Historic Ship Museum of Pisa

Plying the Mediterranean from Pisa's Ancient Port

In 1998 workers set out to build a control center for the Rome-Genoa train line at San Rossore. Within a few months after breaking ground a dozen or so shipwrecks were discovered. After a while an official state-funded excavation identified even more ships, one of them located under the train tracks that’s unlikely to see the light of day.

21 years later the 8000 artifacts from the excavation at Portus Pisanus, the ancient port of Pisa, along with seven Roman-era ships dating from the 3rd century BC to the 7th century AD are on display at the Historical Ships Museum inside the Arsenali Medicei in Pisa. They’ve done a fine job of arranging things so you might better understand the era and the merchant ships that plied the Mediterranean with trading goods and people.

Even the space is interesting. The Arsenali Medicei was built by Cosimo I as a shipyard for building ships for the Tuscan fleet and has been restored for the museum.

Arsenali Medicei in Pisa
Hallway of the Arsenali Medicei in Pisa

If you follow the itinerary you’ll learn of the history of Pisa from prehistoric times to the age of the vessels you’ll later see. Then you’ll find out about life of the mariners who made it all work, the cargo the ships would carry right down to the good luck charms the sailors carried. I don’t want to spoil things for you, but one of those charms was a roughly fashioned clay dog penis. Good luck with that.

The life of folks traveling as passengers during those good old days didn’t seem all that much fun, either. The ships were mainly merchant ships, but they’d take passengers if there was a demand. Economy class meant you could have a square meter of space but you’d have to bring everything else with you including food (some brought a tent to sleep on the deck). You could evidently cook your food in the ship’s facilities, a reproduction of which is shown below.

roman ship galley
The galley of a Roman ship in Pisa

There were no passenger ships per say in first century Rome. No luxury cruise lines or anything similar. People willing to travel by ship had to board a merchant ship. They would first have to find a ship, it could be almost any kind of ship and then they would have to get the captain’s approval. The price would also be negotiated with the captain. Most of the times passengers would bring their own food supplies, covers, mattresses, even a tent and sleep on deck! Sometimes there would be hundreds of people on the deck. There were no restaurants or any of the luxuries of today’s ships, but passengers could use the ship’s facilities to cook their meals. People would often play games, gamble, read or just drink wine.~ Roman ships and navigation in ancient Rome

Some ships caught on and started to build a couple of cabins so that the rich could have their passage in relative comfort.

Here’s how the hold looked with its valuable cargo:

amphora picture
How amphorae are stacked in a Roman ship.

Lots of lost cargo has succored to the sea, destined to become part of the evolving ecosystem, for better or worse.

roman jars
Roman jars

But of course what you expect to see are the remains of the shipwrecks, the skeletons of these ancient ships until recently caught in oxygen-free muck, preserving them. Getting them to stay together in the light of day to the state you find in the picture isn’t a simple task.

ribs of roman ship
Ribs of a Roman ship, Historical Ships Museum Pisa

How to Visit Pisa’s Historical Ships Museum

The museum has a prime spot on the banks of the Arno near the railroad tracks on the western boundary of the historic center; Google Maps marks it as “Arsenali Medicei Pisa”. The address is Arsenali Medicei Pisa, Lungarno Ranieri Simonelli, Pisa, PI, Italia.

Finding the official site on the web can be a bit of a problem because of all the “official” names of the museum, which range from Historical Ships Museum in Pisa, Pisa Roman Ship Museum, to the Italian le Navi Antiche di Pisa, which happens to be the name of the Official Site, available in English and very helpful for finding information on special exhibits, events and opening hours.

Roman ports has an interesting article on The lost harbour of Pisa.

To learn more in general about Roman ships of the era, see the helpful: Roman ships and navigation in ancient Rome

Recommended Restaurant – We had a great meal at Hostaria Le Repubbliche Marinare Pisa across the Arno on Vicolo del Ricciardi 8.

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Enjoy your trip to the Roman/Historical Ship Museum.

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Historic Ship Museum of Pisa originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com , updated: Mar 27, 2024 © .

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