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ABSTRACT

Sedimentary strata and fossils of Tuscany have been the object of inquiry from the late Middle Ages into the onset of modern science, passing through the art and words of Leonardo da Vinci, and culminating in the work of Nicolas Steno on a Galilean foundation. In the Age of Enlightenment, the Florentine Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti perfected Steno’s scheme for a history of Tuscany to be extended to a general theory of the Earth, corresponding with European savants, writing the oldest catalogue of fossils now hosted at the Museum of Natural History, University of Florence, and passing on Steno’s taxonomy. A few decades later, founders of modern geology, Georges Cuvier, Giambattista Brocchi, and Charles Lyell walked Tuscan fossiliferous hills and studied public and private collections, focusing on the anatomy of Tertiary species as a means to track the making of the modern fauna. The international impact of Brocchi’s Subapennine Fossil Conchology reached the young Charles Darwin, offering a theoretical background for the early development of modern evolutionary theory and fueling the modern taxonomic study of Tertiary marine shells. Under Igino Cocchi, in the year of national unity (1861), the Museum became the Italian Central Paleontological Collection, attracting collections from all over Italy and stirring an enduring international interest in Tertiary and Quaternary faunas, including fossil primates. With fossil specimens brought in by Steno, Targioni, and Cocchi, among many others, and with the organization of its catalogues reflecting the onset of modern taxonomy, the Museum of Natural History, University of Florence, is today an archive of the history of science as a whole and a means to bring environmental consciousness to future generations.

INTRODUCTION

In the age of Wikipedia, many narratives in the history of science follow a dualistic model where theories are opposed. Advocates of one theory eventually prevail, by way of stronger empirical evidence and better arguments, and knowledge progresses in a linear fashion. In the process, the position of protagonists is polarized in a tale of “good guys and bad guys” (so the argument runs): the good guy is armed with the power of observation; the bad guy is led by unscientific prejudices. The good guy wins in the end, eventually “fathering” (or perhaps “mothering”) a new science. This simplistic model is persistently resurrected in much popular literature on the history of geology. Evolutionary biology, the other discipline that so much relied on geological evidence in its early days, is also involved. Even in manuals of geology and in dictionaries, the dualistic model persists in the choice of words, such as “natural-miraculous,” “uniformitarian-catastrophic,” “evolutionist-creationist,” “long-short” (timescales), and “gradual-stepwise” (antinomies largely taken as equivalents by unlearned readers). As this case suggests, much still needs to be done to explain the history of science to the general public. Simplifying, the process comprises three steps: (1) historians analyze primary literature, place evidence in context, and write secondary literature (e.g., Rudwick, 2005); (2) secondary literature is studied by university teachers and professionals working at institutions that operate in education and outreach; and (3) knowledge is transferred to the public. Since fossils (the more spectacular, the better) attract a wide public and elicit the imagination, museums of paleontology are important connections between the work of historians of geology and the general visitor. When a museum hosts specimens and other evidence that directly forms part of that history, the role of the historian merges with that of the museologist. The personnel of these institutions of conservation, studying written information (metadata) connected to fossils, such as labels, inventories, catalogues, and other manuscripts, act in fact as historians. Even if not formally trained, they deal with primary data and seek for historical context, as historians do. This is the case with the Section of Geology and Palaeontology of the Museum of Natural History, University of Florence, where the need to explain not just geology, but also its history, is felt to be essential. In Tuscany, fossils have been dug up and commented upon since at least the late Middle Ages, then in the Renaissance and during the birth of modern science, until geology and evolutionary biology became what they are today. In this process, Florence has acted as the center of ferment in natural history. There may not be another place in the world where the main phases in the history of the science can be documented by books, manuscripts of many kinds, and actual fossils as they are in Florence, from the Renaissance to the present, without interruption of continuity. The authors of this paper are paleontologists with a degree in geology, compelled to become historians by the quantity of available evidence, and confronting themselves with the work of professionals of this field of humanistic sciences, trying to avoid misinterpretation and anachronism. This has led to a history of geology—a more intricate list of “good guys and bad guys,” if you will, as seen from a peculiar perspective, briefly dealt with in this paper.

PREHISTORY OF GEOLOGY IN TUSCANY

In Tuscany, knowledge of the history of the Earth for the period that precedes civil history has been deeply related to the question: why are there sea shells inside rocks? There are documents, some textual and some visual, that suggest that more than one man attempted in Tuscany to understand the origin of these objects, long before the birth of modern science in Europe. Three such men were Restoro d’Arezzo (thirteenth century), Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375), and Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), spanning two centuries of history between the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. What did sea shells in rocks mean to those three Italians?

Restoro’s “Composition of the World with Its Causes,” written in Italian in 1282 and widely read through the following century, is the oldest document available on this subject. Restoro found substantial agreement between his interpretation of nature, as seen in Tuscany, and the words of the Holy Scripture, as outlined in the following passages.

And by then we had found and extracted, almost at the top of a very high mountain, great amounts of fish bones, which we call snails, and some call shells […]. And that district, there where these mountains are found, there where the sand and fish bones are found, is a sign that there once was the sea in that district. […] And it could also be that the mountain was caused by the water of the flood, which covered the ground and then moved it from one place to another. (Restoro, 1282, inNarducci, 1859, p. 245, translated by authors)

In the words of the first historiographer of fossil conchology, Giambattista Brocchi (1772–1826), the Renaissance humanist Giovanni Boccaccio, born in Certaldo, a small village in Tuscany, “must have been accustomed to seeing, starting in his childhood, the great mass of mollusc shells filling the hills around the village [Certaldo], where there is many a copy, […] that in some places they render barren the soil” (Brocchi, 1814, p. III–IV). Boccaccio briefly expressed his opinion on dug-up marine shells in the novel Filocolo, written ca. 1336.

In fertile Italy, there is a small part the ancients called Tuscia, in the middle of which, among very lovely plains, rises a small hill, left there by the waters, avengers of the ire of Jupiter when the sins of Lycaon resulted in the flooding of the world; this is according to the opinion of many, which I repute true, and as evidence of this truth there appears this small hill full of sea shells. (Boccaccio, 1339, translated inDominici, 2011, p. 4)

The thinking of Leonardo on sea shells and the Biblical flood is mainly contained in a text written between 1506 and 1510, made public only in the nineteenth century and now known as Codex Leicester, but it is also apparent in his sketches, drawings, and paintings (Gould, 1998; Kemp, 2006; Cioppi, 2011; Dominici, 2017). Referring to the valley of river Arno downstream of Florence, Leonardo shunned the theory of the flood and expressed his own understanding of why sea shells can be found in rocks.

Further on was deposited the mud in which the shells lived, which rose by degrees according to the levels of the Arno which flowed into the more or less turbid sea. And from time to time, the sea bottom rose, depositing these shells in layers, as can be seen in the cut at Gonzoli Hill, eroded by the Arno which is wearing away its base, in which cut the aforesaid layers of shells can be seen in bluish clay, along with other marine objects […] If the shells had instead been transported by the muddy deluge they would have been mixed, arranged separately in the mud, and not in ordered steps and layers, as we see them now. (Leonardo, ca. 1506–1510, translated inGould, 1998, p. 40)

According to Kemp (2006), Leonardo had read “Composition of the World with Its Causes” by Restoro d’Arezzo and knew the classics of Medieval scholarship, including Avicenna’s Book of Healing of 1027, where it is written that “it is possible that each time the land was exposed by the ebbing of the sea a layer was left, since we see some mountains that seem to have been piled up layer by layer” (Avicenna, translated in Cutler, 2003, p. 95). As a matter of fact, Leonardo considered the layer-cake structure of those hills in his youth, placing it on the forefront of his first dated work entitled, “On the day of the Madonna of the Snow, 5 August 1473.” Here he gives a visual rendition of Avicenna’s words, taking from a real place the horizontally stratified nature of so much Tuscan landscape (Rosenberg, 2001; but see Nova, 2015), particularly similar to the Volterra foothills (Dominici, 2017; Fig. 1).

Figure 1.

Volterra view on Pliocene hills, a possible template for Leonardo’s 1473 sketch of the Tuscan landscape.

Figure 1.

Volterra view on Pliocene hills, a possible template for Leonardo’s 1473 sketch of the Tuscan landscape.

Overall, there is ample evidence that, at the passage between the Middle and Modern Ages, the succession of strata that make up the lower reliefs of Tuscany, and the sea shells contained within, attracted learned men and was the subject of their enquiry, for purposes that transcended local history. In the two centuries that followed Leonardo’s early landscape, additional objects dug up from the earth would amplify that interest, as testified by the building of natural history collections in Florence, when, during the Renaissance, this became the undisputed cultural capital of Tuscany.

RENAISSANCE TAXONOMIES

The collection of antiquities and rarities for private use hosted in the “treasure room” of the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo de’ Medici (1519–1574), possibly contained fossils and other “things of nature” (“rerum naturae,” inMercati, 1717, e.g., p. l: to avoid anachronism, we adopt definitions used at the time). Antiquities were first kept in the Medici Palace in Via Larga, then in Palazzo della Signoria, after the Medici family moved there in 1540. A small Cabinét, or Wunderkammer, was built by Cosimo’s son, Francis I (1541–1587), an alchemist and philosopher correspondent of Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605), whom in his turn possessed in Bologna a museum rich with “petrifactions.” Minerals owned by Francis I, and others dating back to Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449–1492), are still curated in the Museum of Natural History, University of Florence (Cipriani et al., 2011). In 1596, Andrea Cesalpino (1519–1603), physician and botanist at the University of Pisa and in the service of Francis’ successor, Ferdinand I (1549–1609), published De metallicis, reporting the recent discovery of elephant bones at San Giovanni Valdarno, including a femoral head two spans wide and some petrified sea shells, which again were interpreted in relationship with a landscape that differed from the modern (“as the sea retreated and the ground became salty, the remains present in it were transformed into stones”: Cesalpino, 1596, in Cioppi and Dominici, 2011, p. 20). Cesalpino is an eminent example of the Late Renaissance philosopher who, at the service of a patron of the arts, works at a taxonomy of the natural world on Aristotelian principles of matter and form (Rossi, 2001). In conjunction with Metallotheca Vaticana of his teacher Michele Mercati (1541–1593), Cesalpino’s work on the mineral world was an answer to De Re Metallica of Georgius Agricola (1494–1555), widely read in the sixteenth century. Both born in Tuscany and educated at the Pisa University, Cesalpino and Mercati were the first to present the “natural things” of their region to a European public. This happened at a time when a network of apothecaries, botanists, and physicians acting as natural philosophers started the first Europe-wide correspondence, allowing to be known, through printed words and engravings which objects were hosted in their cabinets and which theories underlaid their arrangements. “Fossils” meant to them “any distinct object dug up from the earth, […] including mineral ores, natural crystals, and useful rocks” (Rudwick, 1972, p. 1). The Grand Duke Ferdinand I had in Cesalpino an eminent adviser when in 1595 he moved to Pisa, where his court lived during the summer months and where the core of the natural history collections resided. How this “choice of what there was in his palaces belonging to Natural History” (Targioni Tozzetti, 1763b, p. 3) was arranged in the “Galleria de’ Semplici” (established in 1591), and what their nature and size was, we can only imagine by comparison with similar collections known to occur elsewhere in Europe. A template of this arrangement is Mercati’s Metallotheca itself. Interrupted in 1593 by the death of its author and published only in 1717, the book includes the description of the first nine cabinets out of 19 that formed the whole Metallotheca (the name given to the actual collection exhibited in the Vatican, no longer existing). The ninth cabinet included “stones with a shape” (lapides idiomorphoi). On the meaning of shapes resembling true animals or animal parts, Mercati believed that “forms cannot pass from objects to stones, nor do they represent objects whose matter has been changed: certainly they cannot ascribe their shape to any of the creatures that live among us” (Mercati, 1717, p. 219). Instead, he relied on the opinion of contemporary astronomers in attributing that shape to the action of “celestial radiations” coming from the eighth sky, where fixed stars resemble animals (Accordi, 1980). The arrangement in the gallery of “stones with a shape” mirrored that of any other Late Renaissance museum, notably those stones of Konrad Gesner (1516–1565), Johannes Kentman (1518–1574), Ulisse Aldrovandi, or Ferrante Imperato (1550–1631; see Rudwick, 1972). In Florence, in particular, the Uffizi Gallery, standing “as a public model of what it meant to transform a private passion for beautiful objects into a public statement about the value of culture” (Findlen, 1998, p. 113) and at the same time “a symbol of Medici power” (Findlen, 1994, p. 114), had become one of the most valued museums in Europe, while the flowering of scientific collections pushed their curators to share taxonomic strategies (Arnold, 2006). Next, in 1666, we know that Grand Duke Ferdinand II (1621–1670), grandson of Ferdinand I, invited to Florence Nicolas Steno (1638–1686), the Danish anatomist, who, in the years to come, would increase and give order to the natural history collections.

