Claudia Perini, Carla Barluzzi, and Gianmaria Bonari,University of Siena, andThomas Evans,University of Delaware
Adapted from and with the permission of Professor Sara Ferri, President of Accademia dei Fisiocritici, Siena, Italy
Perini, C., Barluzzi, C., Bonari, G., and Evans, T. 2016. The terracotta fungi of Francesco Valenti Serini (1795-1872). APS Features. doi:10.1094/APSFeature-2016-05.
On the first day of my sabbatical leave at the University of Siena in 2014, I wandered into the Accademia dei Fisiocritici, the natural history museum attached to my professional home for the next three months. The second display room that I entered contained the most spectacular collection of life-sized terracotta models of fungal fruiting bodies that I had ever seen. This exhibition was composed of a diverse collection of fruiting bodies of poisonous, ectomycorrhizal, edible, and saprotrophic fungi found in Tuscany. The importance of this collection would only slowly reveal itself to me in what I came to think of as the Italian way. The collection is both beautiful artistically and important scientifically. The collection (Fig. 1) of Dr. Francesco Valenti Serini is generally unknown outside of Tuscany and through this publication we hope to remedy this situation. What follows is the story of a medical doctor, botanist, mycologist, and artist in the 1800s in Italy and his life's endeavor to educate his fellow Tuscans in how to distinguish between poisonous and edible fungi. Valenti Serini was a Renaissance man but was limited by the science and technology of his day. The authors do not intend what is presented herein to be used as guide to distinguish between poisonous and edible fungi but rather to describe the history of Valenti Serini's work. -- T.E.
This is the story of the life of Francesco Valenti Serini (Fig. 1). He was born in the province of Siena in a small village called Villa a Sesta on 3 June 1795 and died in Siena on 11 August 1872. A contemporary of Anton de Bary, Serini had similar academic training and interests, graduating in medicine in Siena and turning his attention primarily to botany and mycology. He improved himself academically, studying the natural sciences in Florence, Pisa, Padova, and Bologna and practicing medicine in Florence at the hospitals of Santa Maria Novella and St. John of God. During his Florentine hospital experience, he became aware of the terrible suffering of those poisoned by mushrooms and very often the futility of their care. This prompted him to return to his hometown of Siena to dedicate himself to the study of fungi with the intent to allow everyone, "to the crowd even [unmannerly or uneducated]," to recognize the fruiting bodies of "mangerecci" (edible), "mangerecci e buono" (edible and good), "mangerecci e delizioso" (edible and delicious), "sospetti" (suspect), or "velenosi" (poisonous) fungi. Serini wrote that: "The moving cause of my passion for this specialty has always been the sorrow I feel for the too often and sad cases of poisoning caused by fungi."
The rapid decomposition of fruiting bodies proved to be a problem in his effort to raise awareness of poisonous mushrooms, particularly among all those who could neither read nor write. To overcome it, he first drew the mushrooms by hand and subsequently painted them accurately with watercolors in order to conserve their life-like images. He then reproduced these mushrooms by hand, forming them in terracotta clay and baking them in a small kiln specially built for the purpose. Dr. Serini used fresh fruiting bodies collected by himself or by others as models and sometimes used cultivated wild fungi in pots to better follow their growth and development. In 1838, he began to reproduce the fruiting bodies in terracotta and accurately colored them with paint. The series included terracotta clay tablets with the fruiting bodies in high relief, hereafter referred to as reliefs, and many life-sized three dimensional models. Some specimens from this diverse collection were donated to the Municipality of Reggio Emilia, others to the Royal Academy of Turin, and the largest portion were given to the Comune of Siena with the desire that the collection be displayed in a public place "so that it could be of use to the people." In the early years of the twentieth century, the Sienese collection was rearranged, reorganized, and displayed by Arturo Nannizzi (Sienese botanist and mycologist, 1877-1961). At that time, the collection consisted of 1619 specimens reproduced as three dimensional models and 235 as reliefs. It had long been the desire of Valenti Serini to donate his collection to the Sienese Academy, the Accademia dei Fisiocritici (Fig. 2), to which he belonged since 1848. However, because of disagreements with the Academy that had arisen in the later years of his life, he did not. The Academy ultimately received the collection in 1928.
Valenti Serini's moment of glory came during the 10th Congress of Italian Scientists which was held in Siena in 1862. During that Congress, he made several presentations on various subjects including the mushrooms in terracotta, such as tablets or reliefs at various stages of growth, three dimensional models, and his watercolor paintings. The Congress appointed a commission to evaluate and report on his collection for "the practical utility that can be derived from his research, in which he had been careful to distinguish between poisonous and edible mushrooms and those that were suspicious." The report notes that "the most botanical value [in the collection] was found in the illustrated collection in two volumes of watercolor plates of these fungi displayed in their stages of development." One of the two volumes evaluated by the commission was found again years ago in a private collection, where it still resides. This is a large format manuscript (36 × 49 cm) with 136 plates, bound plus some loose leafs. On the front cover, inside a graceful wreath of fruiting bodies, is written, "Mushrooms Senesi, the Collection of Dr. Francesco Valenti Serini, (Volume 1), 1850."
