The medieval period had seen the rise of several Italian maritime city states, well-placed to take advantage of the traffic in goods between Europe and the Middle and Far East, and in pilgrims visiting the holy land. Inevitably this lead to rivalry between the states, and at times open war, but by the 16th century the dominant maritime power in Italy was the Republic of Venice. Nevertheless, with such a long and active coastline, Italians from all over the peninsular engaged in working on the sea, and Italian sailors were regularly to be found in the crews of ships from many nations, while some of Italy’s most famous sailors, like Columbus and Vespucci, would leave their mark on maritime history forever.
The Italian Sailors series is the latest is a number of naval sets from RedBox for the later renaissance, and the format is now well-established. There are three sets for each nationality, and each generally concentrates on one aspect of the subject. Here we find some generic sailors, but the first four poses pictured above tell us that the main thrust of this set is the galley. This is because these four poses are surely meant to be rowers, although in all honesty we were far from sure of that when we first saw them. Manning the oars on a galley was far from pleasant work for so many reasons, one of which was the lack of space. Galleys often had three men to an oar, and sometimes more, yet were very thin to maximise speed, so the rowers were fairly tightly packed, which means they did not have the luxury of spacing their arms as far apart as these four. In fact rowers usually had their arms more or less straight out in front of them, so for that reason alone these are unwise poses. In addition, although they have knees bent they are all quite flat, so barely perch on any sort of bench. While there are several techniques for rowing, the usual method involved the man standing for part of the stroke, and then pulling back to a seated position on the return, yet these four are not really doing one thing or the other, and again, would not have had the space to have their legs so far apart. Basically a proper rowing position is almost impossible to achieve using a standard steel mould (without multiple parts or a more sophisticated moulding technique), and these figures illustrate why that is.
The last figure in the first row seems to be a generic pose, and we couldn’t say if he is doing anything specific. However the position of his legs, and the absence of a base, strongly suggest he is supposed to be in the rigging, which makes sense. This also applies to the first figure in the second row, who is clearly climbing, though he could be on a ladder, but the next two figures seem to be on deck. The first is carrying some rope (which could be for many reasons, perhaps about to use a sounding weight), and the second has his hands as if holding something, which again is generic although our thoughts tend towards steering the ship. Finally we have the drummer, presumably beating out a rhythm for the rowers. While a classic device in Hollywood films, we were unable to establish if this actually happened on Renaissance galleys, though it would seem reasonable. The positioning of the drum sticks is less than ideal, but again a very tricky pose to do well with a single piece. Whether the drum is accurate is anyone’s guess, but it makes sense that it is supported at three points, so is very stable.
Even ignoring the rather poor rower poses, we were surprised by their costume, particularly the first two. This pair wear large full-length coats with hoods, and peakless caps, yet every reference we could find to the appearance of galley oarsmen speaks of little clothing and only wearing rags, which is not what we have here. Now there is a French watercolour, dated to the 16th century, labelled as 'Venetian Galley Slave', and it seems this has been the source for numerous reproductions in modern works, and in this present set. Yet the watercolour makes no suggestion that the man is actually rowing (we carries a small barrel under his arm, for some reason), and no modern reproduction we could find (including the Osprey book) makes this suggestion either, so we would guess that this man would wear this coat (a common Ottoman piece of clothing) but not while he is engaged in the hot and very physical work of rowing. He clearly IS an Ottoman because only Ottoman prisoners were made slaves by Venice at this date, and both the coat and peakless cap are typical Ottoman. Also, both men have chains around the waist and ankle, so must be either slaves or convicts.
The second pair of rowers are much more plausible in our view, though the pose is still bad. Both men wear a shirt and breeches, and nothing more. They are not chained, so are neither slaves nor convicts, and are at the oars by choice (hard to believe, but many oarsmen even at this time were free men). Venice came late to the acceptance of using slaves and convicts as oarsmen – such men needed guarding at all times, and would not contribute in the event of a boarding action – so many Venetian galleys would only have had free men such as these.
The rest of the crewmen wear fairly typical Italian costume of the 16th century (although not for the 17th), and are fairly lightly attired as you might expect. However we worried that these are still dressed more like civilians on a warm day than the coarse and basic costume of a sailor. We found no dedicated source on the appearance of sailors whilst on board ship, so we can prove nothing, but the good clothes and the fashionable caps do not seem like rough sailing gear to us.
Sculpting is very good. In particular the clothes are very loose so have many folds and creases, all of which have been really well done. Faces and anatomy is also good, apart from the rather scary faces of the two Ottoman slaves. Things occasionally go a bit awry with the feet, but generally these are good-looking figures. There is a bit of flash in places, but nothing too distressing.
With so little evidence to work with, we have to make some assumptions about how these men looked, and these seem to be different to those made by RedBox. The rowers with thick coats seems certainly wrong, but the others are far less easy to evaluate. The rowing poses might work in some very small ships (though even then are awkward and unnatural), but certainly not for the large galleys such as were to be found at Lepanto, for example. The other poses are OK though, and the sculpting good too, so another interesting set that certainly is not without fault, but is the first to illustrate the men that manned the most important ships in the Mediterranean at a time when Italy in general was the focus of so much that was happening in Europe.