In the Belly of the Beast
“With his torch [Hamilcar] lit a miner’s lamp which was fastened to the idol’s cap, and green, yellow, blue, violet, wine-coloured, and blood-coloured fires suddenly illuminated the hall…. There were callaides shot away from the mountains with slings, carbuncles formed by the urine of the lynx, glossopetrae which had fallen from the moon, tyanos, diamonds, sandastra, beryls, with the three kinds of rubies, the four kinds of sapphires, and the twelve kinds of emeralds. They gleamed like splashes of milk, blue icicles, and silver dust, and shed their light in sheets, rays, and stars.” (Gustave Flaubert, Salammbo)
aturday’s excursion was to the Certosa di Calci, hidden in a tiny town about 30 km from Livorno. For me, the big attraction there is the Museo di Storia Naturale, four floors of late-nineteenth-century-style dioramas, stuffed animals, giraffe hearts, bear stomachs, snake genitals, giant salamanders in hand-blown jars full of formaldehyde, skeletons of every variety, and other odds and ends of the “natural world.”
It’s no wonder collections like these were once called “Cabinets of Curiosities.” The Museo at the Certosa includes a whole room dedicated to the days when naturalists tried to shape an explanation for the fossils they found into a antediluvian conceit. The myths of unicorns and the fierce Kyklopes of Sicily trace their origins to the misinterpretation of fossils and, until the last third of the 17th century, scientists believed that fossil shark teeth, which they called glossopetrae (“tongue stones”) or Lingue di Serpi, were the tongues of serpents that had been turned to stone by St. Paul (or that had simply fallen from heaven on dark nights). [It took Niels Stensen’s 1667 monograph, Elementorum Myologiae Specimen, seu musculi descriptio geometrica. Cui accedunt canis carchariae dissectum caput, et dissectus piscis ex canum genere, in which he described his dissection of the head of a white shark (caught in the waters off Livorno!!), to reveal the true nature and significance of glossopetrae.]
Similarly, the disk-like fossils found at the base of the pyramids in Giza were taken for petrified lentils dropped there by workers, and not the tests of a large Eocene foraminifer called Nummulites. Of course, there’s no denying that the idea of petrified lentils is more poetic.
Perhaps the most awesome exhibit (awe = a mixed emotion of reverence, respect, dread, and wonder inspired by authority, genius, great beauty, sublimity, or might) at the Museo di Storia Naturale is to be found on the topmost floor. In a football-field-sized barn of a room, the complete skeletons of some five or six whales are suspended from the ceiling. Some of the bones are stenciled with the name of the species or the place and date where the whale was found or killed. Several of the skeletons are so large that you can literally stand, Jonah-like, inside the ribcage of the whale. The framework and fittings are iron, old and rusty, and seem less than entirely trustworthy.
This was my second trip to the Certosa and this time, amid all the animals–stuffed, dried, flayed, flensed, preserved, bottled, embalmed–I had the sensation of walking through an immense graveyard where the corpses have been waiting for more than a century to be buried.