The second volume is the same size and has only recently become the possession of the Academy. Its cover page has a similar wreath of mushrooms and title (Fig. 3). It contains 97 loose and numbered pages. Numerous colorful mushrooms in watercolor are seen on each page, often in various stages of development and in section, sometimes inscribed with the place and date of collection. The models and tablets herein represent 65 genera and 155 species of fungi, and sometimes the same species is repeated in different tablets. Serini indicates whether they are toxic, edible, or of no nutritional value. The genera with the greatest number of species represented in include Amanita and Russula, with 11 species each, Boletus with nine, and Agaricus with eight species. Overall, the collection includes specimens belonging to two Phyla: the Basidiomycota (59 species) and Ascomycota (9 species). Orders presented include: Agaricales (28 species); Boletales (8 species); Pezizales (7 species); Cantharellales (5 species); Phallales and Thelephorales (4 species); Russulales and Polyporales (3 species); and Helotiales, Tremellales, and Xylariales (1). The watercolored paintings of fungi have been studied by mycologists from the amateur ecological mycology group of Siena and the resulting manuscript is currently conserved at the Archive of the Academy. Of the 155 fruiting bodies represented in the collection, 107 could be identified to the species level because the great accuracy of the paintings. The remaining 48 fruiting bodies could only be identified to genus because they lacked some detail about smell, flavour, or microscopic characteristics.
In the nineteenth century, little was known of the toxicity of fungi after the ingestion of poisonous fruiting bodies and therefore many fruiting bodies of Basidiomycota and Ascomycota were sometimes mistaken for edible species. Fortunately, only about 100 of the approximately 70,000 described fungal species in nature are toxic. Among these only a few can cause rapid death if consumed. Also, it is unlikely that Serini would have known about chronic poisoning by eating mushrooms over time and the potential health issues that it might cause. In Serini's time the problem of the toxicity caused by mushrooms and how to distinguish the edible from the poisonous ones was a very serious topic as shown by a competition among scientists around the world organized by the Imperial Academy of Sciences in Paris in 1864. At that time there was the magical belief that the passing of a snake nearby or the change in color of garlic would indicate that a mushroom was poisonous. Of course, today most people are aware that only the knowledge of morphological characteristics, including spores, may be used to accurately identify a fungus and therefore its likelihood of being poisonous.
Valenti Serini participated in the abovementioned competition in Paris by sending a 12-page publication entitled "Catalogue - edible, suspicious and poisonous fungi - Myceologia Igienico Toxicologica Popolare" (Popular Toxic and Non-Toxic Fungi, 1864), a listing of his watercolored drawings and terracotta models, which was intended to serve as a popular guide for the people (Fig. 5). In the introduction to the catalogue, Serini wrote that "through the printing of the catalogue I will make public the existence of 112 tablet reliefs of fungal species at various stages of development that are made of a durable material not easily attacked by insects which are accompanied by paintings. They can be used to educate the public of the danger of consuming poisonous fungi." Serini provided a list of 13 arguments, an introduction to mycology that he calls "Studii elementari."
In the second part of this catalogue Serini listed 99 reliefs in his collection, the names of the Italian macromycetes, and brief comments on edibility. In 1868, Serini's dramatic work was published by the Royal Academy of Medicine of Turin, Italy. This volume, entitled "Poisonous Mushrooms of the Sienese Territory," contained 56 watercolored drawings depicting 87 fruiting bodies. In the text, Serini reported the morphology of each fungus and details on toxicity, including symptoms of poisoning, treatments, and the results of the autopsies of the poisoned. In the chapter "Warnings on picking mushrooms," Valenti Serini wrote "I believe it prudent to refrain in any way from the consumption of these plants [fungi], which although containing nutrients, are of little benefit to the diet and are often dangerous and can be fatal." This volume was widely criticized by academics who reproached the author for not having followed the nomenclature and classification of the basic texts of nineteenth century mycology but rather Serini used only the common Italian names or old scientific ones. It is true that Serini classified mushrooms in an arbitrary manner, but it is also true that he had knowingly "held a reverse order to the usual classification because [he] organized them according to their degree of danger exhibited within the same species."
Valenti Serini worked extremely hard and with great passion for mycology and he is credited with being one of the first scholars to understand that only by knowing the mushrooms at all stages of their development can poisonings by fungi be prevented. His other passion was for the wide dissemination of mycological knowledge to the populace in a time when very little was known, except primarily by a narrow circle of scientists.
