The oldest herpetological collection in the world: the surviving amphibian and reptile specimens of the Museum of Ulisse Aldrovandi

in Amphibia-Reptilia
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The natural history collection of the Bolognese polymath, encyclopedist, and natural philosopher Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) is regarded as the first museum in the modern sense of the term. It was intended as a resource for scholarship and a microcosm of the natural world, not simply a cabinet of curiosities. In addition to physical specimens, Aldrovandi’s zoological material included a large series of paintings of animals (Tavole di Animali) that were integral to the collection. Following Aldrovandi’s death, his collection was maintained by the terms of his will, but by the 19th century relatively little remained. We examined surviving herpetological components of the collection, comprising 19 specimens of ten species, as well as the corresponding paintings and associated archival material in the Museum of Palazzo Poggi, Museo di Zoologia, and Biblioteca Universitaria Bolognese in Bologna, Italy. Although the antiquity of some of these dried preparations is in question, many are documented in the Tavole di Animali and/or are mentioned in 17th century lists of the museum, verifying them as the oldest museum specimens of amphibians and reptiles in the world. Exotic species are best represented, including two specimens of Uromastyx aegyptia and several boid snakes – the first New World reptiles to be displayed in Europe. However, the Tavole di Animali suggest that the original collection was dominated by Italian taxa and that greater effort may have been made to conserve the more spectacular specimens. The Aldrovandi collection provides a tangible link to the dawn of modern herpetology in Renaissance Italy.

The oldest herpetological collection in the world: the surviving amphibian and reptile specimens of the Museum of Ulisse Aldrovandi

in Amphibia-Reptilia

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References

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Figures

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    Marble bust of Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) commissioned by Giovanni Capellini for the tercentennial of Aldrovandi’s death and on display in the Palazzo Poggi, Bologna.

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    Commemorative plaque on the Casa del Vivaro, Ulisse Aldrovandi’s familial home and location of his museum during his lifetime, Via de’ Pepoli, Bologna.

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    The Palazzo Pubblico, now Palazzo d’Accursio, Bologna, the site of Aldrovandi’s collection from 1617 to 1749.

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    Pear-wood xylographic block depicting Bufo caudatus, & dentatus fictus à circulatoribus. This image was based on Tavole di Animali T.VII, c.31 and was used to print the image on page 611 of Aldrovandi’s (1637) book dealing with quadrupeds.

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    Ms. 16 [Aula III-B-30]: Adnotationes de serpentibus [Notes on snakes], Biblioteca Universitaria Bolognese, a manuscript in Aldrovandi’s own hand later used in the compilation of his posthumous book on snakes and dragons (Aldrovandi, 1639).

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    Faked specimens of common toad, Bufo bufo, from Aldrovandi’s collection, Museum of Palazzo Poggi. (A) Bufo caudatus sine dentibus, and (B) Bufo caudatus & dentatus, depicted on Tavole di Animali T.VII, c.31 and on page 611 of Aldrovandi, 1637.

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    Display cabinet in the Aldrovandi collection in Museum of Palazzo Poggi containing two large carapaces of Chelonia mydas and a smaller carapace of Caretta caretta.

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    Juvenile Caretta caretta in the Museo di Zoologia, Bologna. (A) Carapace, and (B) skull.

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    Smaller, wall-mounted specimen of Crocodylus niloticus in the Aldrovandi collection in Museum of Palazzo Poggi. Right limbs partly obscured by top of cabinets containing xylographic woodblocks used in Aldrovandi’s publications.

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    Uromastyx aegyptia. (A) Specimen in the Museo di Zoologia, Bologna. (B) Painting of Cordylus sive Uromastix (Uromastyx aegyptia) as represented in the Tavole di Animali T.V, c.37; based on the extant specimen figured in (A).

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    Aldrovandi lizard specimens in the Museum of Palazzo Poggi: Draco (?) volans, Chamaeleo chamaeleon, Scincus scincus (in cylindrical jars), and Uromastyx aegyptia.

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    Anterior portions of wall-mounted specimens of (?) Eunectes murinus (above) and Boa constrictor (below) in the Aldrovandi collection of the Museum of Palazzo Poggi showing the carved wooden heads typical of dry preparations of snakes of the Renaissance period.

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