HAND-CARVED with impossibly tiny details, the model ships that make up the collection at the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum awe and educate thousands of visitors every year.
Some of the vessels have been commissioned by the museum and built by professional model makers; others were constructed independently and used as a reference point in advance of the construction of a full-sized ship.
A third category contains small-scale replicas known as sailors’ models, constructed by talented amateurs who use their experience on the sea to tell a story. These are the kind that former sea captain and longtime Wilmington Island resident Giuseppe “Joseph” Gallettini set out to make, though his hobby granted him more interesting tales than he could have possibly imagined.
For the first time in almost 20 years, the work of the legendary craftsman will be exhibited at the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum, an institution that owes a great debt to the Italian immigrant who made these local waters home.
Born in Sicily in 1878, young Giuseppe came to America by way of the Italian Royal Navy, settling with his wife, Lucia, in Thunderbolt, Ga., to operate a fleet of shrimp boats in 1906. During World War I, he worked on Hutchison Island rigging four-masted schooners; by WWII, he had risen to a management position overseeing 50 shipfitters as they built minesweeper warships.
During the evenings and weekends throughout the decades, he built models of the vessels he enjoyed most, a craft he learned from his father, of whom he once said, “I only got one-tenth of his talent.”
That fraction of artistry was enough to earn him a commission from the Central of Georgia Railway in 1919 to build a seven-foot model of the Steamship Savannah (it sat in City Hall through the 1960s and is currently on display at the Savannah History Museum inside the Visitors’ Center.)
In 1934, Savannah Evening Press editor Pleasant A. Stovall had the chance to present Franklin D. Roosevelt with a model Galletini created for the President’s birthday, a four-masted vessel carved from a tree felled in Gallettini’s backyard by a hurricane and featuring fully-functioning ropes and pulleys.
“The ‘Franklin D. Roosevelt’ took six months to complete and was whittled from cedar wood with a small pocket knife,” reported the Evening Press.
After that, Gallettini became something of a local celebrity.
“He was a media darling!” says Wendy Melton, Ships of the Sea’s curator of exhibits and education. “Every time he built a new model, the newspapers covered it.”
His exquisite works eventually caught the eye of local maritime enthusiast Mills B. Lane, Jr., who began buying them up as fast as Gallettini could finish them. When Ships of the Sea was first dedicated in 1966 on River Street, Lane’s personal collection of Gallettinis became its focal point.
But times changed, as did the museum’s location, moving into the historic Scarbrough House on MLK Blvd. in 1996.
As the museum’s mission evolved to focus more on local maritime history, Gallettini’s models were relegated to storage to make room for newer, more relevant models.
His contributions have finally been recognized in a magnificently curated exhibit that will be housed in the Scarbrough House’s grand upper atrium through the end of the year. Shadowboxes of tools and original photographs provide fascinating content and context, and Gallettini’s commitment to family and his adopted country is evident among the artifacts.
Of course, the most enchanting elements of the display are the ship models themselves—and their stories.
There is the Anita, a replica of a ship Gallettini sailed to South America on as a boy. On the return trip, provisions were scarce, and the ship’s sailors threw out their lines to feed the passengers. Someone caught a porpoise, and what Gallettini remembered most is how one of the sailors chopped off its tail and stuck in on the jibboom at the front of the ship. A miniscule wooden version of that tail is still affixed to the model.
There is also the JFK, an exact likeness of the model Gallettini made for President Roosevelt. In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy saw a book of Gallettini’s work and requested the same model. It was supposed to have been ready by November 1961, but the model maker fell behind schedule.
Gallettini’s beloved wife Lucia passed away in April 1963, and by the time the new widower felt up to a trip to Washington to present his gift, President Kennedy had been assassinated.
He and his family tried to donate the beautifully-rendered ship to the President’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy, but sadly, the transfer could not be arranged before RFK, too, was killed in 1968.
Gallettini passed away in 1964, and his friend and benefactor Mills B. Lane, Jr. vowed that his work would have a prominent place in “the little marine exhibit we’re going to fix down on the bay.”
Fifty years later, those tiny ships have found their way to the spotlight again, introducing a new generation to the marvelous models of Joseph Gallettini.
“His ship models started this museum,” says Melton.
“We’ve wanted to put this together for a long time.”