Return to Rex Nemorensis
"He also built Liburnian galleys [after an Illyrian people living in Dalmatia] 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)
Local fishermen, their weighted nets having snagged on sunken hulls, knew that two ships rested at the bottom of Lake Nemi, a placid water-filled caldera just south of Rome. It then belonged to Cardinal Prospero Colonna whose fiefdom included the fortified medieval towns of Nemi and Genzano nestled high on the wooded rim. A nephew of the pope and Renaissance humanist (he once had owned the Belvedere Torso so admired by Michelangelo), Colonna was intrigued by the fragments of timber being brought to the surface and curious why such ships even should have been there. It is likely, too, that the inhabitants, who collectively had tried to remove the obstacles themselves, appealed to the cardinal.
In 1446, he commissioned the architect and engineer Leon Battista Alberti to direct the recovery of the ship nearer shore. He briefly mentions it in De re aedificatoria ("On the Art of Building"), "which while I was writing this Treatise was dug up out of the lago di Nemi," remarking only that he managed to pull up pieces of pine (fir) and cypress, which "had lasted extremely well" given that they had been under water for more than thirteen-hundred years. They were caulked in a double layer of linen soaked in pitch and protected by sheets of lead fastened by brass nails (V.12). He may have said more in De navis, a short treatise on ships that is mentioned by Leonardo da Vinci, but the manuscript never was published and now is lost.
The earliest reference to the Nemi ships is a letter written two years earlier by his friend, the historian Biondo Flavio. He had recommended Alberti to the cardinal and even may have witnessed the recovery himself—which he recounts in Italia Illustrata (II.47–50), a work on the cultural history and ancient place names of Italy (written when, having been apostolic secretary, he had fallen out of papal favor and was seeking new patronage). By lashing together rows of empty wine barrels, a large floating raft was constructed to support hoists and winches suspended over both sides. Professional free-divers hired from Genoa, "more like fish than men" and renown for their ability, then affixed iron grappling hooks to the wreck. With a great throng on shore and "all the fine minds of the Roman Curia" looking on, the intention was to salvage the entire ship. But, unaware of the hulk's massive size, only a small section of the bow was lifted from the muddy silt, the rest tearing away as it was pulled to the surface. (Interestingly, Biondo uses the analogy of planks hauled ashore from a wrecked ship to justify any perceived deficiencies in his treatise. If a lost ship cannot be recovered in its entirety, better at least that some portion be salvaged, Preface, 4.)
Rather than pine and cypress, Biondo thought the ship to be made entirely of larch, the planks three digiti thick, caulked with silken fabric soaked in pitch (bitumen) and entirely clad in sheets of lead. And there were bright, bronze nails almost eighteen-inches long, "so well-preserved and shiny that they seem to have just come from the blacksmith's anvil." Indeed, larch was prized as a superior wood, of a reddish color and long lasting, "not rotting with age." More importantly, it "will neither burn nor char, nor, in fact, suffer any more from the action of fire than a stone" (Pliny, Natural History, XVI.xix.43, 45; also Vitruvius, On Architecture, II.ix.14.)
The interior was coated with an application of clay and chalk over which molten iron had been poured and then another coating applied, fusing everything together in an impermeable fireproof layer several inches thick to that "the iron ship (so to say) became as big as the one of larch before it." It is a confused account, given that the hulls do not display any such configuration, and Biondo may be commenting on the base layer for a mosaic pavement. Yard-long sections of interlocking lead pipes connecting the ship to the shore were discovered as well, which he says Alberti thought to have conveyed water from a spring below Nemi on the ridge. "Elegant letters were inscribed on each of them to indicate, so I thought, that the emperor Tiberius was the creator of the ship." Alberti had attributed it to Trajan, although he does not say why; in fact, no such imprints have been found.