What follows are examples of Valenti Serini's three-dimensional models and reliefs with mushrooms in high relief made in terracotta and accurately colored with paint. When available we provide the watercolor line drawings of fruiting bodies and report the current accepted scientific names and synonyms in the figure descriptions and the name given by Valenti Serini in the text, if available.
The genus Amanita is overly represented in Valenti Serini's collection considering the large size of the family of Agaricaceae to which it belongs (Fig. 6). This is an indication of Serini's concern regarding poisonings from the consumption of members of this genus. The collection includes edible and poisonous species of Amanita, some of the most toxic fungi. Considering the large number of extremely poisonous species, Dr. Serini accurately followed the development of the fungus from the egg stage containing the "embryo" to the mature fruiting body. Serini gave great attention to different aspects of the remnant of the universal veil to improve the understanding of the importance of this characteristic feature used to identify Amanita species. There are approximately 100 models and reliefs of Amanita fruiting bodies in the collection that portray nearly 20 species in their various forms or varieties.
In this high relief, we can see various edible and poisonous Amanita species in young and mature stages: A. caesarea ("uovolo giallo buono") is a tasty edible mushroom and highly appreciated; A. rubescens and A. ovoidea ("farinaccio toscano") are considered edible after accurate cooking; the remainder of species in this relief are poisonous. This includes the white A. verna ("uovolo bianco bulboso"), the red A. muscaria, the brown A. pantherina ("panterino velenoso"), and the death cap (A. phalloides) which is represented with two varieties (citrina and viridis, today no longer recognized), in colors from yellow to dark green. The latter, A. phalloides, is shown in detail in painting and terracotta (Fig. 7).
Two well-known mushrooms are the poisonous fly agaric, Amanita muscaria (Agaricus muscarius Linn.) ("cucco falso") (Fig. 8), and Caesar's mushroom, A. caesarea ("cucco buono") (Fig. 9). The fly agaric is the most commonly reproduced mushroom depicted on cards and in books, a cosmopolitan native of the northern Hemisphere, and the type species of the genus. Caesar's mushroom is a highly desired mushroom and a Mediterranean species widely collected as a delicacy.
As Valenti Serini wrote in his book, "only a few characteristics are needed to distinguish between the two species to escape poisoning." The universal veil is not persistent in the fly agaric mushroom and only a few rings occur at the stipe base which resembles a pestle. Additionally, the flesh, gills, and stipe base are white in the poisonous fly agaric. In Caesar's mushroom the veil is persistent with a membranous volva that resembles a chicken's egg. This edible mushroom has gills, rings, and a stipe that are partially yellow.
In his book "Dei Funghi sospetti e velenosi del territorio senese," thinking that he had found a new species, Serini accurately describes a mushroom collected in the woods of Montecelso near Siena. He called it Volvaria corticelli and wrote "it rises from a very large volva of ochraceous-orange colors and veil remnants are hanging from the margin of the pileus. The cylindrical stipe is covered by nice scales…The unpleasant smell is suspicious…". Following this description and its representation in painting and terracotta models, the species can be assigned to Amanita proxima, a poisonous mushroom (Fig. 10).
It is also important to note that in Valenti Serini's collection of Amanita ovoidea, the "Farinaccio buono toscano," as it is also called today, is characterized by a white volva and considered to be edible and even tasty by some (Fig. 11). Due to its similar morphology (the volva does not always have bright colors in A. proxima or creamy-white in A. ovoidea) and similar habitat, these two species are often confused with one another. Serini does not provide a clear morphological differentiation for these two species in his collection.
The Boletes include numerous tasty edible mushrooms but some are bitter with an unpleasable taste and others that are peppery in taste. However, only a few are poisonous. Among the members of the bolete family there is a lower risk of mistaking poisonous for edible species and Valenti Serini's collection has more than one hundred models and reliefs of this species to demonstrate the differences in form that help make this distinction.
In addition to Caesar's mushroom (A. caesarea), there is another precious and tasty species used since the Ancient Romans, the "porcino" (penny bun, or king bolete), which is strongly associated with Italian cuisine. The type species of the genus, Boletus edulis (Fig. 12), together with B. aereus (the black porcino) (Fig. 13) are perhaps the most frequent boletes sold fresh in European markets and sold dried worldwide.
In addition to the edible fungi mentioned above, there are various paintings, reliefs, and models dedicated to this group of species which turn blue or change color on some part of the fruiting body and in some instances take on a devilish appearance. Since ancient times these have been regarded as dangerous or at least dubious and called in Latin "Colorem mutantes maligni veterum" (changing colors with age).