TAXONOMY DURING THE BIRTH OF MODERN SCIENCE

Why would it not be permitted to hope for great things, if anatomy was transformed so that experimental knowledge would rely only on well established facts, and reason accepted only what has been demonstrated; in other words, if anatomy used the language of mathematics?

—Nicolas Steno (1667, inKardel and Maquet, 2013, p. 594)

Much has been written about Nicolas Steno (born Niels Stensen in Copenhagen, Niccolò Stenone for the Italians: Cutler, 2003; Vai, 2009; Di Orio et al., 2016), also in the form of the hagiography (Steno had been beatified by the Roman Catholic Church). In the final analysis, the greatest input Steno brought to the study of several natural objects, from the human body to the Earth, was methodological, based on geometry (Rotschuh, 1968; Rosenberg, 2006; Kardel, 2009), following the idea that mathematics is the language spoken by nature, as eminently stated before him by Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) and René Descartes (1596–1650; see Rossi, 2001). Experience and more inductive reasoning led him to criticize some of Descartes’ assessments, after being a Cartesian himself (Olden-Jørgensen, 2009). Steno’s empiricism was very effective; he was an exceptional observer, with an enviable ability to anatomize (“he possesses an inconceivable patience, and by exercise he has acquired an unusual skill. Neither butterfly nor fly can escape his attention”: Graindorge, 1665, inKardel and Maquet, 2013, p. 164). Steno was well experienced in public demonstrations and the first to apply the experimental method of enquiry outside the realm of physics (Rudwick, 1972). He arrived in Tuscany in the spring of 1666, after a two-year stay in Paris and a brief sojourn in Montpelier. In Florence, he became part of the circle of those disciples of Galilei who formed the Accademia del Cimento (active between 1657–1667), under the auspices of Leopoldo de’ Medici (1617–1675), future cardinal and brother of Ferdinando II. The Galileian cultural milieu of the Florentine court, coupled with Steno’s previous experiences in Holland and France, were conducive to the first application of geometric reasoning to facts concerning anatomy and the Earth as expressed in two essays, “The Head of a Shark Dissected” (Stensen, 1667) and the brief “Forerunner to a Dissertation Concerning a Solid Body Enclosed by Process of Nature within a Solid” (Stensen, 1669). The latter, translated in English as early as 1671, and often referred to as De Solido, contains the heritage left by Steno to all people concerned with the study of the Earth: a general theory on how all solids form, from shells to strata, to mountains, and its practical application to explain what he had seen in Tuscany. After its publication, Steno left Florence to make a long journey through Europe, “from Italy over the Alps to Austria and Hungary, further to Bohemia and through the whole of Germany and then from the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany back to his beloved Florence” (quotation from the late Gustav Scherz, Steno’s main biographer, translated inKardel and Maquet, 2013). During the journey, he presumably collected specimens useful for his natural philosophy concerning “all things formed in the earth,” and, while back in Florence, during 1671–1672, he actively worked in Pisa at the cabinet of Ferdinand II’s son, Grand Duke Cosimo III (1642–1723). The oldest document connecting the Museum of Natural History, University of Florence, with the collection he saw there is a handwritten note left by Steno in the “Inventory of the Gallery and the Botanical Garden” of the Pisa University. This note indicates that Steno was commissioned by Leopoldo de’ Medici to “remove from the Gallery of Pisa certain curiosities for the Gallery that is being established in Florence,” to have made a catalogue of the things “removed,” and to have it delivered to the cardinal on 7 May 1672 (Savi, 1827, p. 38, translated by authors; De Rosa, 1986). The manuscript contains additional information on the nature of the specimens taken to Florence.

I’ve removed the following number of pieces, [“and these are in the number of two hundred seventy-eight, unspecified, but mentioned with general observations such as”: Savi, 1827, p. 38]

No. 48 specimens, including crystals and bodies that can be reduced to crystals, for their figure and transparence.

No. 24 specimens, including mines of rare silver, tin, lead, iron, and cinnabar.

Plus other 22 specimens of petrifactions, salts, and zoophytes etc. (Stensen, 1672, inSavi, 1827, p. 38; but see De Rosa, 1986, p. 78–80, for a slightly different transcription of the manuscript)

According to one of the transcriptions (Savi, 1827), Steno took to Florence 278 specimens (252 specimens, counting the numbers transcribed by De Rosa, 1986), subdivided in groups, based on affinities between specimens.

The second document concerning Steno’s ordering of natural history collections is a manuscript of February 1763 entitled, “Catalogue of Natural Things of the Royal Gallery of Florence,” commissioned by Pietro Leopoldo to the naturalist Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti (1712–1783). It comprises an “Index of Natural Things Maybe Dictated by Niccolò Stenone, and Copied from the Original Existing in the Royal Gallery” (Fig. 2). This so-called Indice contains fully described item numbers 1–255, followed by entry numbers 256–304, the latter group preceded by the title “Catalogue of curious things that remain to be removed” (Targioni Tozzetti, 1763a, folio 61r). So we have transcriptions of two manuscripts by Steno, one by Savi and De Rosa, and one by Targioni Tozzetti, sharing the words “removing curiosities.” A cross-check confirms the two report on nearly identical quantities: if we add items listed by letters in the Indice (item 44 is followed by letters A–Z; item 163 by letters A–N) to items listed by numbers, the total is 288, coming very close to the 278 counted by Savi (252 in De Rosa, 1986). Scholars rightly pointed out that the Indice contains specimens collected during the 1667–1670 European tour, such as those from Tirol and Bohemia, together with specimens coming from localities Steno had personally visited in Tuscany, such as Libbiano (Scherz, inKardel and Maquet, 2013). It is possible that Steno’s own specimens were added to the collection of the grand duke in Pisa, where he could study them side by side with the “curiosities” that the grand duke had gathered before his arrival in 1667 (Cioppi and Dominici, 2011). In this hypothesis, on 7 May 1672, Steno brought to Florence a selection of old and new specimens, selected and grouped according to his own original vision.

Figure 2.

Title page of Steno’s Indice contained in the “Catalogue of Natural Things” of 1763, a manuscript by Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti (folio 38v)

Figure 2.

Title page of Steno’s Indice contained in the “Catalogue of Natural Things” of 1763, a manuscript by Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti (folio 38v)

The first 114 numbers of the Indice refer to minerals. Crystalline habits are described as simple geometric figures (columns, pyramids, and cubes—habits that seem better developed in specimens 1–40; see Scherz, 1956, inKardel and Maquet, 2013, for a further subdivision). Items 115–199 include mineralized remains of ancient organisms (“petrifactions” of the Pisa list), such as bivalve and gastropod shells, ammonites, crabs, fishes, and bones of terrestrial animals. Individual entries do not usually refer to isolated sea shells but to aggregates, such as one of the few specimens still recognizable today (Fig. 3; Table 1). Entries 200–214 are human artifacts, and 215–255 are mineralized parts of animals with plant-like shapes (“zoophytes” of the Pisa list). In separating inorganic forms from remains of ancient organisms, human artifacts, and zoophytes, the Indice shows an approach to taxonomy similar to that of Metallotheca Vaticana. Forms such as the “Islebian fish” (Fig. 4, Table 1), belonging also to Mercati’s collection (Fig. 5), did probably already form part of the cabinet of curiosities of the grand duke. The attitude to name just some of the minerals and petrifactions suggests instead, unlike that of the late Renaissance collector, who would have named them all, a lack of interest for taxonomy and justifying Targioni Tozzetti’s opinion, according to which, Steno’s was “a very small, non methodic note on minerals and crystallizations” (Targioni Tozzetti, 1763c, “Prefazione,” folio 5r). Moreover, many of the descriptions refer to natural aggregates of minerals or fossils bound together by a stony substance that would have been in itself worth of Steno’s consideration, because it is the reciprocal contact between objects that reveals their order of formation (“principle of molding”: Gould, 1981, p. 23; Cutler, 2003; Kardel, 2009). These specimens comprise the majority and would have perfectly served Steno’s reasoning on solids: sea shells give shape to the rocks because rocks in the beginning were soft (Stensen, 1669, contrary to Mercati’s statement that “forms cannot pass from objects to stones”). The second group of specimens, numbered 256–304, is even less homogeneous, containing again curiosities typical of a wunderkammer (such as item 257: “Human skull covered for the most part by a crust with a branch of red coral grown on its top,” still in Pisa: Cipriani et al., 2011) and specimens from his travels both inside and outside of Tuscany (e.g., to Libbiano, Tirol, Bohemia, etc.).

Figure 3.

Item no. 141 of Steno’s Indice, described as: “two crusts made of stone around two wooden sticks, with the wood inside, united one to another, between which are attached certain small valves” (Targioni Tozzetti, 1763a, folio 50r/50v; see Table 1). This is now part of the mineralogical collections of the Museum of Natural History, University of Florence (Cipriani et al., 2011), catalogue number G54669. Dimensions of the specimen are 25 cm, 12 cm, and 3 cm.

Figure 3.

Item no. 141 of Steno’s Indice, described as: “two crusts made of stone around two wooden sticks, with the wood inside, united one to another, between which are attached certain small valves” (Targioni Tozzetti, 1763a, folio 50r/50v; see Table 1). This is now part of the mineralogical collections of the Museum of Natural History, University of Florence (Cipriani et al., 2011), catalogue number G54669. Dimensions of the specimen are 25 cm, 12 cm, and 3 cm.

