Riding the wave

The origin of figureheads

"Figurehead" is the name designating, in the Mediterranean area, a carved figure, placed on the bow of the ship, and was a key part of the ship, especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but also in the nineteenth. The origin of the name, in romance languages, "Polen", curiously derives from footwear fashion: it comes from the french term poulaine or Souliers à la poulaine, presumably dating from the second decade of the seventeenth century.

At that time the structure of the bow of the ship undergoes a change: its end, from standing, and narrowly overhanging the sea, becomes a round cutwater that folds back towards the bow castle. Possibly the first models of these ships were presented at the French court, and recalled to some jovial person an analogy with the shape of the boots of Polish knights, known to have a round tip turned back; then, after some time, the playful allusion, that originally designated the entire bow, became the name of the figure above it.

However the custom of decorating the bow of ships with pictorial images and sculptures is much older: possibly it goes back to the battle of Salamis (480 BC), when the Athenian Lycomedes offered to Apollo the insignia of the first ship captured to the Persians. The custom was born either to collect good luck against the bad powers present in the imagination of seafarers, or as an allegiance to the gods, to obtain their protection during shipping.

So we find in the Mediterranean, on the front of ships from Egypt, Greece and Rome, a distinctive elements such as the fleece of a votive animal sacrificed to the gods before departure, or the apotropaic eye, used to ward off the evil influences. In the Eastern tradition, this was the eye of the ship, intended as a living creature, capable of choosing the best route by itself. When the ship takes a pair of bow eyes, symbolically becomes a living being who can recognize its path, and staring may know how to escape the bad eye of evil. Sometimes, what distinguishes the ship, is a rostrum, taking the shape of the head of an animal, or a decoration on top of the stem; on it were applied the first sculptures, that can be considered as figureheads.

Even the sailors of the North, the Vikings and the Normans, endowed the ships with which they carry out their raids with heads of monstrous forms, so that their victims, when attacked, would be first frightened by the sight of hideous sea monsters , the attackers being thus in an advantageous position.

During the Middle Ages ships are particularly bare, devoid of figureheads and carvings with decorative details. This occurs not because the medieval sailors were less religious or superstitious, or more rational than those who preceded them; their great religiousness is attested by the celebration of rites, and by the blessing of vessels and dedication of each vessel to one or more saints. Simply the location of votive statues was no longer outside the ship, but inside: in fact in that period originated the usage of placing a small altar with a sacred image in the quarter-deck aft, where the Sunday liturgy was celebrated.

The figurehead on the prow of the ships reappears in the second half of the fifteenth century and during the sixteenth, due to the decorative orgy in shipbuilding in the Baroque era, not really to please the artistic taste, but as a consequence of the competition for the control of the sea in the Mediterranean and in the North Sea.

In 1543 the English Bythane Jeffrey wrote a treatise on the need of decorating the vessels, so they would honor the flag home with the opulence of their ornaments. The use of stucco and gilding was then introduced into England by James I (1566-1625), immediately imitated by other navies.

Enormous sums are spent to build, equip and decorate galleys and galleons. Venetians and Genoese, Spanish, English, Swedish and French vied in setting up great vessels, meticulous in the details and with impressive decorations and elaborate figureheads. These, in most cases, are 'groups' of characters or motifs, seldom identifiable in a single figure.

As a typical example may be recalled the English Sovereign of the Seas, the largest ship at its time with its 60x17 feet, armed with 100 guns; it was built by Phineas Pett, while the decorations were by Anton van Dyck, a pupil of Rubens. The figurehead represents King Edgar the Pacific, riding a white horse, triumphant over seven kings enemies, to symbolize the victory of virtue on the seven deadly sins.

In France the most magnificent example is the Soleil Royal, a frigate with 104 guns, built in Brest in 1669 and decorated by Pierre Puget, a pupil of Pietro da Cortona.

Only in the eighteenth century, the reduction of the decorations isolates more and more the forward shape, and this one is simplified, becoming a figure with well defined characteristics. This takes to the birth of the figurehead in the true sense of the word.

Across Europe the art of manufacturing military figureheads for ships and cargo flourished until the late nineteenth century. They were, as already stated, less elaborate and rich in ornaments, and generally consisted of a single statue, though treated in great detail, with colors and gilding, by a skilled artist who worked on commission in any arsenal.

The inspiration for the sculptor came, as in previous centuries, from animals: lions, sea horses, dolphins, or the mythical griffin and the unicorn; or from the figures of gods and mythological heroes, but also were the portraits of monarchs, or the busts of monks and saints, or also the images of women, in contrast to the traditional aversion to the presence of female sailors on board, considered as bearers of doom: Venus, Amphitrite and sirens, but also girls and women of the time were widely represented.

The evolution of shipbuilding and the increasing use of metals in the structure of vessels eventually made the work of sculptors in the arsenals almost useless. By the end of the eighteenth century the Admiralties had gradually reduced the expenses for naval decorations; insurers protested that this was a useless and fashioned tinsel, and also dangerous, so the figureheads were destined to fully disappear. Only a few small private owners continued to give work to independent artisans for the execution of ornamental elements of sailing vessels, during the heyday of that type of navigation in the nineteenth century.

Today a few figureheads may still be seen under the bowsprit on school vessels, but they can be admired only in exhibitions and naval museums, set up in many seaside towns in the world, or in replicas and copies, of which the lovers of this specialty have encouraged the spread, in hotels, restaurants and homes on the sea of private collectors, as glaring testimony to the fascination they still exercise, thanks to their extraordinary ability to evoke a heroic and fairy-tale past, fraught with dangers and obstacles, but always compelling our eyes.

Lia Luchini
See also an exhibition of modern figureheads in Imperia, during the Raduno Vele d'Epoca 2004 , as part of the event "Forbidden Figurehead."