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Seeking Science in Verona

O, look! methinks I see my cousin's ghost. Seeking out Romeo.” William Shakespeare

I stepped into a candy shop not far from Piazza Brà, the historic centre of Verona. With a big smile on his face, the shopkeeper bragged that “Venice has a lot of water, Verona has a lot of wine. Which would you rather drink?” He then immediately offered me a couple of ‘pebbles’ from the Adige River. They looked just like the pebbles that assemble at a bend in the meander of the river just a block or two from the candy shop. Then the shopkeeper chuckled and showed me a whole bin full of ‘pebbles’. They were chocolate covered and delicious. Verona seems to be like that. This historic city has a lot going for it, but around 10:00 AM when all the cruise ship tourist groups arrive, they head straight for Juliet’s balcony to relive the romance. Little does it matter to them that the balcony was added to this thirteenth century house in the mid-twentieth century.

If you have an interest in science, it is possible to escape the zombie tourist hordes. The guided tour groups don’t seem as interested as I am in STEM. 

 A short walk took me over to the Basilica of Saint Zeno. I went down into the crypt: not to see the final resting place of Juliet, but to look at the relics of Saint Zeno. The relics are interesting from two perspectives, described in detail on the panels displayed in the cloister. Recently, the type of forensic techniques used on the TV show CSI, including DNA analysis, along with anthropological techniques were performed on the bones. Then, in what I recognized as very good use of science, they announced that the relics “belong to a chronological period compatible with what we know historically” and furthermore that “analysis of DNA led to the conclusion that the body was that of the Mediterranean type with dark complexion and presumably North African.” Rather than coming right out and saying these are the relics of the saint, they conclude that “the results of these studies concur with the attribution of the relics to a man whose characteristics correspond with those assigned by history and tradition to the saint.”

Take a few steps anywhere in Verona and you can look down and see the familiar spiral form of an ammonite. These cephalopod mollusks lived from the Devonian until they became extinct in the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event. There is an Alberta connection. Ammolite, our unofficial provincial gemstone, is the opal-like fossilized outer shell of ammonites and is found in abundance along the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies. It is possible that the limestone fossil beds north of Verona formed below the slopes of the Dolomites in a somewhat similar way.

I set aside an afternoon to visit the Museo di Scienze Naturali di Verona. As I walked up to the door just before opening time, there was already a family of three, the child probably elementary aged, waiting for the door to open. I feared that it would soon be a full and busy museum. That turned out not to be the case and for the most part I had the place to myself. The museum is housed in the Pompei Palace, a renaissance building designed by mathematical and design genius Michele Sanmicheli.

Stepping inside the first room of the museum nearly blew me away. It was filled with some of the finest fossils of Bolca. The locals call it Pesciara, the fishbowl, because so many Eocene fish fossils were discovered in the Bolca deposits. I also found myself mesmerized by the marine plant fossils, some four to six metres in height. Unfortunately, this is the only room in the museum labelled “no photo”. As I wandered through the collections housed in fourteen rooms, I was impressed with the modern curation techniques. For example, the introduction to geology includes Moh’s scale of hardness with rock samples from talc to diamond. The biological exhibits use a thematic approach demonstrating adaptations to life in water, air and land.

One room is set aside to show how cabinets of curiosity transformed into modern museums. The Civic Natural History Museum of Verona began in 1853 to house these collections of plants, animals, fossils and minerals that had been collected by various citizens since 1500. On display were some of the tools and part of the collection of Abramo Bartolommeo Massalongo (1824 - 1860), an Italian paleobotanist and lichenologist. The ambitious collection of Pietro Zangheri (1889 – 1983), a noted ornithologist, is also housed here. Now, this historic collection is being used by scientists to study changes in habitats over the past hundred years.

Following a room of topographic models showing the Dolomites, the final room of the museum is dedicated to evolution. One amazing wall illustrates the evolution of elephants using fossil teeth to make the point.

A short walk across the historic centre of Verona took me to the Palazzo Miniscalchi, a family home since the 15th century, but by 1964 this house with fifteen halls was turned into the Museo Miniscalchi-Erizzo. The museum houses an eclectic array of arts and science objects collected by the Miniscalchi family over the years they lived there. One object of interest to me was the ‘orologio solare con bussola e gnomoni’. Google initially translated this as ‘sundials with compass and genomes’. Genomes! No, it turns out I had made a typo. But it was interesting walking around this impressive old family palace. Perhaps of most interest was a display of natural science books from the 16th century.
For many tourists, Verona is the home of fantasy, seeking the romance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. For me, Verona is a fabulous place seeking science.

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Seeking Science in Verona

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