Fontana on the Venom of the Viper

The work of Felix Fontana suggests complex connections among topics in Romantic natural history. In 1775, Fontana was appointed first director of the the Museum of Physics and Natural History, now known as the Zoological Museum (La Specola) in Florence. Fontana organized collections of the Medici family with other zoological and botanical specimens, and added remarkable life-sized models of human and comparative anatomy produced in a wax modeling workshop on the premises. Fontana’s work on the venom of the viper (left) includes discussions of vegetable poisons, “observations on the primitive structure of the animal body,” experiments “on the reproduction of the nerves,” and a “description of a new canal of the eye.” The plate (below) offers details of a poisonous snake’s skull, along with a “globule” of blood, “the globules which form the gluten of the skin of eels,” and a cylinder of hair, magnified to reveal “small winding cylinders.”

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