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World's Oldest Museum

April 26, 1987|NINO LO BELLO | Lo Bello is the author of "Nino Lo Bello's Guide to Offbeat Europe," Chicago Review Press. and

BOLCA, Italy — There are no ifs or buts about which is the world's oldest museum. Give or take a few months, it is about 45 million years old and was put together by a non-scientist who hunts fossils for a living.

About 30 miles northeast of Verona, tourists who want to get away from the rat race will find a rustic museum that beats anything yet. Nearly 3,000 feet above sea level, among cherry orchards and chestnut trees, are the home and museum of Massimiliano Cerato, whose tag line could well be: "Have hammer, will travel."

Cerato's hammer has been busy since he was a 7-year-old boy, like the hammers of his father, grandfather and great-grandfathers before him. For more than 200 years they have chopped fossils out of what is perhaps the richest concentrated fossil field in the world. About 50 caves in which these specimens are found are on land owned by the Cerato family.

What gives Cerato's museum a stupendous scientific and touristic appeal is that more than 200 of the species of fish and the hundred-odd species of crustaceans and mollusks he has dug out of his caves have disappeared from earth. Moreover, Cerato has uncovered about 80 marine plants that also no longer grow anywhere on this planet.

Cerato's biological curios are nearly all in a perfect state of preservation, even down to the original colors of the animals and plants when they were alive 45 to 50 million years ago.

Private Family Museum

You can visit the Cerato family's private museum (admission: 95 cents), in a modern structure attached to his one-family home atop Bolca's highest hill, any morning between 10 and noon or any afternoon between 2:30 and 6, except Mondays. Though Cerato's museum has only been open since 1969, he can boast of some quite distinguished visitors, such as the King of Sweden. And many years ago the Cerato family was honored by a visit from Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, who begged permission to extend his stay because he was fascinated by the petrified life from the womb of the earth. The fossil given to the emperor then is on proud display in a Vienna museum.

In 55 years of work, Signor Cerato has extracted more than 100,000 fossils, of which perhaps about 2,000 are of interest to the average layman.

He dug out his greatest discovery about 40 years ago, a magnificent blue prehistoric crocodile almost six feet long. Another major finding was the only known example of an extinct fish called Platax plinianus which, with its delicate feathery fins, in all its original colors, is in a stratum of green rock that makes it look as if it were still swimming.

Working in the petrified lagoon of Bolca, fossil-hunter Cerato uses a sixth sense as he hammer-taps a wall in one of his caves. Once he decides to cut, he isolates the section of slab by digging around it so that it sticks out. Then with a few master strokes, he separates the stone slab from the wall.

The slabs are opened like an oyster by hitting them on the top with sharp, light blows. If the slab divides properly, one side will contain the animal or plant in relief on the stone and the other side will have the concave counterpart.

Self-Taught Scientist

Cerato, at age 63, holds another distinction. Without even a high school education he is one of the world's few self-taught scientists who has become a respected paleontologist. Both Prof. Jacques Blot, a paleontologist from France, and Prof. Lorenzo Sorbini, a geologist for the Italian government, claim that in the three years they dug with Cerato they learned something new from him every day.

Modest about his knowledge, Cerato merely explains it away by saying, "We Ceratos have fossils in our blood. It is like a sickness. For me, when I go to work, it is like going fishing--but the fish I catch are not so fresh."

It's true that Cerato's fish are a bit old, but what man could tell as many fish stories with so much dignity?

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