The Museum of Natural History and Lands of Città della Pieve, near Perugia, Umbria, is located on the main floor of Palazzo della Corgna in the historical center of the town and was opened to the public in 2011, thanks to a contribution from the Region of Umbria and co-financed by the Municipality of Città della PIeve. The exhibition layout was curated by the Centro di Ateneo per i Musei Scientifici dell’Università degli Studi di Perugia which has accompanied the activities of the museum for many years in collaboration with the Association Gruppo Ecologista il RICCIO of Città della Pieve, which in 2016 also curated a new arrangement of the Museum.
The historical core of the Museum preserves and enhances specimens and materials from the collections of two illustrious naturalists of Città della Pieve: Antonio Verri (1839-1925), geologist and former President of the Italian Geological Society, a scholar of the geology and paleontology of the territory, and Paolo De Simone, agronomist and collector of botanical and zoological specimens.
Paolo De Simone
Paolo De Simone (Caserta 1859 – Roma 1906), a keen student of Natural Sciences and Agriculture, after obtaining his degree in Agrarian Studies at Pisa, comes to Città della Pieve together with Vittoria Mirafiori Spinola, daughter of Rosa Vercellana and Vittorio Emanuele II. Vittoria buys the estate of Salci in 1886 and Paolo becomes her administrator. Theirs is also an illegitimate relationship, Vittoria being otherwise married.
Città della Pieve is the ideal place for both of them to meet their dreams and to experiment with a new idea of agricultural enterprise. In Salci, they breed thorough bred horses, produce wine and set up a steam-powered factory for the production of pasta.
Paolo is deeply naturalist in vocation and unites creativity and resourcefulness. He obtains a patent for a special multi-purpose watering-can, called Secchia Palusse, suitable for watering, cleaning, pumping and spraying pesticides. Paolo is a leading figure, holding political office, animating cultural life with his versatility and innovative visions. In his Pievese residence, called Palusse, and set amidst the lands of Poggio al Piano, Paolo builds greenhouses, flower boxes and hosts his botanical collections. He also establishes a farm with horticulture, floriculture and poultry farming. The farm is named Stabilimento Palusse and has a branch in Via del Viminale 11 in Rome.
In 1900, the Palusse is sold, burdened by debts and mortgages. Paolo and Vittoria move to Rome where they marry on November 7, 1900. He leaves his collections to the Technical School of Città della Pieve.
In January 1904 Paolo starts a business with Ettore Manzolini, called the Unione Orticola Romana Manzolini-Palusse whose activities include production and sale of horticultural, floricultural, gardening, art and such-like products. Paolo manages the establishment in via del Viminale. Vittoria dies of pneumonia on 29 November 1905. In January 1906, Paolo dissolves his company and takes his own life on 1 May 1906. (The biographical notes on Paolo De Simone are extracted from a written work in progress by Maria Luisa Meo).
The “Paolo De Simone” Spermoteca
The museum hosts a spermoteca, a collection of seeds preserved in appositely-designed glass ampoules. These contain 273 samples of a wide variety of plant seeds for agricultural use, of local, national, European and non-European origin. This collection originates from the commercial and agricultural activities of Paolo De Simone. In some containers, paper fragments of horticultural/gardening magazines of the time were found, as well as incompleted forms for ordering seeds from the company, Fratelli D’Amato-Napoli. The company no longer appears in existence but we intend to verify the eventual presence of its catalogs in bibliographical sources. The spermoteca inventory was curated by CAMS from 2007 to 2010.
Recently, with the help of the IBBR CNR Institute (Perugia) and Parco3A (Todi), which contribute to the profile and conservation of Umbrian agricultural biodiversity, with in particular, the Parco3A the institutional figure of reference for the agrobiodiversity of the region. Interest has developed over the nature of the accessions present in this collection. There is a strong interest in agricultural biodiversity of the past and its preservation and cultivation as a system of revaluation of the typicality of Italian territories.
Agricultural biodiversity has a greater chance of survival with the re-introduction of cultivations, able to produce income for local agriculturalists. The names of cultivated plants on the labels of the museum containers refer exclusively to horticultural species and among the most relevant and numerous species are: lettuce, pea, melon, eggplant, lentil, artichoke, bell pepper, tomato, onion, cabbage family (broccoli, cauliflower, turnip, savoy, cabbage), chicory, chickpea, cucumber, turnip, radish, celery, spinach, pumpkin, broad bean, fennel, beet.
Bibliographical research has sought to trace the origins of the present accessions and for their eventual retrieval from germoplasm collections or other sources (for example, cultivators) so as to be able to reintroduce them into cultivation, something a number of local agriculturists have expressed an interest in.
Material discovered so far, has been found in the Bullettino della R. Società Toscana di Orticultura and in the book Gli ortaggi coltivati by Angiolo Pucci (Bemporad & figlio, 1897) and in international catalogs of the period.
The horticultural accessions are a collection of local varieties mainly from Southern Italy. For example, the accession pisello nano del Vesuvio (Vesuvian dwarf pea) – may match the current local accession – pisello cento giorni del Vesuvio (Hundred-day pea of Vesuvius), a Slow Food presidium. This latter has been reintroduced thanks to the efforts of a few agriculturalists in the Neapolitan area and the initiatives of local entities.
Another two to note are the Telegraph rippled pea and Telephone climbing pea which represent an interesting form of long-standing diatribe about the intellectual property of the variety. The “Telegraph pea” was originally produced by the English breeder William Culver well in the form from rippled and smooth seeds. The seeds of the Telegraph variety were likely acquired by James Carter & Co, active in the second half of the 19th century and early 20th, and probably sold as “Telephone pea” by the latter after selection of the rippled form of the mixed variety “Telegraph”.
In the photograph the seeds “Telephone climbing pea” of the collection appear however quite smooth (even in the museum’s specimen) and there is also a photograph of the seeds “Telegraph rippled pea” that all appear rippled.
The Telephone variety is still available from today’s seed producers, also Italian ones, as a traditional or ‘heirloom’variety. Whether the processes of selection have maintained the original genetic patrimony is still to be verified. Regarding a species of great importance for Italy, there are several varieties of tomato: Re Umberto, fiaschella di Napoli, meraviglia di Napoli, riccio di Nocera. These are clearly varieties of the most heavily-cultivated areas of Campania and some of them are still present, also “Re Umberto” which was a very popular variety of the producer Benary, in Erfurt, Germany.
A small step towards sustainability
Small museums never cease to enchant, and thanks to the collections they preserve, it is possible to contribute to the knowledge of the changes occurring in recent decades as a consequence of loss of biodiversity, including vegetal. As we know, the use of few varieties per species on large areas has led to a loss of genetic heritage, as reported by numerous scientific sources. The United Nations 2030 Agenda has among its objectives related to sustainable development, number 15 Life on land with the main focus on the preservation of terrestrial biodiversity.
The text was written in collaboration with Carmelita Taborgna, Daniela Amoretti, Angelo Barili, Luca Convito, Michele Croce and Sergio Gentili.