Pius II (1458–1464), having commended Alberti as "a scholar and a very clever archaeologist" (Commentaries, XI.187), journeyed to Nemi in 1463 (coincidentally, two months after the death of Prospero Colonna and a month before that of Biondo) to see for himself "the ship which in our day has been found in the lake" (XI.190). He speaks of a single broken piece of hull being made of larch two inches thick, smeared with pitch covered with reddish silken cloth and overlaid with lead plates secured by bronze nails, "their gilded heads set so close together that no water could get in." He repeats Biondo's bewildering remark on the inner surfaces having a thick coating of iron and clay to protect against fire but admits it is "a process our experts do not understand"—as he does the mysterious inscription tiberius caesar on the lead pipes. He does add, however, that divers reported seeing a chest girded by hoops and a clay water jar with a gilded-bronze lid, which no doubt reinforced in Pius' mind that the palatial vessel was similar to contemporary pleasure craft he had seen for himself. Beams "made of larch wood which is very like fir" that had been recovered by Alberti and abandoned on shore were inspected as well "with a great deal of pleasure."
Pius had read Biondo, who was a frequent guide and companion on the pope's excursions about the Roman countryside (as he was for Colonna). And, although his books are "of considerable value though they should be read with caution, that you may not take the false for the true" (XI.42), Pius did consult them in writing his own interpretation of the wrecks. It is not surprising, therefore, that the two accounts are so similar.
Almost a century later, in July 1535, there was a second attempt to raise the ship, this time using a primitive type of diving bell invented by maestro Guglielmo de Lorena (William of Lorraine—which suggests that he was French rather than Italian and so, Guillaume de Lorraine, as McManamon identifies him). The venture is described by Francesco de' Marchi in his treatise Della architettura militare (II.82–84), which was published posthumously in 1599 but more readily known from the 1810 edition by Luigi Marini.
Although sworn to secrecy about the mysterious contrivance, de' Marchi does reveal some details about the istrumento in an account of his two exploits underwater (Guglielmo made the first dive himself). He was fitted with a hooped wooden cylinder over his head and shoulders made waterproof by an application of pitch and tallow, and supported by a harness that extended almost to the elbows, which permitted his arms to move freely below the rim, cutting, sawing, tying, and hammering. There was another hoop of lead to provide ballast (and so compensate for buoyancy) and a small crystal viewing port. On the surface, a raft in which a hole had been cut in the middle allowed a crew to use a capstan and windlass to raise or lower the diving chamber (like drawing water from a well, as de' Marchi phrases it), being careful to keep it perfectly vertical so as not to tip over and allow water to enter. By tugging on a rope, de' Marchi could signal to have the contraption raised or release himself from the harness and swim to the surface himself.
In spite of a ruptured eardrum experienced on his first dive by not having equalized the pressure inside his head (in a descent that went as deep as forty-four feet), de' Marchi relates how exhilarating it was to see and feel the Roman wreck beneath his feet. But he also ruefully comments on the small fish that appeared so much larger through the magnifying effect of the lens, nibbling first on the crumbs from the stale bread and cheese he had taken with him—and then on the nether parts of his naked body. Bleeding from his nose and mouth after the rupture of his eardrum, distracted by the incessant attention of the fish, and the numbing coldness of the water all obliged de' Marchi to be winched back to the surface after only half an hour.
The second dive was more successful. The ruptured eardrum obviated the need to equalize pressure in his head and, this time, de' Marchi wore breeches. He was able to attach large iron hooks to the wreck, allowing sections of pine, cypress, and larch to be pulled away and winched to the surface. Nails of copper and brass of varying sizes were recovered, the longest measuring two palms or almost a foot in length, the smaller tacks "their shining heads...cut like stars" used to secure the thin lead sheathing, and spaced less than three inches apart. They still held sheets of tarred woolen cloth and lead that had protected the wood. Iron nails, almost completely deteriorated, were found, as well as red brick pavement tiles, slabs of what de' Marchi called red enamel, and fragments of opus sectile flooring. His most significant discovery, however, was that the planks of the hull were fitted edge to edge by mortise-and-tenon joinery and then secured by pegs. (So that they did not protrude, the pegs were sawn off flush to the surface, a detail that he much admired.)
