Riding the wave

The naval shipyard in La Spezia
and Varignano Lazzaretto

The origins of the shipyard date back to the early 19th century, when Liguria was annexed to the Napoleonic Empire in 1805.

Matthew Vinzoni chart

At that time the project was conceived of a naval port and an arsenal to be built in the gulf of La Spezia.

It was to be located at the western shore between Portovenere and Le Grazie, in an area protected by the Fort Santa Maria, dating from the early 17th century, and by those to be built at Tino, Palmaria and Castellana.

La Spezia, then a town of 3,100 inhabitants, was declared military port by imperial decree, 11 May 1808, and works started for the construction of the road to Portovenere and the Fortress of Castellana (1811).

The area of Varignano from Matteo Vinzoni, Il Dominio della Serenissima Repubblica di Genova in terraferma, 1773, facsimile edition in 2010 copies published by Istituto Geografico De Agostini in 1959, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary (1905-1955) of the Ligurian Electricity Enterprises Company (CIEL), (priv. coll.)
The original two volumes are located at the Biblioteca Civica Berio in Genoa
Fort St. Mary

The topographic survey of Castellana was made by French lieutenant Agostino Chiodo of the Army Corps of Engineers, who for the first time used the method of contour lines on paper to represent the mountains.

With the fall of the Napoleonic empire, the city was occupied by Austrian troops, and in March 1814 the Anglo-Neapolitan fleet bombed and destroyed the Fort Santa Maria, guarded by sixty French soldiers.

(The fortress of Santa Maria, from the Atlas by Matteo Vinzoni)

The Congress of Vienna (1815) assigned the territories of the Ligurian Republic to the Kingdom of Sardinia, and for thirty years the project of a shipyard in La Spezia was forgotten, because the military port of Genoa was adequate to the needs of the small Kingdom.

In Genoa in 1847 - 1851 Colonel Engineer Damiano Sauli built a basin of masonry, the first in Italy, for the refitting of ships; the progressive crowding of the port, used both by the Navy and the Merchant Marine, soon became a problem that emerged in all its severity when troops were shipped off to Crimea.

The Government thought to solve that problem by moving the naval base in the Gulf of La Spezia. A Commission was established under Adm. D'Arcollieres, who supported the project prepared by Colonel Sauli. But the proximity of the border with the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and economic interests at stake were serious grounds for opposition to the project, which then located the new naval base and the shipyard in the same area previously considered by the French.

Cavour supported the idea as best meeting the needs of the nation, first as Minister of Marine, Industry and Agriculture (1850), then as Prime Minister and Minister of Finance (1853). He called an impartial and competent engineer, the English Rendel, to examine the state of the port of Genoa and Sauli's project to build a shipyard at Le Grazie. The Maritime Review in 1869 published a major report by Army Major E. Gonnet on the project to move the naval shipyard to the port of La Spezia: the issue - he wrote - was presented to Parliament in early January 1852 and the project was entrusted to eng. Rendel, president of the British Association of Civil Engineers. The latter the following year submitted his project to the Italian government, together with a detailed report which also identified the Varignano inlet as the most suitable site.

project Rendel
The project of eng. Rendel, 1:300, dated February 16, 1854,
between the inlets of Varignano and Le Grazie, with a caption describing the various plants

The Crimean War (1853) and various political events delayed the approval of the law implementing Rendel' project until February 1857, and the debate in Parliament resulted in promulgating the law not earlier than July 4, 1857.

The law ratified the transfer of the Navy and the construction of the Shipyard at Varignano. In 1858 works were started and some plants were completed. But the war, the annexation of Lombardy, Tuscany and the southern provinces, together with the extraordinary increase in the fleet, induced the then captain Domenico Chiodo (who was eventually promoted to general) to support the idea of moving the yard to the plane close to La Spezia.

