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Ponte Nossa, Italy

Crocodile at the Santuario Madonna delle Lacrime Immacolate

This church, better known for its weeping portrait of the Virgin Mary, also houses the world's oldest existing piece of taxidermy. 

In the little town church of Ponte Nossa’s Santuario Madonna delle Lacrime Immacolate (Sanctuary of Our Lady of Immaculate Tears, alternatively known as Santa Maria Annunziata) there is an important relic dangling from the rafters: a crocodile.

This is no ordinary stuffed croc though (if such a thing exists). Though its origins have been lost to the ages, the church has documents detailing the crocodile’s removal from the church in 1534. At the very least, it’s some 500 years old, making it the oldest existing piece of taxidermy in the world. 

It was thought to be missing, but in the 18th century the crocodile had reappeared in the church’s attic. It was strung up from the ceiling and has remained there ever since. 

There are actually a number of crocodiles on display in European churches, which boggles the mind both for its apparent arbitrariness and the fact that there are no crocodiles in Europe. Elsewhere in Italy, a crocodile hangs from the rafters in the Santuario della Beata Vergine Maria delle Grazie, and another exists in Brno’s Town Hall.

Scholars have suggested that perhaps this was what people thought dragons were, and given that dragons appear in biblical tales like that of St. George, a church was a fitting place to display one. Others have offered that there may have actually been crocodiles stalking Europe at some point, and these mounted specimens might have been trophies. Still others suggest that there may have been other animals on display at one point but because taxidermy had not yet been perfected, the reptiles’ leathery hides were the only ones to survive.

In any case, there may be an ancient crocodile hanging somewhere nearer to you than you thought. 

Know Before You Go

Santuario Madonna delle Lacrime Immacolate, Ponte Nossa