It seemed to de' Marchi, in fact, that it was not a shortage of air but simple fatigue and the coldness of the water that limited exploration—which this time lasted a full hour, after which he released himself from the harness and swam to the surface. The hull itself remained partially buried in the mud, sixteen additional men recruited from nearby Nemi being unable to lift it and the thick rope snapping in two. Everything else, enough material "to load two strong mules," was taken to Rome for study. But the recovered artifacts (even many of the nails) and notes on the project subsequently were lost to thieves who, he said, had hoped to discover something more about "this ingenious instrument of Master Guglielmo."
As promised, de' Marchi says nothing about the most ingenuous part of Guglielmo's invention: the mechanism by which a diver could breathe in fresh air and flush exhaled carbon dioxide from the chamber—and so maintain the water level inside. Given the technology of the time, there were only two options to do so: either by a connecting hose supplied with air by means of a bellows (it not being possible to draw breath through a tube much longer than half a meter at more than one atmosphere of pressure), or by using smaller casks of air sent down at regular intervals, which then were transferred to the chamber.
Reading in Marini that it "has no conduit for communication with the air outside the water" (e non ha alcun condotto di comunicazione coll' aria al di fuori dell' acqua, p. 366), Eliav, who translates the passage as "there was no tube or pipe for connection with the air out of the water," concluded that, in the absence of a hose extending to the surface, another mechanism must have been used. He suggests that inverted casks of air were lowered every few minutes, which then would be brought inside and, by releasing a plug, the fresh air allowed to escape. Stale air would be vented by a one-way pressure value at the top of the chamber.
If, in fact, this was how Guglielmo managed to convey air from the surface, it anticipated by more than a century and a half the diving bell of Edmond Halley, who in 1691 used a constant series of empty weighted barrels to transfer air, compressed by water pressure as they descended, to the bell by means of an attached hose—so that, in Halley's own words, "Through these Hose, as soon as their ends came above the Surface of the Water in the Barrels, all the Air that was included in the upper parts of them was blown with great force into the Bell."
But Jung questions how practical it would be to follow a walking diver, always being directly above him on a taut line so as to continually lower tanks of air without tipping them and, in turn, how busy he would be in constantly refilling the chamber. Moreover, in returning to the original 1599 edition of de' Marchi, Jung discovered the reading to be that there simply was no spiracolo ("breathing hole") above the water—and so a connection for an air hose and bellows was not necessarily excluded and could very well have been used.
(Aristotle had conceived of a diver being able to breathe underwater by means of "letting down a cauldron; for this does not fill with water, but retains the air, for it is forced down straight into the water; since, if it inclines at all from an upright position, the water flows in," Problemata, XXXII.5. And Alexander the Great, curious to discover what lay at the bottom of the sea, was fancifully said to have constructed a glass bell within an iron cage "to attempt the impossible," Alexander Romance, II.38.)
There was not another attempt for almost three centuries, this time in September 1827 by Annesio Fusconi, a hydraulic engineer who later published an account of his exploit in a brief pamphlet, Memoria Archeologico-Idraulica sulla Nave dell' Imperator Tiberio. Thirty-thousand lire (about $103,000) was invested, almost half of which was spent staging a mise en scčne to accommodate the diplomats and nobility invited to witness the spectacle from a viewing platform. He also improved upon the diving bell developed by Halley, which now held eight men and used pumps ("a sucking and compressing machine") of his own invention to convey air from the surface by means of a leather hose. Materials were transported from Rome to Genzano and then laboriously down to the shore, where a large raft was constructed that supported three trestles spanning a central opening. Using a capstan, the principal one was used to raise and lower the bell, the other two to provide tools for work underwater and chests to contain whatever was salvaged.
