“Associazione Culturale Venus - Archivio Fotografico Navale Italiano”
Situation in Italy
One of the “classic” destinations of naval photographs is, of course, the “collection”, i.e. a comprehensive set of photographs, duly cataloged and available for those who need original iconographic documentation for purposes of study, journalistic and historical research.
Especially in Italy, the dispersion of large archives of naval photographs has led to the disappearance, in several cases, of photographic documents of great historical value, that - often - were the only existing documentation on particular aspects of maritime affairs of our country or on specific types of ships
However, there are luckily some institutions and museums that preserve important photographic documents that help students and authors in their research efforts through their photographic collections.
The photographic archives of the “Ufficio Storico della Marina Militare” (the Historical Department. of the Italian Navy) hold several thousand photographs (including a number of glass plates originally part of the archives of the “Priore” photographic firm of Taranto) and, periodically, are enriched by donations and bequests from private individuals.
A vast archive, well managed and that – beginning in the early nineties - had started an electronic storage of technical images is that of Ansaldo at Genoa, where not only photographs related to the whole naval shipbuilding production of that company are preserved, but also building plans, images and documents relating to other fields where Ansaldo operated: from artillery to railroad equipment, naval propulsion and equipment, as well as other sectors.
The “Museo Storico Navale” of Venice, the “Museo Tecnico Navale” of La Spezia and the “Civico Museo Navale Didattico” of Milan preserve stocks of photos consisting of a few thousand images, and other images are available at the Archives of Fincantieri (former Cantieri Navali Riuniti) at Muggiano, La Spezia. We should not forget the vast archive of the Istituto Luce (Rome) where important documents are kept: mainly movies and documentaries, a rather “unexplored” source that - even in the recent past - has led to the discovery of interesting and unpublished documents relating to Italian naval events of the 1930s and of the 1940s.
Virtually all “private” Italian naval photographers have photo collections of great importance, and it is due also to their painstaking work that - today - Italian specialized publications are able to occupy a prominent position in the naval field, where the quality of iconographic reproductions has become one of the most significant and popular items, appreciated by readers and naval buffs. The collector (and author) most engaged in this specific field is Erminio Bagnasco, whose books and studies can be considered one of the most interesting examples of historical research through images. Other Italian collectors and authors hold very important collections of naval photographs and often contribute to books, articles and academic research.
Although unfortunately in the 1950s there was the ill-fated transfer abroad of the vast collection of Arrigo Barilli, who lived in Bologna, an opposite case is instead that of the legacy of eng. Elio Occhini (a photographic collection of over 140,000 naval images), that - after its owner had passed away - is now held by the “Angelo Maj” library of Bergamo and is run with great professionalism by Mr. Mario Piovano.
Situation in major foreign countries
Abroad, there are numerous museums and institutions that preserve large collections of photographs of great historical and documentary value. The Musée National de la Marine in Paris and the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz need to be cited, but the most important institutions in this field are British, with the Imperial War Museum in London and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich holding large photographic collections related, in practice, to all aspects of British naval history for the last 150 years. Of great importance, finally, is also the photographic archive of the U.S. Navy’s “Naval History & Heritage Command” (Washington, DC, the earlier “Naval Historical Center – NHC”) which runs a “corpus” of more than 100,000 images from the Civil War up to the 1960s, with particular reference to U.S. ships that fought in World War II.
The future of photographic collections, and of the naval collections in particular, are establishing an increasingly strong presence on the web and - in this specific field - the Bundesarchiv and the Naval History & Heritage Command are particularly advanced, with websites that allow extremely accurate and rapid browsing, with the ability to purchase either print or digitized versions on line.
Finally, a brief mention should be made of the many foreign collectors - often themselves important authors in the naval field - whose archives, for many years, have been a primary iconographic source of reliable, qualitative and quantitative reference. Paul H. Silverstone and Arthur D. Baker (U.S.) have large reference collections of U.S.N. ship photographs; the late David K. Brown (of the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors), Alan Raven and John Roberts are among the best known British authors and their photographic collections comprise a large number of high quality images of notable historical value; the collections of Jean Guiglini and Robert Dumas are the most important and comprehensive among those of French collectors.
What is the future in Italy?
The current situation of naval photographic collections in Italy, as outlined above, highlights a number of negative elements:
- Excessive “fragmentation” of the collections.
- Collectors are often of advanced age, and with no descendants or successors with the same passion and experience in the specific naval field.
- Dispersion of important photographic archives, sometimes very large and historically significant, when the owner passed away.
- Further “fragmentation” of the aforementioned archives, also in secondary streams of collecting: typical is the example of photos once part of organic collections on sale in the market stalls of antiques, and with prices - moreover - absolutely too expensive.
- It has therefore been necessary to create an association whose purpose is not only the preservation of the Italian naval photographic heritage, but also its enhancement and dynamic development in the fields of culture and of specialized publications, both in Italy and abroad.
The “Associazione Culturale Venus - Archivio Fotografico Navale Italiano”
On 23 April 2010 the “Associazione Culturale Venus - Archivio Fotografico Navale Italiano” was officially established: a group whose purpose is the acquisition and subsequent management of naval photographic collections that - otherwise - would strongly risk being dispersed or lost after the death of their curator or owner.
Obviously, the Association will also exploit printed or electronic images granted for use by collectors who are still living and active , who want to collaborate proactively in our project.
The Association is the first in Italy with the purpose of the preservation of naval photographs (and, in the future, also of building plans, original and specific documentation etc.) for whose management - and especially for its best “visibility” - this website has been created.
A computerized management of photographic collections will allow the Association to act as a “partner” of primary importance for students, researchers, historians, authors, specialized publishers and naval buffs.
The president of the “Associazione Culturale Venus” is adm. Giuseppe Celeste, formerly of the Naval Engineering Corps of the Italian Navy and Director of the Naval Technical Museum of La Spezia, and now president of the “Associazione Amici del Museo navale e della Storia”, located in La Spezia.
The Board of Directors of the Association is completed by Dr. Maurizio Brescia (member of the Editorial Board of the monthly magazine “STORIA militare”) and by architect Gianfranco Ricco; both are members of the “Associazione Amici del Museo navale e della Storia”.
Given the undeniable value of the naval photographs as a key component of historical research, we have to consider some significant points:
- Lack, in Italy, of a real naval digital archive of photographs. The only positive situations found today are the photo Archive of Ansaldo (limited to the production of the Company), and that of the Historical Office of the Italian Navy. Unfortunately none of the material of either of these archives is available on the web.
- Unfortunate “dispersion” - over the years - of significant and sometimes massive collections of photographs, with the consequent loss of unique images of great historical value (from the original glass plates of the late XIX century, up to unpublished photographs of both World Wars).
- Need for researchers and historians to take advantage of modern hardware and software, as well as of high quality iconography and in a relatively short time.
By establishing the “Associazione Culturale Venus - Archivio Fotografico Navale Italiano”, we have therefore intended to create a real “reference” to which the holders of significant collections of photographs and/or documents may allocate them as a legacy, thus avoiding fragmentation, dispersion and - ultimately - allowing the Association to become the first and most important structure of this kind in Italy, and one of the most important in Europe.
La Spezia, November 2012