Museo Naval Madrid

Museo Naval Madrid
Paseo del Prado, 5. 28014 Madrid.

(Thobias Volckhmer, 1596. Brass & enamel, 11.8 x 11.8 x 3.6 cms)


By Courtesy of Museo Naval Madrid

(Click on the photo to enlarge!)

This set of nautical and surveying instruments was originally made for King Philip II. Its appearance is that of a box that, as purported by its outside and inside engravings, contains the entire astronomical knowledge of the period.

The compendium is made of gilt and engraved brass, glass and enamel. The front cover depicts the northern hemisphere as orthographic projection (equatorial aspect). The maritime regions are decorated with vessels and sea monsters. The back cover represents the southern hemisphere. It has various gilded brass components, including numerous types of sundials and calendrical tables as well as a horizontal dial set over a compass. The compass shows the main routes with a wind rose. It also has a table of latitudes, a table for converting time in different systems of hours and an astrolabe. The four enameled corners depict the four elements: (fire, air, earth and water).


Inside, there is a beautiful astrolabe with a rule and no pinholes. There is also a limb, symbols of planetary influences according to astrological beliefs, two calendars – as the Gregorian calendar was introduced in 1582 and, finally, a reel with a silk cord made of ten segments of different colours and 1.40-m long each. As Salvador García Franco suggests, it is likely to be the Wutemberg depth measurements. The areas with no astronomical use are engraved with fruits and leaves.


One of its fronts bears the inscription “THOBIAS VOLCKHMER BRAVNSWEIGSENSIS FACIEBAT, ANNO CHIRISTI, 1596”. Volckhmer (1560-1624) was a well-known German instrument-maker and silversmith based in Brunswick (Germany) in 1586. He worked from 1581 to 1624.


History of the astronomical compendium


This piece is thought to have been made specifically for King Philip II. As a Crown property, it was first housed at the Royal Library. Later on, it was transferred to the Naval Museum on June 24th 1876 by order of King Alfonso XII. Then, during the Spanish Civil War, on June 7th 1937, the Spanish Republic’s Ministry of Defence decided to take it to the Bank of Spain branch office in Valencia. Eventually, on June 3rd 1939, it returned to the building now occupied by the Naval Museum.


Origins of Madrid’s Naval Museum


Madrid’s Naval Museum was inaugurated in 1843 – it is thus one of the oldest museums in Europe, as it has been opened to the public for almost 170 years. In 1932, it moved to the monumental building that it occupies today.


Architects Francisco Javier Luque and José Espelius – at the request of Gabino Bugallal, Minister for Finance in 1915 during the reign of Alfonso XIII – developed the project for the Ministry of Navy’s new site, which was inaugurated on July 16th 1928. Eclectic in style, it has a rectangular ground plant and two interior courtyards. Inside, an empire-style monumental staircase outstands made in Carrara beige and brown marble. The building’s central hollow shaft is covered with stained-glass windows, just like the two interior courtyards. Today, this building is a part of the Spanish Navy Headquarters facilities.


The Naval Museum’s 25 rooms house a large part of its catalogue (around 11,000 exhibits). They display the history of the Spanish Navy and illustrious seamen, but also the different naval building systems, the technological evolution in navigation, astronomy, geodesy and cartography, the Spanish discoveries and expeditions between the 15th and 18th Centuries, and weapons and vessels used by Eastern countries.


The astronomical compendium is one of the 660 scientific and astronomic instruments which, along with compasses, astrolabes, sextants and naval chronometres, have been used since the 15th Century in navigation.


Madrid’s Naval Museum has recently set up some memorable exhibitions to remember important events in the history of Spain and the presence of our seamen in all seas and continents:

  • “Christopher Columbus and the Columbian myth”
  • “Blas de Lezo, the courage of ‘Half-Man’”
  • “They did not travel alone. Women in the Conquest and Colonisation of America”
  • “The last voyage of the frigate Mercedes. Reason against Plunder” “Seamen, Legendary Ships” (curated by academician and novelist Arturo Pérez-Reverte)
  • “Sea Masters, Lords of the World. A History of the Spanish Nautical Cartography”

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