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Capo Noli Battle Exhibition

(First published in the Nelson Dispatch in 2019)

I was fortunate to attend, on 30th March 2019, the launch of an Italian Rivera archaeological exhibition showcasing artefacts from both Nelson’s first naval victory and Napoleon’s earliest military triumphs. This exhibition, temporarily housed in the town of Finale Ligure’s Museum of Archaeology, was a community achievement altruistically coordinated by a local financial consultant. 

Finale Ligure is a pretty, medieval town which, when I arrived in late March with my partner Matt and our seven-year-old daughter Sophie, was emblazoned with large full colour exhibition posters featuring Geoff Hunt’s painting of Nelson’s daring sally against the wounded, but much larger French Ça-Ira at Capo Noli in March 1795. We’d travelled from England via Nice, where we’d been collected by Andrea Puleo from the Italian Navy’s elite Comsubin (Divers and Raiders Group). 

Why had the exhibition been coordinated by a financial consultant with input from the Comsubin elite squad? The background story is, I feel, both fascinating and dramatic.

The story starts with the financial consultant, a Finale Ligure resident named Sandro Garulla. In addition to his day job, Garulla has had a lifelong passion for French revolutionary history, and scoured Europe to procure one of the finest private collections of French revolutionary miltaria.  He and his friend Dr. Simon Luca Trigona (head of underwater archeology for the Archaeological Superintendency of Genoa) were called upon four years ago to view photos of an antique gun amateur divers Marco Colman and Mario Arena had found off the coast of Finale Ligure at a depth of sixty-four metres. Garulla identified it as belonging to the French revolutionary period, and wondered if it might be a relic from the wounded Ça Ira who surrendered to Nelson 1795.

Garulla was not the only local to have knowledge of the Capo Noli battle. In 2006, fellow Ligurians Alberto Cavanna and Furio Ciciliot published a book, Nelson e Noi, charting Nelson's early career through letters he wrote while stationed at Liguria. They comment,“Horatio Nelson and Napoleon

Bonaparte, two mammoth characters, symbols of their own time, both began their careers here, just 20 kilometres away, yet often the events of this important phase of history remain almost unknown.”

Garulla wondered whether the submerged gun was a relic from Ça Ira? Such a find would draw attention to this near-forgotten battle in which Nelson won his first naval victory. He could, however, tell from its small size that it had fired only one-pound shots and was, thus, too small to have belonged to a French man of war. it had most likely come from a civilian vessel.

The plot thickened when Colman and Arena discovered further, diverse artefacts during later dives in the proximity of the gun: a modern contact lens case; a syringe, a bottle of nineteenth-century medicine; a fisherman’s lantern; and – contemporary to the gun –  a dozen loaded muskets and a larger firearm described as a spingarda (which translates as ‘punt gun’).

Garulla, Trigona and the divers were for a long time perplexed. Had this eclectic collection of objects perhaps been arbitrarily gathered and deposited by the currents of the Mediterranean Sea? Dining together one evening, Arena mentioned that he’d kept thinking about how the one-pounder gun and the spingarda lay about ten metres apart on the seabed. Garulla commented that they also pointed in opposite directions. Later that night, unable to sleep, he was struck by the epiphany that French warships such as Ça Ira were fitted with armed launch boats. He phoned a French naval historian the next morning to request the plans of Ça Ira’s launch. The plans showed that the launch had carried two one-pound guns mounted in the bow and two other guns in the stern; and that it’s total length had been 11.5 meters. This, Garulla thought, was close enough to the ten meter separation they’d estimated. He, Trigona and the divers were now certain they’d found a wreck from Nelson’s little-known first naval victory. Proving this, however, would be challenging. At sixty-four meters down, Colman and Arena could not explore the wreck at length without succumbing to decompression sickness. Very special assistance was required. The mayor of Finale Ligure wrote to the Defence Minister on their behalf requesting the aid of the Comsubin diving squad, who were trained in the technique of saturation diving which enabled them to rescue trapped submarine crews at depths of up to 300 meters by remaining in compression for days at a time. Permission was granted, and, for the first time ever, the Italian Navy’s elite diving squad turned their hands to marine archaeology. 