Divers (marangoni, from the Latin mergus, "loon"), swimming to and from the bell, also wore waterproof clothing to protect against the cold. The intention was to take the first ship, the prima nave (the one nearer to shore) apart piecemeal, and beams of larch and pine, nails (some of copper with gilt heads), disks of porphyry and serpentine, enamels and mosaics, terracotta pipes, and bricks framed in iron with the inscription TIB.CAES were recovered, while other artifacts seen at the bottom of lake could not be raised. But the effort soon proved too expensive a way to acquire such antiquities and the project was abandoned. Most of the recovered items were sold to the Roman nobles on shore or to collectors, others to the Vatican, which purchased (among other things) the disks and a beam studded with fourteen gilt-headed copper nails. Others were subsequently lost, even the diving apparatus, which was stolen by thieves when work had been suspended for the winter, early rains and falling temperatures having made the lake too cold for diving. The wine barrels that had supported the raft were stolen as well—and no doubt put to better use on shore. Essentially a treasure hunter, it is just as well that Fusconi's depredations were abbreviated; otherwise, he likely would have demolished the wreck altogether.
All this was simply a prelude to the sensational discoveries of October 1895. Having heard from local fishermen about a ship of Tiberius sunk in the lake and seeing one of its timbers at the palace of Prince Orsini, who now owned the land, the antiquities dealer Eliseo Borghi sought permission (under the supervision of the Ministry of Public Education, which dutifully issued a permit) to make a further examination of the wreck. Again, a diving platform was built and cranes assembled. By this time, however, the first closed diving helmet fitted, which was fitted to a waterproof suit of rubberized canvas, had been invented and perfected by Augustus Siebe. Thus outfitted, a skilled diver was able to recover the magnificent bronze protomes that had decorated the ship.
As Borghi relates in La Veritŕ sulle Navi Romane del Lago di Nemi, on "a day that should be remembered as an important date in the history of archaeological research," the first piece brought to the surface was a magnificent bronze lion's head holding a mooring ring in its mouth that had capped one of the steering oars. Then a wolf's head was discovered, cast to be fitted to a square through-beam, and two more lions and another wolf. There also was an exquisite bust of Medusa (top) and a square mosaic of opus sectile, as well as lengths of lead pipe, gilded bronze roof tiles, a large bronze grate, and ball bearings.
In November, a second ship was discovered, Borghi having been directed to its location in deeper water some four hundred meters south of the first one by fishermen. Fragments of wood were recovered studded with nails and, most significantly, an artistic bronze panel depicting an extended hand and forearm.
Four more lengths of lead pipe were recovered stamped G. Caesaris avg germanic, indicating that they belonged, not to Tiberius or Trajan as previously thought, but to Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus—Caligula, the profligate emperor who had been assassinated by his own praetorian guard in AD 41. The two palatial barges may have been deliberately scuttled by Claudius when Caligula's memory was unofficially condemned (damnatio memoriae). Or they may have been sunk to propitiate Diana, whose sanctuary was on shore. Pliny the Younger writes, for example, that on Lake Vadimo north of Rome "No boat is allowed on its surface—for it is sacred water" (Letters, VIII.20). How much more so would have been Lake Nemi. Or they may been abandoned to sink on their own. Less likely is that the ships foundered in a storm, as so few artifacts remain, which would have been removed before the ships sunk. They are not mentioned in the ancient literature, and so it is not possible to tell.
The spectacular discoveries from the first ship (prima nave) did not pass unnoticed. But, instead of Borghi being lauded for the discoveries (as he thought he should have been), "no enthusiasm, no loving solicitude, no encouragement came from the official element." Rather, the ministry's representation on site notified its superintendent for antiquities and fine arts, who visited Nemi the next day and, hearing that work would be facilitated by the use of crowbars, forbade their use. (In fact, two were later found.) When the second ship (seconda nave) was discovered, work was suspended altogether. Salvaging the ships was proving to be increasingly destructive and such depredations were to cease until work could continue in a more scientific manner. There were charges, too, that casts of the bronzes were damaging them and even intimations that they might be substituting for the originals.
A much aggrieved Borghi was obliged to sell his stored treasures to the Italian government, which adopted strict new regulations regarding the recovery and sale of the nation's cultural patrimony, and he was offered 128,000 lira. "But, as was to be expected, Parliament never voted on the necessary legislation to make that purchase definitive." A decade after the first fittings had been brought to the surface, "The long conflict of Signor Eliseo Borghi with the Italian government, concerning the bronze objects he retrieved many years ago from Lake Nemi, has been settled by the payment to him of twenty-seven thousand dollars." This brief note appeared in 1905, four years after Borghi's impassioned plea that the recovered artifacts were his own property. (Although computing the historical value of money is notoriously difficult, adjusted for inflation, the purchasing power of that amount equates to approximately $900,000.)
