Fabrizia Caracciolo explores an unlikely treasure in Turin: an extraordinary pomological collection, created in the 1800s by Francesco Garnier Valletti and consisting of thousands of varieties of apples, pears, peaches, plums and grapes...


 Pomological Collection, Museum of Fruit © Francesco Cerchio 


It is well known that Turin is a rather mysterious city: the streets and squares seem immune to the passage of time, and an arcane atmosphere hovers over the older districts. Visitors eager to discover unusual places have their hands full in Turin. 

Just climb the sumptuous steps of the Palazzo degli Istituti Anatomici in the San Salvario area to enter high, spacious halls that seem like pages from L’Illustration at the end of the 19th century. It conjures an historic school with old benches, the sort cherished by the Risorgimento writer, Edmondo De Amicis, in his book, Cuore.

In truth, the Palazzo hasn’t much to do with the scholastic progress of well-heeled students, or 19th-century virtues, because it contains extraordinary museums - museums of the unusual and bizarre, where eccentricity meets scientific research.


Museum of Fruit, Turin © Francesco Cerchio


First of all, the Museum of Fruit, followed by the Anatomy Museum and the museum of Criminal Anthropology. The latter presents a collection of objects accumulated by Cesare Lombroso, physician and anthropologist, a flamboyant forerunner of today’s geneticists who devoted his life to the study of criminal physiognomy.

The display presents a series of skulls, bodies of evidence, images of criminals and drawings by the unfortunate and deranged, which set out to demonstrate that madmen and murderers have their fate written on their faces and within their heads.


Museum of Fruit, Turin © Francesco Cerchio 


All this is disturbing and mysterious, but also symptomatic of a cultural avant-garde that made Turin a center of scientific research, conducted in grand and imaginative buildings constructed at the end of the 19th-century in front of the Parco del Valentino.

The Application School for Engineers, now the architecture faculty of the Polytechnic University of Turin, was located in the Castello del Valentino, next to the lush Botanical Garden, with its pavilions for world fairs just beyond. However, the most intriguing of the museums inside the Palazzo degli Istituti Anatomici has to be the Museum of Fruit.



While it has a pedagogical function, the eye is first attracted not by the tomes in the scientific library, the remarkable archives of antique botanical drawings, or the laboratories with their scientific instruments - which we visit with the help of the curator Paola Costanzo - but by colorful antique wax artifacts. These were not made for decorative purposes, but to promote the rediscovery of sometimes rare plant species, helping to put them back into production.

This is a magnificent collection of three-dimensional reproductions of fruits made using the impressive “ceroplastics” technique by Francesco Garnier Valletti in the second half of the 1800s. A unique personality, Valleti has remained the supreme artisan of this very particular material, having created useful models for science of such realism that they deceive even the most discerning of visitors; each object is the same color, shape and weight as the original fruit.

He was fully aware of the unique quality of his skills, and he kept the formula for his materials a well-guarded secret. His art died with him, the inimitable imitator.


Museum of Fruit, Turin © Francesco Cerchio 


Valletti was master of a craft that he devoted to the agricultural sciences, but today he seems like a creator of beauty. It is as if, truly, art imitates nature and the collection is a surprising, precious Wunderkammer organized without prejudice in large dark display cases. Over 1,000 works are on view; “plasticartificial fruits” of infinite variety, pears, apples, peaches, apricots, plums and cherries. 

Like a wizard, Valletti knew how to reproduce everything in the field of botany. Like the great Arcimboldo in expertise, but without the aim of constructing metaphorical or surreal works, he placed his skill at the service of science, of the painstaking and erudite cataloguing of what nature makes available to humankind.