Figure 4.

Specimen IGF12980 tentatively identified with item no. 163N of Steno’s Indice, concisely described as: “A black Islebian stone with its fish with Copper Mine colour” (Targioni Tozzetti, 1763a, folio 53r; see Table 1). “Islebian” refers to the town of Eisleben, in Saxony (Germany), near the locality of Mansfeld, well known to Renaissance apothecaries and physicians for the fossil fishes that were dug up there, the so-called “Lapis Islebianus.” Dimensions of each half of the specimen are 12.5 cm, 8.5 cm, and 1.0 cm.

Figure 4.

Specimen IGF12980 tentatively identified with item no. 163N of Steno’s Indice, concisely described as: “A black Islebian stone with its fish with Copper Mine colour” (Targioni Tozzetti, 1763a, folio 53r; see Table 1). “Islebian” refers to the town of Eisleben, in Saxony (Germany), near the locality of Mansfeld, well known to Renaissance apothecaries and physicians for the fossil fishes that were dug up there, the so-called “Lapis Islebianus.” Dimensions of each half of the specimen are 12.5 cm, 8.5 cm, and 1.0 cm.

Figure 5.

Lapis Islebianus or “Islebian stone” from Michele Mercati’s Metallotheca Vaticana completed in 1593, unpublished, but accessible to Steno during his stay in Florence.

Figure 5.

Lapis Islebianus or “Islebian stone” from Michele Mercati’s Metallotheca Vaticana completed in 1593, unpublished, but accessible to Steno during his stay in Florence.

TABLE 1.

METADATA ASSOCIATED WITH TWO OF THE SPECIMENS OF STENO’S INDICE (FIGS. 3 AND 4): DESCRIPTIONS CONNECTING ENTRY IN STENO’S MANUSCRIPT OF 1672 TO THE CORRESPONDING ENTRIES IN SUBSEQUENT INVENTORIES AND CATALOGUES

 Steno’s Pisa manuscript (De Rosa, 1986, p. 78–79)Steno’s Indice (Targioni Tozzetti, 1763a, 50r–50v)Targioni’s catalogue (Targioni Tozzetti, 1763b, p. 447–448)1790–1793 museum catalogue1820 museum catalogue1844–1846 museum catalogueModern museum catalogue
Description36 specimens, among which earth, stones with shells and Islebian stones.N. 141. Two crusts of stone made around two small wooden sticks with wood inside, connected, among which some small shells are attached.2324 - A petrifaction 7-and-a-half inches long and 21 lines large, looking like if in origin it was two sticks encrusted and bound together by sandy cement of the ancient sea. […] [follows Steno’s description]5996 - Brown, opaque fistular carbonate lime with shells impressed on its substance, shaped around plant branches, completely decomposed, from Germany. Room 2, shelf 18, lower part.5003 - Brown, opaque fistular carbonate lime with shells impressed on its substance, shaped around plant branches, completely decomposed, from Germany. Room 12, shelf 5, lower part.3417 - Brown, opaque fistular carbonate lime with shells impressed on its substance, shaped around plant branches, completely decomposed, from Germany. Room 2, shelf 18, lower part.G54669 - Calcite. Brown, opaque fistular carbonate lime with shells impressed on its substance, shaped around plant branches, completely decomposed, from Germany.
Original text36 p. tra terra, e pietre con nicchi, e pietre Islebiane.N. 141. Due croste di pietra fatte intorno a due bastoncini di legno con legno dentro unite, fra di loro, fra le quali sono attaccati certi nicchietti.2324. Una petrificazione lunga pollici 7 e mezzo e larga linee 21, che apparisce essere stata in origine due fuscelletti incrostati e riuniti insieme da tartaro renoso dell’antico mare. […] Lo Stenone nel suo catalogo così descrive questa petrificazione […]N. 5996 - Calce carbonata fistolare bruna opaca che ha impressi dei tastacei sulla sua sostanza, e formata attorno a rami di piante, affatto decomposti, della Germania. Stanza II, scaffale 18 inf.5003 - Calce carbonata fistolare bruna opaca che ha impresso dei testacei sulla sua sostanza, e formata attorno dei rami di piante affatto decomposti; della Germania. Stanza XII, scaff. 5 minor.3417 - Calce carbonata fistolare bruna opaca che ha impresso dei testacei sulla sua sostanza, e formata attorno dei rami di piante affatto decomposti; della Germania. Stanza 2, scaffale 18 inf.G54669 - Calcite. Calce carbonata fistolare bruna opaca che ha impresso dei testacei sulla sua sostanza, e formata attorno dei rami di piante affatto decomposti; della Germania.
Description36 specimens, among which earth, stones with shells and Islebian stones.N. 163N. A black Islebian stone with its fish of copper mine color. N. 2301 - Impression of a fish on a slab made of cupriferous and micaceous shale; from Mansfeld in Saxony. Room 9, shelf 14, lower part.9473 - Skeleton of a Gadus species; from Mansfeld [sic] in Saxony. Room 9, shelf 3, upper.11793 - Palaeoniscus Duvernoy from the anthracitic shale, from Marsfeld in Rhine Bavaria. Scaffale 83 inf.IGF12980 - Paleoniscus vratislaviensis, Agassiz 1833. Permian. Slaty bituminous shales. Mansfeld, Saxony.
Original text36 p. tra terra, e pietre con nicchi, e pietre Islebiane.N. 163N. Una pietra Islebiana nera col suo pesce di colore di Miniera di rame. N. 2301 - Impronta di pesce sopra una lastra di scisto corneo, cuprifero, e micaceo; di Mansfeld in Sassonia. Stanza IX, scaffale 14 inf.9473 - Scheletro di una specie di Gado; di Mansfeld [sic] in Sassonia. Stanza IX, scaffale 3 superiore.11793 - Palaeoniscus Duvernoy dello scisto antracico, di Marsfeld nella Bavaria Renana. Scaffale 83 inf.IGF12980 - Paleoniscus vratislaviensis, Agassiz 1833. Permiano. Scisti ardesiaci bituminosi. Mansfeld, Sassonia.
 Steno’s Pisa manuscript (De Rosa, 1986, p. 78–79)Steno’s Indice (Targioni Tozzetti, 1763a, 50r–50v)Targioni’s catalogue (Targioni Tozzetti, 1763b, p. 447–448)1790–1793 museum catalogue1820 museum catalogue1844–1846 museum catalogueModern museum catalogue
Description36 specimens, among which earth, stones with shells and Islebian stones.N. 141. Two crusts of stone made around two small wooden sticks with wood inside, connected, among which some small shells are attached.2324 - A petrifaction 7-and-a-half inches long and 21 lines large, looking like if in origin it was two sticks encrusted and bound together by sandy cement of the ancient sea. […] [follows Steno’s description]5996 - Brown, opaque fistular carbonate lime with shells impressed on its substance, shaped around plant branches, completely decomposed, from Germany. Room 2, shelf 18, lower part.5003 - Brown, opaque fistular carbonate lime with shells impressed on its substance, shaped around plant branches, completely decomposed, from Germany. Room 12, shelf 5, lower part.3417 - Brown, opaque fistular carbonate lime with shells impressed on its substance, shaped around plant branches, completely decomposed, from Germany. Room 2, shelf 18, lower part.G54669 - Calcite. Brown, opaque fistular carbonate lime with shells impressed on its substance, shaped around plant branches, completely decomposed, from Germany.
Original text36 p. tra terra, e pietre con nicchi, e pietre Islebiane.N. 141. Due croste di pietra fatte intorno a due bastoncini di legno con legno dentro unite, fra di loro, fra le quali sono attaccati certi nicchietti.2324. Una petrificazione lunga pollici 7 e mezzo e larga linee 21, che apparisce essere stata in origine due fuscelletti incrostati e riuniti insieme da tartaro renoso dell’antico mare. […] Lo Stenone nel suo catalogo così descrive questa petrificazione […]N. 5996 - Calce carbonata fistolare bruna opaca che ha impressi dei tastacei sulla sua sostanza, e formata attorno a rami di piante, affatto decomposti, della Germania. Stanza II, scaffale 18 inf.5003 - Calce carbonata fistolare bruna opaca che ha impresso dei testacei sulla sua sostanza, e formata attorno dei rami di piante affatto decomposti; della Germania. Stanza XII, scaff. 5 minor.3417 - Calce carbonata fistolare bruna opaca che ha impresso dei testacei sulla sua sostanza, e formata attorno dei rami di piante affatto decomposti; della Germania. Stanza 2, scaffale 18 inf.G54669 - Calcite. Calce carbonata fistolare bruna opaca che ha impresso dei testacei sulla sua sostanza, e formata attorno dei rami di piante affatto decomposti; della Germania.
Description36 specimens, among which earth, stones with shells and Islebian stones.N. 163N. A black Islebian stone with its fish of copper mine color. N. 2301 - Impression of a fish on a slab made of cupriferous and micaceous shale; from Mansfeld in Saxony. Room 9, shelf 14, lower part.9473 - Skeleton of a Gadus species; from Mansfeld [sic] in Saxony. Room 9, shelf 3, upper.11793 - Palaeoniscus Duvernoy from the anthracitic shale, from Marsfeld in Rhine Bavaria. Scaffale 83 inf.IGF12980 - Paleoniscus vratislaviensis, Agassiz 1833. Permian. Slaty bituminous shales. Mansfeld, Saxony.
Original text36 p. tra terra, e pietre con nicchi, e pietre Islebiane.N. 163N. Una pietra Islebiana nera col suo pesce di colore di Miniera di rame. N. 2301 - Impronta di pesce sopra una lastra di scisto corneo, cuprifero, e micaceo; di Mansfeld in Sassonia. Stanza IX, scaffale 14 inf.9473 - Scheletro di una specie di Gado; di Mansfeld [sic] in Sassonia. Stanza IX, scaffale 3 superiore.11793 - Palaeoniscus Duvernoy dello scisto antracico, di Marsfeld nella Bavaria Renana. Scaffale 83 inf.IGF12980 - Paleoniscus vratislaviensis, Agassiz 1833. Permiano. Scisti ardesiaci bituminosi. Mansfeld, Sassonia.

In 1672, Steno left Florence and headed back to his hometown of Copenhagen for two years as anatomist to the Danish king. Leopoldo de’ Medici entrusted the completion of the catalogue of the Grand-Ducal collection to Lorenzo Magalotti, also a member of the Accademia del Cimento, who was saddened “doubly, because in addition to losing a friend and may I say a spiritual father, I have been burdened with a very annoying occupation, which is that of the superintendence of the Museum of natural things” (Manni, 1775, p. 135). In 1691, the Sicilian botanist of the Giardino de’ Semplici in Florence, Paolo Boccone (1633–1704), testified to the lack of order of the Natural History collection (“the gallery of natural things of the most illustrious Grand Duke Cosimo III [is] not exposed to the public, in Florence, for lack of order”: Boccone, 1697, p. 178). Steno’s order survived only in the Indice, whose meaning is still in part obscure.

