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D - 32: Genoa - Can You Show me the Way to the Arsenal?

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

One of the things we plan for Saturday, 11 July, before setting sail, is touring Genoa and exploring the town that inspired our trip for the next four years. This harbor town – 1’000 years older than Venice – is a fascinating place where old and modern sit peacefully - but not always in harmony - next to each other. Venice was structured around three centers: Doge Palace and San Marco Cathedral (governance), Rialto (commerce) and Arsenal (defense). Genoa is organized the same way: Palazzo Ducale and San Lorenzo Cathedral at the Piazza de Ferrari (governance), Palazzo San Giorgio on the waterfront (commercial) and the Arsenal (defense). But where is it?

The Venetian Arsenal on the eastern end of town

The Arsenal in Venice is easy to find and mostly intact. Last year we enjoyed the privilege of a private tour by Captain Schivardi, the Arsenal’s Commanding Officer. Workshops, dry docks, storage areas, connecting basins, administrative buildings, protective walls and towers are still where they were. Until a few years ago a Vaporetto line passed through the arsenal. Since the Arsenal remains a military area and now houses the Naval Academy the line was suspended.

Finding the Arsenal in Genoa is more of a challenge though. With 90 galleys, the Genovese fleet was always bigger than its Venetian rival. Thus, the Genovese Arsenal must have been a big place – so we think. But is it true? Looking for “Arsenal Genoa” on Google Map does not get you anywhere. Nada. Does not exist. Luckily old maps like de Grassi’s view of Genoa from 1481 are more helpful. There, the Arsenal is clearly visible at the center of the harbor with its arched workshops, defensive towers and protected water basin. The accuracy of de Grassi’s map is incredible and helped me identify what stands today on its grounds: the Galata Museum.

The name Galata may sound familiar to people who have been to Istanbul. It is the neighborhood opposite old Istanbul or ancient Constantinople on the northern shore of the Golden Horn. It is the place Genovese merchants lived during the heydays of their commercial dominance of the Black Sea. But after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 the Turks closed the Bosporus and that was that. The golden age of Genovese Galata was over.

Genovese Arsenal at the centre on Cristoforo de Grassi’s View of Genoa from 1481

Galata remained the commercial center of old Istanbul though. Most of the Turkish Banks have their headquarters there and the road uphill to the Galata tower, built by the Genovese in 1348, is one of Istanbul’s busy shopping districts and always full of people. It is also a good place to go out at night with lovely restaurants and a few cool lounges.

Galata tower seen from the north with the Golden Horn and Topkapi Palace at the back

Tried to find out why Genoa named its Maritime Museum after its former colony Galata but could not find out. Did they build galleys there? The Ottoman’s imperial shipyard was on the Golden Horn. Does anybody know?

Galata Maritime Museum today

The history of Genoa’s arsenal is different from the Arsenal of its arch rival on the Adriatic. In Genoa, the wealthy merchant families owned the galleys, not the state. In Venice, the Serenissima was the owner who rented the galleys to the merchants. This had a direct influence on the organisation of the two arsenals. The Venetian Republic run the Arsenal directly, supplied the necessary raw materials and managed the building process. In Genoa all started from private initiatives, often outside the town walls. Only in 1276 was the first shipyard built inside the walls. By 1481, the Arsenal as seen on de Grassi’s map had come into existence. But Genoa continued to build galleys all along the Ligurian coast specifically at Savona, Sestri Lervante and Semperierdarena – all of them private shipyards. These private shipyards were continuously adapted to modern technology. As Genoa became the port for the industrial centers of Turin and Milan, its shipyards changed and modernized. The old structures were replaced by yards that could build steamships made from steel.

After WWII, the Galata shipyard lost its commercial viability and for decades the space was not in use. The municipality of Genoa acquired the empty site and built the Maritime Museum which opened in 2004.

Replica of the Galea, a Genovese galley from the 17th century

The museum contains a replica of a 17th century war galley, interesting rooms about the role cartography played in Genoa (topic for another blog), it shows how galleys were built and operated, explains the tools used in the building process and teaches the use of old navigational instruments. It is a fascinating museum that takes at least 3 hours to visit.

Old globe in the map section of the Galata Museum

That the museum has a great library and an interesting book shop goes without saying. And if you prefer the sun and an Aperol Spritz instead of the old ships, a Café with an outdoor terrace will welcome you until the “ship nerds” have finished their visit.

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