Madrid’s Museo Naval

Humbly situated near the Prado, Madrid’s Naval Museum barely stands a chance against the reputation and grandeur of its neighbour. It does make an effort, boldly claiming its space in large letters on its facade. Personally, I preferred the copper sign above its door.

Granted, the Naval Museum can’t compete with its other, more well-known brethren. However, for those who will set foot inside its walls, they will find a fantastic collection – over 10,700 of items– of scale models of ships and frigates from Columbus’s times on as well as original figureheads, instruments, maps and plans. The most interesting artifact is the original of a map, drawn by Juan de la Cosa in 1500 that shows, for the first time, America and other geographical discoveries made between 1492 and 1500. It is also the first time Africa was drawn in the north-south direction.

A large painting, titled “First Homage to Christopher Columbus,” begins the chronological order of the museum’s rooms, which end with contemporary vessels. The voyage through time makes imminent sense. As you move through the rooms, you get a sense of how Spain became one of the strongest powers in the world. You see paintings depicting hundred of naval vessels in a line, warring at sea. As impressive as it was, all I could think was how much wood had been used, how many forests decimated across Europe – Portuguese, English, Spanish monarchs pushing world supremacy over the waters and systematically razing entire ecosystems, in their own land and in those they conquered. That thought aside, the naval architects of the time were amazingly able, especially with the tools they used to design them and build them. Many ships models in the museums were used as architectural templates for the construction of the Spanish Armada, so they are infinitely detailed and everything is to scale. They were definitely a work of art in themselves.

So, too, the navigators of that time were able. With only a few landmarks, the feel of the sea and its currents and the direction of the wind, they could sail across oceans and find themselves where they wanted to go. Some of them started with only a few rudimentary tools, precursors of the sextant, navigating by using the sun, the stars, and the speed of their vessels. They had to be passionate and fearless adventurers, as well as leaders, to “go where no one has gone before,” to use a Star Trek analogy.

The museum also walks us through the advances of technology that not only facilitated sea voyages but made killing over and under the waters easier. It is a fascinating –and maybe a bit ghoulish– reminder that, regardless of the times, the human race will seek ways of defending itself but also ways of controlling others.

There were very few people in the museum so we could take a leisurely tour of the exhibits. We were surprised that we’d spent nearly four hours in there. This is one of the reasons we like to plan long visits: we can discover treasures that few know about and feel that we have begun to know the people who live in the country we are visiting a little more. Museums like these speak of history, of identity, of culture. It’s always a thrill to find that we’ve unearthed a little bit of it.

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