Physical Geography of Tuscany

John Ray (1627–1705), the naturalist, traveler, and precursor to Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) in proposing a taxonomy of animals and plants based on the reproductive system, testified to the fame soon reached in Europe by Steno’s interpretation on the origin of fossils.

I come now to give an account of the opinions of the best authors concerning the original and production of these stones. The first and to me most probable opinion is that they were originally the shells and bones of living fishes and other animals bred in the sea. This was the general opinion of the ancients, insomuch that Steno says, it was never made a question among them, whether such bodies came from any places but the sea. It has of late times and is now received and embraced by diverse and learned and ingenious philosophers, as in the precedent age by Fracostorius, and in the present by Nicolaus [sic] Steno and Mr. Robert Hook, after whom I need name no more to give it countenance and authority in the world. (Ray, 1673, p. 120)

The historical importance of Steno’s De Solido, however, was not that it set principles that have guided those who came after him, but more importantly, that it was the first of a series of speculative theories of the Earth, whose authors appeared more and more as “world-makers,” including Ray himself (Rudwick, 1972; Rappaport, 1997). Principles that are taught today in universities, such as the principle of superposition, were not passed on as such to Steno’s contemporaries. His fame lasted for only a short time in England, overcome by the flourishing of more elaborated theories of the Earth until the end of the eighteenth century (Rudwick, 2005). De Solido quickly lost momentum and fell into oblivion nearly everywhere, except in Florence, thanks to the work of Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti himself. Not just an erudite, Targioni Tozzetti actively endeavored to put science to work for the benefit of his contemporaries—savants and laymen alike (Arrigoni, 1987). He learned to collect fossil shells, plants, and other objects of natural history under the tutelage of the botanist Pier Antonio Micheli (1679–1737). Targioni Tozzetti authored six volumes of his travels starting from 1749 and amassed in Florence a large private museum of natural history (Fig. 6), visited by savants from all over Europe (Cipriani and Scarpellini, 2007). His theoretical framework and the concept of “physical chorography,” directly derived from Steno’s geometric approach to the study of Tuscany (Targioni Tozzetti, 1754, containing also the taxonomy used to order the Granducal collections), was raised to international renown in 1795 through a review by Nicolas Desmarest (1725–1815), in the French Encyclopédie Methodique. When compiling the first volume of Geographié-Physique of 1795, Desmarest gave a full account of Targioni Tozzetti’s input to a science that would later be incorporated into geology tout court (Laboulais-Lesage, 2004; Rudwick, 2005) and included his name among the great theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, side by side with Steno, Buffon, and Hutton.

Figure 6.

Fossils and catalogues of Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti’s private museum: a Tertiary shell named “Serpula,” with its catalogue number (n. 51); relative page of the catalogue, where we learn that it belonged to Pier Antonio Micheli’s museum acquired by Targioni Tozzetti in 1739; plate with “Serpula n. 51” hand-drawn by Giovanni’s son, Ottaviano Targioni Tozzetti.

Figure 6.

Fossils and catalogues of Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti’s private museum: a Tertiary shell named “Serpula,” with its catalogue number (n. 51); relative page of the catalogue, where we learn that it belonged to Pier Antonio Micheli’s museum acquired by Targioni Tozzetti in 1739; plate with “Serpula n. 51” hand-drawn by Giovanni’s son, Ottaviano Targioni Tozzetti.

Targioni had the good luck to have Tuscany as the theater of his observations, and to be guided at the same time by two skilled naturalists, Steno and Micheli. […] Tuscany offers in a small extension a large variety of soils and terrains, that reunites under the same point of view the relative relationships, surprising for the contrast of their structure and for the different nature of the stony and earthy substances that compose them, allowing to easily understand their limits. These circumstances are essential to determine the order and the époques of nature. […] Targioni has not ceased to meditate and reflect [on the primitive mountains and secondary hills] to shed light on the great system devised by Steno on the different deposits of the sea. (Desmarest, 1795, p. 525, 530)

Targioni Tozzetti corresponded on the fossils of Tuscany with Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon (1707–1788: Targioni Tozzetti, 1755), and there are reasons to believe that he passed on to the geognost Giovanni Arduino (1714–1795; see Vaccari, 2006) the idea that geometric relationships define the order of deposition of strata (Dominici, 2009). The first to testify to this debt is Arduino himself, in one of his famous letters, written in 1759.

In this way, from stratum to stratum, various kinds of rocks and other fossils succeed one another, as far as the loftiest summit of the Alp: and very high up one finds various beautiful seashells […] All of the innumerable and quite diverse strata which make up this mountain, and indeed all of those vast ranges of mountains and Alps […] can convince any mind capable of sound reasoning that at one time they were all ongoingly continuous: and that they were broken and disconnected simply by the force of flowing waters, which through immensely lengthy work created them, and which even now is creating so many bizarre formations and deep, tortuous valleys. This truth, extended to the whole terrestrial surface, has long been known to many men of great merit: and the aforementioned Signor Targioni provides its most convincing demonstration, with his observations concerning the mountains and hills of Tuscany (which I have in large part seen myself), as all may read in the […] accounts of his travels, which especially concerning mineralogy and the theory of the Earth contain things of high regard. (Arduino, 1759, inEll, 2011, p. 279)

Targioni Tozzetti made Tuscany internationally known and promoted Steno’s conceptual framework, stimulating others to consider the importance of Tuscan “organic remains” in relationship with their stratigraphic occurrence. As he made explicit in the last volume of the 1763 catalogue of the Royal Gallery, any system of classification of things “dug up from the ground” is connected to a particular theory of the Earth (Targioni Tozzetti, 1863d).

Improved Taxonomies

Names convey the substance of things and are aids for the memory of the philosopher. Late Renaissance cabinets, with heterogeneous and idiosyncratic collections, enlarged and gradually gave way to seventeenth-century museums, “repositories of the collective imagination of their society” (Findlen, 1994, p. 9) and the context of scientific practice (Arnold, 2006). An eminent example of this was the museum of Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) in Rome, with taxonomies perfected and published by his disciple, Paolo Bonanni (1638–1723), as a sound basis for contemporary knowledge on modern and fossil shells (Rappaport, 1997). In the first half of the eighteenth century, the Medicean natural history collection had been lost in part by the negligence of the son of Cosimo III and last grand duke of his dynasty, Gian Gastone de’ Medici (1671–1737), who allowed the Florentine naturalist and collector, Niccolò Gualtieri (1688–1744; Manganelli and Benocci, 2011), and the naturalist, Giovanni de Baillou (1679–1758), appointed in 1735 director of the Real Galleria, to use the collections as they pleased. In fact, chevalier Baillou accumulated, during the years of his stay in Florence, a collection “rather for a prince than for a private person,” in the words of a British contemporary, where “minerals and other fossils” had an important role. Baillou appropriated Medicean specimens (Targioni Tozzetti, 1763c, “Prefazione,” folio 4r) and included them in the collection he sold in 1749 to Emperor Francis III of Lorraine (1708–1765) and sent to Vienna (Olmi, 2012). After the death of Micheli in 1732 and Gualtieri in 1744, Targioni Tozzetti remained the only taxonomist who could impose order of the collection that remained. In the 11 volumes of the handwritten “Catalogue of the Mineralogical Collection” of his own private museum, he had included the fossils among the minerals and left a dedicated volume for fossil shells, mostly coming from Tuscany (Cioppi and Dominici, 2011). Targioni Tozzetti’s revision of the natural history collection of the grand duke resulted instead in five volumes comprising “2340 things of the Animal Kingdom, 375 of the Vegetal Kingdom, and 734 of the Fossil Kingdom” (Targioni Tozzetti, 1763a, p. 2v). Targioni Tozzetti never adopted the binomial system introduced by Linnaeus, and minerals were dealt with in the fifth volume of the catalogue (Targioni Tozzetti, 1763c) under the heading “Fossil Kingdom” (the category was informally used in Italy until the nineteenth century; e.g., Pedrini, 1791; Breislak, 1811). Fossils of organic bodies were included (1) at the end of the second volume of the Animal Kingdom, under the heading “Testacea fossilia” (“fossil shells”); (2) in the appendix “LAPIDES CONCHYLIATI vulgo LUMACHELLE” (“shelly stones”; Targioni Tozzetti, 1763b, p. 411, 442, respectively; see also Table 1); (3) in the third volume with the plants; and (4) in the fourth volume, under the heading “Steno’s Indice” (Fig. 2). To Targioni Tozzetti, the classification of the “fossil kingdom” was subordinated to a theory of the Earth; but since theories are volatile, so are systems of classification.

I did not want to include in this third part [the Fossil Kingdom, i.e., volume 5] those many fragments of organic bodies—Animals and Plants, found underground, turned into stone or not, of which a worthy collection is seen in this Imperial Gallery, formed as it seems by the famous Nicolas Steno; I’ve distributed them instead in the respective natural classes […] I feared that the novelty of my system [Targioni Tozzetti, 1754], not yet sufficiently digested, would have been little liked. […] Not even the modern system of the celebrated Carl Linnaeus, notwithstanding in some parts it is better than the ancient ones, is a sufficient Ariane’s thread. (Fig. 7: Targioni Tozzetti, 1763d, folios 1v–2v)

Figure 7.

Remarks opening the fifth volume of the catalogue written by Targioni Tozzetti for the Royal Gallery, dedicated to the “fossil kingdom,” where he mentions “things dug up from the ground” in relationship with his theory of the Earth (Targioni Tozzetti, 1754) and Linnaeus’ system (Targioni Tozzetti, 1763d, folio 2v).

Figure 7.

Remarks opening the fifth volume of the catalogue written by Targioni Tozzetti for the Royal Gallery, dedicated to the “fossil kingdom,” where he mentions “things dug up from the ground” in relationship with his theory of the Earth (Targioni Tozzetti, 1754) and Linnaeus’ system (Targioni Tozzetti, 1763d, folio 2v).

Grand Duke Peter Leopold (1747–1792), who ruled Tuscany in 1765–1790, entrusted Felice Fontana (1730–1805), physicist and physiologist from Trento, to establish a Royal Museum of Physics and Natural History, which was projected and realized during the 1760s and the early 1770s and opened in 1775 as one of the leading museums of Europe, the first public institution directed also to the general public (Fig. 8). The museum contained instruments that belonged to the Medici dynasty, including some of Galileo’s and those of the Accademia del Cimento, and tens of machines and other devices that Fontana had built himself. Natural history collections, separated a few years before from the Galleria degli Uffizi and catalogued by Targioni, were included in the heritage, although in a very subsidiary position with respect to the instruments. In the Saggio del Real Gabinetto di Fisica e di Storia Naturale, in Fontana’s words (Contardi, 2002), 29 pages were dedicated to the description of scientific instruments and their use, but only two pages for the whole natural history collections, with just a few words on the new system of classification that had been adopted.

Figure 8.

Ticket of 1775 to the Royal Museum of Physics and Natural History of Florence, one of the oldest museums to open to the general public.

