Italian versions of courtly display

Possessing Nature
June 21, 1996

Possessing Nature examines natural history in 16th and 17th-century Italy from two highly interesting and fruitful perspectives. The first focuses on museums and the problems related to collecting and classifying and includes historical actors barely mentioned in previous accounts. The second focuses on the emergence of natural history as a discipline.

Part one examines the museum - its emergence, early catalogues, spatial structures and the linguistic, social and epistemological dimensions of collecting. Besides reproducing maps and illustrations of museums, showing the transition from private studio to public galleria, Paula Findlen has been able in some cases to present analyses of visitors according to profession and social status.

Part two begins with a wonderful chapter on "Pilgrimages of science", dealing with the ethos of the traveller and explorer. Excursions and journeys vary from visits to the local market to more ambitious long-distance expeditions. Subsequent chapters survey debates on fossils, spontaneous generation, paradoxes of nature, and the relations between university-trained physicians and the popular medicine of "chemists, apothecaries, and wise women".

Part three investigates the way in which the identity of the naturalist was shaped by the appearance of his museum. In an age when status and profession were closely bound in peculiar forms, the way in which the practitioners of a novel discipline with unusual features presented themselves to visitors is of considerable importance. The analysis of these themes leads directly to the inquiry into patronage networks and the role of brokers.

Findlen has succeeded in bringing into the scene of 16th and 17th- century Italy a discipline with its practitioners, specific traditions, ethos, problems, and sites. Together with Giuseppe Olmi, L'Inventario del Mondo (1992), her book represents a major source. She is also right in claiming that the emergence of natural history raises a number of stimulating problems for early modern historians.

However, universities play a secondary role in the book. Pictures of museums are lavishly included, while maps of botanic gardens are not. Likewise, there has been no sustained attempt at identifying prefects of botanic gardens and professors of natural history, or at studying their activities in collecting, classifying, teaching, and publishing. One gets the impression that for Findlen courts were more interesting and important. In a passage whose status is not entirely clear to me, she writes: "The technology of the new philosophy was inadequate unless accompanied by sound experimental method. This could only be produced in the courtly culture of repeated demonstration in which men of high social standing - most obviously the Grand Duke of Tuscany Ferdinando II and his brother Leopoldo - provided unimpeachable testimony" (my emphasis). Although Findlen is right in stressing the importance of social standing and unimpeachable testimony, the university professor Marcello Malpighi needed neither Ferdinando II nor Leopoldo to refute all 20,000 observations on oak-galls by Redi. Besides the courtly credentials mentioned by Findlen, skills and scholarly credentials played a crucial role. It is worth recalling that in Tuscany both court intellectuals and professors at Pisa University were appointed by the Medici, and their roles were not necessarily sharply divided. In addition, the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher emerges as a more representative figure than I believe he was.

Lastly, I find that although the thematic structure of the book has its virtues, the periodisation of natural history in the transition from the humanist Renaissance to the 17th-century revolution of knowledge suffers. Findlen is right in emphasising the shift from unbridled curiosity and wonder to "judicious curiosity" emerging from a letter by Malpighi. Malpighi, however, was the central figure in a major conceptual change in the interpretation of monstrous growths and jokes of nature, namely as mechanical malfunctions providing the key to understanding normal structure and function. Interestingly, Malpighi's closest ally and friend was the curator of the Aldovrandi Museum, Silvestro Bonfiglioli. Malpighi referred to several items, such as petrified bones, a monstrous aorta, or a bony testicle, preserved at Signor Bonfiglioli's. I believe that under the curatorship of the neoteric Bonfiglioli, the Aldovrandi Museum and the items it stored assumed meanings profoundly different from those they had had previously. Admittedly, Bonfiglioli is an elusive figure who published virtually nothing, yet one wonders whether among Bolognese and Roman circles in the 1670s it was not the discreet Bonfiglioli rather than the embarrassing Kircher who commanded more respect and exerted greater influence.

Besides employing a wide range of historiographic tools, Findlen presents an impressive amount of primary and unpublished sources. This is an important book that early modern historians and scholars in natural history would be well advised not to miss. The flow of the narrative, the scope of the investigation, and the beautiful and important pictures will make this task a pleasure.

Domenico Bertoloni Meli is a research fellow, Wellcome Unit, University of Cambridge.

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

Author - Paula Findlen
ISBN - 0 520 07334 7
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £42.00
Pages - 450

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