Riding the wave


The port of La Spezia throughout time

With few exceptions, nautical charts - the oldest being the "Pisa Chart" , attributed mid-13th century - until the 17th century are redundant with fanciful decorative elements that reflect general geographic imagery, fear of the unknown, the memory of ancient fables.

Examples are the sea monsters, dog-headed humans, imaginary islands, images of the legendary Christian king Prester John, variously located in Asia and Africa, whom the naval powers sought as an ally against Islam.

Some images may instead refer to actual local characteristics: oversize fish may indicate waters good for fishing: oversize capes are designed to caution sailors against the dangers of navigation, multicolored tents and monarchs on thrones allude to local potentates, wild beasts, colorful birds and warriors in arms reflect features and customs of the place.

Likewise, flags and turreted vignettes of towns, though mostly stereotyped, indicate significant maritime cities, which are sometimes identified by unambiguous architectural details, such as the "Lanterna" or the "Castelletto" for Genoa or the bell tower of San Marco for Venice.

So, while Genoa appears on almost all ancient manuscript charts of the Mediterranean, La Spezia is normally ignored on nautical charts, because of its irrelevance. One exception is the Kitab - i - Bahriyyé, i.e. "The Book of the Sea", produced between 1521 and 1526 by Piri Re'is (1470-1554), who had acquired extensive knowledge of the lands known at the time, for he had long sailed at the orders of his uncle Kemal Re'is, admiral and cartographer of Suleiman the Magnificent, and was eventually appointed commander of the Turkish fleet.

The Kitab - i - Bahriyyé, represents the Italian coasts, including the Ligurian port of La Spezia and the adjacent castle of Lerici.

The map of Piri Re'is, with its characteristic soft colors, the typical "scallop-like" coastline, and the usual grid of wind directions
(Bologna University Library, Ms. 3609)

Many charts are gradually enriched with dense captions, which explain their purpose and features: Ercole Spina in 1592 was commissioned by the King of Spain to draw up a map of the Gulf of La Spezia, representing the land adjacent to the mouth of the Magra, so as to define the exact location of La Spezia in relation to Luni.

The two cities - Spina writes in a lengthy caption at the bottom of the paper - were often confused by writers ignorant of ancient and modern geography, as Ptolemy had only mentioned the port of Luni. Actually, La Spezia was probably founded in the 11th century, after the destruction of Luni, when people had sought refuge in a more sheltered location, which was therefore called Hospitia ("shelter"), hence the current name.

Spina, therefore, based on the coordinates given by Ptolemy, concludes that Luni is located in Tuscany and has its own harbor, while La Spezia in Liguria and its bay is full of ports.

The chart is very accurate in representing the town and monuments of Luni, which develops along the Roman road. But Spina's basic aim was to define the alterations of the banks on the left side of the river, subject to frequent flooding and constant erosion, which generated controversy about the boundaries between the various land-owners. Spina's chart may thus be considered the oldest cadastral map of the area.

Spina 's chart is kept at the
State Archives of Genoa, 423 ms

A small map of the Gulf of La Spezia is in the Italian edition of the third volume of the Nieuwe Groote Zee-Lichte Fakkel (1681-1684), that Johannes van Keulen published in 1695 under the title La nuova grande illuminante face del mare, and reprinted in 1705. The original work consists of six volumes - the last published in 1753 covering the eastern regions - and is rare to be found complete, but in 1972 C. Koeman edited a facsimile reproduction, with ample historical introduction, of the 1728 edition, printed by Theatrum Orbis Terrarum Ltd. Amsterdam, a copy of which is kept at the International Hydrographic Bureau in Monaco. The Italian Navy Hydrographic Institute, in Genoa, the Museo Correr in Venice and the Naval Academy, Livorno, have the original edition of some volumes.

The chartlet of La Spezia by van Keulen measures approximately 20 x 12 cm and is printed on a sheet of about 60 x 63 cm, together with several plans of harbors of different countries.

The question of the exact position of Luni and La Spezia, and of the local variable morphology, was revived in the 18th century by the Genoese Francesco Maria Accinelli, who advocated the primacy of surveys conducted in situ, as opposed to geographical studies of academic kind.

He was a humanist and a chronicler of Ligurian history, but also a skilled cartographer, author of many manuscript atlases - as well as two printed works - including the Atlante Ligustico that G. Ageno, a bibliophile and a scholar of local history, donated to the Berio Library in Genoa, on the occasion of the restoration and reopening of the same, after the Second World War.

This atlas, dated 1774, is a polychrome manuscript, about 50 x 35 cm, and represents perspective views, maps and plans of the coastal cities of Liguria, accompanied by extensive explanatory text.

