The Bourbon's Arsenal of Palermo

Song: La fabbrica di Ragfadali (The Ragfadali factory) 

Expand Window  |   Homepage

(Or the Tazanà or Arzenal, from the Arabic Dar-al-sarrac) 

By Fara Misuraca
Translation by Nino Russo

   "Panormos", literally "all port", was a name almost necessary for the Greeks, since the stretch of land where was the ancient site of the city was then surrounded on three sides by the sea. Many are the tales and the topography strictly tied to it, which have contributed to the cultural and historic development of Palermo. Witness to this are the towers, the "bagli" (communities protected by high walls) and the tuna industry built all along the civic coast and in its vicinity. Today they represent a past, which little by little is disappearing if it is not already gone. Two stupendous buildings, built on the sea and for the sea, maybe by chance, escaped only partially to the deleterious bombardments that lasted from 1941 to 1943, outline the ends of the port of Palermo and represent, one the temporal power of the State and the other the spiritual power of the Church.

   The first is the Royal Arsenal wanted by Philip IV of Spain and built by the architect Mariano Smiriglio between 1621 and 1630. Within it were done the works of building, repairing and arming the royal ships, galley and "sciabecchi". It is situated at the end of the ancient pier "Quattroventi" (Four winds). The second is la "Chiesa della Catena" (the Church of the Chain) of the 1500s, which at one time, by means of a long chain (from which takes name the church), tied to a big ring at the end of the church's wall, would close the old port of the Cala, up to the Castle at Sea (Castello a Mare), which was on the opposite side of the bay, blocking the ships to enter by night. Since the ancient times the sea there has favored the birth and thriving of a little and a great naval dock stimulating jobs in the industries of transportation, business and fish preserve. During the centuries the port and its "civic hinterland" have undergone and shared the alternate vicissitude of history: Times of splendor and wealth and times of famine and pestilence, invasions and wars, the last, in order of time, the Second World War.

   Since the summer of '41 to the summer of '43, as a matter of fact, the port of Palermo and surrounding places, from where left the naval military convoy of the Assis to take material and soldiers in Africa, underwent continuous and violent aerial bombardment from the Anglo-Americans, that brought destruction to prestigious monuments and death to thousands of innocent civilians. The Royal Arsenal, was repeatedly hit by bombs, but did not fall. Riddled by shrapnel in the front and with the precious wooden ceiling caved, it still got to be used for works and jobs not related to its birth: postal annex, barracks for the Royal guard of Tobacco and Firearms, goods storage etc.

   The Arsenal is located at the end of the now Cristoforo Colombo Way and goes to the East up to the site of the Fincantieri and to the West up to the Marquis De Gregorio's villa. At the southern side it is detached from the sea by a pavilion used as a shop for the dock-yard. In the rear there was a covered locale (bombed during the last war), which was used for the construction of the Royal Naval fleet or for private.


The Arsenal, seen from architectonics studies freight ships.


   The Via del Molo, old name of the Cristoforo Colombo Way, was very important because through it will be going all who came to or went from Palermo. The pier was known as "La Muraglia d'argento" (The Silver wall), because the colossal feat of the construction of the new port of Palermo, realized between 1567 and 1590, had a cost of about six million silver "Scudi". All the surrounding places, and not just the Arsenal should be restored and transformed in a Museum. As a matter of fact, near by are : Palazzo Montalbo, Villa De Gregorio, Il Cippo Smiriglio, the Florio's Stone Basin, The Florio's dock-yard, the English Cemetery, The Lazaretto, the Stone Ship, and the Thermal Holy Water Structure.


Picture of the Arsenal before the restoration.


   The Arsenal, as we said, was built between 1621 and 1630 with a plan of the Palermitan architect Mariano Smiriglio. The building occupies a rectangular space. On the ground floor are six arches, which go all the way to the lobby in the back, today no more covered. The arches, now covered, kept the structures of the hulls in construction. The upper floor is distinguished from the ground floor by a frame, which supports a landing or balcony where the armed guards used to stand. In the upper part of the façade imbedded in the center by the Bourbon's coat of arms in the form of an eagle head, there is an inscription on marble that says:

   "Philippi IV Hispan, utriusque Siciliae Regis III, auspiciis augustis, navale armamentarium inchoatum, perfectum MDCXXX." (Con i fausti auspici di Filippo IV di Spagna e III delle Due Sicilie, l'arsenale navale incompiuto fu ultimato nell'anno 1630.)


The Bourbon's Coat of Arms.


