Established by the Regina Marina (Italian Royal Navy) in 1919, the Museo Storico Navale is located in the Castello district, near the Venetian Arsenal. The city state of Venice was built on the back of its naval might and at its peak, the Arsenale di Venezia (Venetian Arsenal) could produce a fully operational warship in 24 hours, so a visit to this lesser known museum is a must for anybody interested in the broader context of Venetian history as well as those with specific military related interests.
The museum collection covers the maritime history of Venice and the Italian navy. It is divided between two locations about 100m apart. The bulk of the collection, including weapons, uniforms and an impressive collection of model ships is located on the waterfront. Around the corner is the Padiglione delle Navi, a series of sheds that was built in 1577 as an oars workshop and now known as the Ships Pavilion, housing larger vessels and artifacts.
The main museum building has 42 exhibition rooms spread over 5 levels and covers both naval and civilian maritime histories. Near the entrance is a WW2 era “Maiale” (Pig) SLC piloted torpedo used by the naval commandos of Xª MAS and as my collecting interest is focused on special operations units, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of items related to this unit on display.
The Decima Flottiglia Motoscafi Armati Siluranti, also known as Xª MAS or X-MAS was an Italian commando frogman unit of the Regia Marina created during the Fascist regime. The acronym MAS refers to various light torpedo boats used by the Regia Marina during World War I and World War II.
Xª MAS evolved out of the world’s first special forces frogman unit, the 1ª Flottiglia Mezzi d’Assalto (“First Assault Vehicle Flotilla”) which had been formed in 1939. In 1941, the re-designated unit was divided into two parts – a surface group operating fast explosive motor boats, and a sub-surface weapons group using manned torpedoes called SLC (siluri a lenta corsa or “slow-running torpedoes”, but nicknamed Maiale or “Pig” by their crews), as well as “Gamma” assault swimmers (nuotatori) using limpet mines. During its operations, the unit destroyed 72,190 tons of Allied warships and 130,572 tons of Allied merchant ships and resulted in the Royal Navy developing similar capabilities.
Following the armistice of Italy on September 8, 1943, the Xª MAS was disbanded with some of its sailors joining the Allies to fight the Germans. In the German occupied north of Italy, Mussolini set up the Italian Social Republic (RSI) to continue the war and under the command of Junio Valerio Borghese also known as Il Principe Nero (The Black Prince), Decima Flottiglia was revived. By the end of the war it had over 18 000 members and had a reputation as hard core pro-fascist unit, operating in anti-resistance campaigns under the command of Waffen SS Obergruppenführer Karl Wolff, supreme commander of SS forces in Italy.
Examining the watercraft and uniforms used by the sailors of Xª MAS was the real highlight of the museum for me. But there is lots to see here and it is easy to lose track of time. I spent at least 4 hours in the main building before even reaching the Ships Pavilion, so if this kind of stuff interests you, arrive early and give yourself plenty of time.
Venice Naval Historical Museum
Riva San Biagio Castello 2148,
Venice Ships Pavilion
Rio della Tana Castello 2162 c, Venice (close to the Arsenal bridge)
How to get there:
Vaporetto ACTV: Line 1, 4.1, 4.2 stop Arsenale
The Venice Naval Historical Museum is open every day
- 1 April – 31 October: from 10 am to 6 pm (last admission 5 pm)
- 1 November – 31 March: from 10 am to 5 pm (last admission 4 pm)
The Ships Pavilion is open every day
- 1 April – 31 October: from 11 am to 6 pm (last admission 5 pm)
- 1 November – 31 March: from 11 am to 5 pm (last admission 4 pm)