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The Beginnings

The "official" date of birth of the Geological Museum of the University of Palermo is 1860, when the chair of Mineralogy and Geology and the adjoining geological cabinet, were established. In reality, the history of the museum begins with that of the University of Palermo, established in 1779 by King Ferdinand I of Bourbon, with the name of the Royal Academy of Studies and transformed in 1805, in the Royal University of Studies. It is here that, from the beginning, a Cabinet of Natural Sciences was set up, at the service of the chair of Natural History, in which various kinds of artefacts were kept, collected by teachers of natural sciences.

In 1830, the Bourbon Government assigned to the Commission of Education, to carry out an essay in the San Ciro Quarries from the locality Maredolce close to Palermo, trying to end the dispersion of the fossil bones from this fossiliferous site. The recommendation was "being able to use those bones as objects to study and to form the ornament of the Museum of Natural History in the Royal University of Palermo". The direction of the excavation was entrusted to Abbot Domenico Scinà (1764-1837), professor of physics at the University of Palermo. As consequence, in 1832, very important fossil finds of Pleistocene vertebrates of Sicily became part of the Museum's collections. In 1838, to ordered and study this material was called Pietro Calcara (1819-1854), as conservator of the Museum of Natural History and, subsequently, as professor of Natural History. Calcara began a reordering of the material forming a first, consistent, core of the Museum with the collections of the Cabinet of Natural Sciences. The collections included:

  • Collection of Natural Productions by the Abbot Cancilla.
  • Collections of fossil bones by Maredolce and Billiemi (collected by Domenico Scinà).
  • Collection of crystals of sulfur and rock salt by Pacini.
  • Collection of rocks and fossils of the abbot Ferrara.

In 1860, Gaetano Giorgio Gemmellaro (1832-1904) was called to hold the chair of Geology and Mineralogy in the Faculty of Physical and Mathematical Sciences. Thanks to the untiring work of Gemmellaro the geological museum was founded and soon became one of the most prestigious museums of the city of Palermo and one of the prominent European geological and palaeontological museums. Thanks to a capital of 1,000 onze (conspicuous sum at that time), coming from a legacy that Count Cesare Airoldi Arrigoni had assigned to the Cabinet of Natural History, Gemmellaro was able to enrich the Museum with numerous collections as result of intelligent purchases. His tireless work as researcher allowed to add new fossil collections, to the old and newly acquired collections. This activity was due, among others, to the discovery and study of the exceptional fossiliferous site of the Valle del Sosio (near Palazzo Adriano), dating back to the Permian (around 240 million years ago), from which a very rich collection of fossils was acquired in 1887. Among other research topics, the discovery of the Permian of the Valle del Sosio will direct Gemmellaro's scientific interest towards studies on the fossil invertebrates of the Paleozoic and Mesozoic, making it one of the world's leading experts in Ammonoids.

Gemmellaro was director of the Institute of Geology uninterruptedly until 1904 and Rector of the University of Palermo from 1874 to 1876 and from 1880 to 1883. He made the Museum of Palermo one of the main geological and palaeontological museums of world, only second to the British Museum in London, according to the researchers of the time. To the existing collections, arranged by Calcara, were added, among others:

  • The paleontological collection of the Permian of the Valle del Sosio.
  • The collection of Pleistocene vertebrates from the caves of Palermo, with splendid specimens of Sicilian dwarf elephants.
  • The Sicilian Petrography Collection: a complete collection of all the rocks outcropping in Sicily (2,200 samples of rocks), used as a reference for the preparation of the Sicilian sheets of the Geological Map of Italy (1877-1881), in scale 1: 100,000.
  • A rare collection of Sicilian ornamental stones, some from quarries now exhausted.
  • A collection of samples by the father Carlo Gemmellaro from the Ferdinandea island, a volcanic island surfaced in the Sicilian Channel in 1831 and submerged after a few months. These samples were collected during an exploratory mission on the island required by the Bourbon government. A watercolour by Carlo Gemmellaro, depicting the island already partially dismantled by waves, embellished the samples.