Figure 14 (left) shows two Boletus species, Suillellus luridus and Gyroporus cyanescens, and the colorful painting is of S. pulchrotinctus (Fig. 14, right) which has dubious edibility. During Valenti Serini's time they were called "boleto pernicioso" or harmful bolete, however after thorough cooking these can be eaten. Although impressive and amazing, it must be said that the terracotta models are in this case not very precise, demonstrating only partially the characteristic features of the species. In Valenti's defense, some species are nearly impossible to accurately reproduce. Such is the case of those boletes with orange-red reticulation present on the stipe.
The Satan's bolete (Suillellus satanas) (Fig. 15) is regarded as poisonous, causing gastrointestinal symptoms. However, as sometimes happens with other species, when handled and cooked well they can be consumed. You can observe the characteristic pale cap, red-patterned stipe, brightly colored pores, and the white flesh turning blue when cut in the relief and painting of mushrooms of "Boletus marmoreus-satanes," or Satan's bolete as Serini called them.
As Serini wrote, the "Agarico piperato acre," the peppery, acrid-flavored milk-cap (Lactarius piperatus), (Fig. 16 and Fig. 17 left and center), even if common in the woods around Siena, is not collected because of its pungent taste. However, he indicates that in some countries the peppery milk-cap is consumed after being thoroughly cooked. The Lactarius controversus is known to have an acrid taste and is described as inedible. It is easily distinguished by its pink gills which are shown in the Serini painting (Fig. 17, right) where white drops of "milk" are evident.
Lactarius deliciosus ("agarico delicioso") (Fig. 18) is a tasty edible and widely consumed mushroom; however, L. sanguifluus (not shown), with which it could be confused, is more greatly appreciated and consumed. Valenti Serini wrote with regard to this "agarico delizioso" that in the area surrounding Siena the mushroom is considered disgusting because when wounded it exudes "milk" and exhibits strange colors. In fact when handled roughly or cut, the carrot-orange fruiting bodies turn green. These characteristics are easily seen in his painting and model. The convex cap is orange and has darker areas on the concentric circles and the stipe is often hollow.
The chantarelles often grow in clusters in coniferous and hardwood forests and can be easily collected, rewarding the mushroom hunter with a full basket in little time. They are perhaps one of the best known and most commonly consumed fungi and were known as a culinary delicacy as far back as the 16th century.
Chantarelles belong to the group of non-gilled fungi, but in fact the lower surface of the fruiting body is irregularly undulating, presenting anastomosing ridges that are decurrent along the stipe. There are various species with colors ranging from orange to golden-yellow or orange-brown, to grey-brown and blackish. Their form ranges from knoblike to funnel-shaped to trumpet-like.
The real chantarelle, Cantharellus cibarius (Fig. 19 and Fig. 20, left and top), can be confused with the poisonous Omphalotus olearius, known as the "orecchia dell'olivo" (Fig. 21 and Fig. 22) in Tuscany since Serini's time, or as the jack-o'-lantern mushroom. Serini said that he "found this beautiful species often in the Chianti area near his family home in Villa Sesta located at the base of olive trees and bioluminescent when old." To highlight the true danger of some fungi, Valenti Serini described the story of a poisoning of a grandmother and her three grandchildren that occurred as a result of their consumption of jack-o-lantern mushrooms near Serini's home on 18 November 1838 at Villa a Sesta. These species grow as saprotrophs on various hardwood trees including olive but also appears to grow on the ground because of their attachment to host roots not far underground. Serini observed one aspect that was the simplest way to distinguish between the poisonous and edible mushroom was the true non-forking gills and darker orange cap of the dangerous one (Fig. 22). This is unlike the tasty edible chanterelles which have gill-like ridges and a fruiting body that is of a single color. These differences are well represented in Valenti Serini's terracotta collection and paintings.
The genus Agaricus is characterized by a hemispherical to flat cap, sometimes scaly and slightly bulbous stipe with annulus and gills progressing from pale pink to dark chocolate-brown. Another important feature for identification is the changing of color of the flesh. Agaricus mushrooms are the most widely consumed mushrooms in the world but there are also dangerous species in this fungal group. Sometimes the poisoning is due to a mistake, or confusion with a poisonous Amanita species. This happens when the fruiting bodies are collected in an early stage and the presence of the volva is not observed.
In his paintings, Valenti Serini highlights two large sections of the genus: the group of yellow staining species (with Agaricus xanthodermus) and the one turning reddish (with A. sylvaticus) (Fig. 23).
The so-called field mushroom Agaricus campestris (Fig. 24) in Italian "prataiolo" (champignon), is widely collected and consumed. In his painting and terracotta relief above Serini accurately represents the various stages including the cap, ring, or annulus, and the color of the gills as the mushroom progresses from young fruiting bodies to those that are more mature. This species is closely related to another, the French champignon (Agaricus bisporus), which is one of the cultivated species that has achieved major economic success worldwide.
