Build for War, Decorate for Glory: The ‘Royal’ Galley of Lepanto

In 1571 around 500 warships gathered off the coast of Greece near Lepanto. On one side, the army of the Ottoman Empire led by the invincible Ali Pasha. Opposite, the army of the Holy League, an alliance created by Pope Pius V and led by Don Juan of Austria, brother of Philip II.

The outcome of the famous Battle of Lepanto, which has just been celebrated 450 years ago, is well known. For the first time in many years the Turks were defeated and forced to retreat to the eastern Mediterranean. So important was this victory for the Christians that Cervantes, who participated in it, called the battle the highest occasion that the centuries saw.

The Battle of Lepanto, by Andries van Eertvelt.
Wikimedia Commons

Lepanto was also a unique opportunity for Venice, Spain and the Papacy, normally at odds with each other, to have the opportunity to flaunt their power through the extraordinary decorations that adorned their galleys.

And if there was a ship that surpassed them all, that was the Real of Don Juan de Austria, the captain galley of the Holy League that Philip II commissioned to build in Barcelona and decorate in Seville.

A floating palace to go to war

The short life of Real It is full of anecdotes, unforeseen events and last minute decisions. Until a few years ago, the news was limited almost exclusively to the Description that the scholar Juan de Mal Lara made of it in 1571. Mal Lara himself says that Felipe II ordered the viceroy of Catalonia to in Barcelona he had this Galley built of the best wood found in those parts, as the pine of Catalonia is the best firewood found in Asia, Africa and Europe.

The best craftsmen of the Drassanes of Barcelona worked for more than a year to turn it into a perfect war machine. It was what was called a bastard galley, larger and heavier than the usual ones and, therefore, capable of transporting a greater number of soldiers. With her sixty meters in length and thirty oars per side, her speed was much higher than the average of these ships.

While the Real was built in Barcelona, ​​from Madrid it was commissioned to an Italian artist who worked in the Court of Felipe II known as Il Bergamasco to design the decorative program that should adorn it.

It is now when Seville fully crosses the destiny of the Real. We know, thanks to a series of notarial documents preserved in this city, that at the same time that the ship began to be built in Barcelona, ​​it was commissioned by the most famous Sevillian sculptor of his time, Juan Bautista Vázquez the old, to make the structure of the stern and all its sculptures. The contract also ordered him to go to Barcelona to assemble the stern once it was finished.

But the unexpected death of the Bergamasco in 1569 led Felipe II to make an extraordinary decision: to appoint the Sevillian Juan de Mal Lara as a substitute for the Bergamasco and to entrust him with supervising the decoration of the Real. He also decides that it will no longer be Juan Bautista Vázquez who goes to Barcelona, ​​but that the RealOnce built, it will be transferred to Seville to be decorated. She will arrive there, going up the Guadalquivir, in 1570.

Under the supervision of Mal Lara the decoration of the Real it will become much more complex. He himself relates that each painting and each figure had to signify an example that don Juan had to follow. But the decorative program should also serve the Spanish monarchy. In addition, the images also had to exalt the glory of Spain.

The gods and mythological heroes sail in Seville

Seville was in the Renaissance a rich and cultured city that attracted artists from all over the empire. The documents consulted from the time confirm who they were and how they participated in the decoration of the Real. For his part, Mal Lara left in writing the complete description of the ornamental program. This document was not published until the end of the 19th century, which kept the memory of the galley lost. Real for nearly three centuries.

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Royal Galley (replica). Port stern and fin.
JL Biel / Maritime Museum of Barcelona

The decoration focused mainly on the stern and the bow. The stern was the noblest part of a galley and the captain stayed there, so he will gather in it the greatest decorative boasts. Both on its sides and in the central part facing the sea, nine sculptures were placed representing virtues, gods and ancient heroes. Mars, Hercules or Minerva, among others, could not be missing from a war galley.

Along with them were included nine paintings of pagan themes that were made by Pedro de Villegas, one of the most respected painters of his time. Jason and the Argonauts, Alexander the Great or Neptune are some of the characters represented. Along with paintings and sculptures, grotesques, fantastic figures, eagles and lions were carved and gilded. All with the sole purpose of glorifying the power of Spain.

The interior of the stern was the captain’s quarters and where he held meetings with his lieutenants. The decoration, which was made with wood inlays or marquetry, symbolized the virtues that Don Juan should possess as general of the fleet. The message is much more subtle than on the outside and was designed by the humanist Cristóbal de las Casas. Dozens of animals appear symbolically representing a virtue. But also emblems, nymphs, minor heroes and even Emperor Charles V himself.

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Royal Galley (replica). Inside of the stern.
JL Biel / Maritime Museum of Barcelona

Over the stern was placed a line of red damask on the outside and blue taffeta on the inside. Like a sky, it was decorated by the painters Antonio de Alfián and Luis de Valdivieso with celestial figures and constellations.

In the bow the decoration, although smaller, stood out above all for the extraordinary figurehead that represented Neptune on a dolphin about to throw the trident at the enemy.

file 20220214 103533 1bwzay4.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Replica of the Royal Galley. Bow.
A. Ventosa / Maritime Museum of Barcelona

At the beginning of 1571 the Real was finished. Painted red and white and protected by the mythological gods and heroes who decorated it, she left Seville for Lepanto.

What happened to the royal galley after Lepanto?

The Real he met in Sicily with the rest of the Christian army. Sailing to the East in search of the Turks, the battle was not long in coming. In Lepanto the Real and the Sultana –captain galleys of both armies– faced each other in the center of the battle. Both were badly damaged, but it was the Turkish ship that got the worst of it; his admiral Ali Pasha lost his life and, along with him, nearly 30,000 of his men. In all, some 80 Ottoman galleys were lost and a further 130 taken.

And the Realwhat happened to her? According to the chronicles of the battle, of the 285 galleys of the Holy League at least 40 were practically destroyed. Unfortunately the Real was one of them. She returned with great difficulty to the port of Messina and there the memory of her is lost. So battered was it that Don Juan could no longer return to Spain in it to announce victory to Philip II.

Of this legendary ship, heir to the great galleys of the past, we only keep the standard in the Royal Armory of Madrid and the blue banner that hung from its mainmast, today in the Museum of Santa Cruz de Toledo. The gods, nymphs, heroes of antiquity and all the allegories that made it a true floating palace disappeared without leaving a trace. Only the description made by Mal Lara allows us to glimpse what was, without a doubt, one of the most impressive artistic cycles of the Renaissance.

In the Spain of the 16th century, in the midst of a cultural panorama where the Church imposed its norms, the Real as one of the most complete mythological decorative programs of its time. The gods, heroes and emblems that decorated it were the best propaganda of the power of the Spanish monarchy. And they made it a real floating palace at the service of war.

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