   According to Villabianca, the initiative for the realization of the Arsenal, came, not just from the viceroy, count of Castro, but from the admiral of the Sicilian fleet, Diego Pimentel. In the last years of the XVIII century, some of the ancient Arsenal was used as jail for the sentenced to "the roar and chain", and kept the function of detention center even for a good part of the next century. The Arsenal, after the end of the restoration works ha been used as a "Sea Museum" and site to prepare for fairs, conventions and cultural manifestations by the " Committee pro Bourbon's Arsenal", whose end is, without aim of profit, that of keeping live the attention toward an always better use of the '600s building. In the interior of the Arsenal can be seen two fortress cannons. They are of bourbon origin because they have the same coat of arms and were made, one in 1781 and the other in 1785.

   They were standing guard to the Nothern part of the city, with the muzzle toward the sea to ward off the attacks of the naval adversary artillery. Probably they were situated by the Fortress of the pier, called "Castelluccio", which today does not exist anymore, to distinguish it from the "Castello a Mare" much bigger and better equipped with artillery.



   For about two centuries in the Arsenal were built war and merchant ships. The Palermitan chronicles of the that time are full of the accounts from the nailing of the "first nail" followed, after a few months by the cabins of the ship. Serious ceremony, this last one, with great participation of people. But things did not go always smoothly because the hull or "Scaffa di grossa legname" (Hull of coarse wood), which slid on the ramp, often did a crude joke, as referred by the Marquis of Villafranca in his diary of June 29, 1766, at the moment of the launch of the "sciabecco", "Santa Maria d'Altofonte", which construction had been started in the dock-yard in February of the same year:

   "…present the viceroy, who had consented to come to the function, together with many dames and knights who had taken a seat on the wooden tier, built for the occasion. But this morning the Santa Maria d'Altofonte was capricious: it could not slide to sea, and it was done only the next day. Because the builders met some hitch and hindrance in trying to move that great machine". His excellency, that is the viceroy, "went away bored because he had to wait for the end of the ceremony, and the majority of the ladies and knights did the same, going back to their residences for dinner". The last construction of war ships, according to Villabianca, was the one of the two galleons "the building of which started with the first nail December 18, 1769, and launched in the years 1770 and 1771".


   It is certain though that the Arsenal continued its activities, because, in 1792, the businessman Sommariva had a merchant ship, the "Archimedes" and a twelve oar launch, built there, as a present to the Nautical College, for the training of the students.The Arsenal besides being the place for the construction of the war ships it was a reference point for the ships in the Sicily waters those, which were damaged and were in need of repair. Really not many the type of vessels were built in the Arsenal from 1630 to 1848. One of the reasons being that the supply of seasoned wood for the naval construction of the times had to be imported, because what was produced in our woods was not sufficient and was not of valuable quality.

   The Arsenal which originally was made to build the royal galleons, was then principally used to build "sciabecchi", "feluche", "bertoni", "gunner vessels", "oar launches", "alalungare, "sardare"(that fished sardines), and "gozzi". The captain Galleon, simply known as the galleon was a vessel much elongated with latin sail and with oar. The crew was made up of condemned to the punishment of the oar (galley slaves), besides the artillerymen, guards, caulkers, steersmen, carpenters, cabin boys and, naturally, the commander and the officers of the ship.

   The crew was minimal and for the operation was reinforced with soldiers in case of military need. The "sciabecco" was a vessel with three masts, about which we hear for the first time in a Sicilian document of the 1300s; it was very much in use in the following centuries in Sicily, Calabria, Spain and Portugal. The biggest use of it was made in the eighteen century by the Spanish fleet in the fight against the pirates. Considering the very good results in the naval battles against the Moorish ships, the Spanish government decided, in the second half of the eighteenth century, the construction of forty "sciabecchi". The Reign of the two Sicilies followed the Spanish directives and built, in the two Arsenals, Naples and Palermo, about twenty "sciabecchi" for military use. The ships between 150 and 250 tons were armed wit twenty cannons.

   The crew was made up of a ship or frigate standard-bearer, one guard-standard, one sergeant, one drummer, twenty-one marine-army soldiers, one artillery sergeant, five artillerymen, three helpers, one scribe, one chaplain, three pilots, two guards, one caulker, one carpenter, four steersmen, eighteen rowers, 110 sailors, six cabin boys, three servers.

   The success achieved by the military "sciabecchi" led the merchant ships owners, the 'patron", to order the building of similar vessels because they were very fast and easily maneuverable even if they needed a numerous and experienced crew to be able to maneuver the latin three masts. In Sicily at the beginning of XIX century there were about ninety "sciabecchi" over the total of 1900 ships. Among the different types of "sciabecco" was present the genoese type, the pole type with a square sail on the main mast and latin sails in the median mast and on the fore-mast, these ships called "poles" were very much around in the XIX century.