Figure 8.

Ticket of 1775 to the Royal Museum of Physics and Natural History of Florence, one of the oldest museums to open to the general public.

The symmetry that reigns in and out the shelves, the order and regularity of the specimens is such and so new that it enraptures the observer, and at the same time teaches him, and amuses him. Everything is seen ordered by class—Shells are ordered according to the method of Argenville [Antoine Joseph Dezallier d’Argenville, 1680–1765]. With the fossils [i.e., minerals] the system of Valerio [Johan Gottschalk Wallerius, 1709–1785] was adopted; with the animals that of Linnaeus. Minerals and earths, in the number of about ten thousand, are inside small crystal cups […] everything is under the eye and at the same time protected by crystals from humidity and dust. (Fontana, 1775, p. 30)

When Fontana traveled throughout Europe for five years between 1775 and 1780, he made no substantial effort to increase the natural history collections of the Royal Museum, and among these, upon his return, he mentioned mainly zoological specimens, leaving very little room for true fossils (Cipriani et al., 2011). In presenting a plan for teaching in the New Accademia del Cimento that he imagined, natural history held a marginal place.

Natural History, the way it is presently distributed in the Royal Museum, does not need to be taught by a professor, nor does it need a public course, and it is in such a way ordered so as to need no one. A course of natural history is nothing else but a methodic explanation of the various products that are confusedly dispersed here and there upon the earth. […] In the present, to learn natural history whoever you are in the Royal Museum, all you need is to know how to read. (Fontana, inContardi, 2002, p. 294)

Visitors to the Florentine museum, however ecstatic with admiration for the exhibitions (Olmi, 2006), would have perceived fossils as links that connect the inanimate world of minerals with the living world of animals and plants, with zoophytes such as corals and sponges as intermediates between animals and plants. It was the popular incarnation of the great chain of being (Lovejoy, 1936): in the inextricable labyrinth of the products of nature, an ascending path connected chemistry and mineralogy (ground floor of the museum), with human and zoological sciences (first and second floor), with astronomy (observatory on top of the building), and formed a means to explain the multifaceted expression of God’s creation. In this vision, the watchword was to fill in the gaps of the continuum of the exposition (Contardi, 2002).

Lost Species

By the 1790s, Giovanni Fabbroni (1753–1822), who was firmly established as the true administrator of the Florence museum following Fontana, had important contacts with some of the world’s greatest paturalists—people such as Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) in Virginia, Joseph Banks (1743–1820) in London, Richard Kirwan (1733–1812) in Dublin, and Déodat Gratet de Dolomieu in Paris (1750–1801), who were bringing new insights in the vast field of geotheory. An Inventory of the Royal Cabinet of Physics and Natural History was issued in 1790, allowing for an insight in the state of taxonomies during the years immediately following the French Revolution, when Paris became the cradle for the early development of modern geology, chemistry, and mineralogy. Specimens of the Fossil Kingdom were classified in Florence by the botanist and zoologist curator, Attilio Zuccagni (1754–1807), who rightly overcame the classificatory system of Wallerius introducing the concepts of Richard Kirwan and René Just Haüy (1743–1822) and the use of quantitative chemistry and crystallography in the study of minerals (Bardi, 1808; Cipriani et al., 2011). The emergence of modern mineralogy coincidently followed that of a distinct field of enquiry of Earth’s history based on the study of rocks and fossils, one that the Swiss savant, Jean-André Deluc (1727–1817), successfully named “geology” in 1778 (geologie shifted quite rapidly from denoting a system, or geotheory, to denoting a science: Rudwick, 2005; Heilbron and Sigrist, 2011). When Déodat de Dolomieu sent a small lot of minerals to Florence, exact localities were for the first time reported side by side each specimen (Cipriani et al., 2011), a practice that set them apart from their sole aesthetic value, or relative position in the atemporal great chain of being, to become an instrument for reconstructing Earth’s history. As it was clear to Dolomieu, a geotheorist at the center of the revolution, the exact geographic (and stratigraphic) position of a specimen meant in fact its relative age and was of primary importance in shedding light on pre-human history (Rudwick, 2005). Unfortunately, no one in Florence was prepared to explain the potential of this new approach to natural history. All paleontological entries in the 1790s inventory testify to this lack of knowledge, such as “a molar of fossil mammoth from the river Ohio, in America,” the American mastodon found at Big Bone Lick, in Kentucky, studied by Thomas Jefferson himself (Cioppi, 2017), or “a natural cast of a turreted turbine of extraordinary size […] from the Bolca Mountain,” belonging to a family of gastropods that Jean Guillaume Bruguière (1750–1798) had described in the Encyclopédie Méthodique in 1789–1792 (Bruguière, 1792, p. 472–473); an exact provenance and an informed taxonomy for these entries were missing in the Florence catalogue (Fig. 9).

Figure 9.

In the inventory of 1793 “organised fossils,” exposed in Room 16, were part of the mineral category. This page describes a specimen (Cerithium giganteum of authors) belonging to a taxonomic group that had been described in Paris by Bruguière in 1789–1792 (Cerithioidea of modern taxonomy). “Monte Bolca” comprises a series of fossiliferous localities of different age.

Figure 9.

In the inventory of 1793 “organised fossils,” exposed in Room 16, were part of the mineral category. This page describes a specimen (Cerithium giganteum of authors) belonging to a taxonomic group that had been described in Paris by Bruguière in 1789–1792 (Cerithioidea of modern taxonomy). “Monte Bolca” comprises a series of fossiliferous localities of different age.

The approach to taxonomy was to rapidly change everywhere in Europe. In this respect, Fabbroni’s most important contact at the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle of Paris was Georges Cuvier (1769–1832). Building on the conceptual framework established by Jean-André Deluc, Cuvier had shown an early aptitude to see rock formation and fossils as actual documents of Earth’s history and which monuments and coins were for antiquarians (Rudwick, 1997, 2005). In 1796, he presented to the public of the Parisian museum his first anatomical comparisons of fossil species (Mammuthus primigenius, Megatherium americanum, adopting Linnaean binomial names) with their modern living analogues (respectively, the Asian elephant and the ground sloth). In a call for international collaboration in 1800, he expressed in public that the practice of comparative anatomy could open the door to uncover the history of the Earth.

Like men, the sciences have their stages of life. Given up in youth to brilliant imaginative illusions, they become cooler and more reasoned in maturity. […] The first [geniuses] guessed at nature rather studying it; the others, while thinking they are only verifying the systems they admire, study it truly; and it is thus that the sciences—like peoples—pass from poetry to history. The theory of the earth has thus taken a new direction in the past twenty years. […] Mountains, veins, and strata have been penetrated in all directions; one has assembled their materials and compared them with one another, and already we possess a mass of genuine knowledge that far surpasses all that could have been hoped for when this method began to find favor. There is, however, one part of the animal kingdom whose fossil remains have been less studied, namely the quadrupeds. (Cuvier, 1801, inRudwick, 1997, p. 46–47)

By the study of the bones of large terrestrial animals, without the risk of having missed some of the living analogues, Cuvier could safely provide a proof of the reality of extinction.

We can compare and decide with sufficient certainty whether any fossil bone does or does not resemble the analogous bone in living species. The case is not the same with shells and fish: naturalists are still far from having observed all of them; and every time we find an unknown fossil fish or shell in the earth we can always suppose that the species is still living in distant seas or at inaccessible depths. […] The number, direction and shape of the bones composing each part of the body determine the movements that that part can make, and consequently the functions it can fulfill. […] One finds abundantly, under the soil in all countries, bones different from those of the animals that live at the earth’s surface today […] The older the beds in which these bones are found, the more they differ from those of animals that we know today. (Cuvier, 1801, inRudwick, 1997, p. 48–52)

Cuvier’s strategy was very effective in forming a global network of learned informants and quickly established him as the genius behind the science that an increasing number of savants were calling “geology,” the term having by then gradually spread outside the realm of the French language of its origins (e.g., Fortis, 1778; Olivi, 1792; Correa de Serra, 1799).

The most celebrate foreign naturalists, Messrs. Blumenbach, Camper, Fortis, Fabbroni (…), owners of the most beautiful collections and trustees in public museums in France and abroad, have helped me with their advice and facts that have come to their attention, and have informed me about the specimens that are found at their disposal. Such men should encourage others to follow their example, and I have no doubt that they will find worthy imitators. (Cuvier, 1801, inRudwick, 1997, p. 57–58)

Fabbroni had Cuvier’s exhortation translated into Italian by Fabbroni’s son, Leopoldo (Fabbroni, 1802) (who also attempted some description of Florentine fossil elephants) and sent detailed drawings to Paris; these drawings were later reproduced in engravings of Rechérches sur les Ossemèns fossiles (Fig. 10; see also Rudwick, 2005). Meanwhile, Fontana and Fabbroni were succeeded in the direction of the Florence museum by Girolamo Bardi (1777–1829) during the regency of Maria Luisa of Spain. On 20 February 1807, the queen appointed the teaching of six courses at the museum: astronomy, physics, chemistry, zoology and mineralogy, botanics, and comparative anatomy. In Florence the professor of zoology and mineralogy and curator of fossils, Filippo Nesti (1780–1849), openly encouraged his students to avoid considering the history of fossils as an appendix of mineralogy, praising the innovations introduced by Cuvier and attempting in the first volume of the Annals of the Royal Museum of Natural History the first modern taxonomic study of fossil elephants of Tuscany.

Figure 10.

Type material of Ursus etruscus from the Florentine collections (Cuvier, 1823, his plate 27, and his figures 8 and 1011).

Figure 10.

Type material of Ursus etruscus from the Florentine collections (Cuvier, 1823, his plate 27, and his figures 8 and 1011).

Even though these fossilized remains should be appreciated for the species to which they belonged, and not for the mineral substance that has penetrated them; that might even have been forgiven until the lovely works of Pallas, Camper, Merck and especially Mr. Cuvier closely related the knowledge of fossils, especially mammals, to comparative anatomy, and developed all that could be desired in the history of an order of beings for the best part lost. Therefore, I believed that I had to introduce to each class the history of the remains of those animals belonging to it which are in the state of fossils and to this history I have added a number of observations on the conformational relationships between the solid parts and the soft ones, so that scholars could learn to deduce from certain general forms to which order the animal belonged. (Nesti, 1808a, p. 6)

At the height of his power in the Napoleonic administration, Cuvier traveled to Tuscany in 1809–1810, guided by Filippo Nesti, to meet local collectors and see the upper Arno valley, where most of the celebrated fossil vertebrates came from. No longer needing to convince skeptics of his theory, but only to further prove to himself that anywhere fossil quadrupeds were dug up, they belonged to lost species, Cuvier left the description of the new forms to the young Nesti, in his turn fully aware that he was contributing to the unraveling of the eventful and unidirectional history of the Earth.

