In 1771, Maria Theresa of Austria launched a far-reaching programme of reforms for the university (Piano di disciplina, direzione ed economia), that was rounded off in 1773 with the Piano scientifico. This established a new order for the disciplines taught in the various faculties of the university. The aim was to give teaching an experimental orientation and the plan focused on natural sciences, insofar as these were considered “the sciences whose study is the most useful”. Lazzaro Spallanzani, already well known for his confutation of the theory of spontaneous generation, was called on to take up the new professorship of Natural Sciences. Maria Theresa put at his disposition a “collection, that is a museum of naturals to put to use in explaining the many ways in which Nature works”. She had this collection – the original nucleus of the natural science museum – sent immediately from Vienna in seven cases which arrived in 1771. Spallanzani received generous funding from the Hapsburg government to acquire new pieces for the museum, and he himself also travelled extensively in search of pieces to buy from merchants or to obtain through exchanges with other collectors.
Having survived the upheaval of the Napoleonic domination, the museum was expanded by Spallanzani’s successors. Giuseppe Mangili (director from 1799 to 1817) added mineral and animal exhibits. Other early additions include anatomical mounts from Antonio Scarpa’s cabinet of anatomy, instituted in 1782. These were used to form the comparative anatomy section, where you can still see the three preserved muscle anatomical models of a horse, a deer and a monkey. Giovanni Maria Zendrini (1817-1852), an expert in mineralogy, contributed some important mineral specimens, and the naturalist Giuseppe Balsamo Crivelli (1852-1874) obtained large collections for each class of mineral. The specialization of academic disciplines that took place between 1874 and 1876 lead to the division of the original museum into three separate ones: the comparative anatomy section under the direction of Leopoldo Maggi, geology and mineralogy under the direction of Torquato Taramelli, and zoology – after a brief period under the direction of Leopoldo Maggi – under Pietro Pavesi (1875-1907). Pietro Pavesi, whose tenure lasted for over thirty years, was responsible for acquiring most of the exhibits that now make up the zoology section of the museum. Well-known as an expert arachnologist, Pavesi was also an ornithologist and hydrobiologist. He was mayor of Pavia as well as a local historian.
Pavesi was succeeded over the years as head of the zoology institute and the museum of zoology by Giuseppe Mazzarelli, Rina Monti Stella, Edoardo Zavattari, Cesare Artom, Carlo Jucci and Riccardo Milani.
The museum has had to move several times. Originally housed in the Malaspina houses, now part of the Collegio Ghislieri, in 1775 the collections were transferred to rooms on the first floor of the university. The comparative anatomy and zoology sections were moved to Palazzo Botta in 1903 and 1935 respectively. Parts of the museum of mineralogy and palaeontology, orginally housed in the central university buildings, were transferred to the more outlying science institutes in Via Taramelli and then later to the then new Cravino science and engineering hub, in the northern outskirts of Pavia.
Between 1957 and 1961, except for those actually used in teaching, the exhibits from the palaeontology, comparative anatomy and zoology museums were put into storage in the attic of the Castello Visconteo. And there they lay for years, as the plan to establish a civic museum to exhibit them was never carried out.
In 1970, the university collections received pieces from an old civic museum housed in A. Bordoni technical high school.
The zoological exhibits were moved yet again, from the attic of the castle to a structure considered more more suitable for their storage, in the western outskirts of Pavia. Originally built as a warehouse, this building was converted into a museum and opened to the public until 2017. It was then that the zoology collections, along with the comparative anatomy and palaeontology collections (still in the castle until 2012), were moved to Palazzo Botta. So, finally reunited in the intriguing circular itnerary of the Kosmos museum, are the natural science collections last found together in the original natural science museum directed by Lazzaro Spallanzani in the 700s.