30 giugno 2023
by Riccardo Bastianello

The unbelievable story of the elephant in Venice


It was 1819 when they brought some exotic animals to Venice for Carnival, including an elephant, shown to the incredulous public in a cage in Riva degli Schiavoni along the Grand Canal. When the festivities were over, however, the first problems arose. The animal just didn't want to know about boarding the boat that was supposed to take it back to the mainland. Emboldened, it ran over and killed one of the keepers on the spot and then fled. 

Thus came to life an incredible and surreal flight of a pachyderm through the narrow calli of Venice, pursued by Austrian soldiers who unloaded "on the great beast several shots." Chased by the soldiers, the animal found nothing better to do than to break through the door of the church of Sant'Antonin, seeking refuge. There, with the Patriarch's permission, the army switched to heavy artillery and, after drilling a hole in the side wall of the church they shot the animal to death with a small cannon.

The elephant's skeleton, complete with clearly visible holes from bullets fired by the Austrian army, is now on display in the Museum of Nature and Man at the University of Padua, the largest university museum in Italy.

Inaugurated a few days ago, it consists of 38 rooms totaling about 3,800 square meters, plus a temporary exhibition hall of about 300 square meters, 700 square meters of technical and service rooms and another 550 square meters of offices for staff. Developed on three floors, it sees more than 3,500 historical properties on display, including more than 3,200 properties restored for exhibition, 25 tactile models in the zoology section, and will count 193 showcases, 89 multimedia and exhibits, 80 hall panels and another 31 full-wall graphic panels.

The museum was created by merging the extremely rich naturalistic collections that have been built up for centuries by scholars and explorers at the University of Padua for research and educational purposes. The new layout brings together the pre-existing University Museums of Mineralogy, Geology and Paleontology, Anthropology and Zoology into a single exhibition, integrating them into a coherent and exciting narrative, enriched by an intelligent graphic, textual and multimedia apparatus, to tell a planetary story from its beginnings, more than four billion years ago, to the present day.

"The Museum of Nature and Man tells a story. To do so will be the more than 200,000 naturalistic and anthropological artifacts that bring it to life," explained University of Padua Rector Daniela Mapelli, "Artifacts that will tell the story that most of all involves us: that of the evolution of our Planet, of its delicate balances, of the extraordinary interlocking diversities that make it up. A fascinating tale: those who thought it up, the ingenuity and creativity of man who lives on this planet, made it engaging, exciting, using the most effective and contemporary communication languages."

"A unique, coherent and highly scientific narrative. The voices of the exhibits, then, will not produce a Babel of sounds, but a harmonious melody, perhaps a song of Sirens to which the visitor will not have to resist, binding herself, but on the contrary to which she will be able to gently yield. The Museum of Nature and Man is, in a nutshell, the largest university museum in Italy, one of the largest in Europe, and I hope it will soon become a point of reference for those who come to or live in this culturally fervent city." D. Mapelli

The new museum is housed at the Palazzo Cavalli complex, which has its heart in the historic palace built in the second half of the 16th century on the outskirts of Padua, near the Porte Contarine, a hydraulic work that connected the city's inland waterway with the waterway leading to Venice. Beginning in the late 19th century, the palace was gradually expanded to meet the needs of the University of Padua, until it formed a complex surrounding a large inner courtyard on all four sides. The design of the Museum allowed the various bodies to be harmonized so as to facilitate the internal path.

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