Valenti Serini also reproduced very fragile and ephemeral fungi such as the Coprinaceae, a group of species difficult to conserve for more than a few hours. In fact, it is common that during the time it takes to travel from the field to home the collected fruiting bodies disappear, because of auto-digestion at maturity, leaving only a dark spot for the hapless collector. These saprotrophs are characterized when mature by black, brown-black, and blue-black spores, and grow in clusters on soil or dung, in grasslands, forests, and city parks. Serini was successful in his attempt to show us how soft the cap and how slender and wavy the stipes are in this species. Most of them are poisonous or without value, and a few are edible. Those shown above are considered edible but only when very young and when great care is taken in the identification to distinguish them from poisonous species that are similar in appearance. Coprinellus disseminatus is the smallest and only a few centimeters tall while Coprinopsis atramentaria is larger, reaching 7 to 8 centimeters (Fig. 25). Coprinellus micaceus (Fig. 25) is medium sized and grows in clusters on wood like the others but prefers a soft consistency of wood and is considered a late stage colonizer.
Coprinus comatus ("Agarico comato or agarico cilindrico"), the type species of the genus, is presented ten times in Valenti Serini's collection (Fig. 26). Serini reports in his manuscript that ancient people considered all "coprini" poisonous, but this one is among the few exceptions as it is an edible mushroom. It is important to recognize in this species that the characteristic cylindrical cap that covers the stipe when young has hairy scales on the white cap, as observed by Valenti Serini and others. This is the derivation of the specific name comatus which means hairy or shaggy. Serini was also able, in a fantastic manner, to demonstrate the melting of the mature gills producing a dark material containing the spores. In the figure, you can see the black drops in the painting and the terracotta model which Serini reproduces as chains dangling from the margin of the cap.
The group that includes Hygrocybe and Gliophorus or the so-called wax cap mushroom gives its name to particular nutrient-poor grasslands that are rich in fungal species. The wax cap grasslands are threatened habitats, declining mainly because of agricultural improvement. Today this habitat is of great concern to conservationists and the focus of several Biodiversity Action Plans in Europe. Valenti Serini described Hygrocybe coccinea ("Agarico coccineo") as very rare and with a scarlet bell-shaped cap (Fig. 27) and Gliophorus psittacinus (before assigned to the genus Hygrocybe) (Fig. 28) as commonly found in the Tuscan pastures and woods appearing as a green-yellow slimy mushroom ("Agarico psittacino"). The latter of these two species is generally not collected for consumption and has no economic value as its edibility is dubious.
Illustrated above are Morchellas for which the life cycles are not well understood. Some are considered saprotrophs while others are symbionts. However, this doesn't matter because they are all edible and widely collected around the world. Their classification is still uncertain, being variable in shape, colors and size and sometimes the same species have different popular names. Valenti Serini reproduced some to illustrate the variable fertile head, round to conical, made up by numerous cells looking like an irregular honeycomb.
The type species is Morchella esculenta (Fig. 29) and is the true morel with a yellow-brown rounded cap. Valenti Serini distinguished "spugnolo affumicato" the black morel and the "spugnolo costato" but both could be assigned to Morchella elata, and finally "Phallus undosus" and "Tripetto romano" can be all considered Mitrophora semilibera (Fig. 29).
Among the Pezizales Valenti Serini's collection includes both epigeous and hypogeous Ascomycetes, saprotrophs, and symbionts.
Sarcoscypha coccinea (Fig. 30) is a wood-inhabiting saprotroph and the edibility of the small cup-shaped fruiting bodies is not clear but historically some people have used it as a medicinal fungus. The two models are good examples of the group, one showing a characteristic bright red inner surface and the other the whitish hairy outer surface.
In Valenti Serini's collection there are also hypogeous symbionts, the truffles, in which the fruiting body is produced underground. He used these models to educate the Tuscan people that these organisms were not strange bulbs or potatoes but rather fungi. Most are edible and some are more highly prized and gastronomic. The most popular and precious are Tuber magnatum and T. melanosporum, but also T. aestivum and T. borchii are widely sold in markets (Fig. 31). It seems that none of these are poisonous but some like Tuber excavatum have no market value and others produce a sickly smell or have tough flesh. Serini attempted to group Tuber species not only by the characteristics of the peridium but also by the differences of the inner part or the gleba.
Valenti Serini was a good observer of nature and also of nearly hidden and unimpressive fungi. Above are various mushrooms approximately 1 to 2 cm in height that grow on woody debris, leaves and mosses. Even though they are tiny, their activity in recycling minerals is fundamental. As shown by Valenti Serini, Marasmiellus ramealis and Gymnopus perforans grow on twigs and woody debris and Gymnopus androsaceus grows on oak leaves, is a saprotroph, and produces white spores (Fig. 32). Galerina hypnorum is associated with mosses and is probably a parasite, producing brown spores (Fig. 32). Note that on base of Valenti's models of Marasmiellus ramealis and Galerina hypnorum he writes "Ag. ramealis Bulliard" and "Agaricus hypnorum Fries," respectively.
