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The Nemi Ships

"He also built Liburnian galleys with ten banks of oars, with sterns set with gems, particoloured sails, huge spacious baths, colonnades, and banquet-halls, and even a great variety of vines and fruit trees; that on board of them he might recline at table from an early hour, and coast along the shores of Campania amid songs and choruses. He built villas and country houses with utter disregard of expense, caring for nothing so much as to do what men said was impossible."

Suetonius, Life of Caligula (XXXVII.2)

Although the sunken hulls of two ships were known to rest on the bottom of Lake Nemi, the first attempt to recover them did not occur until the middle of the fifteenth century, when Cardinal Prospero Colonna, intrigued by what he had heard, sought the help of the Renaissance humanist Leone Battista Alberti (who later would design the original Trevi Fountain, then a simple basin marking the terminus of the restored Aqua Virgo). A large floating platform was constructed by lashing beams to empty barrels. Divers then were hired from Genoa to affix grapples hanging from chains to the prow of the first ship. But the chains broke and hooks were lost, and only lead water pipes and fragments of wood sheathed in lead secured by copper nails were brought to the surface.

Almost a century later, in July 1535, a second attempt was made. Using a primitive type of diving harness worn on the shoulders, Guglielmo de Lorena was able to descend some thirty-six feet to the bottom of the lake (it would be another 180 years before Edmond Halley, the inventor of the modern diving bell, would discuss the problems of diving to such a depth). Francesco de' Marchi has left an account of his own exploits underwater and, although sworn to secrecy about his colleague's mysterious contrivance, does ruefully comment on the small fish that appeared so much larger through the magnifying effect of its lens, nibbling first on the crumbs from the bread and cheese he had taken with himand then on the nether parts of his naked body. He was able to attach ropes to the wreck, allowing sections of larch, pine, and cypress to be pulled away and winched to the surface. Nails of copper and brass were recovered still holding the sheets of tarred cloth and lead that had protected the wood, as well as paving tiles of brick and red enamel flooring. But everything subsequently was lost to robbers who, he said, had hoped to discover something more about "this ingenious instrument of Master Guglielmo."

Almost three centuries would pass before there was another attempt, this time with great fanfare by Annesio Fusconi in September 1827. Using a much improved diving bell of a type developed by Halley more than a hundred years earlier but holding eight workmen, he intended to take the first ship (the one nearer to shore) apart piecemeal. There were still more wood and nails (some of copper with gilt heads), fragments of marble and mosaic, terracotta pipes, and bricks framed in iron with the inscription TIB.CAES. Other artifacts were seen at the bottom of lake but could not be raised. Again, almost everything was subsequently losteven the diving apparatus, which was stolen by robbers when work had been suspended for the winter.

But all this was simply a prelude to the sensational discoveries of October 1895, when a Signor Borghi obtained permission from Prince Orsini, who owned the land, to make a further examination of the wrecks. It was then that divers recovered the bronze protomes that had decorated the ship. One of the first pieces brought to the surface was a lion's head holding a mooring ring in its mouth that had capped one of the steering oars. More lead pipes, gilded bronze roof tiles, and ball bearings were found and, from the second ship, a bronze panel depicting a forearm and hand. Borghi then offered to sell the artifacts, which resided in his own museum, to the Italian government, which claimed them in any event. It further was determined that salvaging the ships was proving to be increasingly destructive and should cease until work could continue in a more scientific manner. There were charges, too, that casts were damaging the original bronzes and even intimations that they might be substituting for them.

A report at the time indicated that the first ship measured about sixty-four meters in length with a beam of twenty meters and was fifty meters from shore lying at a depth between five and twelve meters. The second ship was estimated to be seventy-one meters long and twenty-four meters wide. Two hundred meters from shore, it was half buried in the muddy bottom of the lake fifteen to twenty meters below the surface. Rather than raise the ships, it was proposed that the lake, itself, be drained, an audacious scheme that would not be acted upon for another three decades.

Late in the fourth-century BC, a emissary had been dug to drain water from Lake Nemi and so regulate its level, which otherwise might threaten the Temple of Diana on the shore. This tunnel, which had been been dug from opposite ends of the crater wall, ran for more than a mile from the lake through the wall of the caldera. On October 20, 1928, it would be used by Guido Ucelli when, in the presence of Mussolini, he began work on draining the lake. The ancient channel was cleared and water began to be pumped through four large pipes into a header tank that, in turn, emptied into the emissary. The water then was channeled through a canal to the sea. When the water level had dropped sufficiently, a second pumping station was established and work continued until it too was replaced by a floating station on the water.

