JF Ptak Science Books Post 1737 (Expanding post #850, On Dropping Your Hat in the Punic Wars)
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 Mainz was the birthplace/hotbed of moveable type printing, being home to Johann Gutenberg and a number of other early presses.
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 sword.
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.
The only thing that I'd rather have the artist improve in this print were the waves--the ones on exhibit here weren't very saucy. Admittedly, waves were a large problem so far as depicting them goes, what with the whole vast subject of fluid dynamics so little known at the time. THe person who would know this phenomenon best at this point--Leonardo--was thinking and working but wasn't sharing. His "Studies of water Formations” (c. 1507-09)? and the later, magnificent “Deluge” (1513, nearly the year of publication of the above) would stay hidden for centuries, the big step forward in the West having to wait for another 120 and 140 years (respectively) for the works of Benedetto Castelli, and Evangelista Torricelli,
This aside, I think that I'd rather see heavier lines in my Renaissance waves, more in line with we find in Publius Virgilius Maro Oper accuratissime castigata..., a richly illustrated (104 large woodcuts) work published in 1537, even though the artwork (evidently) appeared in an earlier edition of 1502. No matter, "The Master of Grueninger's Workshop" created some beautiful waves:
There's nothing "wrong" of course with the Livy waves; the Virgil though has sharper, darker, blacker and stronger contrasts in the water. Of course, the Livy has that incredibly human act of the man reaching for his fallen hat int he heat of battle, and that's something that rarely seems to happen in prints of the Renaissance.
1. Some other Found Images posts:
Finding Hidden Images in Antique Prints: 18th Century Forensic Social X-Rays of Florence by Guiseppe Zocchi