Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy / Edition 1

Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy / Edition 1

by Paula Findlen
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University of California Press


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Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy / Edition 1

In 1500 few Europeans regarded nature as a subject worthy of inquiry. Yet fifty years later the first museums of natural history had appeared in Italy, dedicated to the marvels of nature. Italian patricians, their curiosity fueled by new voyages of exploration and the humanist rediscovery of nature, created vast collections as a means of knowing the world and used this knowledge to their greater glory.

Drawing on extensive archives of visitors' books, letters, travel journals, memoirs, and pleas for patronage, Paula Findlen reconstructs the lost social world of Renaissance and Baroque museums. She follows the new study of natural history as it moved out of the universities and into sixteenth- and seventeenth-century scientific societies, religious orders, and princely courts. Findlen argues convincingly that natural history as a discipline blurred the border between the ancients and the moderns, between collecting in order to recover ancient wisdom and the development of new textual and experimental scholarship. Her vivid account reveals how the scientific revolution grew from the constant mediation between the old forms of knowledge and the new.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520205086
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/02/1996
Series: Studies on the History of Society and Culture Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 449
Sales rank: 1,038,964
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.25(d)

About the Author

Paula Findlen is Professor of History and Director of the Science, Technology and Society Program at Stanford University

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Possessing Nature

Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy

By Paula Findlen


Copyright © 1994 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-91778-1


"A World of Wonders in One Closet Shut"


On 13 May 1572, the very day that Ugo Buoncompagni had chosen to return to his hometown to be invested as Gregory XIII (1572–1585), a fearsome dragon appeared in the countryside near Bologna, an omen of terrible times to come. Soon word of its presence spread, and a party was sent out to overtake it. The captured portent was duly carried inside the walls of the city for its citizens to inspect. Entrusted with its disposal, the senator Orazio Fontana consigned the large serpent to his brother-in-law Ulisse Aldrovandi, a collector of strange and wonderful things and an expert in draconology. As cousin of the newly elected Pope, Aldrovandi had an added claim to possess the prodigious serpent; in a strange way, his fortune too was bound to its discovery.

The naturalist promptly displayed his latest acquisition in his famous museum, where "an infinite number of gentlemen came to my house to see it." The appearance of the dragon was an occasion for extemporaneous poems such as the one by Augustus Gottuvius, describing Aldrovandi as no less fortunate than the first Ulysses, encounterer of other quasi-mythical creatures, for now his museum was complete. Almost immediately Aldrovandi set about writing a treatise on the dragon, including examples of all other serpents he had ever seen or heard of. "In that time, I wrote a Latin history of that dragon in less than two months, divided into seven books and entitled the Dracologia," he explained to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Francesco I. The naturalist also used this opportunity to reopen the debate about one of the many paradoxes that bedeviled the community of naturalists: whether or not serpents generated spontaneously from an alleged rooster's egg. In addition, he had one of the artists whom he employed full-time in his museum illustrate the dragon for posterity (fig. 1). Aldrovandi lost no time in maximizing the scholarly yield out of this well-publicized natural curiosity. Soon his authoritative descriptions were the talk of Italy.

While the appearance of the serpent was initially a local event, its connection with the election of a new pope ensured that it would be widely publicized beyond the confines of the city. Furthermore, the addition of the serpent to Aldrovandi's collection immediately elevated it from the realm of popular lore to the domain of science. In a matter of a few weeks, naturalists, collectors, and the simply curious in all parts of Italy bombarded Aldrovandi with requests for information about the papal portent. From Imola, Filippo Sega wrote to inquire whether a sign—"almost an emblem or a hieroglyph"—had been impressed in the dragon. Like many other correspondents, he desired a full description of the dragon's remarkable parts to read properly the significance of this unnatural phenomenon. Aldrovandi, in his capacity as the owner of the portent, was the one person authorized to have complete knowledge of this singular piece of nature.

