Today, as I do every so often, I did a little on line maritime research on French ships of the 16th century. This is the period of the "galleon", those magnificent vessels we too often associate with treasure fleets and the Invincible Armada. Again, as is usual, I came across many illustrations from the period, usually the Theodor de Bry etchings or small drawings of French ships from maps and charts. There was a time when I had a good deal of information in a number of folders, however that was some time in the past and those folders have long since been lost. Many, if not most, of those images could be found amongst that information, so for me they are no strangers and nothing new.
However, it is the occasional modern interpretation that I run across that bother me. These are usually done by very good artists who have no idea of how these vessels should look. Indeed, most maritime researchers will rightfully tell you that, in most cases, we can only guess, though they may be educated guesses. One illustration that I see quite a bit is of a French galleon in a storm off the coast of Florida. It is a striking painting, done by William Trotter. However, aside from being inspired by Willem van de Velde the Younger's painting "Resolution in a Gale", there are many anachronisms in the work, none as telling as the stern; it is gilded, in much the way vessels would be in the later 16th and well into the 18th centuries. It is also much too rectangular and blockish.
He was not the first to make this mistake, and it is doubtful he will be the last. There are many other interpretations of vessels from this period that make the same mistakes. Even the F. Alexander Magoun interpretation of the "Mayflower", which borrows from the superb R.C. Anderson version as well as a version by Prof. J.R. Jack that seems more like a vessel of the latter part of the 17th century, makes these mistakes, primarily due to the latter interpretation.
We want to romanticize these ships. When we think about the 16th century, we do tend to think about the royal splendor of all the major powers of Europe. Nothing says power and prestige like gold gilding on ships. As a practice, however, it did not really begin until later in the century. Gilding a ship was an expensive affair, especially for something that was very likely to be lost. The high point of these decorations can be found in the English ships of the early 17th century, followed immediately by France. Both of these naval powers had to prove their mettle on the high seas, so both undertook building programs that were a bit grandiose in scope, if not in size. Both England and France built what were super ships during this period, with the French receiving aid from Dutch naval architects. The irony is that Dutch ships of this period were relatively sparse in their decoration, as well as smaller.
Decorations reached their ultimate realization on the English three decker "Sovereign of the Seas", ordered by King Charles I and designed by Peter Pett, launched in 1637. This ship carried an amazing amount of gilding, and was so costly that it played a major role in the King being deposed. It is said that the ship was designed not so much as a warship but as a statement of English, and specifically the King's, power on the seas. She was so overloaded with decorations that she was impractical, and was cut down and modified not once but several times, and ultimately served for sixty years.
These ships, though, were the exceptions. While it is likely that many ships of the late sixteenth century and later carried gilding to varying degrees, it is far more likely that the vast majority of these ships carried little or none, and made do with either paint or perhaps no decoration at all.
Those romantic images we have in our heads, of those resplendent galleons sparkling like jewels on the water, is simply romantic.