In March 1929, the first ship appeared, revealing a tapered round beam nearly twelve meters long capped at the wide end by a bronze collar in the shape of a lion's head holding a mooring ring in its mouth, as well as a wolf's head, also holding a ring. By September, the entire hull had been revealed and fitted to a large supporting cradle by which it could be moved along a series of rails to the shore.

By then, the water level had been lowered by more than fifteen meters and a portion of the second ship was revealed, showing long beams protruding from the sides, which lead to speculation about the positioning of oars on Roman ships. In the excitement, the pumps were stopped and the hull began to dry out and had to be resubmerged. By June 1931, the second ship had emerged, only to be threatened by the shifting lake bottom and rising water, which again surrounded the hull. After seven months the pumps were restarted and the ship again recovered from the protective mud, only to dry too quickly and begin to warp and crack. Finally, using the same methods that preserved the wood of the Viking longships in Oslo, the wood was treated with steam and a water bath and then saturated with a vegetable tar diluted in solvent. By late 1932, the second ship had been hauled clear of the lake bed, and both ships were sheathed in a protective covering of wood, tarred cardboard, and cloth.

Julius Caesar had conceived of draining the Fucine Lake (Suetonius, XLIV.3) but it was Claudius who actually made the attempt. An outlet three-and-a-half miles in length was cut, both by leveling and tunneling through a mountain, a project that took eleven years and the labor of thirty thousand men (Suetonius, XX.2; Tacitus, Annals, XII.56-57). Repaired during the reign of Hadrian (Historia Augusta, XX.12), the emissary again had became obstructed by the early third century AD, when Cassius Dio wrote that the money expended by Claudius had been in vain (Roman History, LX.11.5). The lake was not completely drained until the nineteenth century.

In some galleys, the oars did not pivot from the sides of the ship but from a projecting frame (apostis) that extended over the water. By mounting the tholes or oarlocks outside the hull, there was a more efficient platform from which to pull the oars and greater leverage for longer ones. The additional space also allow rowers to sit in two or more banks on each side of the vessel. The first ship  was recovered with an apostis on either side of the ship and presumably had at least one bank of oars. The smaller second ship did not have apostes and must have been towed about the lake.

Two turntables also were discovered, one of which was mounted on eight bronze balls that had been cast with trunnions on either side. Originally fitted to the underside of a platform, where the pins were held in place by clamps, they allowed it to rotate smoothly. (The other table used wooden rollers.) The exact purpose is not known but the platforms may have been used for the revolving presentation of a statue, possibly of Diana. (Although these balls and rollers are not true ball bearings, in that they do not roll freely within a circular race, they served much the same function as the bearings nested around a conical pivot first illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci almost fifteen-hundred years later.)

The anchor from the first ship had a movable stock held in place by a cotter pin, anticipating a design (the admiralty anchor) that would not be reinvented until the mid-nineteenth century. Forged from three iron bars (for the shank, arms, and stock), the anchor was sheathed in wood to allow a greater surface area to gain purchase on the bottom but not embed itself too deeply. Indeed, the stock, which rests parallel, has forced one arm into the mud. Grooves show where ropes and metal bands once secured the wood exterior to the iron core. The weight of the anchor, which is stamped on one of the arms, was 1,275 Roman pounds libra (about 925 lbs., the abbreviation for pound having derived from its Roman antecedent).

Two anchors were recovered from the muddy bottom of the lake. The one on the second ship was typical of the time, when the boats were sunk about AD 40. It is a large wooden anchor, the heavy oak arms tipped with iron and secured to the eighteen-foot shank with stout pegs. So that the wooden anchor would sink, the perpendicular stock (the crosspiece that cants one of the arms to assure that its fluke will dig in) was cast in lead, with rope bindings securing the anchor ring. Remarkably, these lashings and the thick anchor cable were intact when found. The anchor was said to have been invented by Eupalamus (Pliny, Natural History, VII.lvi.209) and the anchor with two arms or "teeth" (bidentem) by Anacharsis, who was one of the seven wise men of Greece (Strabo, Geography, VII.3.9).