Nail design
Capt. Chiodo's project, 1:10.000, from the inlet of Panigaglia, with the gunpowder depot, to the shipyard close to the town of La Spezia, up to the plant of San Bartolomeo (Maritime Review, 1869)

Cavour gave him the task of drawing up a draft, and went in person to La Spezia to be briefed (April 1860). In order to verify the geological conditions of the land, they had to make no less than 88 drillings. The final draft was approved and the implementing legislation was enacted July 28, 1861.

It provided that the shipyard should consist of:

a) an area devoted to buildings with three 120 meter-long slips, six 100 m-long slips, sheds, offices, warehouses and workshops, (the area involved was to the left of the line joining the main gate and the channel between the docks);

b) an area for arming and refitting ships with:

• Two docks 110 meters long and 9.15 meters deep;

• Two docks 132 meters long and 9.15 meters deep;

• Six docks 150 meters long and 9.15 meters deep;

• A deep-walled basin 200 m wide and 600 m long, with sides 9.05 m wide.

c) An area devoted to equipment and coal storage with:

• a building for sail storage and coal depots;

• a 9.15 m deep walled basin, 200 m wide, 420 m long;

Works began: the underwater excavations were delivered to the contractor on 21 April 1862. On August 13 were delivered the building work and dry excavations. These were expected to result in an overall displacement of three million cubic meters of earth.

The contractor, G. Pietro Bolla, the first year employed a daily average of 870 people, but less than a year later declared his incapability to proceed with his work. This was then contracted to the Rosazza Magnani company, who built the first four basins.

At the same time (April 14, 1862) the construction was launched of San Bartolomeo shipyard, the powder depot in Panigaglia (Colombo and De Scalzi Company of La Spezia) and the artillery factory in San Vito (Eng Metello Lapini Enterprises).

The underwater excavations for the outer harbor were made with steem sludge-scrapers installed on pontoons. The excavations for the docks and basins were made by hand: the earth was excavated with shovels, picks and wheelbarrows, and was transported to the rail wagons; later it was used to fill the quays at Marola. The earth displacement amounted to about 2000 cubic meters per day.

After reaching an adequate depth, the first dock was opened to the sea, in order to use the sludge-scrapers and reach 10 meters below sea level.

When the contractor went bankrupt, the Army Corps of Engineers, under the direction of Colonel Chiodo, assumed the management and organization of the works, which were assigned to several firms.

It was Chiodo's idea to build the slipway in Fezzano for maintenance of the vessels, and it was him who imposed to the various companies the adoption of new working techniques, in order to train domestic workforce to produce all what beforehand had been bought abroad.

Serious difficulties and delays were caused by the flooding that hit La Spezia in autumn 1863, and by cholera that made many victims in 1866 to 1867.

Working time was based on day-light, from half an hour after sunrise to half hour after sunset. Basins were dug with shovels and the earth was carried near the river mouth, where a dredger raised it onto the quay. In addition to the contractors' workers, as was customary, there were the convicts of two gaols.

For preparing the concrete to be used for the floors and the walls of the basins, they used the volcanic soil called "pozzolana", which has hydraulic properties, imported from Rome and from Pozzuoli.

The work was particularly challenging because of the enormous amount of material to mix, carry and cast, to obtain thicknesses up to four meters. Mixing was done by hand or with the first mechanical mixers; small wagons transported the cement near the basin under construction, where sliding hoppers, moved by hand hoists, carried the load in the selected spot and poured it, less than a cubic meter at a time.

Only for the basins the workmen dug 500,000 cubic meters of earth, poured 100,000 cubic meters of concrete, built 80,000 cubic meters of walls, paved 15,000 cubic meters with Baveno stone. They used limestone from Tino and Palmaria, sandstone from Biassa and Punta Mesco, granite from Garda. Bricks were baked with local clay, the sand used was both local and extracted from the mouth of the river Magra. The Shipyard was officially opened on August 28, 1869 and at year-end, the Basin No.4 hosted the war-ship San Martino for careening.