By summer, the attributes of the papal portent had been duly magnified, as the story made its way through the Italian cities. "The other day certain Monks from Certosa told me about the monstrous serpent with a bird's feet ... and fish's head found on the Bolognese," wrote the physician Alfonso Pancio from Ferrara on 6 July 1572, "and they said that Your Excellence has it and has had it illustrated. They begged me to write to you and find out if such a thing were true." Discussing the news with the good citizens of Ferrara, Pancio discovered that his nephew Francesco Anguilla had already seen the serpent and could testify to its existence. Accordingly, Pancio asked his friend to send a picture to his patron Duke Alfonso II d'Este, as a token of their mutual affection. Eager to please a powerful prince, the Bolognese naturalist promptly discharged his obligation. "I received your letter, together with the picture of the Dragon, which is most dear to me," reported Pancio on 25 November, "and I thank Your Excellence infinitely, awaiting to see the history of it." Once again, Aldrovandi's authority in the true reporting of the phenomenon was acknowledged. His possession of the object gave the illustrations that he sent to the physician Pancio and the Duke of Ferrara a heightened credibility.

The Duke of Ferrara was not the only patron anxious to see the Dracologia in print. In Padua, naturalists such as Melchior Wieland (known to the Italians as Guillandino), prefect of the botanical garden, and the humanist Giovan Vincenzo Pinelli clamored for news of the latest marvel. "Now he and I greatly desire that Your Excellence favor us with your history of the two-footed Dragon," wrote Pinelli on 25 August 1572. In the winter of that same year, no doubt in response to Aldrovandi's protests that he had neither the time nor the scribes to disseminate adequately the manuscript version of the Dracologia to everyone who requested it, Pinelli urged him to publish it as soon as possible. "We will await the printed history of the dragon." Despite these pleas, Aldrovandi's history of serpents was not published until 1639, more than thirty years after his death. By then it had lost its immediacy, not to mention its heightened moral significance. The spontaneity of the event was best captured in oral reports, occasionally committed to writing, that came from the mouths of people who had traveled to Aldrovandi's museum to see the serpent. Just as the Bolognese naturalist increased his authority by possessing the dragon, all who personally observed it enhanced their status among those who trafficked in natural curiosities.

While Aldrovandi could delay sending a copy of his manuscript treatise to his friend Pinelli, he needed to oblige the great and powerful immediately. Naturalists and patrician collectors would continue to be interested in the remarkable serpent; princes had a more limited attention span. Besides offering illustrations of the papal portent to friends, Aldrovandi also took advantage of this opportunity to strengthen his ties with patrons in Florence and Rome, all of whom consulted the collector for his opinion on the scientific and political implications of the dragon. As late as 1578, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Francesco I, expressed interest in hearing a more detailed account of the peculiar serpent "that was killed by a peasant on the exact day that Gregory XIII was elected the highest Pontiff." Ten years later, when trying to secure Ferdinando I's patronage shortly after he had succeeded his brother as Grand Duke, Aldrovandi mentioned the Dracologia as one of his major scientific treatises.

In the months following the appearance of the "monstrous dragon" (Dragone mostroficato), an uneasy court in Rome awaited Aldrovandi's judgment. The naturalist strategically dedicated his Dracologia to the cardinal nephew Filippo Buoncompagni, Cardinal San Sisto, to insinuate himself further in the papal favor. Only five days after the appearance of the dragon, Aldrovandi rushed a brief description of it to the papal nephew; exactly one month later, he wrote again to assure the cardinal of the nobility of the unusual beast. Since Cardinal San Sisto had the ear of the pope, he was probably the most important person to whom Aldrovandi communicated his findings. Undoubtedly San Sisto had been entrusted by Gregory XIII to inquire further into the matter; the pope himself, as a great patron and a man beyond reproach, would not deign to communicate personally any worry over the portent, not even to his cousin the collector. Yet surely, as someone nurtured in a world teeming with supernatural phenomena, Gregory XIII could not help but wonder at the meaning of it all. Popes had enough worries when they agreed to wear the tiara, particularly in the years following the splintering of Western Christendom into multiple christianities. While Gregory XIII could choose to maintain his distance from the discussions surrounding the portent, he could not ignore it. After all, the heraldic shield of the Buoncompagni had a "rising dragon" (drago nascente) emblazoned on it; people would not fail to note the familial significance of the portent. Inviting his cousin Aldrovandi to provide a complete philosophical analysis of the dragon deflected the attention away from its potentially ominous significance and toward its natural historical value.

