The Museum of Zoology of the Museum Center of Natural and Physical Sciences of the University of Naples Federico II

More than 200 years of biodiversity history

The Museum of Zoology was officially established by Gioacchino Murat, as evidenced by the commemorative plaque at the entrance, with a decree of 18 February 1813. The structure had as its first Director Luigi Petagna, professor at the chair of Zoology, who, to the existing finds, added the zoological ones of the Bourbon Museum, of the large private museum of Giuseppe Saverio Poli (purchased at a cost of 15,000 ducats), of the collection of Giosuè Sangiovanni, destined to succeed him in the direction of the Museum.

Among the first existing finds, the skeleton, still present in the Salone Maggiore, of the famous Elephant of Portici, a male Indian elephant (Elephas maximus) that Carlo di Borbone obtained in 1742 from the Ottoman Turkish sultan Mohammed V in exchange for tables of fine marble. The animal became a notable attraction at the time and was kept in the Royal Palace of Portici where thousands of people went to see it, paying a tip to the soldier who guarded it. He survived until 1756, possibly dying from incorrect nutrition. When he died prematurely, the famous popular saying, also quoted by Benedetto Croce, originated: “Caporà, è mmuort ‘l’alifante!” (“Corporal, the elephant is dead!”), indicating the end of a favorable situation.

The Elephant of Portici (Elephas maximus) of the Zoological Museum of Naples
The Elephant of Portici (Elephas maximus) of the Zoological Museum of Naples

The Museum of Zoology of Naples is an important institution in the cultural system of the Neapolitan city, which is due to the foresight and passion of Luigi Petagna (and his successors to the direction), who, as a doctor, consecrated himself with commitment and dedication also to the study of natural sciences and provided the museum he founded with many important collections, which is part of the Museum Center of Natural and Physical Sciences of the Federico II University and which today can boast, among other things, a vast collection of vertebrates, in which there is no shortage of specimens of great historical and scientific interest, such as those of numerous species now extinct, i.e. the lunate clawed wallaby (Onychogalea lunata) and the Norfolk dove (Gallicolumba norfolciensis).

It is a collection built with patience and wisdom over a history spanning more than two hundred years, not without dramatic episodes, especially during the Second World War, during which many artifacts were destroyed or stolen, when the premises of the museum they were temporarily requisitioned and assigned to the headquarters of a detachment of Anglo-Canadian troops.

The exhibits kept are tangible evidence of the scientific research of the past, its methods, its discoveries and represent the precious pieces of a mosaic that describes the evolution of scientific knowledge.
Above all, these finds are also the material testimony of the ancient teaching methods, as can be seen from the archive documents, in which purchases of collections are reported as an aid to university lectures. Finally, they are also the material testimony of the human and scientific commitment of the scientists who have collected and studied them personally, as well as those who have committed themselves to preserving them for future generations.

Even today, the furnishings from the early 19th century give the Zoology Museum of the Natural and Physical Sciences Museum Center a splendid setting of harmonious elegance and high historical-artistic value, guardian of unique finds in the world.

The Whale of Taranto is the only museum specimen of Mediterranean origin of the Northern right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), a find of considerable historical and scientific importance, which entered the Great Sea of ​​Taranto in February 1877.

The Taranto whale (Eubalaena glacialis) from the Zoological Museum of Naples
The Taranto whale (Eubalaena glacialis) from the Zoological Museum of Naples

The Posillipo Seal, an example of Monk Seal (Monachus monachus) captured in Naples in 1884, the only one coming from the Gulf of Naples and kept in a museum, represents the only tangible evidence of the historical presence of this species in Campania. It is presumed that the specimen comes from the Posillipo caves, as ancient Roman authors report the presence of the species in this site in their writings. Even Oronzo Gabriele Costa reports that the monk seal was found on the islands and coasts of the Kingdom of Naples; Emilio Cornalia writes of the last capture in Ponza and Antonio Federico states that the last specimen was killed in Capri in 1910.

The Seal of Posillipo (Monachus monachus) of the Zoological Museum of Naples
The Seal of Posillipo (Monachus monachus) of the Zoological Museum of Naples

The Achille Costa Entomological Collection is a collection of insects from all over the world, consulted by Italian and foreign entomologists, still representing one of the largest wildlife repertoires in Campania and southern Italy. The Collection currently boasts over 30,000 copies of the initial 100,000 and, although some samples were destroyed by parasites in a phase of abandonment of the Museums around the middle of the last century, and many original catalogs have been lost, it is of exceptional and unique importance for the presence of the types of the species described by Costa.

The Central Italian Helminthological Collection, created by Francesco Saverio Monticelli, includes about 2000 preparations of parasitic helminths of humans and other vertebrates. The collection, established in 1912 at the Zoological Institute of the Royal University of Naples, was born from the union of donations to the state of his personal collection and those of two other eminent helminthologists of the time Corrado Parona and Michele Stossich.

The Mediterranean Malacological Collection, consisting of dry shells and molluscs in alcohol, was organized by Carlo Praus Franceschini on behalf of Francesco Saverio Monticelli, director of the Zoological Museum from 1900 to 1928. It included Mediterranean material, collected by Oronzo Gabriele Costa, Arcangelo Scacchi and Spiridion Brusina, the remains of the ancient collections of Giuseppe Saverio Poli and Giosuè Sangiovanni, and, moreover, the precious specimens from the personal collections of Franceschini himself, Raffaello Bellini, Ignazio Cerio, Nicola Tiberi, Guglielmo Acton and the Tommaso Allery Di Maria, Marquis of Monterosato.

Currently the collection, although impoverished due to the stealing that occurred in the Museum during the Second World War, remains an exhaustive review of the living species in the Mediterranean basin. Among the most interesting specimens existing today we must mention that of Patella ferruginea coming from the Gulf of Naples, where it once lived and where it currently seems to be extinct.


Roberta Improta

Naturalist, official of the Museum Center of Natural and Physical Sciences of the University of Naples Federico II where she deals with the study and enhancement of the collections of the Museum of Zoology, museum teaching and scientific dissemination. She tutors in educational projects for school groups and intramoenic curricular internships, as well as co-supervisor of thesis in Zoology and Scientific Museology, she collaborates in the realization of exhibitions and cultural events. She is the author of scientific and popular publications in national and international journals.