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Natural History Museum of Milan, Italy


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Milan (northern Italy) is the second largest city in Italy and my hometown. I’ve spent a good deal of my childhood and formative years in the natural history museum, getting to know it very well. I also have had the chance of volunteering for almost two years in the paleontology collections.


The Museo Civico di Storia Naturale was founded in 1838. During WWII air raids, the authorities refused to evacuate the scientific collections to a safer area, despite the very high risks. In 1943, fire bombs hit the museum and its entire collection (save for a very limited number of specimens) was forever lost. This is one of the worst loss in the history of Italian science.

After WWII the museum acquired new collections, by exchange, purchase or through scientific expeditions. Nowadays, it possibly ranks as first in terms of number of specimens, among the Italian museums.


There are five sections open to the public: introduction to paleontology, the animal tree of life and evolution, the geologic time scale, the dinosaurs hall and the ‘treasures hall’.

Contrary to other permanent exhibitions (such as the mineralogical and paleoanthropological one), the paleontology section has not been renovated in a long time (save for a handful of displays) and that is one of the major issues: almost every explanatory panel is only  in Italian and sometimes not up to date. Despite all of this, the exhibits are highly enjoyable.

Starting from the 1970s the museum staff has been involved in field work campaigns in Italy and abroad. Some of the most relevant finds are now exhibited to the public. These include, just to name a few, fossils from the Triassic of Besano (Italy) and Madagascar, from the Jurassic of Osteno (Italy), from the Cretaceous of Lebanon and, last but not least, dinosaurs. Relevant fossils, purchased in the last few years, are displayed in the ‘treasures hall’.


Let’s dive into some photos!


The next 9 pictures depict specimens from the Middle Triassic of Besano. Note that a few of them are casts, but the originals are kept in the museum’s collections.


Neusticosaurus edwardsii, a nothosaur reptile. This is an historical specimen, being the first Besano reptile described in a scientific journal (1854), as well as one of the very few fossils that survived the WWII air raids. 



Serpianosaurus mirigiolensis, a carnivorous semiacquatic nothosaur



Mixosaurus cornalianus, the most abundant ichthyosaur from Besano



Saurichthys curionii, one of the top predator fish from in the Triassic seas



Macrocnemus bassanii, one the few terrestrial reptiles known from Besano



Askeptosaurus italicus, a thalattosaurian sea reptile



Besanosaurus leptorhynchus (holotype), one of the most impressive fossils ever found in Italy. An ichthyosaur, it measures 5 m (16.5 ft) in length. It was a pregnant female and 4 embryos have fossilized as well. Preparation took more than 15000 hours. This is a cast, the original being too heavy and delicate to be exhibited.

First photo: the complete specimen.

Second photo: close up of the skull region.

Third photo (taken from Wikimedia commons): close up of the rib cage. Notice the circular structures, they are the vertebrae of the embryos





Next are three dinosaur specimens. Unfortunately, all three are casts, but the originals of two of them are kept in the museum.


Saltriovenator zanellai, the latest of the Italian dinosaurs to be described (2018), it originates from the lower Jurassic of Lombardy. Few bones have been preserved and they were freed from the rock with acid baths. The species is the oldest ceratosaurian known. In front of the museum there is a full scale reconstruction of the animal. (The first photo is taken from Wikimedia Commons)




Scipionyx samniticus, one of the greatest paleontological discoveries ever made. This juvenile dinosaur (24 cm or 9.5 in long), recovered in the Early Cretaceous of Pietraroja (southern Italy) preserves much of the soft body parts (including muscles, cuticles, gut). This is a cast, the original is kept near to place of discovery and is seldom shown to the public



Rostrum of Spinosaurus aegyptiacus, from the Cretaceous of Morocco. It was bought from a fossil dealer. Spinosaurus’ skull elements are exceedingly rare (except for teeth). (Photo taken from Wikimedia Commons)



Now, a fish exhibited in the 'introduction to paleontology' exhibition: Paranguilla tigrina, an eel from the Eocene of Bolca, which preserves the original pigmentation pattern




Next, a display of concretions from the Triassic of Madagascar. You can see fish specimens (top left and lower right corner and a close up in the second photo), a shrimp (centre), two ammonites (top right corner) and a thylacocephan (lower left corner)



These are sponges from the Cretaceous of France, England and Germany20220129_114727.thumb.jpg.6ac2973f16110d45170d5eddb6281072.jpg


And now it is time for the ‘treasures hall’!


A large slab preserving 8 complete trilobites from the Cambrian of Morocco



An exceptionally preserved stingray from the Eocene of Bolca, northern Italy



Pontosaurus kornhuberi, a pythonomorph reptile from the Late Cretaceous of Lebanon



Bovid skulls from the Pleistocene of the Po river, northern Italy



And, cherry on top, my absolute favourite fossil in the exhibition: a slab preserving countless sea stars (Astropecten irregularis), from the Early Pleistocene of northern Italy




I wish I could show you even more photos, but many fossils (for instance those originating from the Jurassic of Osteno) are too small to show any detail in a photograph!

In conclusion, the Natural History Museum of Milan, despite an often out dated exhibition layout, should be an unmissable stop for any paleontology enthusiast!


Thank you for the attention,


Edited by Italo40
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Follow me on Instagram (@italian_fossilhunter).


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1 hour ago, Italo40 said:

Neusticosaurus edwardsii, a nothosaur reptile. This is an historical specimen, being the first Besano reptile described in a scientific journal (1854), as well as one of the very few fossils that survived the WWII air raids.

Do you know if this fossil got heated somewhat? White bones, reddish matrix...

Thank you!
Franz Bernhard

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1 hour ago, FranzBernhard said:

Do you know if this fossil got heated somewhat? White bones, reddish matrix...

Thank you!
Franz Bernhard

That's a really good question. Besano's fossils are preserved in oil shales, which are easily flammable (in the early 19th century these rocks were exploited as a possible source for fuel, but with poor results). I guess that if the rock had come near the fire, it would not have survived. I know of a couple Besano fossils which survived because they were on loan to the University of Zurich at the time. However I don't know if this specimen was one of these. In case in was not, my guess is that the colour of the matrix and of the bones may be a consequence of preservation techniques applied over the years (for istance against pyrite decay). I'm not sure of that, any other explanation might be correct.

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52 minutes ago, Italo40 said:

That's a really good question.

Thank you very much for elaborating all the possibilities!
Franz Bernhard

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The only memory I have of Milan is its huge cathedral. I went there almost 40 years ago and unfortunately I did not visit this museum. Thanks for the report.



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Ma bibliothèque PDF 1 (Poissons et sélaciens récents & fossiles) : ici
Ma bibliothèque PDF 2 (Animaux vivants - sans poissons ni sélaciens) : ici
Mâchoires sélaciennes récentes : ici
Hétérodontiques et sélaciens : ici
Oeufs sélaciens récents : ici
Otolithes de poissons récents ! ici

Un Greg...

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5 hours ago, Georgelex said:

Do you think dressing up T rex in a Christmas jumper is a creative way to engage visitors at the Natural History Museum in Milan, or does it trivialize the scientific significance of the exhibit? Should museums embrace such playful initiatives to attract a wider audience or focus solely on educational aspects?

Attracting a wider audience can be equally important, especially in today's world where there are so many distractions.

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