The earth, in its alluvial strata, contains the monuments of disastrous events; a crowd of organized beings belonging to ancient epochs stems from its bowels, as a gift for the analysis of the naturalist; he sees with surprise that the forms of the animals contained in it, so much differ from analogue species now living as much is old the terrain where they lay. […] Truth is mingled among many contradictory facts and a thousand doubts, so that the explanation of geological facts is actually an intricate problem that won’t be possibly ever untangled. It is however important that the history of fossils is reconstructed in every province where these are buried, and that this history is, as much as possible, described in all the details concerning position, height above sea level, direction of strata, quality and position of surrounding terrains and mountains, so that from the extension of certain particular facts over many points of the earth, one can deduce the way in which the general cause that operated such a great revolution on the globe acted. (Nesti, 1808b, p. 3)

In subsequent works, Nesti fully described rhinoceros bones from Poggio Monte al Pero (Nesti, 1811), mastodon from near the monastery of Montecarlo, and, following criticism by Cuvier, the “southern” mammoth, Elephas meridionalis (the first valid description of this species; Nesti, 1825; see Falconer, 1868).

All Is Not Lost

The next notable visitor to the Florentine collections was Giambattista Brocchi (1772–1826). As Cuvier shined a light on vertebrate fossils historically dug up in Tuscany, giving a modernized impulse to the acquisition and study of new collections, so did Brocchi with the invertebrates. Trained in Veneto, following teachings of Fortis and Arduino, appointed curator of the Milan Museum of Natural History in 1808, when Milan was the capital of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy, Brocchi was an erudite geologist with wide interests that included historiography, mineralogy, and geology. He visited Tuscany in the summer of 1811 during his geological tour of Italy, collected fossils in the field, and studied specimens found in public museums and in private hands. His largely unpublished diary is a precious source of information, offering an unbiased vision of the state of the Florentine private and public collections.

I stopped particularly to examine the products of Tuscany […] all have been dug up from the Arno valley. The collection of Mr. Targioni is very instructive, since it offers a series of rocks of Tuscany marked by trivial names such as galestro, bardellone, mattaione, macigno, pietra forte, alberese, names often used by Targioni in his work. The collection of fossil shells is not particularly rich and did not fulfil my expectations; many of them are from unknown localities, only it is known that they are from Tuscany. […] 16 August. I’ve examined with more attention the collection of fossils of the Royal Museum. Bones and tusks of elephants are in large number; there are also bones of rhinos, deer horns, teeth and bones of other quadrupeds, all dug up in the Arno Valley. (Brocchi, 1811–1812, entries for 15–16 August 1811, translated by authors)

A description of both marine and terrestrial vertebrates found in Florence at that time is reported on Conchiologia Fossile Subappennina (Brocchi, 1814: v. 1, p. 175, 178–184, 189–195, mentioning Targioni Tozzetti’s collection, and Steno’s specimens on p. 183). More important than this local insight, however, the book played a role in the ongoing geological debates, raising a completely new interest on Tuscan fossil shells and on all marine Tertiary formations. Brocchi’s book was soon read by and positively commented upon by leading geologists of Paris, London, Oxford, and Edinburgh (Pancaldi, 1991; Rudwick, 2005; Dominici, 2010). Brocchi’s new-found fame was based on three essays of international resonance contained in the Conchiologia. Opening the volume was a historiographic essay entitled, “Discourse over the Progress of the Study of fossil Conchology in Italy,” the first of his genre, which was almost carbon-copied by Charles Lyell (1797–1865) in the first volume of his Principles of Geology (Lyell, 1830; see McCartney, 1976). In tracing this history from the late Middle Ages to the present, consolidating the fame of Tuscan natural philosophers and naturalists of all ages, Brocchi briefly reappraised the pioneer role of Nicolas Steno in proving the organic origin of fossils (overlooking all his other inputs to knowledge and method—understandably, given the topic of the essay). Praising Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti for shedding light on the physical constitution of the Tuscan relief, he proclaimed at the same time the failure of all Italian eighteenth-century taxonomic practice, Targioni Tozzetti’s included.

For want of better means, at that time Italian naturalists did not determine fossil species, but with the aid of pictures in books, namely Gualtieri’s, Bonanni’s and Argenville’s. So did Allioni in his Specimen oryctographiae pedemontanae [1757], the first treatise of fossil conchology published in Italy […] Both Allioni and Targioni confined themselves to point out only the species that corresponded to the figures that they had at hand, and as a consequence many [species] they neglected, or never represented. […] Should we believe that he [Allioni] never stepped in more than one misunderstanding by simply sticking to a comparison with figures? (Brocchi, 1814, p. XLIII, 144)

The second essay was entitled, “Geological Observations on the Apennines and the Adjoining Soil,” a review of all the geological formations known at that time in the peninsular part of Italy, and a geological account of the terrains that he personally visited. In Edinburgh, the book was reviewed by Leonard Horner (1785–1864) of the Geological Society of London (established in 1807). Born and raised in Edinburgh, brother of the whig politician, Francis Horner, Leonard Horner reviewed the geological essay in 1816 for the journal Edinburgh Review and personally wrote to Brocchi that the book was “one of the most interesting that has appeared since Geology begun to be studied as a branch of true science” (Pancaldi, 1991; Rudwick, 2005). Sticking to the inductivist philosophy that was by then driving the activities of the Geological Society, and wishing to keep away from all the speculations that had spoiled the debate on the history of the Earth, Horner reviewed the book only for its geological data. On the contrary, he helped promote Brocchi’s speculations on the long-term history of species, the subject of the pages that ended the first volume (Eldredge, 2015). In the famous essay entitled, “Reflections on the Losing of Species,” Brocchi proposed that species, like individuals, die for natural, inner causes, and that, as individuals of different species have average lives of different duration, so some species last for longer stretches of geological time, others for a more brief interval (Dominici, 2010; Dominici and Eldredge, 2010). The facts collected in the second volume, dedicated to Italian Tertiary marine shelly invertebrates and enhanced by wonderful copper engravings (often portraying fossils collected in Tuscany: Fig. 11), were based on Linnaeus’ taxonomy, perfected by Jean-Guillaume Bruguière and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829). With this monograph, Brocchi had entered a debate that was opposing Cuvier and Lamarck. The two French naturalists had been actively publishing, by then for nearly 20 years, on the large collections of fossils from the “younger Secondary” formations of the Paris Basin. Molluscs were the field of expertise assigned to Lamarck, in the footsteps of Bruguière since the opening of the Paris museum in 1794. Focusing on “Tertiary” marine molluscs, and stepping into Lamarck’s field, Brocchi came up with an explanation of the fossil record alternative to that of Bruguière, Lamarck, and Cuvier. To Bruguière, species might not be lost, those known as fossils needing only to be discovered in modern seas (Bruguière, 1792). To Cuvier, all fossil species are distinct from modern species, morphologically stable in time, and become extinct because of some environmental catastrophe of a global nature (Cuvier, 1812). To a mature Lamarck (Lamarck, 1809), species are entities that exist only in the mind of the naturalist, not in the real world, and extinction is only apparent, since “species” gradually transform one into the other, under that active force of environmental factors that act during immense stretches of time (Burkhardt, 1977; Rudwick, 2005). In Brocchi’s analogical thinking, species, like individuals, have a birth and a death, and a life in between, thus espousing Cuvier’s evidence that they are real and stable entities, and that extinction is a real phenomenon. But unlike Cuvier, he proposed that their life is governed in deep time by inner factors that control their destiny. Brocchi was, like Lamarck, a highly competent taxonomist, and his evidence was based on the extended survey of extant molluscs that lived at that time in the Adriatic and the Mediterranean carried out by two other competent taxonomists from Veneto, Giuseppe Olivi (1769–1795; Olivi, 1792) and Stefano Andrea Renier (1759–1830). This comparison proved that ~50% of Italian Tertiary species were still perpetuating their form and, at the same time, that the other half were really extinct—contrary to what Lamarck claimed. Although Brocchi never mentioned it, it was clear to early geologists that none less than transmutation of species was at stake, all evidence for and against being taken from the study of fossils. Effects of his input to early transmutational studies would eventually impinge on the thinking of a young Charles Darwin (1809–1882), a couple of decades later (Dominici and Eldredge, 2010; Eldredge, 2015).

Figure 11.

Plate 2 of Conchiologia Fossile Subappennina, with the type specimen of Conus mercati in the forefront, a species dedicated by Brocchi to Michele Mercati.

Figure 11.

Plate 2 of Conchiologia Fossile Subappennina, with the type specimen of Conus mercati in the forefront, a species dedicated by Brocchi to Michele Mercati.

Brocchi’s fame never reached in his lifetime that of his two French peers, possibly because his book was written in a language (Italian) that ensured oblivion, or because he never engaged in a further public confrontation, or because of his untimely death in Egypt, in 1826. But Conchiologia Fossile Subapennina triggered a renewed interest in Tertiary marine invertebrates so plentifully found in Tuscany and their interpretation as tools to measure relative age of rock formations. Geologists visiting Italy following Brocchi’s lead were many and important, coming from Germany, England, and France (Rudwick, 2005). In 1828, Charles Lyell, Horner’s son-in-law, came to collect fresh data on the stratigraphic distribution of Tertiary molluscs, depending much on Brocchi’s monograph (McCartney, 1976) and on the works of other continental geologists (Rudwick, 2008; Secord, 2015). As the second historiographer of fossil conchology, Lyell reviewed in more depth the role of Steno, with some interpretation on Steno’s intentions.

The most remarkable work of [the seventeenth century] was published by Steno, a Dane, once professor of anatomy at Padua [sic], and who afterwards resided many years at the court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. The treatise bears the quaint title of “De Solido intra Solidum contento naturaliter” (1669) by which the author intended to express “On Gems, Crystals, and organic Petrifactions inclosed within solid Rocks.” This work attests to the priority of the Italian school in geological research; exemplifying at the same time the powerful obstacles opposed, in that age, to the general reception of enlarged views in the science. Steno had compared the fossil shells with their recent analogues, and traced the various gradations from the state of mere calcination, when their natural gluten only was lost, to the perfect substitution of stony matter. He demonstrated that many fossil teeth found in Tuscany belonged to a species of shark; and he dissected, for the purpose of comparison, one of these fish recently taken from the Mediterranean. […] Tuscany, according to him, had successively past through six different states; and to explain these mighty changes, he called in the agency of inundations, earthquakes, and subterranean fires. His generalizations were for the most part comprehensive and just; but such was his awe of popular prejudice, that he only ventured to throw them out as mere conjectures, and the timid reserve of his expressions must have raised doubts as to his own confidence in his opinions, and deprived them of some of the authority due to them. (Lyell, 1830, p. 28)

The interest in fossil shells from the hills of Tuscany did not diminish for decades after Lyell’s work. In the Florence museum, this is documented by the Tertiary faunas collected and described by Vittorio Pecchioli (1790–1870; Fig. 12), Cesare D’Ancona (1832–1908), Angelo Manzoni (1842–1895), Dante Pantanelli (1844–1913), Carlo De Stefani (1851–1924), and Alberto Fucini (1864–1941), often from outcrops visited by Brocchi himself, such as near San Miniato and Empoli (two localities whose fossils had been mentioned by Leonardo da Vinci and Michele Mercati), Siena and Volterra, or from newly discovered shell beds near Orciano Pisano and Vallebiaia. Thanks to Lyell’s extensive work on Tertiary European formations and the introduction of finer stratigraphic subdivisions (epochs), most of these strata are now attributed to the “Pliocene” (“Pleistocene” came in 1839), and their relative age is distinguished with respect to that of Paris Basin formations, belonging to the older “Eocene” epoch (Rudwick, 2008).

