The Museum of the Società Africana d’Italia of the Museum System of the University of Naples “L’Orientale”

The Historical Botanical Collection
La collezione botanica della Società Africana d’Italia

The Società Africana d’Italia (SAI) was a geographical and commercial association founded by some of the most prominent names of Neapolitan society of the second half of the 19th century. Founded as Club Africano (1880-82), it supported exploration and commercial reconnaissance projects in the regions most directly connected to Italian colonial interests, organised conferences, promoted courses in African languages, and published its own bulletin. During the twenty-year Fascist period, the SAI’s activities were gradually scaled down, and in 1975 it was formally closed down and its assets acquired by the former Istituto Universitario Orientale.

The first museum of the Società Africana d’Italia

One of the legacies of SAI’s history and activities was its museum. The establishment of a Colonial Trade Museum that could meet the need for an effective instrument of colonial propaganda and dissemination was prevented by SAI’s financial constraints. The nucleus of a Colonial Trade Museum was however set up at SAI’s headquarters, where some botanical and zoological collections were already on display during its early years.

The museum reflected the holistic approach typical of Europeans towards Africa in the late 19th and early 20th century. The display featured a wide variety of materials and objects collected during the expeditions financed by the Society, purchased by collectors or donated by corresponding members from Africa. This led to the creation of a rich ethnographic collection consisting of weapons, personal ornaments, musical instruments, domestic objects and boats. In addition to archaeological finds, period photographs and numerous prints, there are also extensive geological, zoological, and botanical collections.

The Museum of the Società Africana d’Italia in the ‘40s
The Museum of the Società Africana d’Italia in the ‘40s of the last century
The inauguration of the new Museum of the Società Africana d’Italia in 2014

After a long period of oblivion, SAI’s museum heritage has been gaining prominence in recent years, in terms of both exhibits and scientific research. In this sense, a first important step was taken in October 2014 with the inauguration of the Museum of the Società Africana d’Italia, at Palazzo Du Mesnil, the seat of the Rectorate of the University of Naples “L’Orientale”.

This new location now houses a selection of finds and artefacts from Africa, representative of the entire collection, which in 2017 became part of the University Museum System of the University of Naples “L’Orientale”.

The Museum of the Società Africana d’Italia today
The Museum of the Società Africana d’Italia today
The historical botanical collection of the African Society of Italy

Within the SAI museum collection, an important place is occupied by the botanical collection which includes materials and plant-derived objects, mostly collected in eastern Africa. In the SAI’s complexity museum collection, the plant world is represented by more than two hundred samples of different plant categories, such as seeds, fruits, leaves, roots, woods and textile fibres, as well as some textile and woven artefacts, related to more than sixty plant species of alimentary, industrial and pharmaceutical interest.

The most conspicuous portion of the botanical collection was collected by the Neapolitan explorer and naturalist Luigi Cufino, during two SAI expeditions: the first was carried out in Eritrea, Sudan and Yemen in 1913; the second in Italian Somalia, and British and German East Africa in 1914.

The historical botanical collection of the Società Africana d’Italia
The historical botanical collection of the Società Africana d’Italia
An archive of past and future biodiversity

Collected with clear commercial intentions, today this collection comprises an important cross-section of a plant world that in part no longer exists.
This collection constitutes a potential resource for defining past biodiversity, since the remains of seeds and fruits, mostly collected in the regions of the Horn of Africa, can provide a valid reference for the study of plant remains from archaeological contexts in north-eastern Africa, and help to reconstruct the pre- and proto-historic period agriculture, food habits and environment of this territory.

Similarly, it represents a reservoir for future biodiversity, as already demonstrated by some preliminary investigations carried out in collaboration with the Department of Life Sciences of the University of Siena, aimed at DNA extraction and controlled experimentation on the germination potential of historical seeds.

Fruits of doum palm, Hyphaene thebaica (L.) Mart
Fruits of doum palm, Hyphaene thebaica (L.) Mart

Matteo Delle Donne

Research fellow in Prehistory and Protohistory at the University of Naples “L’Orientale”. Since 2003 he has been carrying out archaeological research in countries of the Near and Middle East, North-East Africa and the Mediterranean, in order to reconstruct past human-environment interactions through the study of archaeobotanical remains. Since 2019 he has been co-director of the Italian-Iranian Bio-Archaeological Project in Sistan and Baluchistan, Iran of ISMEO – the International Association for Mediterranean and Oriental Studies – Rome. He is the author of various studies published in national and international periodicals and journals.