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

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

Affiliations: 1: 1Department of Biology, Villanova University, 800 Lancaster Avenue, Villanova, Pennsylvania 19085, USA


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