Despite Covid-19, Italy’s Museo della Barca Lariana, founded in 1982 by Gianalberto Zanoletti and now run by his son Ferdinando, has reopened its doors. Housing 470 historic boats, the museum’s located in one of the world’s most enchanting settings – Lake Como. Story by Bruno Cianci.

For centuries Lake Como, also known as ‘Lario’, has been the destination of writers, artists, monks and soldiers. Alessandro Manzoni, one of Italy’s greatest writers, used the setting for his famous 1827 novel I promessi sposi (The Betrothed).

Today, the area is home to scores of celebrities who own historic mansions around the perimeter of the lake – the Versace family, Sir Richard Branson, George Clooney and Robert ‘Batman’ Pattinson, not to mention Aussie tycoon Rupert Murdoch and dozens of footballers.

Museo Della Barca Lariana

Lake Como is also a paradise for boating enthusiasts, especially motorboats and workboats. The Tullio Abbate shipyard, founded by the recently-deceased racing champion of the same name, is located in nearby Tremezzina.

In Laglio, a stone’s throw from Villa Oleandra (where George Clooney spends four months a year with his wife and children) lies the workshop of the shipwright Ernesto Riva, a descendant of Pietro Riva, the craftsman who founded the Riva shipyard in Sarnico (Lake Iseo) back in 1842.

Other renowned brands of Lake Como are Colombo, Cranchi and FB Design, the latter a shipyard-laboratory founded in Annone Brianza by Fabio Buzzi, who died last year in a motorboat accident. And Erio Matteri, arguably the world’s best Riva motorboat restorer, lives and works in Lezzeno.


On the lake’s north-western shore, not far from the Swiss border, there is also a museum founded by another enthusiast who died last year: Gianalberto Zanoletti di Rozzano, ‘father’ of the Museo della Barca Lariana (MBL – Museum of the Boats of the Lario).

This institution, founded in 1982 and housed within a 19thcentury spinning mill in Pianello del Lario, has recently resumed its activities after a long period of closure due to financial constraints and the need to secure the buildings that contain its extraordinary collection.

GianAlberto Zanoletti

MBL was founded when it became necessary to find a single roof under which to gather the personal collection of boats and other maritime objects related of the late Marquis Zanoletti di Rozzano.

The museum, which belongs to the foundation of the same name, aims to present not only the history of Larian boating, but that of Italy as a whole. From the ancient Romans to the present day, the boats on display – 470 and counting – tell of the extraordinary lives of ordinary and special men. This unique nautical heritage is displayed in more than 2,500m2 of rooms, as well as warehouses and an additional 2,000m2 of outdoor parkland.


Among the most important items on display is the oldest existing Venetian gondola fitted with a characteristic ‘felze’ (a sort of removable ‘doghouse’ for the passenger) – perfectly preserved.

Built in 1860 in Venice the gondola was found at Villa Balbianello, the mansion featured in the 2006 James Bond movie Casino Royale. The only other gondola of a similar age can be found at the Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News (Virginia) in the US.


Other significant items include the Abbate Laura I, the first craft to break the 200 km/h barrier; the Star Merope, which belonged to Agostino Straulino, gold medalist at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics; Cisko-Yu, a spectacular late-19th century English A-Rater – and the Balilla, the first single-prop steamship on Lake Como (and the last remaining one of its kind).

One of the latest arrivals is the hydrofoil Freccia dei Gerani, in service during the final three decades of the last century, very much loved by the locals and the only survivor of the Rhs70 Rodriguez hydrofoils – a true technological jewel of its time.

The collection includes rowing boats, gondolas, fishing and hunting boats, inboard and outboard motorboats, passenger steamers, ‘three points’ and racing catamarans, sailing boats and old workboats used by smugglers.

Because of the lake’s proximity to Switzerland, smuggling has been part of its history for centuries – the lake’s always been home to vessels smuggling grains, rice, sugar, salt, tobacco, drugs and watches.

Museo della Barca Lariana

Also noteworthy are the 300 engines on display, many of them early-vintage outboards, and several thousand other objects relating to the construction and use of boats. The archives boast countless slides, historical photos, recordings and testimonies of shipwrights, boatsmen and fishermen. A vast library (with over 2,500 books and historical magazines) is also fascinating.

Many of the objects are dear to the Zanoletti family itself, linked as they are to their personal memories. As Ferdinando puts it: “My father loved all boats unconditionally and had no particular preferences. I, on the other hand, have a personal connection to certain boats that take me back to my childhood.

“My dad’s Star class boat Blue Marlin, in which I used to sail as a child, the Colombo runabout Pucci III with which we all practiced water skiing on the lake, the Abbate motorboat Ribot, which we recovered in a somewhat fortuitous manner after she had sunk, and the gondola Onnis, its restoration carried out in the late-70s when I was just a kid. I remember them all very well.”

Museo della Barca Lariana

The museum also welcomes ‘new’ items. “In recent months,” says Ferdinando, “many historic boats have been donated, especially rowing and sailing vessels. Among them is a Vaurien sailboat that was given to us right after the world championships held here on Lake Como in 2019.

“It allowed young enthusiasts to discover what sailing such dinghies in the ‘60s was like. I consider this an important educational activity, because new generations tend to assume that what they find in a newly-built boat has always existed – although of course this does not reflect the reality.”


Who deals with the exhibits’ restoration and the financing? Founder Gianalberto Zanoletti, it should be noted, did not like invasive restorations. What is his son’s opinion on this?

“As a Foundation,” says Ferdinando, “we tend ​​not to restore boats, especially if they are too badly damaged, because the restoration would compromise their historicity. The result would be a practically new boat retaining very little of the original.

“This doesn’t mean we don’t maintain our craft: on the contrary, we need to preserve the boats, the timber, leather, fabrics and engines. So we have unique maintenance programmes – targeted interventions are required for each individual vessel, based on age and state of conservation.

“We have many perfectly maintained and functioning craft that require constant care. The volume of work is huge, as indeed are the expenses. The museum is financed by the Museo della Barca Lariana Foundation, which is supported mainly by my family and other private individuals.”

In recent years the museum has obtained funding for specific projects from the Municipality of Bellagio and the Cariplo Foundation, but as a percentage of total financing this remains low relative to contributions from private individuals.

Today, fortunately, the MBL is able to ‘walk on its own two legs’. The hope is that this magnificent institution – Covid-19 permitting – will thrive and continue to open its doors to showcase a remarkable collection.

Museo Della Barca Lariana

But even if there are few visitors, says Ferdinando, we will remain committed. “As my late father said, ‘it is worth continuing, even if for very few people. Even for one person. Even if I were the only one in the world to take care of traditional boats and even if I were met by complete public disinterest, I would continue anyway. The history of boating deserves to be saved whatever the effort; and I, like passionate friends, want to remain the link between past and future’.”

Thank you, Gianalberto! Classic boats enthusiasts are in your debt.