The cartouche of the following chart says: Golfo della Spetia, Descritto dall'Ingegnere Landimelli. E' largo questo Golfo 10 miglia. Sono in esso tre forti per diffesa cio quello di S. Andrea di S. Maria e di Occapelata ed ultimamente stato fabricato un ben 'inteso lazaretto in mezzo alli Forti di S. Maria e di S. Andrea in poca distanza dalla Spezza vi in mezzo al mare una sorgente di acqua dolce detta il Lago.

F.M. Accinelli. Chart of the Gulf of La Spezia, about 1:70.000

Two famous military engineers and cartographers were active in the Republic of Genoa at the same time: Matteo Vinzoni and his son Panfilio, known for their rich production of maps of Liguria in the second half of the 18th century. In 1773 they presented the Government with an atlas in two volumes - one for each of the two Rivieras - titled Il Dominio della Serenissima Repubblica di Genova in terraferma ("The Domain of the Serene Republic of Genoa on the mainland"), with accurate maps at different scales of the coasts, towns, fortresses, castles and any other place of some importance. Chart No. 42 represents the gulf of La Spezia, about 1:70.000
( Berio Library in Genoa)

The gulf of La Spezia, 1773
Map of the town
Il Golfo della Spezia misurato trignonometricamente dall'Ing. Brusco ("The Gulf of Spezia, trignonometric measurement by Eng. Brusco"). Pen drawing of the equally famous army engineer Giacomo Brusco, dated May 2, 1794 (detail), cm. 28.7 x 41.
(State Archives of Genoa, Archivio Segreto, Militarium, No. 2920)

A map of the Gulf of La Spezia appears in Recueil des Principaux Plans des Ports et Rades de la Mer Méditerranée ..., published in 1764 by Joseph Roux, cartographer of Marseille. It is an album of just 242 x 174 mm, including 121 tables of harbour plans, without explanatory text or captions. The charts are rather crudely carved, contain little nautical information, and scale and orientation differ from one chart to the other, as a result of their small size. There are no geographical coordinates, each chart has a central rose of eight or sixteen winds, and there are profiles of towns or conspicuous buildings, drawn in perspective within the coastline, which was a typical feature of charts of the previous century.

The atls met with wide popularity, probably because of its easy handling, and was reprinted at the end of the century: the Museo Correr in Venice has a reprint of 1799, published by Yves Gravier, Libraire derriere la Loge de Banchi, who published later editions as well.

The album was reissued in 1804, expanded to 163 tables, entitled Recueil ... de la Mer Méditerranée dont 40 ont été derniérement publiés par Jean Joseph Allezard ancien Capitaine de Marine et plusieurs des autres corrigés, Genes 1848 Chez Yves Gravier Libraire sous la Loge de Banchi.

It was reissued again in 1848 as Nouveau Recueil ... de la Mer Méditerranée nouvellement publiés par les meilleur Auteurs, Genes 1848, Chez Yves Gravier, Libraire derriere la Loge de Banchi, with 179 chartlets plus a sheet of naval and merchant flags of thirteen European countries and a larger chart of Odessa harbour, rich with soundings, approximately 29x20.5 cm, anonymous, undated and written in Italian, placed at the end of the book.

This edition includes chartlets written in English, by Ayrouard (who signed those of Portofino, Savona and San Fiorenzo, while the charts of Portovenere, Porto Ercole, Porto Longone may be attributed to him); by Rizzi-Zannoni (Salerno, Policastro, S. Euphemia), and a map of the Marmara Sea by J.N. Bellin.

It 's interesting to note the similarity of Roux' chart of La Spezia with the previous chart by van Keulen: the writing and some details are different (essentially the shadow of the coast and the drawing of the mountain in perspective), but the charts reflect the same style, are both written in French, using the same units of measurement for the graphic scale and the soundings, and the same place-names, in particular "Lerissa" for Lerici and "Telaron" for Tellaro.

It is likely that the chart by Joseph Roux - at the time considered a forger of official charts - was printed from a copper-plate previously used by van Keulen. On the other hand in the third volume of his Nieuwe Groote Lichtende Zee-Fakkel, van Keulen includes coastal views signed by an unknown C. Roux, who could thus be an ancestor of Joseph - whose origins are likewise unknown - and perhaps was the initiator of the mapping workshop with which the latter passed into history.

