European studies blog

07 October 2014

The Art of War: Lepanto 1571

The naval battle of Lepanto, fought off the western Greek coast on 7 October 1571, was hailed as a victory against the Ottoman empire as much artistic as political. It was sung in hendecasyllables by the greatest poets of the time (Góngora cut his poetic teeth on this subject at the age of ten with the ballad ‘Desbaratados los cuernos’, if indeed it is his). The most famous casualty was Cervantes, ‘el manco de Lepanto’, who lost his arm. We, though, might be more familiar with G.K. Chesterton’s stirring work of 1911.

Bird's-eye view of two fleets of ships drawn up for battleThe two fleets drawn up ready for battle in the Gulf of Lepanto. From A. Lafrerij,  L'Ordine tenuto dall' armata della Santa Lega Christiana contra il Turcho. (Rome, 1571).  Maps .C.7.e.2]

The commander of the Christian fleet, Don John of Austria, sported a magnificent galley adorned  with emblems and Latin mottoes such as a painting of a face-off between an elephant and a rhinoceros sharpening their ‘horns’ and the motto ‘in utrumque paratus’ [‘prepared for either side’, i.e. ‘death or victory’]’ (Cull, p. 163). Such decorative schemes for warships were not unique to Spain, as Cull notes.

The record of the appearance of the galley is patchy. There is no known picture. What we have is a written decorative scheme which was criticised and improved by Juan de Mal Lara, humanist of Seville. Mal Lara’s text was used in 1971 as the basis for the replica now displayed in the Museu Marítim, housed in the former shipyard of Barcelona.

Replica of Don John's ship with gilded and decorated sternThe replica of Don John’s galley, Museu Marítim, Barcelona (Picture by David Merret from Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)

Doyen of emblematics John Cull argues that the improving symbols and texts functioned as a mirror of princes, advice directed at Don John.  As Mal Lara said, ‘the galley itself should serve as a book of memory which, open at all hours, would instruct don Juan in all of its parts as to what he should do’ (Cull, p. 146).

But I wonder if the intended effect was in fact apotropaic, like the eyes which superstitious Mediterraneans still paint on their boats to ward off evil.  At a higher literary level, in the Roman de la Rose, the vices are depicted on the outer wall of the Garden of Love, to indicate that they have no place inside.

Thus where the ship’s decoration says ‘the prince should be prepared for either side’ it is in fact telling the enemy, ‘this prince is prepared for either side’. But of course by threatening the enemy the Spaniards were simultaneously psyching themselves up, like men who tattoo eight-letter messages on their knuckles.

On a practical level, the Turks at Lepanto may not have been great Latinists (though they used Latin in diplomacy), but this need not have inhibited the Spaniards. They knew the enemy would get the message.

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies


Los poetas de Lepanto, ed.  J. López de Toro  (Madrid, 1950)  11869.bbb.5

John T. Cull, ‘“Han de ser casi biuas las ymagenes de estas cosas.” Juan de Mal-Lara’s Floating Emblem Book: Descripción de la Galera Real del Serenísimo Sr. Don Juan de Austria’, South Atlantic Review, 72: 1 (2007),  143-70.  PP.7617.wr

Rocío Carande Herrero,  Mal-Lara y Lepanto : los epigramas latinos de la galera real de don Juan de Austria (Seville, 1990) YA.1990.b.7057

Eulàlia Miralles and Pep Valsalobre, ‘From Lluís Joan Vileta to Joan Pujol: Latin and Vernacular Poetry on the Battle of Lepanto in Catalonia’, in Humanism and Christian Letters in Early Modern Iberia (1480-1630), ed. Barry Taylor and Alejandro Coroleu (Newcastle, 2010), pp. 173-72. YC.2010.a.14065

Dariusz Kolodziejczyk, Ottoman-Polish Diplomatic Relations (15th-18th Century): An Annotated Edition of 'Ahdnames and Other Documents (Leiden, 2000).  ZA.9.a.6407(18)


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