Back in Bologna, Aldrovandi set himself the task of describing and explaining the portent's unusual anatomy, reporting periodically to the cardinal nephew. Puzzling over the inexplicable addition of two feet, he remarked that they could serve no visible purpose, "unless, in this way, the animal, through its imperfection, now proves to be of the highest perfection?" Like many early modern philosophers, he delighted in paradoxes. The dragon, monstrous due to the excess of matter that had produced the unwanted feet, was not outside the realm of nature and therefore not beyond Aldrovandi's purview as a naturalist. It gave testament to the wonder of nature, which constantly yielded new and unexpected results. By the end of the year, he had developed this line of interpretation further. In a treatise composed for Giacomo Buoncompagni, son of Gregory XIII and castellan of Sant'Angelo, Aldrovandi underscored the value of this particular serpent to his collection. "Serpents naturally do not have feet," he explained,

until the time and properly the day in which the most wonderful pontiff Gregory XIII was created Pope, when two serpents and dragons that had two feet were seen in the Bolognese countryside. I have copiously discussed the one which came into my hands and given my opinion [of it]. As soon as I can—for it is rather long—I will have the history transcribed and will send it to the most illustrious monsignor San Sisto, as promised, along with the picture of this dragon.

In this fashion, the naturalist neatly turned a potentially disastrous occurrence into a providential act of patronage for his museum. By explaining away the serpent as an example of nature's fecundity rather than a diabolical catastrophe, he diffused its saturnine implications, scientifically securing the foundation of the new papacy for his patrons in Rome.

In his decision to interpret the dragon as a natural phenomenon, devoid of metaphysical implications but rich in anatomical meaning, Aldrovandi participated in a broad cultural trend to normalize the marvelous in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As Lorraine Daston observes, "Preter-natural events always qualified as wonders, but only sometimes as signs." She and many others have identified the museum, variously called a "cabinet of curiosity," "wonder room," and "theater of nature," as the principal site in which this process of demystification occurred. Aldrovandi, when asked to pass judgment on an animal of unusual significance, chose to subsume it within a largely naturalistic explanation, deeming it a "wonder" rather than a "sign." In response to Filippo Imola's question about the hieroglyphic significance of the dragon, Aldrovandi was probably very circumspect, since this sort of knowledge did not serve his purpose, at least in this instance. Concerned about the reaction that his interpretation would receive in Rome, he carefully framed his report in the proper philosophical language and used his humanist skills to make his observations eloquent and appropriate in the eyes of the pope.

While the discovery of the dragon was an inauspicious beginning for Gregory XIII, it might be described as somewhat of a "marvelous conjuncture" for his kinsman Aldrovandi. Always in search of opportunities to gain new patrons and increase his visibility in the learned world, Aldrovandi briefly had the attention of all of Italy. The tense conferences held to determine the significance of the portent and to diffuse its ominous nature provided ample opportunity to showcase the Bolognese naturalist's formidable scientific erudition. Most likely Aldrovandi invited the archbishop, papal legate, senators, and his colleagues in the faculty of medicine at the University of Bologna to witness the dissection of the serpent in his museum at the hands of a protégé such as the surgeon Gaspare Tagliacozzi. Turning his task into a civic spectacle, he encouraged many of the principal citizens of the city to confirm what the hand of the dissector revealed: that the animal was indeed a natural occurrence. They collectively authorized his interpretation through their participation as observers. Thus it was in Aldrovandi's museum, and not in the backrooms of the Roman court at the hands of theologians, that whatever doubts occasioned by the portent were set to rest. Perhaps the number of dragons decorating the "Tower of Winds" (Torre dei Venti) that Gregory XIII added to the Vatican complex was not only a manifestation of the standard papal impulse to emblazon Rome with the family shield but also a sign of his defiance of the older tradition of portentious signs that he repudiated with the help of his cousin Aldrovandi.