The gulf of La Spezia by J. Roux.
About 19x13 cm, graphic scale of a league, few soundings measured in "arms", small anchors to indicate good anchorage points, dots and small crosses
to indicate shoals and reefs, one rose of eight winds
(Italian Navy Hydrographic Institute)

After the annexation of Liguria to the Kingdom of Sardinia and Piedmont, the Savoy government founded - in 1814 - the Royal Corps of the General Staff with the task of providing map coverage of the mainland territories. 113 handwritten charts were so produced, where the dense hatching well represents the local rough orography. There appear a numerical scale of 1: 50 000 and a graphic scale of 2 Piedmont miles. La Spezia chart is numbered "R. 16". They were completed between 1816 and 1830, and formed the basis for the subsequent coverage of the territory of the Kingdom, published in 1851.

During the same period, i.e. between 1816 and 1827, the Royal Corps produced a portfolio of 100 additional watercolor manuscript charts, 1:9450, complementary to the printed ones above. The chart of the gulf of La Spezia is numbered "L.III.f.9."

Al the charts mentioned here are kept at the Army Geographical Institute, Florence.

With the increse of merchant shipping in the Ligurian Sea and the consequent demand for updated nautical documents, the Savoy Navy was appointed to provide full coverage of the Ligurian Sea and of Sardinia.

Thus Admiral Giuseppe Albini took charge of hydrographic surveying from the mouth of the Varo, on the border with France, to the mouth of the Magra, near the border with Tuscany.

His surveys produced the Portolano della Liguria, actually an album of 23 tables plus a general chart, published in 1855 in Genoa ("Litografia Armanino").

Table nr 23 represents the gulf of La Spezia, where depths are measured in French feet while capital letters describe the nature of the seabed, after the method introduced by the renowned Spanish cartographer Vicente Tofino in 1789. The album is available at the Italian Hydrographic Institute of the Navy.

A nice undated chart, drawn on the basis of the best existing materials under the direction of Carlo and Luigi Mezzacapo, (drawing by A. Anfossi, engraving by P. Albini) was published by Francesco Vallardi, scale 1:30 000.

It is datable to the years between 1840 and 1860 because in 1840 Dr. Francesco Vallardi took over the publishing house, to which he later gave a renowned medical specialization. Also, it represents the wetlands west of the city where the ship-yard of La Spezia was later to be built, starting 1858, of which this chart makes no mention.

The gulf of La Spezia (detail, cart 105)
Italian Navy Hydrographic Institute (Cart 105)

The ship-yard appears on a map of the Topographical Institute of the General Staff, originally published in 1855 and then updated and reissued in 1875 with the new harbour facilities. The map is part of an atlas of the Kingdom of Sardinia and Piedmont, in 91 sheets.

A map of the Gulf and the port of La Spezia, 1:5000, is included in the Album dei porti di I, II, e III classe illustrato dalle notizie nautiche e commerciali d'ogni porto e dalla statistica delle opere d'Italia ("Album of the ports of I, II and III class complete with nautical and commercial information for each port and with the statistics of the harbour-works in Italy"), in 58 tables, Ministry of Public Works, [Rome], undated but evidently after 1870.

The chart, 65 x 57 cm, includes plans of the ports of Portofino, Portovenere, Santa Margherita.

The to left the chart made by the Ministry of Public Works. Above, a detail
(Italian Navy Hydrographic Institute)

By a decree of December 1872 the Royal Navy Hydrographic Office was founded (renamed Institute in 1899). In the course of the following ten years, under the direction of G.B. Magnaghi, it produced eleven maps and plans of ports of the Tyrrhenian Sea, including paper No. 218, Gulf of La Spezia (detail) on a scale of 1:15 000, 96x78 cm, 1882.

It represents the city, the port, the shipyard, several jetties and the dam. Capital letters describe the nature of the seabed. It provides soundings and trigonometric points identified by the letter "delta", while the internal topography was derived from the surveys of the Army Geographical Institute, founded in Florence in 1872.

In 1910 the Ministry of Public Works published the proceedings of the Committee on the town-planning scheme (405 p., 37 pl. Color).

The layout of the port of La Spezia,
1:10 000, with red solid lines presents the works to be performed in a hurry, and in red dotted lines, those to be completed in the near future.

It also represents the railway facilities necessary to enable the traffic of one million of goods a year.

After the first map of the Gulf of La Spezia made in the late 19th century, the Navy Hydrographic Institute published the 12th chart of the Gulf in 1953, entitled Rada di La Spezia / dai rilievi della nave Scilla - P. L. Cattolica, Cap. di Fregata, 1899 / e da quelli successivi fino al 1952
(1st ed., No. 56), scale 1:10000.
In the Archives of the Hydrographic Cartography are obviously kept all the following charts of La Spezia, made in compliance with the international IHO / IHB standards.

Paola Presciuttini
June 10, 2004 - last updated January 15, 2008