Friday, December 14, 2012

The Caravels of Rafael Monleon y Torres

(Elsewhere in this blog, I have mentioned the work of Rafael Monleon y Torres, but I feel that it is important to delve deeper into his ideas on the appearance of Columbus' vessels, mainly the Niña and Pinta - R.L)

In 1892, three replicas left Spain in hopes of sailing across the Atlantic to the Americas; only one of them did so. The replica of Columbus' flagship "Santa Maria" was capable of sailing, though it wasn't great at doing so. The remaining two, the Pinta and Niña, ended up needing to be towed.
The designs for these vessels came from the board of Rafael Monleon y Torres, an artist employed by the Museo Naval in Madrid. As an artist, he was talented. He was appointed by the Spanish Commission to assist in the design and construction of the vessels, as well as being an artist for the publications being produced. He concentrated on the two smaller vessels, and came to some interesting conclusions.
In the opinion of Monleon, caravels were not really a distinctive type of vessel. Instead, he felt that the word "caravel" was a blanket term applied to smaller vessels. In his opinion, even the Santa Maria could be considered a caravel, even though he also considered it to be a small nao. In his work on the Niña and Pinta this philosophy carried over with some interesting results.
There remains, though, some confusion as to what Monleon really believed the vessels to be. In a two part article he wrote for "El Centenario", "Las Carabelas de Colón", he states, repeatedly, that the Pinta left on the voyage as a lateener, which is to say with the large, triangular sails instead of square rig. This is not really unusual; the most common copy of his log at that time mentions that the Pinta was re-rigged in the Canaries. Later copies of the  Columbus' "Diario" corrected this mistake, and in various places so did Monleon. But in the article in context here, he refers to the Pinta as the lateen rigged vessel.
Monleon felt that this square rigged Niña was nothing more than a smaller nao, and rigged her thus. His lateen reconstructed Pinta, however, looked more like what a caravel should. In fact, on paper (and canvas) it doesn't look bad at all. Henceforth, we shall refer to Monleon's initial concept as the caravela latina, and it will be the primary focus here.
Before we look at his reconstruction, however, it must be necessary to look at the other sources he had on hand at the time. There are many images from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century that show caravela latinas, including one on a chart of the island of Hispaniola. The image, brown with age, is faded in places. When the Commission recreated the image, they added details, namely a bowsprit. It is unclear whom the artist was who did this copy. The caravela latina is the vessel to the left.

From "La nao Santa María, capitana de Cristóbal Colón"

However, other recreations of that image are different. In E.A. d'Albertis' "Le Costruzioni Navali e l'Arte Della Navigazione al Tempo di Cristoforo Colombo", the same caravela latina is drawn without the bowsprit.

From "Le Costruzioni Navali e l'Arte Della Navigazione
al Tempo di Cristoforo Colombo

A closer examination of the original also reveals that a bowsprit simply is not present.

From Casa/F. Colon map in the Biblioteca Columbina, Seville;
Image edited from National Geographic, November 1986

Consider that few other images of caravels rigged thus exist. Regardless, it was this style rig that Monleon used when he came up with some of his initial artwork showing such a vessel.

By the time the Spanish Commission began construction of the replicas, Monleon had returned to considering the Niña the lateen rigged vessel and set about designing it. In their initial designs, both the Niña and Pinta had the potential to be good sailers. When it came time to building them, however, short cuts were taken.
The person who oversaw their construction, an American naval Lieutenent C. McCarty Little, found that the budget would not allow for full construction. Working with the Miguel Cardona shipyard in Barcelona, they found two small vessels that had made trans-Atlantic passages before. In appearance, though, they were far from looking correct, so their hulls were shortened astern.
The end effect was dreadful. Both vessels proved difficult underway. Ultimately, they ended up being towed by naval ships to the Americas.
A quick look at the caravela latina, which was now the Niña, shows that while it looks good in profile and in rig, the hull, and in particular the below waterline and stern, are the wrong shape. This is actually the case with both vessels; their flat sterns go too deeply below the waterline, cutting the runs and producing poor qualities. The larger Santa Maria, while square sterned, did not have this problem.

The profile of the caravel found at the New York Public Library reveals much about the original thinking. 

Based upon the run of the wales, the stern appears to have been planned to end above the waterline. If the Segal Niña plans are acceptable evidence, that was the original intent.

The lines on the Segal drawing also appear to show a good run, certainly better than the replica, and the proportions are acceptable, though closer to a nao than a caravel.
That was not the fate that awaited the 1892 Niña. Instead, due in no small part to shortcuts taken, it was a miserable vessel. We have to rely on what information remains available to deduce whether the original plans could have produced much better results.
Just a little over twenty five years after being launched, both the 1892 Niña and Pinta were gone, followed in a few years by the larger Santa Maria. Oddly, these replicas left an unexpected legacy, in the form of artwork and models based upon the work of the Spanish Commission. 
In that sense, the Monleon caravel latina lives on.

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