Bears and gazelles in Leo XIII’s zoo

L’Osservatore Romano

Monsignor Giulio Cicioni"Except that the two unicorns can’t be seen": perhaps the schoolchildren also expected these to appear – as in the Noah’s Ark set to music by Roberto Grotti. Until a few years ago they would be taken to visit the Natural History Museum, founded on the first floor of the bishop’s residence in Perugia by Mons. Giulio Cicioni, a teacher at the local seminary in the second half of the 19th century, when Pope Leo XIII was still Bishop Gioacchino Pecci.


The creator and first curator of the collection was born in 1844 in Cerqueto, between Marsciano and Perugia. Ever since he was a boy, even before entering the seminary he delighted in systematically collecting and preserving flowers, plants and small collections of animals, especially insects. We do not know how aware Fr Giulio was, at the outset, that he shared an enthusiasm for nature widespread in Europe which had literary and artistic, philosophical and scientific implications not necessarily in opposition or alternative. It suffices to recall Gregor Johann Mendel, an Augustinian friar who lived almost at the same time and died in Brünn, Moravia, in 1884. Mendel was an unflagging researcher, to a certain extent misunderstood by his contemporaries. The film director Liana Marabini has recently dedicated a thoughtful and sensitive film to him (The Gardener of God), which has not so far been shown in Italian cinemas.

If in the film Pius IX reassures Mendel (Christopher Lambert) of the harmony between faith and reason, Giulio Cicioni’s special vocation certainly does not elude the future Leo XIII who, even in poetry, as in his pastoral work, showed his constant interest in the evolution of scientific thought and technology, especially in the communications sector – from the ars photographica to the phonograph – to the point that from the time he was appointed bishop he gave the formation of future priests a new direction. Cicioni was ordained in 1867 by Pecci, whose secretary he became before being posted to a rural parish.

Fr Cicioni began to teach scientific subjects at the seminary almost at once, starting with the "school of arithmetic". He took with him there his substantial collection of specimens for didactic purposes. In 1886 it was already possible to speak of a herabarium, in which, according to Il Paese, the newspaper Pecci had desired 10 years earlier, almost all the families of Italian flora were represented. Nor did the passion of the enfant terrible stop here. "By dint of persevering", said Pietro Pizzoni, a student of his, "and by dint of exchanges with the most important botanists sisters and missionaries in America, Asia and Africa, he procured plant specimens from all over the world; and next to the magnificent local herbarium set up another with global specimens".

Stuffed animals in the first zoological museum of Pope Pecci’s naturalistIn the meantime he made collections of fossils, minerals and exhibits of fauna, the latter with an unhoped for enrichment in 1888, after the solemn priestly jubilee of Leo XIII. On that occasion, the whole world had heaped upon the Holy Father a highly representative collection of gifts, finds, and artefacts that went to make up a real universal exhibition, housed in the Vatican not without some problems of space. Particularly dear to the Holy Father was the gallery organized by Francesco Denza, a Barnabite meteorologist and astronomer – later called to direct the Vatican Observatory – of the scientific instruments designed by members of the Italian clergy, including the seismographers, Filippo Cecchi and Ignazio Galli, with the tromometer of Timoteo Bertelli (with whom Michele Stefano de Rossi, a geophysicist had collaborated) and with Denza’s own anemoietograph.
Isabella Farinelli