   The gunner ships had a length of 12 meters with only one mast with latin sail and a light cannon at prow-side. They were used in 1820 to bomb hostile coastal villages, and were also used during the Palermo revolution of that year.

   The "feluca" was a vessel with a low border, very light and without bridge, with two masts with latin sail. The "bertone" was a round ship very much used for the coastal transport of goods. It hoisted three masts with square sails. The "sardara", made for fishing sardines, was about ten meters in length, with a lightly out warded enlarged prow and with an inward stern and a relatively elongated sternway, more than a meter, which was shaped as a fish tail and called "acidduzzu" (little bird). It was pushed by four oars and a latin sail. The "alalungara" was used for fishing the "alalunga", a native fish of the Palermo seaboard; it had characteristics similar to the "sardara". The "gozzo palermitano", called in Sicilian "vuzzarieddu", has a length of about six meters and was used for fishing in the shoreline. Main characteristic is the prow much higher than the stern.

   In those years, when the Arsenal was building vessels, often could be observed, along the coastal waters of Palermo, the presence of foreign pirates vessels, coming probably from Tunis and spreading panic amongst the coastal inhabitants. There were many witnesses who tell of Sicilian citizens taken prisoners and made slaves and kept in the "bagni" (buildings situated in solitary locations, far from the city were the prisoners were kept when they were not at work, as oarsmen, in the galleons) of Tunis, Algier or Biserta in the first decades of the XVII century.

   The "Mission for the Redemption of the Prisoners", which paid the ransom for them, through donations from every social class, was active at that time in Palermo. This Mission, by means of special emissary at Tunis, was able, sometime, to take back to the native land of Sicily the Sicilians kidnapped and made slaves by the Moorish pirates. In 1646, the Sacred League fleet was strong of 130 war ships, counting galleons, galliot, boats and other vessels; 3000 cannons, 12,000 oarsmen, a 10,000 crew of sailors and 15,000 soldiers. The orders to and from the captain galleons were given by voice or through very fast launches with oars, called "palischermi" (little boat serving the big ships).

   For "par conditio" (equal condition), it is to be said that even the Sicilian ships were authorized by the viceroy to the "corsa" (run) which, inevitably, was done through the Northern African coast, as a matter of fact even in the territory of Palermo existed the "bagni", were the African prisoners were kept. The prisoners, always used as slaves, at their arrival were treated to a "bath of hot water and vinegar and then to the shaving of their hair on the head and body". After the coming of Ferdinand of Bourbons (December 26, 1798), who fled from Naples following the insurrection which installed the Neapolitan Republic in 1799, the government decided to confiscate the genoese ships that were in the port of Palermo and was given the order to build the gun boats:

   "The king has resolved and wants, first of all, that all the Genoese property in the Capital and in the Reign of Sicily be confiscated: Secondly that the same be done with the ships which are here or would get here; Thirdly, that all the foreigners of any country, even Neapolitans, that happen to be or come in the Ports of the reign, be arrested, and not to be released without the resolution of the sovereignty. I am dispatching this Royal order expressly to your authority, so that you would execute it promptly, exactly and punctually in any place of inspection. Paermo January 14, 1799. the Prince of Luzzi."

   As if it is not enough, Ferdinand orders to stop any ship from entering in any port of Sicily.

   "The King wants that no access to landing be given to any ship carrying passengers from any country, even Neapolitans, without Royal permission. I dispatch to you the Royal order so that you can execute it exactly and punctually. Paermo, January 14, 1799. the Prince of Luzzi" .

   It is at this time that the Admiral Nelson becomes honorary citizen of Palermo and Duke of Bronte.

   February 23, 1799, the Senate of Palermo bestowed the citizenship to Lord Nelson, " to show its gratitude to the men who had safely brought from the port of Naples to the shore of Sicily the most loved Sovereign with all the royal family". Nelson received the "privilege of citizenship" written in parchment paper with a pending seal, in a golden coffer elegantly engraved, and the King, October 10, 1799, gave to the Admiral the land of Bronte with the title of Duke for him, his heirs and successors with an annuity of 18,000 Ducati (money of the time).

   He also gave to him a sword embedded with precious diamonds, which had been given to the king, as memento, by his father, Charles III when this latest took the crown of Spain. The queen in turn gave to Nelson lady friend, Lady Hamilton, her picture, surrounded by diamonds, pending from a golden chain with the phrase: "Eternal gratitude". Watches, rings and tobacco holders of great price were also given to the captains Foote, Troubridge, Hardy, etc.