Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Spanish Galleons and Nautical Treasures

The Naval Museum / Museo Naval
09/27/11 – Paseo del Prado, 5
Madrid bookstores do brisk business in adventure novels by an American author named Clive Cussler.  According to the blurb, Cussler lives in the Arizona desert but spends his spare time, when not writing international bestsellers, searching for lost ships of historic significance.  After Son 1 read his first Clive Cussler novel (Spartan Gold), he experienced what I would call a literary epiphany: he started to recognize verbal missteps that signal the difference between junk novels and good storytelling.  This is an example of why—with a few exceptions—I don’t mind what my children read, as long as they are reading. 

Cussler has given our family some laughs over his dialogue and character development, but he uses nautical terminology like a pro.  Clearly the author’s done his research—though as S1 points out, how would we landlubbers know if he got it wrong?  For anyone itching to write a historical maritime novel of their own, the Naval Museum of Madrid is a perfect place to start.

Main entrance to Naval Museum
The museum is located within the majestic, marble-lined headquarters of the Ministry of the Navy (pictured); for this reason all visitors must show a passport to gain entry.  Rooms are arranged chronologically from the early Spanish expeditions in the fifteenth century to the present day.  The polished plank floors add to the overall feeling that one is walking through a grand ship; and with every step, through 25 rooms, there is something fascinating to behold.  A map from the year 1500 (Carta de Juan de la Cosa) is the first known European representation of the Americas.  Aside from the predictable but beautiful objects of sea travel and war—astrolabes, maritime chronometers, sixteenth c. “sun watches,” piles of ancient cannonballs, weaponry, uniforms and medals, a cocked hat that witnessed the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), captain’s portraits, paintings of ships at sea, anchors, captured banners, twisted bits of rope, maps and globes—the incredible scale models of ships (many at least 8 feet long and just as tall) could keep visitors entertained for hours.  For example, the 1766 ship Real Carlos boasted three bridges and a terrifying 114 canons, each poking out from its own hinged door.  Some of the models are shown in cross-section so that the interior is visible, from storage at the bottom to the captain’s quarters at the top.  For another view, Room 11 in the museum consists of a life-size reproduction of a commander’s wood-paneled cabin in a nineteenth-century warship. 

Imposing figureheads (among them the goddess Diana, a lion, a saint) hang near the rafters of Room 21, which also contains exhibits of XIX and XX c. naval construction.  These sculptural elements once adorned the prows of sailing ships, but disappeared in the late nineteenth century, when steel became a key material in ship-building. 

Spain discovered the Philippines in the sixteenth century. Room 18 contains an impressive collection of Philippine metal weapons: armor, spears, swords, every kind of cudgel and basher imaginable, though none powerful enough to stop Spanish colonization of the islands.

Toward the end of the exhibits lies a scale model of an American battleship, the USS Maine.  An unexplained explosion in 1898 sank the battleship and killed 266, sparking the Spanish-American War and Spain’s subsequent loss of its last colonial possessions in America and the Pacific.  A theory put forth in 1975 posits that inadequate ventilation, not a mine, caused an internal explosion on the USS Maine.  The plot thickens.

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