This week, I’m delighted to welcome back guest blogger Gijs Rommelse to introduce the book on naval ideology that he, Alan James and I have co-edited. This is now available for pre-order from Routledge. In addition to the symposium in Vlaardingen, mentioned in the blog, the three of us are forming a panel at the Bangor Restoration Conference at the end of this month, and I’ll be talking on a similar theme at a conference in Rostock, Germany, in September.


It was a complex painting that the famous Renaissance painter Titian produced for King Philip II on the occasion of the Spanish-Venetian-Papal victory at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. At the same time, however, it was easy for politically aware viewers to interpret. We see the Spanish prince raising his new-born son, Don Fernando, to Heaven, to make it clear that both the victory over the Ottomans and the birth of the potential heir to his throne must be seen as a clear proof of God’s favour. An angel has descended from Heaven to salute the offer of the young prince, carrying in his hand a palm branch with the accompanying text “maiora tibi”. To emphasize the fame, the civilization and the brilliance of the victorious Spanish royal dynasty, Titian has portrayed a captive Ottoman in the left foreground, complete with a turban, a shield with a green crescent and a Turkish drum. The unfortunate Ottoman is seated on the ground and handcuffed, as a result of which he is at the mercy of the victor. His nakedness conveniently contrasts with the splendid armor and precious clothing of Philips. In the background we see the famous naval battle taking place.

The painting by Titian is of course unique, but at the same time it in not. Indeed, many hundreds or perhaps even thousands of paintings from the early modern age have been preserved that fit naval events into a political-cultural framework in a similar fashion. Princes like Philip were eager to showcase their military successes at sea in order to emphasize the viability and legitimacy of their rule and dynasty. The battle was then depicted in combination with all kinds of allegorical symbols and metaphors that had to express this association. But such ideologization of naval power was not the exclusive domain of princes. Republics, city authorities and admiralties too used maritime successes as an occasion to express or confirm a collective political-cultural self-image and to underline the validity of certain political claims. A good example of this was the annual parade over the Venice Lagoon from the Piazza San Marco to the Sant’ Andrea Fort. The Doge then threw a golden ring in the waves to perpetuate the marriage between the city-state and the sea, thereby speaking the words “Desponsamus te mare, in signo veri perpetuique domini,” “We marry you, o sea, as an expression of real and eternal rule ‘. This dominium was said to have been granted to the Venetians in 1177 by the grateful Pope Alexander III.

Canaletto’s portrayal of Venice’s annual ‘wedding’ with the sea

Not only princes or governments ideologized naval power, enterprising artists played an equally important role in this. Reputable painters such as Titian understood very well why and how those in power wanted to see their naval claims depicted and subsequently earned a good income from their propagandistic services. But this also applied to the etchers, pamphleteers, poets and songwriters who served the lower end of the market. They too understood very well that large sections of the public considered the navy to be the tool of the nation’s real political and economic interests, and knew fully well what chunk of the state’s fiscal means were taken up by the incredibly expensive warfleet. Patriotism was easy to sell, especially to the urban middle classes, particularly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. That is why countless media products appeared in the maritime-orientated parts of England, the Dutch Republic and Germany. Together these gave a sense of purpose to the existence of navies, to the strategies used, to the organization and infrastructure, and to the actual course of operations. There was thus a continuous discourse on naval power, a social debate in which all social classes participated, explicitly or implicitly, and which was necessarily conducted within the context of discourses on national identity.

Countless books have been written about early modern naval power, from all sorts of perspectives. States have been portrayed as creative forces, the role of technological innovation has been scrutinized, as has the emergence of permanent bureaucracies, tactics such as the line of battle, and the ways in which navy boards attempted to manipulate the maritime labor market. However, only very occassionally have authors considered navies to be cultural constructs. What cultural significance did governments give to their war fleet and to the large-scale infrastructure needed for their construction and maintenance? Why did maritime societies attribute so much importance to their own naval organization and was there a relatively large preparedness to continue baring the fiscal burden? How did governments use the idea of ​​naval power to legitimize their political ideas, agendas and profiles? How did opposition forces capitalize on naval events to bring political alternatives to the fore? In what ways did discourses on the war fleet influence developments within the concept of a collective identity?

Such questions are extensively addressed in Ideologies or Western Naval Power, c. 1500-1815, the new edited volume of David Davies, Alan James and Gijs Rommelse. The three editors first discuss the long overdue emancipation of naval history as a scholarly subdiscipline, and then clarify what naval ideologies may be and how studying these might increase the overall relevance of naval history. It then treats the reader to fifteen essays, each of which deals with a national case or takes a thematic approach. Among the authors are well-known specialists such as John Hattendorf, Patrick Villiers, Steve Murdoch, David Trim and Richard Harding. Andrew Lambert provided the concluding remarks. The hardback edition is now available at Routledge for a mere £92. A paperback and an e-book will also be available.

Furthermore, an English-language symposium will be held on 27 September in Museum Vlaardingen, in the Netherlands, on the happy occassion of the publication of our edited volume. The organization is partly in the hands of the Netherlands Institute of Military History, based in The Hague. In addition to the three editors, Andrew Lambert will also talk about “seapower cultures”. Professor Michiel van Groesen (Leiden) will chair the day. It promises to be an intellectually stimulating afternoon, while it is expected that an evening in one of the local restaurants and some of the local pubs will be equally enjoyable.


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