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July 25, 2012

Visiting The Vasa

When I decided to do a whirlwind trip to Stockholm (Sweden), it was imperative that I shouldn't leave the city without visiting the famous Vasa. The Vasa is a Swedish military ship that sank after sailing less than 2 kilometers into its maiden voyage on 10 August 1628. In the 1950's, it was salvaged and was housed in a temporary museum called Wasavarvet until 1987 and then moved to the Vasa Museum in Stockholm where it is presently located.

According to literature, "Vasa was built top-heavy and had insufficient ballast. Despite an obvious lack of stability in port, it was allowed to set sail and foundered only a few minutes after it first encountered a wind stronger than a breeze. The impulsive move to set sail was the result of a combination of factors: Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus, who was leading the army on the continent on the date of its maiden voyage, was impatient to see it join the Baltic fleet in the Thirty Years' War; at the same time, the king's subordinates lacked the political courage to discuss the ship's structural problems frankly or to have the maiden voyage postponed. An inquiry was organized by the Swedish privy council to find personal responsibility for the disaster, but in the end no one was punished for the fiasco."

Going to the Vasa, we had to take a taxi from the Old Town in Stockholm. After paying an entrance fee to the museum, we went inside and was greeted by this huge ship, the Vasa, largely intact and well preserved.

It was beautiful. What was more beautiful were the information and history that it brought along with it. There are nine different exhibitions around the ship to tell about life on board the ship. The Vasa was armed with powerful guns and built with a high stern, which would act as a firing platform in boarding actions for some of the 300 soldiers it was supposed to carry. It was neither the largest ship ever built, nor the one carrying the greatest number of guns. What made it arguably the most powerful warship of the time was the combined weight of shot that could be fired from the cannon of one side: 588 pounds (267 kg). This was the largest concentration of artillery in a single warship at the time, and it was not until the 1630s that a ship with more firepower was built.

I was also amazed by how the re-constructed the ornamentation of the ship. As was the custom with warships at the time, Vasa was decorated with sculptures intended to glorify the authority, wisdom and martial prowess of the monarch and also to deride, taunt and intimidate the enemy. The sculptures made up a considerable part of the effort and cost of building the ship and even added considerably to its weight, thereby hampering its maneuverability. The symbolism used in decorating the ship was mostly based on the Renaissance idealization of Roman and Greek antiquity, which had been imported from Italy through German and Dutch artists. Imagery borrowed from Mediterranean antiquity dominates the motifs, but also include figures from the Old Testament and even a few from ancient Egypt.

More than just the ship itself, other historic objects that sank along with the ship are displayed in the museum. The Vasa is truly a sight to behold.

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