In July of 1999 I had the once in a lifetime opportunity to travel to Italy. In addition to seeing all of the normal sites, i.e. the Colosseum, the Forum, and the Vatican in Rome and the Duomo and Pitti Palace in Florence, I also used the trip to take in some of the local paleontological flavor. Italy is not necessarily famous for its dinosaurs, with only two isolated dinosaur fossils being discovered there, but the Pliocene-Pleistocene fossil remains of the Upper Valdarno highlands are world-renowned. These fossils, dubbed the Villafranchian fauna, consist of, among other creatures, mammoths, elephants, cave bears, deer, and saber tooth cats.

Perhaps the best collection of these Villafranchian animals is contained in the Museum of Geology and Paleontology, a branch of the Florence Museum of Natural History. The museum, operated by the city's university, has several branches spread throughout the city. The Museum of Geology and Paleontology is one of the most accessible branches, and probably the most spectacular.

The museum also has a very rich history. Here is an excerpt from a museum brochure explaining the history of its collections:

"The present Museum of Geology and Paleontology was derived from the collections of the Imperial Royal Museum of Physics and Natural History, established in 1775 by the Grand Duke Peter Leopold of Lorraine, at the time housed in a palace in Via Romana currently called La Specola (the Observatory), from a small astronomical station installed on its roof. All the Natural History collections were originally housed in this museum.

"Collections of the Florentine naturalist Giovannin Targioni Tozzetti were added in 1845, during the reign of the Grand Duke Leopold II; they included, among others, a fossil of remarkable historical interest, an ammonite collected in the early years of 1700 by the botanist Pier Antonio Micheli in the Pietraforte formation of the hills of Arcetri, at the southern outskirts of the town. The Florentine naturalist Filippo Nesti held a chair of Mineralogy and Geology, from the early 1800's until his death in 1847; his main interest was centered on vertebrate fossils, and this scientist was in fact the founder of the Florentine collection."

"A catalogue completed in early 1845 lists some 350 specimens of fossil vertebrates, most of which had presumable been collected by Nesti. Thanks to his scientific works and to the works of his more famous contemporary, George Cuvier, the Florence collection became widely known in the scientific world, and many new species of Pliocene and Pleistocene mammals were based on its specimens."

The collections were later enriched thanks to the activity of eminent scientists Antonio Stoppani, Igino Cocchi, Cesare D'Ancona, Carlo De Stefani. The old palace of La Specola became inadequate to house them; the natural history collections were split into sections: zoology, botany, mineralogy, geology (including paleontology). The geological and paleontological collections were transferred, first into tht top floor of the palace in Piazza San Marco which now houses the University Headquarters, and in the early twenties of this century into the present building. This new structure, which also houses the geological laboratories of the University, was built on the area formerly occupied by large stables, built in 1515 by Lorenzo de' Medici duca d'Urbino, then the captain of Florentine troops. According to old chronicles, this was a building of remarkable artistical interest: the roof was supported by columns of Pietra Serena, the bluish-grey, fine grained sandstone then widely used, mainly for decoratin of interiors, and a fresco depicted the finest horses. The nearby building which now houses the Botany laboratories and collections was added later, as a riding school."

"The geological and paleontological collections are now distributed in two floors. The top floor houses the collections of rocks, plants, and invertebrates (part of these have recently been moved to large storerooms in the northwestern part o fthe town); the ground floor houses the collections of vertebrates and a choice of invertebrates and plants. The present arrangement of the Museum was started in 1962 and is still underway. The collections of vertebrates consist mostly of Italian fossils, but specimens from other continents are also exhibited. The collections of vertebrates, besides their high scientific valbu, form the most attractive part of the museum for non-specialists."

I had about an hour to explore the exhibits, and in that time I managed to photograph several of the most important/amazing fossil specimens. These include the aforementioned Villafranchian specimens, plus a variety of fossil plants and fish found near Verona, Italy, and even a monkey! Below you can find these photos.


Anancus arvernensis mastodon

Archidiskodon meridionalis meridionalis elephant

Eucladoceros dicranios deer

Mammoth leg (with me for scale)

Mammoth teeth

Ursus etruscus cave bear


Oreopithecus monkey

Hyaena den


Large fish (from near Verona)

Plant (from near Verona)

Dinosaur footprint


Moa (New Zealand)


Entrance to museum (with me for scale!)

Dinosaur model (museum lobby)


Museum emblem

Museum admission ticket)


© 1997 brusatte@theramp.net

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