This non-taxonomic and informal group comprises fungi with simple or branched (coral-like) fruiting bodies which can be saprotrophs or symbionts, with only a few being edible. Valenti Serini describes all as Clavaria ("ditola" or "manina"), the name used at his time, but it is now known that these species are not all closely related and have been assigned to various genera. In this relief (Fig. 33) some Ramaria spp. ("manina gialla dei Toscani," "ditola rossastra o corallina") are shown which are edible, as well as two Clavulina spp. that have no economic value. All of these coral-like fungi are symbionts.
This is another non-taxonomic informal group that includes saprotrophs and symbionts that form spores internally within a more or less spherical fruiting body. In Valenti Serini's collection there are spectacular forms and all belong to Gasteromycete orders, such as Bird's nest fungi (Cyathus sp.), earthstars (Geastrum sp.), and stalked puffballs (Tulostoma sp.) (Fig. 34).
Valenti Serini emphasizes that "vesce," or puffballs, are "young fruiting bodies still white inside that can be eaten while mature ones with colored flesh could be dangerous." The inside features are shown in sections of the two species. It must be emphasized that the dimension of some species are not realistic, but other characteristics are accurate including shape and colors. This is demonstrated with Lycoperdon utriforme (Fig. 35), which is not this small but rather a large puffball ranging from 20 to 25 cm.
The saprotroph Phallus impudicus is described by Serini as a fungus arising from a soft ovoid volva, and with a cylindrical white stalk with the hymenium of conical shape on the top with many polygonal cells, slimy, dark green, smelling foul, and it is poisonous (Fig. 36).
According to Serini, this saprotroph is one of the "strangest living organisms with an unusual shape" that often attracted the attention of the observer of nature. It can be found in various illustrations of Serini and other authors but it is not always easy to recognize. The lanternoid fungus or basket stinkhorn (Clathrus ruber), is so-called because of the curious fruiting body at maturity. However, when young it appears similar to an "egg" with well-developed rhizomorphs, as shown in the painting above (Fig. 37), and can be confused with other species. This fungus does not produce a small mushroom with stipe and cap in the embryonic stage as do Amanita species. The mature fungus is identified by numerous branches and holes, forming a spongy net which is pink to red in color and emerges from a white volva. Looking at the various beautiful terracotta models, there is only one thing missing—the putrid odor!
Late in his career, Valenti Serini began using a microscope and began to characterize micromycetes that were found affecting plants. More than 20 of these micromycetes were also produced as clay models in tablet form. Most important among these micromycetes was that of a "fungus" of potato, Phytophthora infestans, which was newly identified as the causal agent of late blight of potato in Europe and the Irish potato famine. It is shown above in a relief created by Serini in approximately 1860 and labelled as Botrytis infestans Montag (Fig. 38).
European pear rust, or pear trellis rust, is caused by Gymnosporangium sabinae (G. juniperus Pers.). The macrofungal structures of a micromycete on pear would have been obvious to the naked eye and attracted Serini's attention. The pathogen is heteroecious with two hosts, Juniperus (Juniper) and Pyrus (pear). Juniper is the overwintering host of the fungus where it produces swollen bark or galls produced by the fungus's telial stage during the spring. The telial stage is seen in the tablet above as yellow "horns" (Fig. 39, left). Pear is the summer host on which the pathogen produces only aecia and aeciospores on leaves and fruit. Both plant hosts are required to complete the fungal life cycle of this obligate plant pathogen.
Botrytis is a genus containing common fungal plant pathogens, such as Botrytis cinerea and B. spicata (Fig. 40), that produces plant disease in numerous vegetable and ornamental plants and produces obvious massing of greyish conidia on the surface of plant structures.
This fungus, first described as Stachybotrys atra Corda 1837, was collected from wallpaper in a home in Prague (Fig. 41). The fungus is a member Phyla Ascomycota and class Sordariomycetes, a well-known producer of mycotoxins including tricothecene and atranone and other biologically active compounds. These compounds have a negative impact on human health and cause stachybotryotoxicosis.
