Madrid Maritime Museum

The Madrid maritime museum

The Madrid Maritime Museum’s crest.

Very clearly, Museo Naval Madrid has been around for a very long time. Its carpeted and polished wood floors exude a comfortable gentleman’s club atmosphere. Its priceless collections of ancient small arms, models and charts are in demand by other major museums around the world as loan or exchange display items. Its large staff, together with a 15,000-book library, contributes to the highest quality scholarly and display standards. It is abundantly clear that history matters in Spain. Just one example may be found in the excellently restored and tenderly maintained huge 1790 Navio Real Borbon De Trois model (below).

Navio Real Borbon De Trois model


Mint condition

A Rear Admiral directs the museum and his uniformed and civilian teams maintain the entire collection in mint condition. All of the thousands of small arms and many other exhibits appear to be in perfect working order. All metal parts gleam. There was not one speck of rust or dust to be seen anywhere during one recent visit, despite the active reconstruction of one entire salon to take a special exhibition.

The museum is close to central Madrid, near the Retiro area, on the Paseo del Prado. It is about one kilometre north of the Queen Sofia Art Centre (which has Picasso’s Guernica) and about 500 metres north of the famous Prado Museum (which has one of the world’s best collections of Spanish, Flemish, Italian and Dutch renaissance art).

The Naval Museum is inside the Spanish Navy Headquarters, so visitors must sign in and pass through armed uniformed sentries and metal detectors before entering the museum proper. The access door is via a street on the building’s north side, the Juan de Mena, and a passport, or at least a photo-ID drivers licence is required for identification. About 15,000 visitors call annually. Opening hours are 1030 to 1330 Tuesday to Sunday (closed Mondays and some holidays). There is no entry fee. For those with an interest in Army museums, the Museo del Ejército is around the corner, another 200 metres away. It claims an even wider range of weapons and equipment, some 27,000 objects. More than half a dozen bus lines go past the building and the nearest underground station is the Banco de España.

Museum history

The Naval Museum has an interesting history. It dates back to 1792 when Marine Office Secretary Antonio Valdés y Bazán directed three naval officers to gather and acquire maps, nautical instruments, ship models and related items. His aim was to start a museum but some collected articles languished in the Hydrographic Depot for half a century or more until the inauguration of the first Naval Museum in 1843. After three or four moves around various government buildings, the museum found its present permanent home in 1932, in the Spanish Navy Headquarters.

As an example of the exhibits, ship models and other reminders of Christopher Columbus are as prominent in the museum’s Catholic Monarchs salon (1474-1517) as in the rest of Spain. In the Hapsburg Kings salon (1517-1700), among a host of other interesting relics, may be found the “sacred broadsword” granted by Pope Pius V to John of Austria after his seminal Lepanto victory. Other salons and patios feature priceless weapons and models arranged by period or theme.

Bone and ivory models

In Salon V (1759-1805), reminiscent of the excellent models in Preble Hall, at the USN Academy Museum, Annapolis, are four bone and ivory models, carved by French prisoners of war. In another area are excellent shipwright models, including one huge outstandingly detailed model, two metres or more tall, of what was to be the Navio Real Borbón De Trois. This model was constructed in Havana about 1790 but the ship herself was never launched. The British had the audacity to burn her on her Havana slips while she was still in the process of building.

Spanish aircraft carrier

There are also very modern ship and naval aircraft models in the museum. These include the Spanish aircraft carrier SNS Príncipe de Asturias, R11, in Room XV. This well-finished model of Spain’s ski-jump flagship is displayed complete with her Harrier jet fighter/attack aircraft and helicopters.

Principe de Asturias model

A detailed model of SNS Príncipe de Asturias (above), is proudly displayed in the Armada Museum. In real life, Spanish Navy Harriers operate from  their new 17,000 tonnes Spanish-built aircraft carrier (below).

Principe de Asturias

It is perhaps salutary that while Australia was disposing of this outstanding capability, through the sale of the carrier Melbourne, Spain was quietly building her own carrier in her own Ferrol Shipyard, on her North Coast, in deliberate time. She launched in 1982 and commissioned in 1988. She confers a potent punch and priceless flexibility to the Spanish navy.

Maps and charts

Valuable objects displayed in the museum include early maps and charts. In the Geographical Discoveries salon (15th to 18th centuries) is a striking Juan de la Cosa chart, dated 1500 at Peurto de Santa María. It depicts the oldest known representation of the New World. Also in the same room are very early nautical instruments, including a very rare 17th century Coronelli celestial globe. All appear to be in perfect polished working order. This same excellent condition was noted in the thousands of museum artefacts, ranging from rudimentary daggers to modern sectioned torpedoes and perfectly rigged sailing ship models.

Spain is full of beautiful cathedrals and museums. Considerable skill, time and energy are required to maintain the ancient buildings and the ancient treasures they contain. These same attributes are evident in the Madrid Naval Museum. Very few maritime museums anywhere in the world offer such a wealth of expertly maintained and presented exhibits. Do not miss this museum when you visit Madrid. (Coincidentally, it’s within convenient easy walking distance of three outstanding art museums should travelling companions prefer to explore arts instead of military themes at the same time.)

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One thought on “Madrid Maritime Museum

  1. I am interested in obtaining dimensions/images of some of the larger armed merchant vessels in the armada of 1588. La Regazona, La Rata or one of a similar size would be ideal. Also I am having difficulty finding an image of a Zabra.

    Any assistance would be much appreciated.

    R. Langton

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