There is a particular class of illustration in which, among the secondary figures of the image, there is a small happening, an everyday trifle, that has been captured by the artist and included in the overall communication for no necessary reason. (for example, see here and below1). I’ve written about this a little before on this blog in posts about finding images-within-images: the unecessaries among the unnecessaries, the bits and pieces of everyday human existence that in and of itself is not worth commentary but which nearly everyone experiences. Small bits, they are, of a tremendous human nature, the things that are done in private, or are so universal but inconsequential that they are shocking to see when illustrated in print.
Titus Livius (59
BCE-17 ACE), better known to the English-speaking world as Livy, was a superior
among superiors of Roman historians, writing on the history of his city and
country. His work, Romische Historie…,
published in Mainz by Johann Schoeffler 1450 years later in 1514, was one of
the most beautifully illustrated books ever produced in that city. This is a considerable statement, as
And in looking at
this fantastic work by Livy, I am a little embarrassed to find this spectacular
bit of human tendency displayed in this woodcut depicting a naval engagement
during the Punic Wars. It is a beautiful
thing, this scene of warfare depicted on tranquil seas and ribbony waves,
determination in every face. But what I
noticed in the small boat at bottom right is a man reaching out into the water—not
for a dropped oar, or to help a man overboard, or to catch his falling
I have reason to doubt that during the Punic Wars there may have been an unwritten chapter, “On the History of Dropped Hats During Warfare”. Surely soldiers dropped their hats during the history of roman conquest, but I’d say that retrieving the headgear was more important at the Battle of the Bulge in protecting your noggin from badly splintering trees traveling at you at 180 mph and other such places than a wool cap dropped from a ship in pitched battle two hundred meters from shore.
I like this so
because it is probably the first reaction that most of us would have—just a
habit, battle raging or not—and just utterly human. Just a little piece of back-history that
doesn’t go anywhere and is lost to experience.
I’m sure that Herr Gutenberg dropped his hat at odd times, as did the
unknown artist of this print. Just an
odd bit, like the first things printed on Gutenberg’s press being religious indulgences
for people paying their way past Purgatory (and worse). The fact that the indulgences preceded the
great bible by several years doesn’t really matter, and neither does retrieving
a dropped hat in a sea battle—but they do make interesting stories.
1. Some other Found Images posts: