been open to the public since 1775, in a very bold project of Enlightenment. Goethe himself is said to have visited, though I can see no mention of it in his flying visit to Florence in 1786 in the Italian Journey ("Also visited La Specola. No queue! But, eewww, icky and totally gross!")

It is certainly not for the squeamish. My partner wisely opted to visit the nearby Boboli Gardens instead, while I and my daughter boldly ventured inside. Now, these wax models are in a different league of accurate representation to those blank-eyed shop dummies in Madame Tussaud's, I can tell you. They're realer than real, like all the best illustrations. The trick is knowing when not to look. It's easy enough to glance away from a lovingly recreated diorama of the Plague, with the intestines of rotting corpses being eaten by rats, splayed on the stained bedding and dirt floor of a Florentine hovel, or to let fascination overcome revulsion when studying entire bodies reduced to 3D wiring diagrams of nerves and blood vessels, apparently floating in space. It's rather less easy to spot the dissected sets of genitalia pinned to boards for what they are before recoiling in horror. And there are some truly unmentionable things in there which may haunt your nightmares if you gaze on them for too long. Apparently the Marquis de Sade was another celebrated visitor. That's all I'm saying. Enlightenment is a mansion of many rooms, some of which are best kept shut.

Phew, I think they're just feet...

* a.k.a. Florence Syndrome, i,e, rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations caused when an individual is exposed to a concentration of great art.


Martin Hodges said...

I've been tempted to travel to Florence, Mike. However, I'm not really a born traveller. If only I could be beamed to a place of interest and beamed back again in time for tea (not necessarily on the same day). Luckily, I have your well written accounts to read in lieu of any airport/flying/hotel booking...for the time being.

Mike C. said...


To be honest, I loathe travelling, as such, these days. A short trip to the airport, a couple of hours flying, then a taxi or a hire car, is about my limit. Sadly, Southampton airport doesn't fly to many choice destinations (though Bergerac is handy), so we've been going from Bristol, lately.

Now is the time, though -- leave it much longer and you won't want to leave your favourite chair, never mind the country...