The liburnian originally was a small warship attributed to Illyrian pirates that, in a modified form, had been used by Octavian in the Battle of Actium (31 BC). The most spectacular of these modified ships, the largest oared vessels to have been built by the Romans, was used by Caligula to sail from Rome to Naples.

The "state-barge" (navis thalamegus) mentioned by Suetonius on which Caesar and Cleopatra floated up the Nile (Life of Julius Caesar, LII.1) provides an almost irresistible association with the enormous thalamegos described by Athenaeus in the Deipnosophists (V.204d-206c). Constructed by Ptolemy IV Philopator, it was said to have twin hulls, like a modern catamaran, been three-hundred feet long, forty-five feet wide, and sixty feet high.

The description of Philopator's ship deserves to be quoted in full.

"Philopator also constructed a river boat, the so‑called 'cabin-carrier,' having a length of three hundred feet, and a beam at the broadest part of forty-five feet. The height, including the pavilion when it was raised, was little short of sixty feet. Its shape was neither like that of the war galleys nor like that of the round-bottomed merchantmen, but had been altered somewhat in draught to suit its use on the river. For below the water-line it was flat and broad, but in its bulk it rose high in the air; and the top parts of its sides, especially near the bow, extended in a considerable overhang, with a backward curve very graceful in appearance. It had a double bow and a double stern which projected upward to a high point, because the waves in the river often rise very high. The hold amidships was constructed with saloons for dining-parties, with berths, and with all the other conveniences of living. Round the ship, on three sides, ran double promenades. The perimeter of one of these measured not less than five furlongs. The structure of the one below decks resembled a peristyle; that of the one on the upper deck was like a concealed peristyle built up all round with walls and windows. As one first came on board at the stern, there was set a vestibule open in front, but having a row of columns on the sides; in the part which faced the bow was built a fore-gate, constructed of ivory and the most expensive wood. entering this, one came upon a kind of proscenium which in its construction had been roofed over. Matching the fore-gate, again, a second vestibule lay aft at the transverse side, and a portal with four doors led into it. On both sides, left and right, potholes were set beneath to provide good ventilation. Connected with these entrances was the largest cabin; it had a single row of columns all round, and could hold twenty couches. The most of it was made of split cedar and Milesian cypress; the surrounding doors, numbering twenty, had panels of fragrant cedar nicely glued together, with ornamentation in ivory. The decorative studs covering their surface, and the handles as well, were made of red copper, which had been gilded in the fire. As for the columns, their shafts were of cypress-wood, while the capitals, of the Corinthian order, were entirely covered with ivory and gold. The whole entablature was in gold; over it was affixed a frieze with striking figures in ivory, more than a foot and a half tall, mediocre in workmanship, to be sure, but remarkable in their lavish display. Over the dining-saloon was a beautiful coffered ceiling of Cyprus wood; the ornamentations on it were sculptured, with a surface of gilt. Next to this dining-saloon was a sleeping apartment with seven berths, adjoining which was a narrow passage-way running transversely from one side of the hold to the other, and dividing off the women's quarters. In the latter was a dining-saloon, with nine couches, which was similar to the large saloon in magnificence, and a sleeping-apartment with five berths.

