Unveiling, assessing and taking advantage of the aesthetic dimension in conservation practices: butterflies as a case study, between new theoretical insights and practical applications

Is beauty what is beautiful or is beauty what is liked? Which animals do we find most attractive from an aesthetic point of view and what role does beauty play in our decision to protect and preserve certain endangered species rather than other ones? Does the fact that a particular animal form looks to us beautiful or ugly, disgusting or pretty, act as a driving force or deterrent in our decision to care for it and implement conservation strategies?

The "Unveiling" project, funded by the University of Florence and led by researchers from the Departments of Humanities (DILEF) and Biology (BIO), seeks to study the role and the relevance of the aesthetic dimension in the design and effective implementation of conservation strategies for endangered fauna, with particular regard to European butterfly species.

The starting point for our research with "Unveiling" was some preliminary data concerning the red lists (lists of endangered or threatened species) for butterflies in Italy and Europe. Apparently, at equal levels of endangerment, the largest, most colourful, most striking and liveliest butterflies were the ones most frequently included on these lists. In a nutshell, the most beautiful ones! It seems, therefore, that there is a sort of “aesthetic bias” at play here: but how to quantify its effect? What is its real impact on the dynamics of protection and conservation? Are we more prone and motivated to preserve what we experience as beautiful? And, if it is true that even less eye-catching or aesthetically relevant species must be covered by protection plans, if endangered, then how can we act to re-modulate the aesthetic bias?

Our aim with "Unveiling", however, does not simply end with the recognition and quantification of the bias, as if beauty and the aesthetic experience of the beautiful were "subjective" and irrational inclinations from which the researcher or the visitor of nature parks must abstract, in order to keep an objective eye on the real need for protection. 

Rather, "Unveiling" seeks to show all the motivating, driving and social bonding potential of the aesthetic experience, a real "device" that cannot be neglected by conservation strategies if they aim at ensuring real effectiveness. While proceeding from beauty (which is, in any case, only one of the possible aesthetic categories), our project, thus, aims to develop an analysis of the aesthetic experience in general (beautiful, ugly, graceful, sublime, wonderful, etc.) and of its role in preserving biodiversity. A genuine "aesthetics of biological conservation"!

To this extent, "Unveiling" follows two research paths:

1) the evaluation of aesthetic appreciation (in the sum of its components: perceptive, emotional, cognitive, imaginative) by means of the online test that is an integral part of this website.

2) the aesthetic analysis of the photo-reports of European butterflies uploaded on the popular citizen-science website "iNaturalist". This way, "Unveiling" will use the input of ordinary citizens (more or less advanced) to carry out the research and will construct an actual shared aesthetic "archive".

We expect a high impact from the project: having identified and quantified the aesthetic bias and, more generally, analyzed and discussed the role of aesthetic experience as a motivating and modulating element of the naturalistic experience, it will be possible to develop new and more effective theoretical and applicative tools for the strategies of protection and biological conservation of nature parks, research centres, institutions of scientific museology, naturalistic oases and associations for the conservation of endangered fauna.


The project Unveiling is led by the following researchers:

Mariagrazia Portera

Scientific manager, senior researcher

Mariagrazia is a researcher in Aesthetics at the Department of Humanities and Philosophy (DILEF) of the University of Florence. She has carried out postdoctoral research activities abroad (2015-2019), then in Berlin (Freie University), Zagreb, Rijeka, Edinburgh (IASH). Her research interests mainly concern the history of aesthetics (with particular reference to the English and German area) and the intersections between aesthetics and natural/biological sciences (evolutionary aesthetics, environmental aesthetics, Environmental Humanities, cognitive aesthetics). Among her publications, "L’evoluzione della bellezza. Da Darwin al dibattito contemporaneo" (Mimesis, Milan 2015) and "La bellezza è un’abitudine. Come si sviluppa l’estetico" (Carocci, Rome 2020).

Leonardo Dapporto

Project partner, senior researcher

Leonardo is a researcher in Zoology at the Department of Biology (BIO) of the University of Florence. He worked as a lecturer at Oxford Brookes University and has been Marie Curie Fellow at the Institut de Biologia Evolutiva in Barcelona. He has developed a considerable expertise in the fields of biological conservation and biodiversity studies and conservation, with particular reference to butterflies; he has developed important statistical tools for the study of butterfly distribution (he collaborated, also, to the realization of the first IUCN red list of Italian butterflies) and for the monitoring of their conservation status. His wide scientific production counts more than 120 contributions in national and international journals.

Elia van Tongeren

PhD Student

Elia obtained his Bachelor's degree in Biological Sciences at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia - Department of Life Sciences (DSV), with a thesis in Botany entitled: "Contribution of Palynology to the TRY database: the pollen diameter" at the Laboratory of Palynology and Paleobotany and more recently the Master Degree in Experimental and Applied Biology, also at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia (DSV), with a thesis on Molecular Genetics titled: "Genomic analysis of streptomycetes for sustainable agricultural production" at the Laboratory of Digital Agriculture. Elia is currently a PhD student in Evolutionary Biology and Ecology at the Department of Biology of the University of Florence affiliated with the National Biodiversity Future Centre (NBFC) in Palermo.

Ginevra Sistri

PhD Student

Ginevra graduated in Biological Sciences at the University of Florence with a thesis in Histology titled "Multifunctionality of the mast cell population in chronic wounds treated with photodynamic therapy" at the Laboratory of Experimental and Clinical Medicine (AOU Careggi). She then pursued her studies and obtained her Master Degree in Conservation and Population Genetics, still in Florence, with a thesis titled "Prediction of genetic diversity loss in high mountain butterfly populations (Erebia spp.) due to climate change" at the ZEN Lab (Numerical and Experimental Zoology Lab, BIO, Florence). Ginevra is currently a PhD student at the Department of Biology of the University of Florence.

Vincenzo Zingaro

Junior researcher

Vincenzo received his PhD in Philosophy in 2020 at the consortium of the universities of Florence and Pisa. In the same year he released for the publisher Mimesis the monograph "Per una filosofia del suono. Monade sonora e spazio fantico" (Mimesis, 2020) while also contributing in the international journals "Open Philosophy" and "Paragrana", both published by the Dutch editor De Gruyter.

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