First half of the Twentieth century

In 1911, with the creation of the Institute of Mineralogy, the mineralogical collections were spun off from the patrimony of the Geological Museum and entrusted to this new institute. This loss was compensated by the continuous expansion of the existing collections and new acquisitions that, from 1913 until 1940, were realized by researchers who took turns at the direction of the Institute and the Geology Museum: Giovanni Di Stefano (1856-1918), Mariano Gemmellaro (1879-1921), Francesco Cipolla (1880-1947), Ramiro Fabiani (1879-1954). The Museum occupied a large exhibition hall located on the second floor of the former Casa dei Teatini in via Maqueda, the historic site of the University of Palermo.

Starting from the 40s of the twentieth century, a series of catastrophic events led to the closure of the museum. First the violent earthquake of 16 March 1941. Then the war events and, in particular, the intense Anglo-American bombardments before the landing in Sicily (the Museum was hit by a bomb that crossed the museum hall, fortunately without exploding, but damaging in part of the building and some collections). Then a flooding of the basements of the Institute of Physics, where the collections were temporarily placed.

Second half of the Twentieth century

Finally, in 1965, in order to cope with space requirements, the Institute of Geology was dislodged from the historic site of Via Maqueda and temporarily transferred to crumbling and cramped rooms in Corso Calatafimi; the exhibits of the Museum were hastily packed into boxes that were stacked in makeshift warehouses.

In 1970, the foundations are laid for a rebirth of the Museum with the transfer of the Institute of Geology to Corso Tukory 131 (current location of the Museum) and the appointment, in 1975, of Dr. Enzo Burgio (1946-2001) as a Museum's conservator. The entire ground floor of the building was reserved to the Museum, allowing the rearrangement of the ostensive section. As great paleontologist, Burgio tackles this task with the rigor of the scientist and with the enthusiasm of the passionate lover and, in 1985, the Museum reopens with the exhibition "The Fossils of Sicily". Thanks to the exposure of Sicilian fossils of different geological eras, starting from Permian (over 240 million years ago) up to the most recent Pleistocene faunas, to vertebrates and man, an itinerary through the geological history of Sicily was created in the exhibition hall. The Museum was named after its founder, Gaetano Giorgio Gemmellaro, as if to underline its rebirth.

In 1986, the publication of a series of geological monographs was promoted, the "Quaderni del Museo Geologico G. G. Gemmellaro", dedicated, from time to time, to different themes of the Earth sciences. An agreement was stipulated with the Municipality of Palermo, which makes it possible to set up a guided tours service for schools of all levels. Moreover, with the Regional Law 80/77, the Museum becomes the depositary of fossil discoveries in the territory of the Sicily Region.

In 1987, the Gemmellaro’s Museum became part of the Department of Geology and Geodesy.


In 2001 the museum exhibition hall was dedicated to Dr. Enzo Burgio.

In 2004, on the occasion of the centenary of the death of Gaetano Giorgio Gemmellaro, two conferences and numerous events were organized and new exhibits were performed.

In 2005, two curators Dr. Carolina D'Arpa and Dr. Carolina Di Patti were officially appointed to the museum. In December 2005, on the occasion of the celebrations of the Second Centenary of the foundation of the University of Palermo, the "Elephant hall" was inaugurated, to illustrating the Pleistocene fauna of "dwarf" elephants in Sicily.

In 2007 the Department of Geology was transferred to Via Archirafi and the Museum expanded over the three floors of the Corso Tukory building.

From the 2010 until the 2016 the Museum was part of the Department of Earth and Marine Sciences and from the 2017, of the Museum System of the University of Palermo (SiMuA).

The activity of the Museum is not limited to the study, cataloguing and exposition of the finds; it continues to perform its function as a scientific museum, frequented by scientists from all over the world who come here to study and compare collections (the Museum holds over a thousand holotypes). Besides the scientific activity, the Museum staff carry on an intense activity of organization and participation in numerous exhibitions itinerant and permanent and other geological cultural initiatives.