If you wish to visit a museum virtually unchanged since its original set up in the early 20th century, you must visit Florence’s museum of anthropology. For anyone interested in museology, this is a prime example.
The museum is of course valuable to anyone interested in world anthropology itself.
Founded in 1869 by the physician and anthropologist Paolo Mantegazza, this museum, the first of its kind in Italy and one of the few of its kind in Europe, is situated in the rooms of Palazzo Nonfinito, which is itself something special to behold. The palazzo was begun in 1593 by the famous late Renaissance architect, Bernardo Buontalenti, and I will be publishing a post on it soon.
The museum houses 18 rooms filled with displays of prestigious and rich ethnographic collections, a document of great importance of the world’s cultures.
Material objects from many of the world’s earliest cultures – many of which are now lost – and ancient bone collections are all on exhibit. The bones are especially relevant for the study the paleoanthropology of Italy.
There are objects of all kinds that illustrate the customs and traditions of various peoples: clothes, accessories, ornaments and jewels; architectural elements, boats, idols and amulets; offense, defense and hunting weapons; tools for agricultural production, for fishing and for domestic life; home furnishing objects; musical instruments; liturgical objects of different cults; books, paintings and manuscripts.
The oldest collections were gathered together in the 16th and 17th centuries. They come from the collections of the Medici family who collected objects from the New World.
The museum also hold significant photographic and archival documents. They include in particular chalk masks belonging to some tribes in Africa, Asia and the Polynesian Isles.
The first floor of the museum is dedicated to the collections of Africa, Asia, America and Australia; the ground floor houses the India Museum (founded in 1885 by A. De Gubernatis, a scholar of Sanskrit), which joined the Museum of Anthropology in 1913.
There are spectacular objects from South America with the artifacts of the Tupinanba people, in particular the two cloaks of Ibis Rubra. There are also objects belonging to the Ainu culture, from the island of Hokkaido in Japan with kimonos, jewels and domestic utensils.
Mummies from Peru from the Inca period and a spectacular mourning dress (Heva) from Polynesia also draw the attention of the visitors. In the hall of New Guinea we can admire colorful mourning masks and skull-trophies, in addition to testimonies from North America, Lapland, Siberia, Indonesian Archipelago, Horn of Africa, South Africa.
On the ground floor, there are the beautiful rooms dedicated to the “Indian Museum” with collections collected and brought together by Angelo De Gubernatis, a well-known orientalist, during his trip to India. Among the most remarkable findings are a series of bronzes of religious significance, some panels in ivory with erotic scenes from the throne of Tanjore, various sculptures and architectural fragments of temples, games, ceramics, textiles and fabrics.
The rich photographic archive is also noteworthy, comprised of a collection of thousands of photographs taken between the late 1800s and early 1900s, a precious documentary collection of ethnographic collections.
A specialised library adjoins the museum.
The Anthropology museum is a part of Florence’s University Museum System. The oldest nucleus of the Museum is represented by the “Giardino dei Semplici,” commissioned in 1545 by Cosimo I dei Medici.
Today there are three units that make up the Museum: Palazzo Nonfinito, with the ethno-anthropological and osteological collections, and the historical photographic archive; ‘La Specola‘, with the anatomical waxes, the litho-mineralogical and the zoological collections; ‘La Pira‘, with the geo-paleontological and botanical collections, and the Botanical Gardens.