Now under government supervision, an underwater survey of the entire site was ordered by the Ministry of the Navy, which was conducted by Vittorio Malfatti, a naval engineer who wrote the official report of the exploration (Le Navi Romane del Lago di Nemi). The ships had sunk in the northwest part of the lake. Delineating the outline of both with buoys, he found that the prima nave measured about sixty-four meters in length (actually it is about seventy three) with a beam of twenty meters and was twenty meters from shore, lying at a depth between five and twelve meters. The seconda nave 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 sixteen to twenty-five meters below the surface. If they were to recovered at all, he contended, the lake itself would have to be drained, its level lowered by almost twenty-three meters. "This is evidently the most elegant solution, the one that appears to be the most convenient for the sure success of all the work."
Malfatti's audacious proposal was realized thirty years later when, in October 1928, Guido Ucelli, director of a company that produced water pumps and in the presence of Benito Mussolini, who had become the dictatorial prime minister of Italy six years earlier, began work on draining the lake. Late in the fourth-century BC, an emissary had been dug to regulate its water level, which otherwise threatened the Temple of Diana on shore. This ancient channel, excavated from opposite ends of the crater, ran from the lake shore below Genzano for more than a mile through the wall of the caldera and once had fed Lake Aricia on the other side. It was cleared and water began to be pumped through four large pipes into a header tank that, in turn, emptied into the emissary and then was channeled through a canal to the Mediterranean. 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 lake itself.
In March 1929, the first ship appeared, revealing a sweep rudder nearly twelve meters long capped by a bronze collar in the shape of a lion's head holding a ring in its mouth; there also was a wolf's head, also holding a ring. Flat tiles set in mortar filled the hull. These would have overlaid the wooden decking and themselves supported a pavement in polychrome marble and mosaics. Clay pipes, flanged so as to fit together in the space between one deck and anther suggest that there was hypocast heating on board, as in a Roman bath. (The rudder, one of a pair, suggests that the ship was intended to move about on the lake.) Bronze bearings were recovered (some had been found in 1895), two of which still were secured to a fragment of wood, their trunnions held in place by clamps. As later reconstructed, eight of these bearing balls were fitted to the underside of a platform, where they allowed it to rotate more smoothly. (Another table used wooden rollers.) The exact purpose of these tables is not known but they 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 first illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci almost fifteen-hundred years later.)
By September, the entire hull was revealed and fitted the next month 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 seconda nave revealed, showing long beams protruding from the sides. 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 was more completely exposed, 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 again to dry too quickly and begin to warp and crack.
Finally, using the same methods that preserved the Viking longships in Oslo, the wood (which was found actually to be pine, fir, and oak) was treated with steam and a water bath and then saturated with a vegetable tar diluted in solvent. By October 1932, the second ship was hauled clear of the lake bed (hoping to mark the tenth anniversary of the Fascist march on Rome), and both were sheathed in a protective covering of wood, tarred cardboard, and canvas until a permanent on-site building could be constructed. But this was delayed when the remnants of an ancient cobble-stone path that led from the Via Appia to the Sanctuary of Diana was discovered. Finally, in April 1940, twelve years after the draining of Lake Nemi, a splendid museum opened on the shore, its two great halls displaying the hulls and recovered artifacts.
Julius Caesar had conceived of draining the Fucine Lake (Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar, XLIV.3) far to the east of Rome, 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, Life of Claudius, 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, LXI.33.5). The lake was not completely drained until the nineteenth century.
In the prima nave, the oars did not pivot from the sides of the ship but from a large projecting frame (apostis) that extended on either side 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 banks on each side of the vessel. The smaller seconda nave did not have apostes and must have been towed about the lake.
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 stock, shank, and arms), 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, in the photograph the stock, which rests parallel to the shank, 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).