Some of Valenti Serini's handwritten labels (Fig. 42):
The Accademia dei Fisiocritici was founded in 1691 by Pirro Maria Gabrielli, a professor of medicine and botany, and was originally housed in the library of the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala. Its aim was "to use judgment to scrutinize and investigate the secrets of nature and, almost like judges, to throw out of the natural sciences whatever is false to better understand what is true." Their motto was "veris quod possit vincere falsa" translated as "truths that can refute the false." In 1694, the academy moved to the Casa della Sapienza, then the seat of the University of Siena, where it collaborated with the university according to an agreement that had been drawn up between the two institutions. In 1816, the academy moved to its current headquarters, a former Camaldolese monastery donated to it by the Grand Duke Ferdinand III. Originally built in the 12th century, the monastic buildings were refurbished by the academy to house its library, archives, and natural history museum. Since 1996, the museum has been a member of the Sistema dei Musei Senesi body of Sienese museums, known today as the Fondazione dei Musei Senesi.
The museum is divided into four thematic sections and various smaller, unusual collections including zoology, geology, paleontology, and anatomy. The zoology section is housed in the upper floors of the monastery and includes collections assembled in the 19h century, featuring mollusks, insects, birds, mammals, fish, and reptiles. The geology section is housed in the lower floors of the monastery and includes an assortment of minerals and rocks, including samples of a meteorite that fell near Lucignano d'Asso and the collection of terracotta mushrooms by Valenti Serini. The paleontology section comprises fossils from all eras, including Palaeozoic ferns, ammonites, and Jurassic belemnites. The Academy also exhibits the anatomical works of Mascagni, his figures of lymphatic system of the "Opera Universa," anatomical pieces and preparations, his library, and private archive. In 2015, the Academy marked the bicentennial of the death of Paolo Mascagni, a scientist and anatomist known worldwide as the first to completely describe the lymphatic system.
The Academy also houses a library that includes some 800 manuscripts and 15,000 books and pamphlets dating from the 15th century to the present day; its catalogue is available online. Exhibitions are held periodically at the academy which also organizes conferences and meetings for up to 100 people in the Aula Magna, a hall decorated by Vincenzo Dei in 1816 with a fine frescoe illustrating "The Triumph of Science." At least twice a year, the academy hosts public scientific assemblies focusing on research carried out by academicians. The academy also publishes the periodical Atti dell'Accademia delle Scienze di Siena detta dé fisiocritici, the Memorie series, the scientific periodicals Etruria natura and The Journal of the Academy of Sciences of Siena (available online), and the Quaderni Scientifico-naturalistici del Sistema Musei Senesi. Three illustrious scientists that were members of the Accademia dei Fisiocritici were Carl Linneaus, Louis Pasteur, and Robert Koch.
Scientific discovery comes in many forms. It was my intent that my sabbatical leave in Italy be dedicated to doing something completely different from my customary scientific and scholarly pursuits. Little did I know that I would discover a collection of life-sized terracotta models of fungal fruiting bodies of such great beauty and scientific merit in addition to a group of very talented and generous scientists. Serini's collection was tucked away in a seldom-seen gem of a museum in one of the most visited and beautiful cities in the world. To tell the story of Valenti Serini's terracotta fungi to the world in collaboration with new friends is an honor and a privilege. It was a unique pleasure to complete the inventory of the collection and photograph the best of the collection in all of their glory with my Italian colleagues. The terracotta models selected for use in this publication were selected from the larger collection because of their visual appeal, the accuracy of their depiction, or their related narrative. I thank the Accademia dei Fisiocritici, its President, Professor Sara Ferri, and staff, the University of Siena, the Department of Life Sciences, and their graduate students for their support and collaboration. -- T.E.
Anonymous. 2001. Sistema Musei Senesi. 3. Quaderni Etnografici: I funghi in mostra. Dalla collezione Valenti Serini dell'Accademia dei Fisiocritici di Siena, Museo della Terracotta di Petroio (Trequanda), Siena, Protagon editori toscani. 63 pages.
Bonini, I., and Ferri, S. 2011. La Sala Francesco Valenti Serini. Pages 73-75 in: Siena. Museo di Storia Naturale. F. Vannozzi and G. Manganelli, eds. Accademia dei Fisiocritici. Fondazione Musei Senesi Guide/14, Milano, Silvana Editoriale.
Ferri, S. 1987. Francesco Valenti Serini: un micologo dell'800. Gli Atti dell'Acc. delle Sc. Di Siena detta de' Fisiocritici: serie XV – tomo VI, IX – XV.
Ferri, S. 1989. Ritratto di un medico-micologo dell'Ottocento: Francesco Valenti Serini. Pages 144-147 in: Atti del Convegno "Piante officinali e funghi: biologia, chimica ed applicazioni."
Garbiglietti, A. 1865. Intorno all'opera manoscritta del dott. Francesco Valenti Serini sopra i funghi sospetti e velenosi del territorio sanese, estr. Atti Gior. R. Acc. Med. di Torino, 5.
Garbiglietti, A. 1872. Cenno necrologico, Torino, Vercellino, ed.
Kreisel, H. 1999. Pilzmodelle in Museen. Der Tintling 3:14-15.
