Bonelli and the King

Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Bonelli's Eagle. Photo by Paco Gomez.

Bonelli’s Eagle. Photo by Paco Gomez.

Franco Andrea Bonelli—of warbler and eagle fame—had the great good luck and the singular misfortune to live in what one might call interesting times.

Portrait of Franco Bonelli by G. B. Biscarra.

Portrait of Franco Bonelli by G. B. Biscarra.

Bonelli was born in the Italian Piedmont in 1784. When he was a boy of 14, Napoleon’s troops moved into northern Italy, occupying the Piedmont and driving the royal family into exile on Sardinia.

National Museum of Natural History, Paris. Photo by Roi Boshi.

National Museum of Natural History, Paris. Photo by Roi Boshi.

The French occupation, which would last fifteen years, was a great setback for the burgeoning movement for Italian unity and independence, but it also presented new opportunities to young and ambitious Piedmontese—among them Bonelli, who, with Georges Cuvier’s sponsorship, was able to spend a year studying at the National Museum in Paris, from which he returned in 1811 to take up a position as professor of zoology in Turin.

Regional Museum of Natural History, Turin. Photo by Barbara Addario/TorinoFree.

Regional Museum of Natural History, Turin. Photo by Barbara Addario/TorinoFree.

Among the young professor’s tasks was seeing to it that the city’s museum become a resource for university instruction in natural history. In his tenure, Bonelli did far more: he made Turin the finest museum in Italy, the repository of collections that would be visited by nearly every famous natural historian of his day.

But there was trouble ahead. On Napoleon’s abdication in 1814, the Italian royal family returned from Sardinia. The deeply conservative views of the king came together with his resentment of the French to produce a decidedly radical restoration: as one skeptical court insider reported, the Italians had come back from exile with only one thing in mind, to return everything to the status quo of 1798.

Vittorio Emanuele I in 1801, artist unknown.

Vittorio Emanuele I in 1801, artist unknown.

That meant, of course, destroying every single institution that had been created or promoted by the hated occupiers—including the ornithological collections Bonelli had amassed with the support of Paris. “All of these innovations are the work of Satan,” the king is rumored to have said, “we didn’t have museums in ’98 and we were none the worse for it. Why should we want to be more clever than our forebears?”

Birds to please a king. Photo by Torino Regional Museum of Natural Sciences.

Birds to please a king. Photo by Torino Regional Museum of Natural Sciences.

Someone—presumably but not certainly Bonelli himself—reminded the king of the delight he had recently had in visiting the museum’s birds. Once his tantrum had subsided, the king agreed to make an exception for the birds: he liked the birds, and he hoped that the museum staff would continue to take good care of them.

The next regent, Charles Felix, was more indulgent. He gave Bonelli permission to construct a specially designed hall of zoology in the museum, which was completed in the spring of 1830. Unbeknownst to Bonelli, however, a university colleague had been scheming behind the scenes to have the new space instead given to him for anatomy demonstrations. When Bonelli learned of the betrayal, he suffered a stroke, and died six months later, at the age of 45.

Bonelli's Warbler. Photo by Pierre Dalous.

Bonelli’s Warbler. Photo by Pierre Dalous.

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2 thoughts on “Bonelli and the King

  1. Your short history lessons make bird names more interesting and meaningful. Thank you for sharing this information with us and for keeping the memory of these naturalists alive.

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