Figure 12.

Plate of a monograph of Vittorio Pecchioli on Tuscan Pliocene shells, with some of the figured specimens.

Figure 12.

Plate of a monograph of Vittorio Pecchioli on Tuscan Pliocene shells, with some of the figured specimens.

Brocchi, the first Italian geologist who described this newer group [Pliocene formations] in detail, gave it the name of the Subapennines, and he classed all the tertiary strata of Italy, from Piedmont to Calabria, as parts of the same system.[…] In a catalogue, published by Lamarck, of 500 species of fossil-shells of the Paris basin, a small number only were enumerated as identical with those of Italy, and only 20 as agreeing with living species. This result, said Brocchi, is wonderful, and very different from that derived from a comparison of the fossil-shells of Italy, more than half of which agree with species now living in the Mediterranean, or in other seas, chiefly of hotter climates […] We have already satisfactory evidence that the Subapennine beds of Brocchi belonged, at least, to three periods. To the Miocene we can refer a portion of the strata of Piedmont, those of the hill of the Superga, for example; to the older Pliocene belong the greater part of the strata of northern Italy and of Tuscany, and perhaps those of Rome; to the newer Pliocene [Pleistocene formations], the tufaceous formations of Naples, the calcareous strata of Otranto, and probably the greater part of the tertiary beds of Calabria. […] Cuvier also mentions the remains of a species of lophiodon as occurring among the bones in the Upper Val d’Arno. The elephant of this locality has been called by Nesti meridionalis, and is considered by him as distinct from the Siberian fossil species E. primigenius, with which, however, some eminent comparative anatomists regard it as identical. The skeletons of the hippopotamus are exceedingly abundant; no less than forty had been procured when I visited Florence in 1828. Remains of the elephant, stag, ox, and horse, are also extremely numerous. (Lyell, 1833, p. 155–157, 221)

The Social Embodiment of Geology

Paleontology started as a field of study distinct from geology in 1822, when the word was coined by Henri de Blainville (1777–1850), successor of Lamarck in teaching at the Paris museum. The discipline had become by then autonomous, not just a tool for stratigraphy. A decade later, with Lyell’s three volumes of the Principles, geology acquired a wide readership in Great Britain (Rudwick, 2008; Secord, 2015) and, although not ceasing to be controversial, it became “socially embodied” (Rudwick, 1985). The recognition of its role in society, culture, and economy, however, took a longer course in the rest of Europe. At the end of the Napoleonic era, Grand Duke Ferdinand III (1769–1824) had ordered in Tuscany the elimination of the chairs associated with the Royal Museum of Florence, while retaining the more traditional activities of conservation and research, with Nesti in the role of curator. As the old inventory had grown to acquire “a monstrous form,” the compilation of a new inventory with “a more exact nomenclature that alone can value objects” was urged by Bardi in 1815, and a new catalogue was started in 1820 (Cipriani et al., 2011). The teaching activities resumed in 1833 when the chair of mineralogy was separated from that of zoology and comparative anatomy, the former entrusted to Nesti and the latter to the Sienese Gaspero Mazzi (1787–1867; since 1838 director of the Royal Museum). The mineralogical-geological and the paleontological collections were then separated. The specimens that had belonged to Micheli and Targioni, passed on to Ottaviano Targioni at the death of his father Giovanni, were acquired by the museum (Fig. 13). In 1839, activities of the First Congress of Italian Scientists held in Pisa were subdivided into six sections, including one called “Geology, Mineralogy, and Geography.” Geology had gained, among Italian scientists, a status comparable to that attained in England and France, if 20 years later. The term “scientist” was a recently adopted neologism, coined in 1832 by the Cambridge polymath, William Whewell (1794–1866), president of the Geological Society of London in 1837 and author of History of the Inductive Sciences: geology was the science of the moment (Rudwick, 2008). This first gathering of Italian geologists did not accomplish much, however, apart from celebrating Steno, Targioni, Arduino, and Brocchi in the role of pioneers of Italian geology, and charging Nesti, Mazzi, and Paolo Savi (1798–1871) from Pisa, to establish an “Italian geological-mineralogical nomenclature.” The Third Congress, held at Florence in 1841, in planning the Geological Map of Italy (still far ahead), accepted the proposal to establish an Italian Central Collection of Mineralogy and Geology at the Royal Museum (Cocchi, 1871). At the museum, Mazzi supervised in 1842 the compilation of the catalogue of invertebrates and vertebrates being compiled by Nesti from 1845 until his death in 1849 (a total of 356 entries: Cioppi and Dominici, 2011).

Figure 13.

Tooth of the great white shark, Carcharodon carcharias, collected in the Pliocene around Volterra and once belonging to the Targioni collections (labels associated with the specimen: “Squalus n. 26,” once in cabinet 86-12). Sold by his son Ottaviano Targioni Tozzetti, in 1839, the specimen became part of the Royal Museum: a handwritten note records its past history.

Figure 13.

Tooth of the great white shark, Carcharodon carcharias, collected in the Pliocene around Volterra and once belonging to the Targioni collections (labels associated with the specimen: “Squalus n. 26,” once in cabinet 86-12). Sold by his son Ottaviano Targioni Tozzetti, in 1839, the specimen became part of the Royal Museum: a handwritten note records its past history.

In 1860, the geologist Igino Cocchi (1827–1913) was appointed director of the newly established Royal Institute of Advanced Studies, from which came the University of Florence. Educated at the University of Pisa, Igino Cocchi spent a long period of specialization at Paris and London in the late 1850s (Corsi, 2008), and he held the chair of mineralogy, geology, and paleontology in Florence from 1860 to 1873. The Italian Geological Survey was struggling to accomplish the Geological Map of Italy, paralyzed by lack of funds and by the clash between the party of university geologists, to which Cocchi belonged, and the Royal Mining Corps, led by Quintino Sella (1827–1884; Corsi, 2003). Notwithstanding the substantial defeat of the geologists, at the first meeting of the Italian Geological Committee held in Florence in December 1861, Cocchi obtained approval for the realization of a central paleontological collection and a central library, as prospected in 1841 (Corsi, 2007). During the following decade, many Italian leading geologists contributed many paleontological collections, representing the geology of different parts of Italy, from Lombardy to Sicily (Cioppi and Dominici, 2011). Cocchi himself revised Mazzi’s catalogue of fossil shells and set out to expand it with numerous acquisitions from various localities (see Corsi, 2008). The centrality of Florence for the new Italian paleontological collections ended with the establishment of the Royal Geological Bureau in 1873, when all fossils collected during surveys for the Geological Map of Italy started being sent to Rome (Rossi, 2015). As a testimony to the golden age of invertebrate paleontology in Florence, a series of papers dedicated to the taxonomy of Pliocene and Pleistocene invertebrates collected in Tuscany was published in the following decades (e.g., Pecchioli, 1864: Fig. 12; Manzoni, 1868; D’Ancona, 1871; Ristori, 1886, 1890; Fucini, 1891).

The Search for Man’s Origin

The second wave of interest for fossil vertebrates was in part connected with the thorny issue of human antiquity (Rudwick, 2008). The arrival of man in the scene of history had traditionally qualified the youngest formation called “diluvium,” a name shaped on the hypothesis that a global catastrophe had struck the Earth, and that man populated the Earth only afterwards (Buckland, 1820). During the 1830s, the finding of fossil human bones and human artifacts in caves proposed evidence that man had lived with antediluvian extinct animals. Fossil primates in France, India, and Brazil filled part of the gap between all other vertebrates and man, prompting new arguments in favor of transmutation, while the publication of papers dealing with “fossil man” raised fears in conservative circles of France and England (Secord, 2000; Rudwick, 2008). Paleontologists working on Tertiary and Quaternary formations (the latter concept introduced by Jules Desnoyers [1800–1887] to identify marine terrains that looked younger than the Tertiary: Desnoyers, 1829) attempted to define boundaries of fossil vertebrate associations. By the 1850s, the evidence that man had lived side by side with extinct animal species became a shared knowledge throughout Europe (Rudwick, 2008; Tarantini, 2012). Several protagonists of a new pulse of fossil vertebrate research came to Florence to study the rich paleontological heritage and to excavate Tuscan sites, helping to enlarge collections. The first to cross the Italian border, looking for fossil elephants, was Hugh Falconer (1808–1865), a Scottish physician and expatriate in India, author of a paper on a fossil monkey (Cautley and Falconer, 1840). In Florence since 1856, Falconer praised the quantity and quality of the remains, better and more abundant than any other he had seen in Europe, but he criticized the bad quality of conservation and the poor quality of the studies carried out until that time. He had a low opinion of the expertise of Nesti (“not a professed anatomist”: Falconer, 1868, p. 105) and, in presenting the details of his case, concluded that Florence did not have scientists worthy of the quality of its vertebrate fossil collection.

Pliocene deposits of the Val d’Arno [are] unrivalled in Europe both for their abundance and for the perfect condition in which they are preserved. Elsewhere paleontologists are compelled to grope their way by the faint light of mutilated specimens; there the fossil remains of the same forms are presented entire. A good monograph, liberally illustrated, upon the fossil Mammalia of the Val d’Arno would reflect as bright a lustre on the Italian diadem, as do the chefs-d’oeuvre of the Tribune or the Galleries of the Palazzo Pitti. The patronage of the court has been for centuries bestowed upon the wax models of the Museum, but withheld from the magnificent fossil remains that are laid out under the same roof. Except a few and inadequate memoirs by Nesti, nothing worthy of the subject has been brought out in Italy upon these Tuscan collections during the last half century; and it is not overstating the fact to say that the progress of research on the extinct faunas of the upper Tertiary formation in Europe has been retarded a quarter of a century in consequence. Had these collections been yielded either by Siberia or by the northern part of the valley of the Po, the general results would have been familiar knowledge long ago. At present, a journey to Florence is the only means of becoming acquainted with them. (Falconer, 1868, p. 121)

Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection” in 1859, containing his theory of descent with modification. Among the many arguments, he cited paleontological studies on mastodons and elephants and other pieces of evidence amassed by Falconer. In 1863, the topic of man’s origin was further popularized by Charles Lyell’s, “Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man” (Lyell, 1863) and “Evidences as to Man’s Place in Nature” by Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895; Huxley, 1863).