The arrival of the monstrous dragon neatly illustrates the significance of Aldrovandi's "theater of nature" (teatro di natura) to the political and civic life of sixteenth-century Italy. The pivotal role that Aldrovandi's museum played in the controversial events surrounding the election of the new pope was in fact the culmination of many instances in which the Bolognese naturalist was called upon to arbitrate important scientific problems and to demystify paradoxes like the noteworthy portent. In this respect, the function of his museum was not dissimilar to that of his patron, the Grand Duke of Tuscany Francesco I, who held court in his scientific laboratory. "He spends almost all of his time in a place they call the Casino (countryhouse) ...," reported the Venetian ambassador to Florence in 1576, "but nevertheless he intersperses ... negotiations with secretaries regarding affairs of state, also expediting many requests for mercy as well as justice, in such a manner that he mixes pleasure with business, and business with pleasure." Collecting was not just a recreational practice for sixteenth- and seventeenth-century virtuosi, but also a precise mechanism for transforming knowledge into power. While Aldrovandi allowed his museum to be shaped by the desires of his patrons, the Grand Duke Francesco created a scientific space in which affairs of state could be conducted. Each in different ways understood the setting that he had created to be essential to the formation of his identity as a natural philosopher.

What recognition did Aldrovandi earn for all his efforts? Contemporaries called Aldrovandi the "Bolognese Aristotle"; as late as the eighteenth century, he was hailed as "the Pliny of his time." Labels do not reveal the entire story, but they are indicative of the reputation Aldrovandi was able to cultivate, which certainly measured his success as a naturalist. Central to his fame was his museum of natural curiosities, housed in several rooms in his family palace and open to the learned and the curious of Europe. After his death in 1605, it was maintained as a civic museum by the Senate of Bologna. During Aldrovandi's own lifetime, contemporaries expressed their awe at his ability to amass natural objects. "After the return of Signor Contestabile, I did not have the opportunity to talk with him about you until last Friday ...," wrote a Milanese correspondent to Aldrovandi in 1598. "He told me that he had seen so many and various things in your studio that he remained stupefied. One can believe that there is no studio similar in all of Europe." Learned naturalists such as Pier Andrea Mattioli proclaimed Aldrovandi's museum to be the most extensive microcosm of nature of its time. "Thus I remain always with heart aflutter and with baited breath until I see all the simples you have collected," confessed Mattioli in 1553, "and really I would like to come to Bologna only for this end, when I can." While many nobles and scholars visited the museum simply to see its curiosities, others like Mattioli had more specific goals: they wished to examine specimens to complete the research that they too were doing in preparation for the writing of new and improved natural histories. Their presence in the museum only added to its luster. As a tribute to the fame and importance of his collection, Aldrovandi proudly described his museum as the eighth wonder of the world.

In 1603, Aldrovandi formalized his agreement with the Senate of Bologna to have the contents of his studio transferred to the Palazzo Pubblico, the seat of government just off Piazza Maggiore in the center of town, after his death. "I will not say any more to you regarding the studio of Signor Aldrovandi," wrote Friar Gregorio da Reggio to the botanist Carolus Clusius in Leiden in 1602, "since I presume that you knew everything some time ago, that is, that he has left it to the Most Illustrious Senators of Bologna who have accepted it with great affection and with the firm intention of continuing the publication of his remaining works." The network of communications that had spread the news of the papal portent in 1572, thirty years later publicized the fate of Aldrovandi's collection to scholars who perceived it to be a benchmark against which to measure their own encyclopedic schemes.


Excerpted from Possessing Nature by Paula Findlen. Copyright © 1994 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, xi,
Abbreviations, xv,
Photo Credits, xvii,
Introduction, 1,
1. "A World of Wonders in One Closet Shut", 17,
2. Searching for Paradigms, 48,
3. Sites of Knowledge, 97,
4. Pilgrimages of Science, 155,
5. Fare Esperienza, 194,
6. Museums of Medicine, 241,
7. Inventing the Collector, 293,
8. Patrons, Brokers, and Strategies, 346,
Epilogue: The Old and the New, 393,
Bibliography, 409,
Index, 433,

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