"Now the arrangements up to the first deck were as described. Ascending the companion-way, which adjoined the sleeping-apartment last mentioned, was another cabin large enough for five couches, having a ceiling with lozenge-shaped panels; near it was a rotunda-shaped shrine of Aphrodite, in which was a marble statue of the goddess. Opposite to this was a sumptuous dining-saloon surrounded by a row of columns, which were built of marble from India. Beside this dining-saloon were sleeping-rooms having arrangements which corresponded to those mentioned before. As one proceeded toward the bow he came upon a chamber devoted to Dionysus, large enough for thirteen couches, and surrounded by a row of columns; it had a cornice which was gilded as far as the architrave surrounding the room; the ceiling was appropriate to the spirit of the god. In this chamber, on the starboard side, a recess was built; externally, it showed a stone fabric artistically made of real jewels and gold; enshrined in it were portrait-statues of the royal family in Parian marble. Very delightful, too, was another dining-saloon built on the roof of the largest cabin in the manner of an awning; this had no roof, but curtain rods shaped like bows extended over it for a certain distance, and on these, when the ship was under way, purple curtains were spread out. Next after this was an open deck which occupied the space directly over the vestibule extending below it; a circular companion-way extending from this deck led to the covered promenade and the dining-saloon with nine couches. This was Egyptian in the style of its construction; for the columns built at this point bulged as they ascended, and the drums differed, one being black and another white, placed alternately. Some of their capitals are circular in shape; the entire figure described by them resembles rose-blossoms slightly opened. But around the part which is called the 'basket' there are no volutes or rough leaves laid on, as on Greek capitals, but calyxes of water-lilies and the fruit of freshly-budded date-palms; in some instances several other kinds of flowers are sculptured thereon. The part below the root of the cap, which, of course, rests upon the drum adjoining it, had a motif that was similar; it was composed of flowers and leaves of Egyptian beans, as it were, intertwined. This is the way in which Egyptians construct their columns; and the walls, too, they vary with alternating white and black courses of stone, but sometimes, also, they build them of the rock called alabaster. And there were many other rooms in the hollow of the ship's hold through its entire extent. Its mast had a height of one hundred and five feet, with a sail of fine linen reinforced by a purple topsail."

The bronze head of Medusa above is a protome (a decorative element used here as the terminal part of a beam) from the first Nemi Ship. The most artistic of the bronze pieces recovered in 1895, it now is in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (Rome).

On May 31, 1944, retreating Germans set the Museo delle Navi Romane afire and the wooden ships, so laboriously recovered, were completely destroyed, a wanton act of vandalism piqued, one suspects, by the armistice signed by Italy less than nine months earlier. A recent book, however, has suggested that the official report was a cover-up and that artillery shelling by U.S. forces actually caused the fire, even though the museum caretaker claimed that it did not erupt until two hours later.

References: "The Mysterious Wreck of Nemi" (1896) by Rodolfo Lanciani, The North American Review, 162(471), 225-234; "Archaeological News: Italy: Nemi" (1896), American Journal of Archaeology, 11(3), 470-477; "The Roman Galleys of Lake Nemi" (1902) by H. Mereu, American Architect and Architecture, 77(1384), 11-13;"The Ships in Lake Nemi" (January 21, 1929) by John F. Gummere, The Classical Weekly, 22(13), 97-98; "The Ships of Nemi" (May 16, 2000) by Marco Bonino, a talk presented to the British Council in Rome; "Mysteries and Nemesis of the Nemi Ships" (1955) by G. B. Rubin de Cervin, Mariner's Mirror, 41, 38-42; "Notes on the Architecture of Some Roman Ships: Nemi and Fiumicino" (1989) by Marco Bonino, Tropis, 1, 37-53; Ancient Discoveries: The Revolutionary Work of Ancient Shipbuilders (2005), the History Channel; "Caligula's Floating Palaces" (2002) by Deborah N. Carlson, Archaeology, 55(3), 26; "The Liburnian: Some Observations and Insights" (1997) by Olaf Hockmann, The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 26(3), 192-216; "The Roman Villa by Lake Nemi: From Nature to Culture—Between Private and Public" (2005) by Pia Guldager Bilde, Roman Villas Around the Urbs: Interaction with Landscape and Environment edited by Barbro Santillo Frizell and Allan Klynne; Anchors: An Illustrated History (1999) by Betty Nelson Curryer; "The Art of Living Under Water: Or, a Discourse Concerning the Means of Furnishing Air at the Bottom of the Sea, in Any Ordinary Depths (1716) by Edmond Halley, Philosophical Transactions, 29(349), 492-499; L'incendio delle Navi di Nemi: Indagine su un cold case della Seconda guerra mondiale (2023) by Flavio Altamura and Stefano Paolucci; reviewed in "Nazis 'wrongly accused' of destroying Caligula's pleasure boats" (2023, April 25) by Tom Kington, The Times (London). The standard text (in Italian) is Le Navi di Nemi (1940, 2nd ed. 1950) by Guido Ucelli. The recovery of 1895 is reviewed by V. Malfatti, who had been ordered to survey the wrecks, in Le Navi Romane del Lago di Nemi (1896/1905).

See also Cleopatra on the Cydnus.

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