Institute and Museum of the History
By Bonnie R. Schutzman
Copyright © 2007 by Bonnie R. Schutzman, All Rights Reserved
If your writing relies on detailed and thorough worldbuilding, the
website of the Institute and Museum of the History of Science (Istituto
e Museo di Storia della Scienza, or IMSS) at
http://www.imss.fi.it should be on
your list of resources. Whether you need to know what tools were
available for your protagonist to survey the enemy encampment,
realistically explain how to use a sextant to set a course at sea, or
understand the science and technology of a Roman town, you can find it
in this website.
The IMSS is physically located in Florence, Italy, in an 11th-century
palazzo on the Arno, near the Uffizi galleries. It houses the
scientific instrument collection gathered by the Medici and Lorraine
families starting from the sixteenth century, plus more recent additions
and a large selection of documents and original texts. Much of the
material is available through the website; the Multimedia Catalog
in the Museum section points to the interactive and video content.
lets you scroll through pictures of the entire permanent collection,
room by room. Sure, you know your mage is an alchemist who uses an
alembic to boil his potions -- but do you know what an alembic dome
looks like? (Hint:
collection of animations demonstrate how instruments such as
Archimedean screws (http://brunelleschi.imss.fi.it/museum/esim.asp?c=500100),
Volta's electrical-phlogopneumatic pistol (http://brunelleschi.imss.fi.it/museum/esim.asp?c=500182),
and a wide variety of drawing and surveying instruments might have
In the Exhibits section, you'll find a trove of themed analysis
on topics ranging from ancient Roman glass to the role of court
scientists in the Renaissance. These exhibits explore the social and
cultural context of scientific and technical developments. Most
exhibits include supporting text, illustrations and animations, and
digitized documents related to the subject. Some of the more
interesting exhibits include:
* "Vitrum," which examines the role of glass in Roman science. In
addition to obvious uses for drinking glasses and flasks, glass enabled
clear instruments. This triggered the investigation of the optical
properties of prisms, and allowed alchemists such as Bolos of Mendes and
Mary the Jew of Alexandria to embrace the chemical neutrality of glass
for their experiments.
* "The Line of the Sun," a virtual tour of sundials and other
light-oriented features of Florence.
* "Ancient Gardens from Babylon to Rome," which describes not only the
gardens and the plants that grew in them, but also the various functions
-- sacred space, herb garden, retreat -- and changes over time.
* "Michael of Rhodes," the service record of a young mariner in the
fleet of Venice in the early 1400's. A document viewer shows original
pages from the manuscript, along with translations to English and modern
Italian. The display provides a wealth of information about trade,
shipbuilding, and navigation.
If you're interested in original research, most of the exhibits and
tutorials include an abundance of links that can lead you far
astray, into museum catalogs, other Italian government agencies,
libraries, and documents in dozens of languages. You can also browse or
search the digital library, which allows you to view contents
online or download for later. Most of the manuscripts and printed works
are in full image format, allowing you to see the original artwork and
script as well as acquired stains and smudges -- fascinating in itself.
The collection includes many ancient scientific, mathematical, and
technical manuscripts as well as online catalogs and searchable
directories of other museums, announcements, and proceedings of various
conferences dealing with the history and significance of science. It
also contains links to dozens of other websites and indexes.
The website announces upcoming exhibits and events; if you plan to be in
Florence in December, you might want to catch "The Accademia del Cimento
in the European Context," a conference about a group of court scientists
The IMSS website is not always an easy site to use. Its organization
can be non-intuitive. Fascinating information turns up in apparently
unrelated places. For instance, information about plumbing in Pompeii
is found in a sidebar to the Roman gardens exhibit (http://brunelleschi.imss.fi.it/giardinoantico/egar.asp?c=24027&k=24013&rif=24024).
Also, random sections haven't been translated yet. The original
documents appear in the original languages, so to make full use of the
resources, you should be able to read Italian, French, German, Latin,
Greek, and even Hungarian. But the wealth of information and context
makes it more than worth investigating for worldbuilding details that
will give your work deep authenticity.
And behind that door, in the Babylonian hanging garden -- look, it's a