Around the basin and docks they constructed 8 km. of roads and 6 km. railway network, over twenty buildings and sheds, workshop, offices and warehouses.

The roads were of made land, yards got paved, workshops were fitted with wooden floors. There was no electricity and machinery was moved by long leather straps that were operated by shafts located along the longitudinal walls of workshops, rotating by means of steam machines.

Works in the Shipyard went on for over forty years. Meanwhile they started on the construction of ships, such as gunboats "Sentinella" and "Guardiano" designed by Brin and launched in 1874; warships "Dandolo", launched in 1878, and "Doria,", and the Cruisers "Montebello" and "Monzambano".

Naval techniques evolved too: the first ships were made of wood, then with outer armor and finally with hulls made of iron and steel.

Also ship dimensions changed and therefore it became necessary to make slipways longer, to widen the channel between the two docks (1914), to build the large nr 5 and nr 6 basins, to complete quays and docks, to install a hydraulic 160 ton crane for hoisting artillery on board, and to build a test tank for hydrodynamic experiments (1867 - 1889).

Shipyard life has always been closely linked to progress. There Guglielmo Marconi made his experiments, and were built the first submarine, the first aircraft and the first seaplane. In 1936 they simulated the first massive aircraft attack.

When during the Second World War the fortress was breached, the shipyard was significantly damaged and the buildings were reduced to a pile of rubble. The reconstruction after the war was intense but as of today the plant is constantly evolving to keep pace with changing needs.

The Varignano

(From Pietro Fulgenzio Ferro's Varignano (Portovenere): history, La Spezia, 1930, typescript, p. 75. The essay - kept in La Spezia at the Command and in Genoa at the Library of the Hydrographic Institute of the Navy - retraces the events in the territory of Varignano from its origins to the thirties of last century).

hospital Varignano The Varignano lazzaretto, from Vinzoni's Il Dominio della Serenissima Repubblica di Genova in terraferma

The oldest news about Varignano derive from 11th century documents relating to donations of land by the Obertenghi family to the convents of Santa Maria and San Venerio.

The name probably derives from an ancient root "-var" with the meaning of water (hence the name of the rivers Varo, Varro and Vara, or of the town of Varese on the Olona river, or Varenna on Lake Como), combined with "Janus", eponym of the Ligurian, as if to say "sea of Janus" or "place on the sea of Janus."

In uncertain times, but probably in the II century BC the Romans occupied the Ligurian Gulf of Luni, which certainly became a valuable harbour for its sheltered position.

Coastal areas suffered the invasions of Rotari, the Normans and the Saracens, became the possession of the Byzantines, the Lombards, the Franks and probably of the Papacy as well, while at the end of the 11th century, the Republic of Genoa annexed the territory.

The Varignano, between Pezzino and Santa Maria, was once known as "Lazzaretto" because of the structure built by the Republic of Genoa for the quarantine of goods and crews waiting to be allowed free movement within the State. There was a hospital in Genoa since 1463 at the mouth of Bisagno, but the area was too exposed to storm surges, which often prevented the movement of goods.

The project of the new complex in the Gulf of La Spezia met the opposition of the local population, as well as the merchants of Tuscany and Milan, who sought the imperial veto.

However, the building was approved and took off in 1724: it included two buildings for the isolation of goods and people, two chapels and a magnificent building to house the hospital director, its employees and their families. Its isolated position adequately responded to the needs of the small republic, but at the end of the next century, La Spezia being a busy port with a shipyard and railway junction, the presence of a hospital was extremely dangerous. The structure was then transformed to house the Maritime Defense Command, while the hospital was transferred to the island of Asinara, and went into operation in 1886.

More information on the Naval shipyard, as well as the Naval Museum, and in general the presence of the Navy in La Spezia, in the supplement to the Maritime Review, June 2005, entitled La Marina Militare a La Spezia by Enrico Alderotti, full of old photographs.

Paola Presciuttini (May 28, 2005, updated September 20, 2005)