War Museums in the Boot: A Traveler’s Guide to the Military History of Italy – Part 1
(Editor’s Note: This is the first part of author Peter Suciu’s three-part series. Please check back next month for Part 2 – Naples.)
Even more than France, Italy has a bit of a dubious reputation when it comes to its military history. There are plenty of jokes about the caliber of its troops, its numerous defeats and of course its military leadership. This is ironic of course, given that Italy under the Romans was actually one of the world’s most dominant powers and built an empire that lasted for hundreds of years and was spread across three continents, including much of Europe, North Africa and the Asian Middle East.
But with the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th Century, Italy’s importance on the world stage was somewhat diminished. Ravaged by barbarian invasions, reduced to numerous warring city states by the Middle Ages Italy was a cultural center but far from a military one. Dominated by various foreign nations – notably the French and Austrians – it wasn’t until the 19th century that the spark of nationalism brought together the country. But even here is the root of the joke that the most glory filled of modern conflicts fought by Italians was against other Italians, as the Kingdom of Sardinia and its House of Savoy united the nation by defeating the Kingdom of Naples (also known as the Kingdom of Two Sicilies) in 1861.
Despite these jokes, Italy is a land filled with rich military history, much of which can be seen in three of the nation’s most colorful and beautiful cities. Here is a traveler’s guide to some of the sights to see.
More than Merchants in Venice
Northern Italy is often referred to as the "Industrial North," or often unkindly the part of Italy where work is actually done. This is somewhat ironic, given that the city of Venice is one that today is about as relaxed as it gets. With an economy that is based on tourism, and is seen as a place of romantic wonderment, it might even be hard to think that this city has quite the military history.
In fact, Venice was founded as the Roman Empire in the West fell, and the Goths invaded the Italian peninsula. Fleeing these barbarians, the peoples of the Veneto region took refuge in the islands of the marshy coast of the Adriatic Sea. Here, in 421 CE as the legend goes they founded the city of Venice. Protected by a lagoon rather than massive city walls, Venice became a center of trade in the early Middle Ages and by the 13th century was a major power – so powerful and devious that it even managed to orchestrate the sacking and conquest of the city of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire.
By the 16th century the tiny island of Venice was capital of an empire that stretched to the Alps, with colonies throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. More importantly, with the fall of Constantinople (taken back by the Byzantines some 25 years after being captured during the Fourth Crusade) to the Turks in 1483, Venice had a near monopoly in trade in the region. But too much power united powerful enemies, including Pope Julius II and the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, who together formed the League of Cambrai with one goal. This was to destroy Venice. A bigger threat loomed from the East, as the Ottoman Empire expanded its grip, taking the island of Cyprus from the Venetians in 1570. With its empire slowly carved away, the city became one of indulgence and decadence for the next 200 years – until finally the city was conquered by the future French Emperor Napoleon, who put an end to the party and the Republic in 1797. Control was transferred following this period to the Austrians, who ruled the city until their defeat at the hands of the Prussians in the Six Weeks War. Following the war, Venice was given by treaty to the Prussian’s newly unified Italian allies. Today much of the city’s military past can be seen in three locations, two of which are widely open to the public.
Palace fit for a Doge
While Venice had an empire, it never had an emperor or king. Instead it was ruled by the Doge, roughly translated to duke. Interestingly, Venice’s government mixed elaborate monarchic rule, along with the usual pomp and tradition, with that of a republican constitution. In some ways, this is believed to have been a result of the system of the Roman Senate and was meant to provide checks and balances.
The actual ruling of the city, and in extent the city’s vast empire, was conducted at the Doge’s Palace, a building that first was constructed in the 9th century and greatly renovated to its current form in the 14th and 15th century. The Doge’s Palace, which is located along the Grand Canal in the Piazza San Marco, is open daily to the public and it features numerous works of art, while letting visitors stroll through its numerous corridors of power, and into the large meeting and audience rooms. More impressively, this museum boasts an impressive collection of Late Medieval armor and firearms, including a huge collection of wheel lock and early flintlock pistols. The collection, and more importantly the caliber of the items in this collection, rivals that of the Tower of London or even the Musee d’Armee in Paris.
Naval Affairs at the Museo Storico Navale
There is something truly ironic about the naval museum, officially known as the Museo Storico Navale. It was first founded by the Austrians following the Napoleonic Wars, as a way to preserve the rich nautical history of Venice. Today the museum is as much about Italy’s naval history as well, and includes many captured Austrian artifacts from the First World War – one of Italy’s true shinning moments in naval history. Spread out over four floors, this museum traces the history of naval development from antiquity to the modern day.
With numerous models of warships throughout the ages, as well as full-scale replicas of the Doge’s ceremonial barge, and numerous uniforms from around the world, the collection is quite notable. Among the standouts are various naval ensigns, and of course one of the few surviving examples of World War II era human torpedoes! Surprisingly, the Museo Storico Navale is also home to an exhibit devoted to the Swedish Navy! The reason is that during the Middle Ages the Swedish kings sent representatives to Venice to study its navy, and ever since the two powers had shared a mutual respect for the sea.
Walled City Within an Island City
During the 12th century when Venice’s power was at its height, the center of the city wasn’t so much the piazzas as much as it was the Arsenal (Arsenale di Venezia). Enlarged in the 14th and again in the 16th centuries, this was the heart of the city’s maritime power. It was a center of industry, and became one of the largest shipyards in Europe. Today, unfortunately not much is being done with the Arsenal. It is under military administration and access is limited. Despite this, the Arsenal serves as an excellent reminder of the city’s military past. Two massive statues of lions guard the gates to the Arsenal; both pillaged from the Greek port of Piraeus outside Athens during a war with the Ottomans in 1687.