Every year towards the end of March a week-end is dedicated to discovering some of Italy’s lesser known sites and places. Sometimes these are buildings which are threatened by demolition or neglect.
A couple of years ago, for example, the church of San Caterina in Lucca was opened to the public during that week-end. This church, a jewel of baroque architecture, was once a frequent stop for workers to say their prayers before entering the now-relocated tobacco and cigar factory next door. Thanks to awareness shown by its opening, San Caterina is now being restored (you’ll see it under its scaffolding in Via Vittorio Emanuele) and, when re-opened, should provide an extra excellent reason for visiting the treasures of Lucca.
For this year’s week-end I didn’t choose any crumbling Romanesque ruin or unloved renaissance palazzo but, instead, a place which is still very much in use today and which is Italy’s pride and joy and a very strong reason for the country’s continued existence against foreign invasion and terrorism. It also happens to be one of Italy’s most closely monitored official secrets, militarily speaking: I am referring to the Naval Arsenal of the Italian navy at La Spezia.
Organizing the once-in-a-lifetime event was FAI (Lega Ambiente Italiana) a body which gets closest to being Italy’s equivalent of the National Trust, (although the properties it maintains are rather fewer). The real stars of the open day, however, were the students selected from high schools in La Spezia province who showed our gathered band around the huge establishment of the Arsenale. These young people were full of knowledge and, what is more, full of confidence, taking us round with an aplomb which should bode well for the future of Italian tourism and its great cultural patrimony if the government is sensible enough to give them the jobs they so rightly deserve and have a right to.
I learned the following from the students:
The Arsenal military seaport of La Spezia is one of the most important and ancient foundations of the Italian Navy and is located in the western part of the Gulf of La Spezia, in the immediate vicinity of the historic centre of the city of La Spezia. Historically, Napoleon Bonaparte was the first to realize the possibility of building a large arsenal in the Gulf of La Spezia.
The idea was revived in 1857 by Cavour, at that time Chairman of the Board and Secretary of the Navy, who was anxious to get the necessary funds and entrusted to Domenico Chiodo, an officer of the Army Corps of Engineers, the care of the construction of a new naval base. The work began in 1862 and ended in August 28, 1869, when General Domenico Chiodo (after whom the main square and public gardens in La Spezia are named) formally inaugurated the plant and allowed the newly completed basin to be flooded.
(Flowering Cherry in Chiodo Square, La Spezia)
During World War II, because of its strategic importance, the arsenal was heavily bombed and was almost completely destroyed, but thanks to quick renovations between 1945 and 1950 returned to full operational use. It was the base, among other things, of the II and V MAS flotillas. (In case you didn’t know what a MAS was check out my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/03/29/superman-or-satanist/ where, in D’Annunzio’s private garden, there is a MAS housed. MAS stands for “Motoscafo Anti Sommergibile” (anti-submarine boat) but also for “Memento Audere Semper” (remember always to dare – if you don’t remember your Latin)
In the post-war period, and for the entire period of the Cold War, the arsenal was the headquarters of the Second Naval Division. It currently employs approximately 1,000 civilian employees and 200 military personnel and covers an area of nearly eight-five hectares and inside there are about thirteen miles of roads. The structure is still based on the original design of the nineteenth century.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet threat have changed the defence needs, shifting the focus towards the south, in the Mediterranean. This has resulted in a significant loss of importance of the base of La Spezia in favour of that of Taranto, and the only fleets remaining in La Spezia are the Maestrale frigates of the 2nd squadron with minesweepers and reconnaissance boats.
Next to the main entrance of the arsenal is the Naval Museum. This is normally open to the public. The museum was established with the aim of keeping alive the traditions of the navy. It includes more than 150 models of ships and boats, about 2,500 medals, memorabilia, 2000 documents and over 5000 technical books and histories.
The area occupied by the arsenal is huge and we were taken round its main features by bus. First, we saw the dry and graving docks where the battleships of the Italian navy are careened and maintained.
My heart leapt when I saw in a dry dock that ship more beautiful than the most beautiful woman could ever hope to be on this planet (except my missis, of course), the training clipper “Amerigo Vespucci” launched in 1931. This wondrous vessel, the largest tall ship in the world, was able to sail to Greenwich reach until some minister of Transport idiot ordered the building of the Dartford road bridge (couldn’t they have doubled the road tunnel instead?).
I still remember with the greatest affection the time we spent on this glorious ship, our lunch with the captain and the church service we attended in the little chapel on board.
(Two wonderful ladies together with the captain at Greenwich reach in the early 1980’s)
We continued round the arsenal and entered the workshop, a giant building, one of the longest I’ve ever seen, where all naval equipment from radar, to signalling to artillery are maintained and serviced. Again, the students were fully conversant with their subject and it was fascinating to gain this amazing insight into another side of the amazing country which is Italy.
One of the guns was being put through its test manouvres. Fortunately it wasn’t loaded:
Italy being Italy, there had to be an ancient convent somewhere and it was here right in the middle of the arsenal! Many buildings had to be relocated to make way for the expansion of the arsenal and the convent of the Franciscan monks was one of them. Fortunately, the old church was retained with its beautiful double cloisters and remains consecrated. The old convent is now used as the chief office of the Naval branch of the Carabinieri:
We finished our revealing trip by crossing a sweeping swing bridge, strolling down another long avenue of industrial buildings before exiting into the city of La Spezia after what I certainly regard as one of the most memorable sight-seeing outings I’ve carried out in this country so full of surprises.
PS I spent most of my married life working and living near the Woolwich Arsenal in a college originally set up to train engineers of that military establishment. Doesn’t life come round full circle sometimes!
PPS The word “Arsenal” isn’t named after that football team who played so disgracefully against Chelsea yesterday (6-0!!!). It comes from Arabic dar as-sina’ah “workshop,” literally “house of manufacture,” from dar “house” + sina’ah “art, craft, skill,” from sana’a “he made.” So now we all know…