La Soprintendenza del Mare

The first Superintendency of the Italian Sea was created in Sicily, a peripheral body of the Department of Cultural Heritage and of the Sicilian Identity, whose task is to introduce the culture of the sea in Sicily through research, survey, conservation, supervision, valuation and use of the underwater archeological patrimony, historical, naturalistic and Folkloric and anthropological heritage of the Sicilian Seas and its islands.

It is the result of a journey born in 1999 with the formation of a group for underwater archeological research: the G.I.A.S.S.( Group of Archeology Underwater in Sicily) subsequently S.C.R.A.S. ( Coordination Service of Research of Underwater Archeology). Through the centuries, what has characterised the relationship between man and the sea is the area where the superintendency works, since its birth, it has been engaged in themes from archeology to history, to marine traditions through the study of the enormous patrimony of assets that come from our sea-bed and events connected to these.

The operational activity is guaranteed by instrumental technical equipment but , above all , by the constant collaboration with the orders of the law( Financial Police, Carabinieri, State Police, Coast Guard and Port Authorities).

Many protocols have been endorsed over the last few years for study activities, digging and excavations, which have allowed a close working relationship with the University of Stanford and Pennsylvania, the RPM Nautical Foundation, the American Aurora Foundation Trust, but also with other public and private entities with which multimedia and museum-like exhibitions, cultural events, scientific conventions and publications have been produced.

It is partner with various excavation campaigns in Italy and abroad for example Libya, Japan, and Turkey.

Other initiatives of the Superintendency of the Sea include awareness campaigns directed at schools, aiming to promote and reconstruct a “bond” between the sea and students to enrich the knowledge of all the resources linked to it. With the objective to make the children “acquaintances and conscious” of the rich and diverse underwater cultural heritage because only full knowledge can bring respect and therefore its preservation.

Its headquarters, from 2004, are at Palazzo Mirto, in the historical centre of Palermo, while the premises of the ex Roosevelt Institute , at Addaura, continue to be the location for the technical laboratories, from 2013, moreover, a third venue has been added , the Arsenal of the Marina in via dell’Arsenale.

The institution of the Superintendency of the Sea, wished for by the Archeologist Prof. Sebastiano Tusa, is the intent that the Region of Sicily has been carrying out for years, with specific policies aimed at the preservation of underwater archeological resources, inspired by Greece, the only other example, to have a comparable structure. The innovation of a multidiscipline approach with which the Superintendency of the Sea presents, puts it in first place on the world stage.

Arsenal of the Real Navy or Royal Navy

At the beginning of the year 600 the Viceroy of Sicily, Count Francesco Di Castro, requested by the then General of the Gaols of Sicily, Don Diego Pimentel, thought to supply the city of Palermo with a new Arsenal, to be built in the vicinity of the impressive harbour marina finished 10 years earlier ( the celebrated great silver wall, so called due to its enormous cost ), where large ships could be produced.

The project was given to the Senate Architect Mariano Smiriglio ,from Palermo and the role of manager of the site was given to Antonio Viterbo.

The historian Gaspare Palermo, in his”Guide around Palermo”, edited in 1816, says, “on the 24th of January 1620 the Archbishop of the city, Cardinal Doria, in a solemn religious ceremony blessed the laying of the first stone, carried out by the Vicereine, the Duchess of Castro” At the beginning of the construction, however, it was probable that a delay took place between December 1620 and January 1621.

The building was completed in1630 under the Viceroy of the Duke of Albuquerque Francesco Fernandez of Cueva when Philip IV of Spain was on the throne, as certified on the marble tablet above the beam in the centre of the facade, the following words are inscribed:

“Philippi IV Hispaniarum, utriusque Siciliae regis III, auspices augustis, navale armamentarium inchoatum perfectum, An. MDCXXX”

The plaque with the inscription, is surmounted on the Borbonic crest with a crowned eagle, on the left it is flanked by the coat of arms of the Viceroy family and on its right the emblem of the city, with the image of the Genius of Palermo at its head.

The Arsenal, that you can find at the end of via Cristoforo Colombo (formerly via del Molo) is a building of austere architecture made up of two rectangular forms: the ground floor is characterised by a row of six arches, today closed off, which were nothing more than large “tubes” where wooden ships were placed and then launched; The upper floor, formed of large chambers , present above protruding string course frames, a series of six classic niche windows, perfectly aligned with the arches underneath. On this floor, which originally served to house the Generals of the Galleys and possibly some offices, could be entered by internal stairs at the first arch on the left.

The “Factory of the Royal Navy”, as it was called , represented the hopes and aspirations of those who saw in its construction the possibility to boost the city’s naval production, always considered to be insufficient, to reinforce not only the military fleet but also all the commercial vessels used for domestic and foreign trade. In the shipyard xebecs, galleys, galiotes, some of which were armed with cannons aboard , were built. However the quantity of vessels built were never in great number due to , above all the absence of suitable timber; in fact the supply of raw materials was extremely expensive as the majority came from Flanders or other European countries and much less from Sicilian, Calabrian or other Italian forests.

The Arsenal remained operational until 1797, when part of it was converted “for the ordinary Serraglio of the condemned to justice to the penalty of oars and chains”, but this use was often alternated with accommodation for companies of regiments passing through Palermo. Its use as a destination for criminals lasted most of the 19th century; during the uprisings of 1848, there were still approximately a hundred galley slaves. In 1861, at the dawn of the Unified State, it became the location of a post office for seaborne correspondence and later a depot for various materials from the adjoining shipyard ,founded by the Florio family, but also for a period, barracks for the Financial Police. Bombing from the Second World War left the posterior badly damaged leaving the facade largely untouched. But its deterioration was inevitable until it became the property of the Region of Sicily at the beginning of the year 2000, the Cultural Heritage Superintendency of Palermo took care of its restoration.

From January 2013, the running of the Arsenal, intended to become the first Museum of the Sea of the Region of Sicily, was allocated to the Superintendency of the Sea that have carried out various promotional activities and the valorisation of the “World of the Sea”.

The ground floor of the Arsenal of the Royal Navy in 2017 was unveiled as the Historical Museum of the Association of Friends of the Underwater Superintendency of the Sea, a place able to tell historical underwater memories, a place that has become a focal point for enthusiasts of the under water world, for everyone who continues to live for it and for those who approach it for the first time. Not only a memorial but also a tale of the changes happening underwater, and what it has become today.Numerous equipment is shown retracing the history of diving from the pioneers to modern equipment. The realisation of a dream ( thanks to the passion of a handful of diving friends in love with the planet of the sea ) , a place where new generations will not loose the memories of their predecessors and can add theirs.

On the first floor there is a precious collection of model ships, photos, instruments and period equipment from the history of the Sicilian navy from the Association of the Museum of Marine Culture and of the Sicilian Navigation “Florio”.