A Florence museum that displays art of a very different kind

Where beasts are exhibited and lit like works of art

After countless long weekends in Florence over the years, I thought I knew every gallery and museum in the city. But, on a recent holiday on the Arno, a friend took me to an as yet unfamiliar one that he promised would be the highlight of my trip.

Just south of the Palazzo Pitti we entered La Specola, the Museum of Natural History (entrance €5), first founded by Grand Duke Peter Leopold in 1775. The unprepossessing entrance and a shabby attempt at a gift shop were deeply uninspiring, but what followed was remarkable.

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Le Specola has the most wonderful collection of stuffed animals and skeletons I’ve ever seen. It’s not just the variety of animals – from insects to a fearsome hippo, which is reported to have lived briefly in the Boboli Gardens in the 17th century – but the way in which they’ve been exhibited, in fine wood and glass cabinets. There’s no attempt at taxidermical tableaux not-so-vivant, as at the American Museum of Natural History. The beasts are starkly lit and exhibited like fine art, or objects in a gentleman’s outfitters. It’s charming, and a little Hirst-like, particularly the primate room where you are invited to enter a cabinet and see yourself in a mirror as the highest primate in the collection.

After 24 rooms of zoology, the collection shifts to 10 rooms of anatomical waxes (third picture), which are as gruesome as they are intricate and beautiful. This could be the spooky period milieu for a Dr Who story, or perhaps a Sherlock Holmes adventure. Many of the exhibits, from flesh-stripped bodies to dissected organs, are 17th-century sculptures by the great Gateano Zumbo, one of the greatest wax modellers of his period. The whole thing has the ambience of a Grand Guignol Victorian art exhibition; truly spectacular stuff – although the squeamish may wish to go no further than the zebras, butterflies and rainbow-coloured birds.

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