Lack, H. W. 2015. Dottore Valenti Serini's mushroom cabinet. Pages 32-36 in: Modellschau – Exibition catalogue. BGBM Press, Berlin.
Nannizzi, A. 1915. La collezione micologica di Francesco Valenti – Serini conservata nel Palazzo Pubblico di Siena, Manuscript, Accademia dei Fisiocritici Siena. 64 pages.
Serini, F. V. 1850. Dei Funghi Senesi. Manuscript private collection Volume.
Serini, F. V. 1858. Dei Funghi Senesi. Manuscript Accademia dei Fisiocritici collection Volume.
Serini, F. V. 1864. Mycologia-Igienico-Toxicologica-popolare
Serini, F. V. 1864. Catalogo dei funghi mangerecci, sospetti e velenosi eseguiti in disegno ed in rilievo per servire di guida al popolo ossia myceologia-igienico-toxicologica popolare. Siena, Tipografia Sordomuti.
Serini, F. V. 1868. Dei Funghi Sospetti e Velenosi del Territorio Senese. Reale Accademia di Medicina di Torino, ed. Litografia Giordana e Salussolia, Torino: IX-XX, 1-35, paintings 56.
Tassi, F. 1905. Francesco Valenti Serini. Contributo allo studio della Botanica in Italia. Bull. Lab. Orto Botanico Siena 7:31.
Vannozzi, F. 2015. La divulgazione scientifica per "Servire di guida al popolo": La collezione micologica del Medico Valenti Serini presso i Fisiocritici di Siena. Pages 101-106 in: Le collezioni di materiali grafici per la didattica medica (secoli XV-XX). D. Orsini, ed. Atti "Giornate di Museologia Medica, Siena, 6-7 Novembre.
Carla Barluzzi started her studies on fungi in the 1970s at the University of Siena and together with Professor Vincenzo De Dominicis, was a strong supporter of the study on fungal communities present in various Mediterranean ecosystems. She collaborated in various projects, was an active member of the Unione Micologica Italiana (UMI) and of the Confederazione Europea Micologia Mediterranea (CEMMae). She is one of the founders of the Mycological Association "Terra di Siena" (Land of Siena) established in 1998 and the currently its president. Now retired, she is still actively working for citizen’s science initiatives providing numerous lessons on fungi and their importance in the habitat along with field excursions.
Claudia Perini has worked for the University of Siena since 1987, initially as a researcher for the Botanic Garden with educational and organizational duties. Since 2002 she has been a permanent researcher and temporary professor in Mycology and Museology of Natural Sciences. Her research interest is mycology, with emphasis on macromycete and the monitoring of fungal communities. She has cooperated in various national and international projects, is a member of the Executive Committee of the European Council for the Conservation of Fungi (ECCF), an adviser in the Planta Europa (PE) network, a member of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Species Survival Commission's Mushroom, Brackets, and Puffball Specialist Group, a former secretary of the European Mycological Association (EMA), and a member of the council of "Accademia dei Fisocritici." In recognition of her contribution to plant conservation in Europe over many years, she was presented with the Planta Europa's Silver Leaf Award (2014).
Gianmaria Bonari is a PhD student at the University of Siena. He was born in Siena in 1988. After his bachelor degree in Natural Sciences in 2010, he received his master's degree cum laude in Biodiversity and Nature Conservation in 2012 with a botany thesis. His research dealt with plant species ecology and rare species. He currently is studying Italian coastal pine forests, considering soil organism interactions at community level and habitats related to these coastal forests. Gianmaria is also passionate about naturalistic photos, winning a number of competitions over the years. Some of his images have been exhibited and others have been used for scientific purposes, for science popularization or published in books. The majority of those images seen herein are the work of Gianmaria.
Thomas Evans is a professor of botany and plant pathology at the University of Delaware and has a scientific interest in fungi as plant pathogens and has been an amateur field mycologist since his undergraduate years studying botany at Cal Poly, Pomona, in the early 1970s. Tom received his Ph.D. in botany and plant pathology at Michigan State University in 1985 and recently completed 30 years at the University of Delaware working in the area of etiology, epidemiology, and management of fungal and viral pathogens of vegetable crops. Tom is a leader both nationally and internationally in vegetable plant pathology and food security and is known for his passionate delivery of programs in plant health in developing countries including Ecuador, Morocco, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. For his thousands of hours of service to USAID's Feed the Future Program, Tom received President Obama's Volunteer Service Award (2010). At the University of Delaware, he teaches his popular course People and Plants: Feast or Famine as well as Introductory Plant Pathology, Advanced Plant Pathology, and Plant Virology. He also serves as the Vice President of the International Society for Plant Pathology and is the Chair of the Organizing Committee for the 2018 International Congress of Plant Pathology to be held in Boston.