Cocchi in Florence made original contributions to the debate on man’s origins. A professional geologist with insight into the meaning of Tuscan fossils, particularly regarding the stratigraphic position of human bones and artifacts (Cocchi, 1872b, 1867), Cocchi brought together clues from stratigraphy, vertebrate paleontology (including human), and the new discipline of paleo-ethnology, or the study of stone tools (Tarantini, 2012). Cocchi had international connections, including those with Hugh Falconer, and the leading prehistoric archaeologists of his time. Paul Gervais (1816–1879), one of the experts of Tertiary and Quaternary terrestrial vertebrates, recognized then four epochs with remains (either body parts or artifacts) that could be clearly attributed to man, the oldest of which coincided with strata bearing bones of Elephas meridionalis, so abundant at the Florence museum. Associated vertebrates, particularly extinct species, were means to define epochs in human evolution.

These four epochs can be paleontologically recognized by means of animal species that had been contemporary [to man], and these come to be added to those that history already recognizes. They share the common character of the presence of flint instruments. They are: 1) The epoch of Elephas meridionalis, […] hard to separate from the following. 2) The epoch of Elephas primigenius, large bears, hyenas, large cave felids etc. 3) The epoch of deers […] 4) The epoch of palafittes. (i.e., lake dwellings built on pilings: Gervais, 1867, p. 34, the three intervals corresponding to lower Pleistocene, upper Pleistocene, Mesolithic and Neolithic, respectively)

The publication of Darwin’s book The Descent of Man, translated in Italian within months (Darwin, 1871), had further popularized the topic of the origin of humans in Italy. In the same year, the Fifth International Congress of Anthropology and Prehistoric Archaeology was held in Bologna, largely centered on the Italian record (Sommer, 2009) followed by the publication of Cocchi’s first volume of the catalogue of the museum, dedicated to prehistoric fossils and artifacts (Cocchi, 1872a).

But Tuscan tertiaries offered also fossils that could shed light on events farther back in the history of human evolution. Cocchi found a mandible of a fossil hominoid in Monte Bamboli, in Miocene deposits of southern Tuscany, and lent it immediately to Gervais, who described the new species Oreopithecus bambolii (Gervais, 1872; Cocchi, 1872b; Ristori, 1890). Charles Immanuel Forsyth Major (1843–1923), a physician with a secondary interest in vertebrate paleontology, had been on the hunt for fossil primates when he corresponded with Charles Darwin in 1872 on the fauna associated with Oreopithecus at Monte Bamboli (Forsyth Major, 1872; see Burkhardt and Smith, 1985). Forsyth Major had just moved to Florence, following an interest in fossil primates and fossil vertebrate associations soon leading to important results (Forsyth Major, 1875, 1877). Before the publication of the second edition of The Descent of Man, he contributed to Darwin information on a female skull of Leptobos etruscus from Tuscany (Forsyth Major, 1872).

Dr. Forsyth Major also informs me that a fossil skull, believed to be that of the female Bos etruscus, has been found in Val d’Arno, which is wholly without horns. […] From these various facts we may infer as probable that horns of all kinds, even when they are equally developed in the two sexes, were primarily acquired by the male in order to conquer other males, and have been transferred more or less completely to the female. (Darwin, 1874, p. 327)

In 1880, on behalf of the Geology Laboratory of Florence, Forsyth Major conducted paleontological excavations at Montopoli, not far from San Miniato, in the lower Arno valley, discovering again a large number of new and time-diagnostic species. In 1889, he carried out a second important excavation campaign at Olivola in the Magra valley, in strata younger than those at Montopoli (Forsyth Major, 1890). Forsyth Major remained in Florence until 1892, and his figure remains one of great importance in establishing a chronology of Tuscan mammal faunas, the seed of the modern school of vertebrate paleontology centered on the study of late Miocene–Pleistocene mammals (e.g., Azzaroli, 1977; Azzaroli et al., 1988; Rook et al., 1999). A new and almost complete skeleton of Oreopithecus, a spectacular specimen today on display in Florence, was recovered in 1958 by Johannes Hürzeler (Fig. 14), the Swiss paleontologist author of the paper that started the debate on the phylogenetic position of Oreopithecus, not settled yet (Hürzeler, 1954; Tuttle, 2014). In the 1990s (Fig. 15), the first digital catalogue appeared (Cioppi et al., 1996), fit to the mutable nature of taxonomy.

Figure 14.

The skull of Oreopithecus bambolii, from the skeleton recovered at Baccinello in 1958, by Johannes Hürzeler.

Figure 14.

The skull of Oreopithecus bambolii, from the skeleton recovered at Baccinello in 1958, by Johannes Hürzeler.

Figure 15.

The history of the Florence museum on a timeline, showing authors who first drew attention to the paleontological heritage of Tuscany as a means to reconstruct Earth’s history (italics), main curators and directors of museum collections (regular text), museum catalogues (capital text within circles above timeline), and formal names given to distinct fields of knowledge (bars below timeline).

Figure 15.

The history of the Florence museum on a timeline, showing authors who first drew attention to the paleontological heritage of Tuscany as a means to reconstruct Earth’s history (italics), main curators and directors of museum collections (regular text), museum catalogues (capital text within circles above timeline), and formal names given to distinct fields of knowledge (bars below timeline).

FINALE: BACK TO THE DEEP BLUE WATER

Many university departments, once proudly concerned about “geology,” today claim to embrace the wider field of “earth sciences,” a category by default, with no historical tradition apart from that of geology itself. This choice forgets that geology has always been about the interaction between biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere, whatever their name in past centuries. Similarly, geology always considered the place of our planet in the solar system, the physics of its interiors, its present and past climates, present and past ecology, and all the many disciplines today embraced by “earth sciences.” It would not be unfair to say that geology is the earth sciences. However, if wisely interpreted, this change of emphasis underscores the immense quantity of possible data that can be drawn from the study of fossils and their stratigraphic contexts, including taphonomy and paleoecology. It is also a call for an interaction between disciplines that during the past century have grown up as separate fields of knowledge, explored by specialists who no longer read each other’s papers.

In 2007, a large skeleton of a Pliocene mysticete was dug up from a field at Orciano Pisano, one of the classical localities made famous by nineteenth-century Florentine and Pisan paleontologists. Together with the fossil whale, an associated fossil fauna has been recovered and described, in part belonging to a so-called “whale-fall community” (WFC, or the community of organisms that feed on whale carcasses as they float or after they sink on the sea floor). Modern WFCs are a recent discovery of marine biology attracting worldwide interest for their many ecological implications in the study of the biota inhabiting the deep sea, one of the frontiers of earth science (Smith et al., 2015), and for highlighting the global character of interactions that take place in the open sea (Roman et al., 2014). The singularity of WFC is epitomized by the strange bone-eating worms of genus Osedax (Rouse et al., 2004) and by other weird-looking organisms that live on the rotting tissues of whale carcasses. In this scenario, the interdisciplinary study of the Tuscan find (Dominici et al., 2009; Danise et al., 2010), unique in its genre, has attracted national and international specialists involved in fields such as geology, marine biology, and ecology, who today boast separate interests. In the process, fossil bones from Florentine historic collections from Orciano Pisano have been pulled out from drawers and studied with modern techniques, with exciting results when traces attributable to Osedax were found (Higgs et al., 2012). Today all these exciting aspects of our recent paleontological research, and the serendipitous aspect of science, form the basis for a permanent immersive exhibition inaugurated in the Museum of Natural History, University of Florence, in 2016 (Fig. 16). As visitors enter, they move into the blue, as though they are at the bottom of the Pliocene sea, with a dead carcass at their feet, eaten by a whale-fall fauna including large sharks and bone-eating worms, and with living mysticetes swimming above their head, a scene created by projecting images on the ceiling (Fig. 14). The multimedia exhibition gradually makes visitors aware that each of them plays a part in the modern marine ecosystem that unrolls in front of the Tuscan coastline, reaching Corsica and Liguria—a modern sea where whales live and die the way they did in the Pliocene sea. Visitors are thus led to second thoughts about the many ways they interact with the marine ecosystem (for example, the consequences of their use of plastic and other disposable items of everyday life that eventually make their way down to the sea). And thus they come to appreciate how the geologic history of Italy plays a positive role in ensuring a sustainable future in a world where resources are finite. This is geology today.

Figure 16.

Fossilized skeleton of a Pliocene whale, at the center of the permanent exhibition “Tales of a Whale” opened to the public in May 2016.

Figure 16.

Fossilized skeleton of a Pliocene whale, at the center of the permanent exhibition “Tales of a Whale” opened to the public in May 2016.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

We thank Luciana Fantoni, Museum of Natural History, University of Florence, for helping us to browse through old inventories and catalogues and for sharing her findings on some of Steno’s specimens. We thank Gary D. Rosenberg for inviting us to make a contribution for the present volume. We have benefited from the constructive critique by Alan Cutler and Troels Kardel. Photographs of fossil specimens are by Saulo Bambi, from the Museum of Natural History, University of Florence.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

We thank Luciana Fantoni, Museum of Natural History, University of Florence, for helping us to browse through old inventories and catalogues and for sharing her findings on some of Steno’s specimens. We thank Gary D. Rosenberg for inviting us to make a contribution for the present volume. We have benefited from the constructive critique by Alan Cutler and Troels Kardel. Photographs of fossil specimens are by Saulo Bambi, from the Museum of Natural History, University of Florence.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

We thank Luciana Fantoni, Museum of Natural History, University of Florence, for helping us to browse through old inventories and catalogues and for sharing her findings on some of Steno’s specimens. We thank Gary D. Rosenberg for inviting us to make a contribution for the present volume. We have benefited from the constructive critique by Alan Cutler and Troels Kardel. Photographs of fossil specimens are by Saulo Bambi, from the Museum of Natural History, University of Florence.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

We thank Luciana Fantoni, Museum of Natural History, University of Florence, for helping us to browse through old inventories and catalogues and for sharing her findings on some of Steno’s specimens. We thank Gary D. Rosenberg for inviting us to make a contribution for the present volume. We have benefited from the constructive critique by Alan Cutler and Troels Kardel. Photographs of fossil specimens are by Saulo Bambi, from the Museum of Natural History, University of Florence.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

We thank Luciana Fantoni, Museum of Natural History, University of Florence, for helping us to browse through old inventories and catalogues and for sharing her findings on some of Steno’s specimens. We thank Gary D. Rosenberg for inviting us to make a contribution for the present volume. We have benefited from the constructive critique by Alan Cutler and Troels Kardel. Photographs of fossil specimens are by Saulo Bambi, from the Museum of Natural History, University of Florence.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

We thank Luciana Fantoni, Museum of Natural History, University of Florence, for helping us to browse through old inventories and catalogues and for sharing her findings on some of Steno’s specimens. We thank Gary D. Rosenberg for inviting us to make a contribution for the present volume. We have benefited from the constructive critique by Alan Cutler and Troels Kardel. Photographs of fossil specimens are by Saulo Bambi, from the Museum of Natural History, University of Florence.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

We thank Luciana Fantoni, Museum of Natural History, University of Florence, for helping us to browse through old inventories and catalogues and for sharing her findings on some of Steno’s specimens. We thank Gary D. Rosenberg for inviting us to make a contribution for the present volume. We have benefited from the constructive critique by Alan Cutler and Troels Kardel. Photographs of fossil specimens are by Saulo Bambi, from the Museum of Natural History, University of Florence.

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