The anchor from the second ship was more typical of the time, when the boats were sunk about AD 40. The heavy oak arms are 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 when recovered from the lake.
The anchor itself 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 constructed by Ptolemy IV Philopator (ruled 221–204 BC). Given that the megalomaniacal Caligula may have been trying to emulate, if not surpass, such ships in grandeur, its description by Athenaeus in the Deipnosophists (V.204d–206c) 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."
On May 31, 1944, the two ships in the Museo delle Navi Romane, so laboriously recovered, were completely destroyed that night. A commission at the time attributed the destruction to the retreating Germans, who earlier had evicted the Italian custodians and established a gun battery close to the museum and then, once operative, fired so many rounds that American soldiers were able to determine the emplacement and unleash their own artillery barrage. Almost two hours after it had ended, fire broke out simultaneously in both exhibition halls, completely destroying the wooden ships, made more flammable still by the preservatives that saturated the wood, and melting their lead sheathing. Only those movable artifacts that had been transferred to Rome nine months earlier survived the inferno.
The destruction was briefly reported by The New York Times on June 10, 1944 under the headline "Nazis Burn Galleys of Ancient Romans." And that was the conclusion of the official commission established to determine its cause: the German garrison, who were the only ones to have access to the ships, had deliberately set the fires. Nor was the elaborate fire-fighting equipment, extinguishers, hydrants, and hoses that could have contained the blaze ever utilized. It was a wanton act of arson seemingly intended to eradicate the cultural heritage of Italy, piqued perhaps by the armistice that it had signed less than nine months earlier.
A recent book, however, has suggested that the official report was a cover-up and that the artillery shelling by U.S. forces that had forced the Germans to retreat actually caused the fire, the belated effect of shells having pierced the roof and hot shrapnel dropping down on the treated wood below, which smoldered until eventually erupting into flames.
The bronze head of Medusa 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), where it was photographed.
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; Caligula's Barges and the Renaissance Origins of Nautical Archaeology under Water (2016) by John M. McManamon (which concludes with de' Marchi); From Caligula to the Nazis: The Nemi Ships in Diana's Sanctuary (2023) by John M. McManamon (one of the most useful surveys); 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); "Guglielmo's Secret: The Enigma of the First Diving Bell Used in Underwater Archaeology" (2015) by Joseph Eliav, International Journal for the History of Engineering & Technology, 85(1), 60-69; "A New Hypothesis on Francesco De Marchi (1504-1576) and His Dives in Lake Nemi in 1535" (2021) by Michael Jung, The International Journal of Diving History, 13, 225-33; History of Ball Bearings (1981) by Duncan Dowson and Bernard J. Hamrock (NASA Technical Memorandum 81689);"Art News from the Old World" (1905), Brush and Pencil, 15, 148.
Leon Battista Alberti: On the Art of Building in Ten Books (1988) translated by Joseph Rykwert, Neil Leach, and Robert Tavernor; Leon Battista Alberti: The Ten Books of Architecture (3rd ed.) (1755) translated by Giacomo Lenoi; The Works of Aristotle: Vol. VII, Problemata (1908) translated by E. S. Forster; Pseudo-Callisthenes: The Alexander Romance, translated by Ken Dowden (1989), in Collected Ancient Greek Novels edited by B. P. Reardon; Biondo Flavio: Italy Illuminated, Vol. I (2005) translated by Jeffrey A. White; The Commentaries of Pius II, Books X-XIII (1957) translated by Florence Alden Gragg, Smith College Studies in History, Vol. XLIII; Architettura Militare di Francesco de' Marchi, Vol. II (1810) by Luigi Marini; "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; Memoria Archeologico-Idraulica sulla Nave dell' Imperator Tiberio (1839) [by Annesio Fusconi]; La Veritŕ sulle Navi Romane del Lago di Nemi (1901) by Eliseo Borghi; "Le Navi Romane del Lago di Nemi" (1896, June) by Vittorio Malfatti, Rivista Marittima, 29(6), 379-442; Le Navi di Nemi (1940, 2nd ed. 1950) by Guido Ucelli.
See also Cleopatra on the Cydnus.
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