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Crocodile Hunting in the Marian Library

By Henry Handley

It was a late Friday afternoon on the internet when it first appeared: a tweet about the world’s oldest taxidermy with a picture of a stuffed crocodile suspended from an ornate ceiling. My information literacy antennae went up: oldest according to what source? The tweet it was attached to indicated the creature was in a small church in northern Italy, the Santuario della Madonna delle Lacrime Immacolate in Ponte Nossa.

Wait, Santuario della Madonna delle Lacrime Immacolate… if anyone has a book about that church — and that crocodile — the Marian Library just might, I thought. 

I saved a list of books about the church from the library catalog since I couldn't guarantee that I’d have time to look anytime soon. When I finally found time, the results were mixed: The Santuario may be better known to Mariologists for its Marian miracles — including a weeping fresco — which were well-documented in the books I found. Only one item, a 1929 pamphlet by D.P. Forno, also mentions the crocodile (coccodrillo in Italian) in an appendix.

If the Santuario crocodile really is the world’s oldest surviving example of taxidermy, it’s because no one knows exactly how old it could be. Sources like Mental Floss and Atlas Obscura, which actually have pictures of the creature, write that church documents indicate it was removed in 1534 and subsequently lost, located and put on display again in the 18th century.

The original donor is also lost to time. Giovanni Maironi da Ponte (1748–1833), quoted in the pamphlet, hypothesized that the crocodile arrived in the church as an ex-voto gift from a merchant, who would have been able to trade for and transport it to northern Italy, where it would have been a rarity. 

Since the croc’s origins are a mystery, it’s also unclear whether any symbolism was attached to the gift. Forno suggests the reptile represents the serpent of Genesis 3:15; he and others have also speculated on connections to St. George and the dragons of secular legends. 

Whatever the reason, crocodiles in Italian churches aren’t unheard of — especially churches named in Mary’s honor. Forno mentions another stuffed crocodile given in gratitude to the Santuario della Madonna di Campagna in 1680 after its owner’s wife recovered from an illness and a third in the Santuario della Beata Vergine Maria delle Grazie near Mantua, among other animal specimens in European churches. Crikey!

— Henry Handley is a collections librarian in the Marian Library. Marian Library director Sarah Cahalan contributed the stuffed crocodile pictured above to this blog post.

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