Monday, October 22, 2012

Bruegel's Galleons

In the mid 16th century, Dutch artist Peter Bruegel did a series of ship engravings that give us an idea of what some of the vessels of that period must have looked like. They are extremely intricate in their detail, and when compared to what is known about ships from that period, appear to be fairly accurate.
Most of the vessels appear to be fairly conventional in appearance, but one engraving , known as "Two Galleons" "Three Men of War In A Tempest Sailing To The Right, With Arion", shows vessels that seem to fall between classifications.
The hulls are fairly typical, for the most part, except for a beak-like projection at the bow. This beak is very similar to those found on galleys and some of the English race built warships. But, the vessels also appear to have what almost constitutes a typical late carrack forecastle.
In the engraving, they are seen ahead of a larger vessel, leading one to believe that they certainly are warships; their numerous guns also reinforce this. They are heavily built, and appear to be around 300 tons.
They initially look to be more than just offensive projections. When I first looked at these vessels, I thought that these beaks were probably for the handling of the headsails. In looking at the engraving in more detail, doubts have emerged. What had once been, for me, a step in the evolution of the sixteenth century sailing ship has now become a branch unto itself.
Indeed, I had seen vessels thus equipped before, and had somehow forgotten. . In R.C. Anderson's  "The Sailing Ship", he has illustrated not just once but thrice vessels with these beaks. There is a potential fourth vessel in his work as well, an English "galeass", Henry VIII's "Great Galley", though this began life as a rowed and sailed vessel, eventually being left a regular sailing vessel and thus renamed the "Great Bark".
This seems to indicate that, in the case of Bruegel's ships, they were most likely offensive rams.  They even appear to be reinforced at their points.
Did they lead to the latter beakhead found on later ships?
Perhaps. Mariners are practical people, and with the increase in rig at the bows, it probably became a logical to work them from this location.
Bruegels ships, though, appear to be compromises. They embody features found on several different ship types. They are unique in our record, perhaps only a few like them were made. That Bruegel saw fit to illustrate them in what was surely their intended mission is to our good fortune.

Edit 28 Oct. 2012 - The actual title of the piece is "Three Men of War In A Tempest Sailing To The Right, With Arion"; this has been corrected - R.L.