If any citizen of the Serenissima worth his salt could come back to contemporary Venice, the first place he’d visit might be this charmingly old fashioned museum housed since 1958 in a 15th-century granary. Without the right stuff displayed here, there would have been no St Mark’s, no doges, no Bellinis or Titians, and indeed no Venice. The low admission price makes this museum one of the best deals in town, and as a bonus there are explanations in English.
On the ground floor you can learn all about Italy’s one outstanding success in the Second World War: the ‘nautical pigs’ or manned torpedoes, invented by Prince Valerio Borghese. Not as kamikaze as they sound, these were operated by two divers, who would guide the weapon to its target, set the explosive and swim away. They sank 16 ships, nearly all of them British anchored in the port of Alexandria; after they had sunk HMS Valiant on 19 December 1941 the Admiral of the Fleet very sportingly decorated the divers for their courage.
Also on this floor are reliefs of the citadels captured by the Venetian fleet, mighty cannons, and the great three-branched lantern from Morosini’s galley, and a monument by Canova to Venice’s last great admiral, Angelo Emo (d. 1792).
The first floor has earlier mementoes: two wooden figures of chained Turks who sailed with Morosini, and Morosini’s prayer book (with a pistol fitted in the back cover); 17th-century sea charts and plans of the Arsenale; nautical instruments; models of Venice’s ancient bridges and gates; elaborate, carved and painted decorations salvaged from a 17th-century Venetian galley; rooms full of ships’ models – of Caligula’s ships recovered from Lake Nemi (near Rome) in the 1930s, only to be burned by the retreating Nazis; of galleys and triremes hung with cobwebs and moth-eaten sails – these owe their amazing detail not to the fond hobby of some old sailor, but to the fact that they were used by the shipbuilders in the Arsenale, who preferred them to drawings.
Most splendid of all is a huge gilded model of the last Bucintoro or Bucentaur (1728), which Napoleon, in his role of ‘Attila of the Venetian state’ had burned in 1798, all the better to remove its 60,000 sequins’ worth of gilding; one of the few things to survive was the doge’s throne, on which he would ride in state to marry the sea during La Sensa—with a ring big enough to fit King Kong.
The second floor (models of gunboats, lagoon craft, etc.) lacks the poetry of the first, but the third floor has a colourful room of rare models of ancient junks and 18th-century Chinese silk panels, donated to the museum in 1964 by Jacques Sigaut, a French expert in oriental naval affairs and admirer of Marco Polo; other rooms contain charmingly naïve ex-votos painted by mariners for the Madonna dell’Arco in Naples.
You'll also find historic gondolas, including the last private one regularly used, by Peggy Guggenheim; photos show her being rowed around Venice with her little dogs.
The fourth floor is dedicated to the Vikings and the Swedes, whose lions had much sharper teeth than Venice’s; exhibits include a copy of the runes in dragon scroll, from the lion in front of the Arsenale, and a slightly self-righteous display claiming that it wasn’t Morosini, the conqueror of the Peloponnese, who blew up the Parthenon in Athens, but a Swedish admiral named Otto Wilhelm von Königsmark working in his employ. Last of all is a beautiful, iridescent shell collection donated by Giuliana Coen-Camerino, alias the Venetian designer Roberta di Camerino.
A seldom visited section of the museum, the Padiglione delle Navi is located nearby in the 16th-century Oars Workshop, near the Arsenale Bridge (Rio della Tana Castello 2162c). Here are historical ships, including an ornate eighteen-oar boat built in the 19th century for VIPs and transporting the coffin of Pius X a Second World War torpedo motorboat, a coal-fired motorboat from 1895 and Marconi's floating laboratory with giant boilers.
Hours Mon-Fri 8.45am-1.30pm; Sat 8.45am-1pm; closed Sun and hols
Adm €5, reduced €3.50
Campo San Biagio
vaporetto: Arsenale or Giardini
+39 041 520 0276
Images by: AMB Brescia