Our Man In Rome

Yves Jaques


Art by Fire

The Museo delle Nave Romane


November 1999


The Museo delle Nave Romane is the emptiest museum in Italy. Its two hangar-like rooms could easily hold a pair of B-52 bombers. Though it has virtually no collection, and contains almost nothing, its emptiness has more to teach us about history than could any art-choked museum. Its echoing galleries are among the largest in Europe, and they lie fallow, offering mute testimony to the folly of empire.

On a night late in WWII, retreating German soldiers burnt the museum's collection to ashes. What did this collection consist of? Two enormous Roman boats, each over seventy meters long. In the 1930's these unique artifacts were dredged from the bottom of a small crater lake, their state of preservation miraculous. But once awoken from their 1900 year slumber they were destroyed in less than ten.
It is with these bald facts that today's museum stands. You might say it's the world's first conceptual museum, for what it has to teach us about history has more to do with the story of its remains then the remains themselves. Situated near Rome on the shores of Lake Nemi, it is a masterpiece of fascist construction. In an area known primarily for vineyards and charming medieval villages, it dwarfs the landscape with its monolithic simplicity. Built under Mussolini, the museum was a symbolic link between the Roman empire and the fascist dream for a new Italian empire. Here was a grand and excessively modern piece of shelter for two potent symbols of ancient Roman excess, giant party boats built under the emperor Caligula.

That Mussolini himself was personally and passionately involved with the project is clearly evidenced by propaganda photos of the time. Il Duce was photographed at the site on several occasions, surrounded by his retinue of black shirts. We see him throwing the switch that initiated the draining of the lake. And we see him with arms folded observing the ruined ships emerge from the muddy bottom.

Though the fascists were the first to successfully salvage the Nave Romane, they were not the first to try. The five hundred-year history of the attempts to raise these boats is a history of the powerful and wealthy searching for validation by associating themselves with these unique symbols of Roman might, as if the boats had some talismanic power. The church, noblemen, wealthy merchants, all tried and failed, and finally the fascists, though physically successful at retrieval, suffered the greatest failure of all.

With the support of the Church, Leon Battista Alberti began the first salvage attempt in 1446. Using boats and grappling hooks, little more than exterior decorations were salvaged. Unfazed, church and royalty eager to link themselves to the ancient glory of Rome ordered round after round of disastrous salvage operations. Unable to raise the boats, they managed only to systematically damage them.

In the eighteenth century, by means of a primitive diving suit the first real attempts at scientific exploration were begun. Scale maps of the boats were at last produced. Despite this early attempt to arrive at a disinterested understanding of the Nave Romane, the following century was to see ever more plunder. Now the salvage was financed not for the vanity of church and nobility, but by the bean counters of the new merchant class, who were already engaging in the brisk international sale of Roman antiquities. Much of the exterior ornamentation was shorn away before the boats finally fell under state protection.

Following the unification of Italy in the late nineteenth century, there was a fresh wave of enthusiasm for the recovery and study of Roman remains. In the midst of a heavy swell of national pride, archaeological projects were begun all over the country. The boats easily made the list, but there they languished due to the lack of both cash and technology.

It was under Mussolini that the project suddenly found its champion. The fascist regime, eager to establish itself as the logical historical heir to the Roman empire, found in the project a shining symbol of the young country's strength. Here would be the new Rome uncovering the old. Much as Hadrian, uncertain of his position as an adoptive son, ordered the construction of Trajan's column to celebrate his father's military achievements, the fascists set about raising the Nave Romane.
After five centuries of bungled attempts, there was at last the proper conjunction of desire and ability. Riva, a Milanese manufacturer of pumping equipment eager to vaunt Italy's new technological prowess donated equipment and expertise. The newly formed electrical utilities of Rome and the province of Lazio chipped in as well. And with this curious combination of public and private interests, the work was begun.
After a difficult five-year salvage operation ended with the two giant boats resting on the shore, attention was turned to building something suitable to house them. The architects of the day were called in, and they drew plans for a fascist museum of staggering dimensions. Long flat planes, blank surfaces devoid of decoration. All in keeping with the underlying fascist philosophy of building structures that emphasized the frailty and insignificance of the individual next to the powerful and enduring nature of the state.

Despite the delay caused by the discovery of an ancient Roman road that led to the lake's famed temple of Diana, by 1935 the building was complete enough to move the boats inside. It was a magnificent sight. They filled the gallery from end-to-end, the length of a city block. The building, with its clever use of exposed vaulting ribs, mirrored the boats' hull design.

Mussolini arrived to perform the inauguration, and what follows is perhaps the shortest period of glory any museum has ever enjoyed. Briefly open to the public, it was by the early 1940's a homeless shelter for bombed-out Italians, and by the Summer of 1944, the boats were nothing but cinders The Nave Romane rose again only to be extinguished.

And so what remains is the world's largest conceptual museum. A museum whose message is contained in its emptiness. And it is this emptiness that speaks volumes. Museums are in their origins little more than trophy houses for European empires to trot their loot. It is in this long shadow that the Museo delle Nave Romane exists. Viewed in this way it is a kind of anti-museum, a living argument for the folly of the empires that created the concept of the trophy house.
Though they were assuredly not thinking of it in such terms, the German soldiers that burned the nave to ashes the night of June 1st, 1944 were engaging in the creation of a powerful work of conceptual art, a work that would resound long past the final cannonades of WWII. A work of art that though mired in tragedy, delivers a more complex lesson about empire than any collection of ruins.


Yves Jaques can be reached at yjaques@tiscalinet.it