Cornelis de Wael was a highly important Flemish painter who had settled in Italy, in Genoa and in Rome. Genoa was an important satellite of Spain, as the Spaniards used its fleet and its money. De Wael and his studio assistants regularly painted such a sea battles between Christian (Spanish and Genovese) and Turkish ships. These paintings are usually attributed in full to the master, to Cornelis de Wael himself, although there is probably only just one fully signed painting known by him.
About Cornelis de Wael
Antwerp 1592 – 1667 Rome
Painter of sea battles between Christians and Turks and of military subjects, of genre scenes and of landscapes. He also painted several series of the Seven Works of Mercy.
Son of the painter Jan de Wael I (Antwerp 1558 – 1633 Antwerp), who had been a pupil of Frans Francken I.
Younger brother of Lucas de Wael (Antwerp 1591 – 1661 Antwerp) who specialised in landscape painting and in genre scenes.
De Wael spent his complete active career in Italy, in Genoa and in Rome:
- in 1610 he left Antwerp for Genoa, together with his elder brother, Lucas.
- by the end of 1625 and in 1626 Cornelis and Lucas are documented in Rome. In 1627 Cornelis’ brother, Lucas, returned to Antwerp and remained there until his death;
- Cornelis did not accompany his brother; he returned to Genoa until the plague forced him to leave town again, some thirty years later, around 1656/57;
- he finally settled in Rome where he stayed until his death, except for a brief sojourn in 1660 in Genoa.
Genoa was one of the major harbour towns and financial cities of Italy, and thus of the Mediterranean. As economy was booming its aristocracy formed a rich caste of potential patrons for painters. While Rome worked as a magnet for Italian and foreign artists, this was much less the case for the Ligurian capital.
The climate in Rome seems to have been too hot, especially for Lucas de Wael (who was rather corpulent). Above all both brothers did not specially enjoy the loud company of the Flemish painters grouped in the Schildersbent (founded in or circa 1623). Shortly after they left the Eternal City one its members (Cornelis Schut), called the ‘Bentvueghels’ (“group of birds”), was even arrested in September 1627 for the murder on a Dutch painter (Joost uit den Haech?) and later expelled from Rome.
Probably at their return in Genoa both de Wael brothers were portrayed together by Sir Anthony van Dijck (Antwerp 1599 – 1641 London); this famous portrait hangs today at the Pinacoteca Capitolina in Rome.
The importance and success of Cornelis de Wael in Italy cannot be stressed enough:
- with his Flemish art he influenced Italian painters;
- he received and helped many Flemish painters who visited Italy in his homes of Genoa and Rome. For example Anthony van Dijck stayed periodically with both brothers in Genoa between 1621 and 1627; Andries van Eertvelt, the first Flemish specialist in marine paintings, stayed with Cornelis in Genoa between 1627 and 1630;
- he helped many Flemish painters and international patrons as an art dealer, looking also after shipments, deliveries, etc. He also dealt in other luxury goods, among these there were a lot of liturgical texts;
- he worked together with landscape painters, such as his brother Lucas and Jan Wildens;
There seems to be only one fully signed painting known by Cornelis de Wael, while there are also a few signed drawings known.
In a typical Flemish way Cornelis lead a well organised workshop with several assistants, who would usually work on the less important parts of the paintings.
About naval battles between Christians and Turks
During the Middle Ages the Turks moved in successive and successful waves from Asia towards Anatolia. The Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453. But they did not stop at the shores of the Mediterranean. The Ottoman empire continued to expand: the Greek islands in the Aegean, Cyprus, mainland Greece, important parts of Southern Europe, E. and N. Africa, all fell into Turkish hands.
Christian nations suffered severely. France on the other hand took in 1543 the city of Nice from the Duchy of Savoy with the help of an Ottoman fleet.
In 1571 the Holy League was created under Pope Pius V to fight the Turks in the Eastern Mediterranean. All major Southern European Catholic nations joined, except of course for France: the Republic of Venice, the Spanish Empire, the Papal States, the Republic of Genoa and the Knights Hospitaller from Malta.
October 7th 1571 the fleet of the Holy League crushed the Ottoman navy at the Battle of Lepanto in the Gulf of Patras, Greece. This Christian victory at sea, actually the first important one since centuries, temporarily stopped Turkish expansion. It boosted Christian moral: while the Ottomans kept conquering territory in N. Africa they were being attacked and now regularly defeated by Spanish ships.
About our naval battle scene
Since Lepanto paintings representing Christian, actually often Spanish, ships fighting Turkish, became a popular subject. Most of these paintings hold just a few ships. “Pars pro toto” as one says in Latin, meaning that a partial view of a naval battle stands for the larger vision.
Often these partial views are today still being called “the battle of Lepanto”. While the name of Lepanto rings a bell, nobody knows today the later, smaller naval battles between Spanish and Turkish fleets, such as the Battle of Cape Corvo (between the island of Samos and the Anatolian mainland), which was fought in August 1613.
One may wonder in how far these paintings are visually and historically correct. Both the battles at Lepanto and at Corvo were clashes uniquely between galleys. From an artistic point of view galleons (sailing ships) with their high masts and sails and monumental aftercastle were much more interesting and dramatic to portray than those low, extremely horizontal galleys.
Lepanto was fought between a huge total of 463 galleys, Corvo between only 18. Both battles were won by the Christians.
An interesting question is why Cornelis de Wael and his workshop produced this many paintings representing naval battles between Spanish and Turkish ships. Clearly there must have been an important demand for this subject.
Between 1005 and 1797 Genoa remained a more or less independent state, with periods of French or Milanese dominion. But at its peak, during the 16th century, Genoa became a satellite state of the Spanish Habsburg Empire. In 1528 its most famous condottiere and admiral, Andrea Doria, had successfully chosen the side of the Spanish emperor Charles V against the French king Francis I. That very same year the Genoese bankers did the same. From now on they lent huge sums of money, actually financing the Spanish crown. The palaces along the Via Garibaldi in Genoa still testify of their wealth. Andrea Doria’s adoptive son, Gianandrea Doria, commanded the right wing of the fleet of the Holy League at Lepanto.
In this composition I can only identify one flag, a Spanish one: it is the red X-shaped cross of Saint Andrew on a white field. This Burgundy cross (“Batons de Bourgogne”) was based on the wooden cross where St. Andrew was crucified on. At the origin it was the flag of Burgundy (including Flanders). Following the marriage of Mary of Burgundy with Maximilian of Austria it became a Habsburg and therefore Spanish flag up till 1785. The design is two crossed, roughly knotted, red branches on a white field. In 1785 Charles III of Spain decided to change this flag due to similarities with the English Cross of Saint George, a red cross on a white field.
Andries van Eertvelt (Antwerp 1590 – 1652 Antwerp), the first Flemish marine specialist, lived in Genoa between 1627 and 1630; he stayed with Cornelis de Wael in his house and worked with him. He must have thoroughly influenced our painter. Van Eertvelt had been a member of the Antwerp Painters’ Guild of Saint Luke since the year 1609/1610. Following the death of his first wife he had travelled to Italy.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because it is such a nice, large, complex composition.