Surviving the centuries – the tragic history of Nemi ships

Man as a creator, a savior, a destroyer – the tragic history of Nemi ships as an extraordinary insight into human nature

A dormant Volcano Laziale, on the southern outskirts of Rome, keeps many secrets, hidden deep within the meanderings of its slumber. Jealous of his knowledge, we dare to uncover the fragments of the time it preserves. Sometimes we succeed and we receive a monumental gift, that sheds light on our own evolution. But we often fail miserably, unable to carry out the responsibility a guardian of history ought to have.

The tragic history of lake Nemi ships bears witness to our determination and our powerlessness.

Lake Nemi – the mysterious home of a goddess and an emperor

The cult of Diana Nemorensis, the goddess of fertility and wilderness, sister of Apolo, often identified with greek Artemis, had origins on the shores of small lake Nemi, 30 km south of Rome.

Diana – drawing of the sculpture by J. Goujon

The remains of her temple built in the 400 bc, tortured by time, nature and human greed, lie hidden in the dense forest surrounding the lake. The cult survived the Christian intolerance toward pagan gods, and her iconography can be traced in several details related to the Virgin Mary.

The same shores, not far from the Diana’s Temple, were the favorite getaway for the third Roman emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, known as Caligula, remembered (maybe unjustly1Caligula: Tyrant or hero – or both? as an infamous tyrant.

His villa, whose design was recently reconstructed by the research team of Superintendency for Archaeology of Lazio and Perugia University, 2 Il Messaggero, was the Nymphaeum, built on the slope, allowing it to have vast colonnaded terraces with an overwhelming view of the lake.

The emperor was very devoted to the goddess, as testified by his most famous legacy: two ships, over 70 meters long and 20 meters wide, with a very particular role: a royal palace and a sanctuary dedicated to Diana.

Nemi Ships – the recovery

Buried on the lake’s bottom for 2000 years, the legend surrounding the Nemi ships inspired different recovery attempts, which often resulted in further damage and destruction if the wooden structure.

The first attempt to resurface the two relics was organized by cardinal Prospero Colonna, who hired one of the most relevant architects of the Renaissance period, Leon Battista Alberti. The 1446 project was based on a floating platform with chords, that attempted to recover the ship located closer to the shore, but it failed without achieving any significant result.

The second attempt, a century later, in 1535, by Francesco De Marchi, alpinist and engineer, was an exploration mission, that provided insight into dimensions and the state of conservation.

The next two attempts, in 1827 by Annesio Fusconi, and in 1895 by Eliseo Borghi, brought to the surface numerous artifacts that confirmed the value and importance of the salvage.

Finally, the Nemi ships become the State project, as the Ministry of public education, in collaboration with the Ministry of the navy, started the scientific research that culminated in 1927, when the head of the state, Mussolini, announced that the ships will be restored. The project, supervised by archaeologist e senator Corrado Ricci, was based on the idea to lower the water level of the lake, up to 22 meters, recover the ships and move them into a dedicated museum, built nearby.

The emptying the lake started in 1928 and in the next few years, the ships started to emerge slowly. The world finally received the proof that the legend was true.

Both ships were constructed using a shell first building technique, known as Vitruvian method, used by the Romans The first recovered ship was 70 meters long and 20 meters wide, while the second ship was slightly larger at 73 meters in length and 24 meters in width. The superstructure had several buildings and open spaces, hosting shrines, pavilions, and even spas and heated rooms, as testified by the presence of hydraulic and thermal systems.

++The discovery of Nemi ships was a clear demonstration that Romans were capable of engineering and constructing large ships, a theory that was often disputed before the vessel’s recovery.

A Floating Palaces

Silenus Erma on the bronze balustrade from the second ship in the Palazzo Massimo Museum in Rome [source:]
Bronze lion head from the first ship [source:Wikipedia]
What we know about the eccentric personality of emperor Caligula fits perfectly into the reconstruction of ships’ aspect and purpose. As described by the Roman historian Suetonius, Caligula built several luxurious villas and ships, “…ten banks of oars…the poops of which blazed with jewels…they were filled with ample baths, galleries, and saloons, and supplied with a great variety of vines and fruit trees.” We can thus assume that Nemi ships were similar to the ships described. Their life, however, was very brief, just as Caligula’s rule: just one year after being launched, the ships were stripped of precious objects, ballasted, and then intentionally sunk, following the emperors the assassination in 41 CE.

Numerous artifacts, including mosaic floor, marble decorations, ceramics, coins, and bronze sculptures are a part of a permanent exhibition of the Nemi Museum and in the Palazzo Massimo in Rome.

We can assume how the ships looked and there are several artistic interpretations based on the photographs and fragments found.

The importance of the ships was also related to the advanced building technology, for a long time believed to be of a later age.

The Destruction

The tragic epilogue of this remarkable story initiated on the night between 31 May and 1 June 1944, when a violent fire devastated the museum, destroying both ships. The reconstructions of the events that led to the fire will probably remain unknown, but we know that the violent battle took place in the area, between the German artillery and Anglo-American airforce. According to the official version, the fire broke out 2 hours after the bombing ended, indicating that the retiring German troupes voluntarily inflicted the damage, knowing its relevance and its heritage.

Today, the two ships were reproduced in the 1/5 scale and displayed in the museum.

Visiting the museum and learning the entire story made me wonder about human nature, unpredictable and self-destructive. In front of daily reminders such as climate change, or global inequality all the way to individual self-destructive acts, the question remains: is the destruction the ultimate realization of the power?

Beyond the ethical importance of preservation and respect for monuments, these kinds of artifacts belong not only to those who appreciate them but to the entire humankind. They are symbols of an epoch, and they help us interpret our heritage, our motivations, and evolutions within a certain historical timeframe, allowing us to acquire a collective knowledge about our past.

Schopenhauer once wrote, “the present is always inadequate, but the future is uncertain, and the past irrecoverable.” We certainly live in an inadequate present, with the future as uncertain as it will ever be, leaving the examples like the tragic disappearance of Nemi ships as a silent reminder that our own nature and its destructive urges will continue to leave the trail of devastation. But what frightens me the most, is that we remain the only witnesses of these long lost objects, as we try to preserve memory through photographs and fragments that survived, and through stories that we will hopefully continue to tell for years to come. However fragile, the hope of preservation still lingers.


Museo delle Navi Romane

Via Diana, 13-15
00040 Nemi (Rm) tel: +39 06 9398040

Opening hours: Monday to Sunday, 9.00-19.00; last admission 18.30

Ticket: € 4.00