Of the three Comsubin divers assigned to the mission, one was Andrea Puleo, the man who collected us from Nice. He told us with pride that he and his teammates had worked on the wreck for two four shifts every day for six days. They had maintained compression for the full duration by means of a live-in compression chamber onboard their ship, Anteo, which was moored 1.3 miles from Capo Noli.

On board Anteo, Garulla and Trigona excitedly watched live video feed of the elite divers exploration the deep wreck site. What has he just picked up? Is it a small pot? No, it’s the body of a magnetic compass! Piece by piece, the Comsubin divers retrieved an impressive assortment of artefacts. These included more navigational aids: a bronze telescope almost a meter long, and an elegant ebony, brass and ivory octant (a smaller version of the sextant); bowls, cups and plates from a magnificent, locally-made Albisola Taches Noires table service; three bottles of wine; bronze and gold French and Genovese coins (the most recent of which dated to 1794); and the second one-pounder gun from the bow of the launch. 

Puleo told us they had very much enjoyed that mission because it had made a happy change from their usual rescue missions, which often required them to retrieve dead bodies. There was, in fact, evidence of at least one dead body in the launch’s wreck, but all that remained were fragments of skull, leg, arm and finger bones; and articles of apparel: a pair of pistols with belt hooks; a bronze gorget; a jacket button with an anchor motif and a Phrygian hat. These, and their location in the bow suggested that their former owner had been the launch’s commander. 

The bow of the wreck points towards (the nearest port). Garulla and his colleagues speculated that the launch had been put to work as a tow after its mothership took damage, then fled for Varigotti when Ça Ira surrendered to Nelson.

Examination of the stern revealed a second spingarda which appears to have detonated during fire. It was, they pondered, perhaps molten shrapnel from the resulting explosion that caused the launch to sink.

Garulla formed Associazione 1795 in December 2018 to coordinate support for the establishment of a museum in Finale Ligure to showcase both these marine archaeological finds and same-era land finds from Napoleon’s earliest campaigns. In November 1795, Napoleon, then a military planner for the French Ministry of War, directed the Republican army into battle 6.5 miles from Finale Ligure at Loano. The Battle of Loano was the first in which Napoleons’s signature ‘total war’ strategies were employed. He took his first direct military command on the Italian front the following year. Local people, over the course of the past fifty years had used metal detectors to unearth many remnants of Napoleon’s first battles, including pistols, swords and saddles. Motivated by civic pride alone, a plethora of these treasures were brought forth after the Associazione 1795 called for donations for their planned exhibition.

The morning of the exhibition launch on 30th March 2019 was bright and sunny. Andrea Puleo, who is a keen Napoleonic army re-enactor when off duty, excitedly led us to meet his re-enactor friends, who were magnificently attired in carefully researched hand-sewn uniforms. Their march through Finale Ligure's narrow, medieval streets and squares to the Museum of Archaeology started proceedings on a high note of merry pomp. 

I had the honour of sharing scissors to cut the ribbon with Charles Napoleon Bonaparte, while my seven-year-old daughter Sophie held it steady. Also present was Paolo Caracciolo, descendant of the ill-fated Neapolitan admiral whose forces had aided Nelson and the British at Capo Noli. I presented he, Charles Bonaparte and the town with tiles bearing images of Nelson and Emma Hamilton and wishes of good will. Charles Bonaparte, tall, gentile and elegant, told me he believes awareness of shared history is of utmost importance so that we can learn from it and move forwards together in peace. 

Inside the museum, we were greeted by a huge video screen playing footage of the Comsubin divers at work on the sixty-four meter deep wreck. Beyond this was a treasure trove of early Napoleonic – or should I say Nelsonian? – era artefacts salvaged from both that wreck and the land near by. 

The exhibition launch attracted a crowd of local and national media. Garulla and his Associazione 1795 cohorts are optimistic that the Battle of Capo Noli, and Nelson’s first naval victory, will receive greater recognition as a result of the media attention and their lovingly assembled exhibition, will soon be moved to a permanent, purpose-built home.