An Excerpt from Insights: "Learning to See" at La Specola Natural History Museum

The Insights newsletter highlights innovative programs with Accent. Today’s excerpt comes from our July 2019 edition. For more Insights, visit our newsletter.


Professor Susann Allgaier challenges University of Minnesota students in her Drawing Studio to forget everything they know and question everything they see. In fact, central to their experience in the course is the concept of “learning to see,” a fundamental mindset in their efforts to analyze and construct visual ideas through the art of drawing. Considering line, value, texture, shape, and space, students use Florence as their classroom to develop drawing skills and, more importantly, reconsider visual experience in a way that impacts their education across academic disciplines.

One of the key on-site classes each semester in Florence is a visit to La Specola Natural History Museum, just steps from the Accent Florence Study Center at the foot of the Pitti Palace. The Museum was founded in 1775 to host the Medici Scientific Collection. Since its opening, the museum has been free and open to all. Today, the independent museum holds the world’s largest collection of 18th century anatomical waxes and has a collection of over 3.5 million preserved animals, of which five thousand are on display.

Each anatomical wax is carefully sculpted while referencing real corpses, both full bodies and sections. Wax models are displayed in series, each displaying a different layer of anatomy. The visit builds on the Renaissance idea of art and science being inseparably linked. Leonardo and Michelangelo extensively studied the dead and utilized dissection as a way to comprehend human physiology – the structure of muscle and bone and the shapes and components of the body were essential to their highly representative art styles.

Students started by observing and drawing the museum’s zoological collection before exploring the anatomical waxes through small group guided tours. Here, too, they “learned to see,” focusing on minute details and working on drawings that would become part of their semester portfolios.

The museum is not just for tourists and undergraduate art students; it is regularly referenced by local medical students and professionals. Earlier in the summer, a group of Neuroscience students from Michigan State University visited La Specola with Accent as well.

~Accent Florence

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