Rostral columns, decorated with sterns of ships with rams, anchors and other maritime motifs commemorate naval battles and heroes. This type of Neo-Classical monuments was very popular during the 19th century.
Our French painting dates from the 19th century. Strangely enough it refers to Trajan, a Roman emperor who never won any sea battle; he did have a basin build where such battles were staged. A reference to for example Augustus (then Octavian) who won the Battle of Actium would have been more appropriate.
The painting comes from the collection of Charles de Beistegui (1895 – 1970), a famous French designer and collector.
About the history of rostral columns
Rostral columns are decorated with the bows or sterns of ships and galleys, usually holding a naval ram. Their decoration often includes such elements as anchors and grapnels.
They were erected either in memory of a naval battle or to underline the naval qualities of an admiral.
The oldest rostral monument must have been erected at the Forum Romanum in Rome to honour the victory of Consul Gaius Maenius over the Volsci in 338 BC at the naval battle of Actium: it was a tribune decorated with six rams of enemy ships.
The oldest rostral column was also erected on the Forum Romanum, to celebrate the victory of Gaius Duilius over Carthage at the Battle of Mylae (N. Sicily) in 260 B.C. at the outbreak of the First Punic War. A reconstruction of it is visible at the Museo della Civiltà Romana at the EUR in Rome.
In the 16th century Antonio Tempesta made a design for a monument in memory of Admiral Marcantonio Colonna, one of the leaders of the coalition that won the Battle of Lepanto (1561) over the Turks. The design was decorated with two Ionic Rostral Colums. The design was executed by Meo Bassi in 1590 for the Papazzo dei Conservatori in Rome.
In the 17th century Cardinal Richelieu (1585 – 1642), Prime Minister of King Louis XIII, had his ancestral manor in Touraine (S. of Chinon) changed into a lavish a palace by Jacques Lemercier in 1631. The palace held his huge collection of paintings and sculptures. It was almost completely destructed at the start of the 19th century. The entrance gate was decorated with two rostral columns in pink veined marble. They are part of the collection of the Louvre in Paris, but they are currently exhibited in the Fine Arts Museum of Orléans.
Richelieu had been appointed in 1626 governor of the harbours of France and superintendent general of the French navy and trade. He also developed a fleet of war ships that was successful against Spain from 1636 onwards in several naval battle.
In the 18th century rostral columns continued to be in vogue.
In 1747/48 one was erected in Stowe in the UK.
Between 1174 and 1778 a huge rostral column was erected in Russia in the Large Pond of the Catherine Palace in Tsarkoye Selo by the Italian architect Antonio Rinaldi.
Rostral columns regularly appeared in decorations made for huge fire works in Paris:
- in 1756 to celebrate the fall of Mahon (the capital of the island of Minorca);
- in 1783 to celebrate the peace treaty with England. This column seems to have had a huge impact, well into the 19th century.
In the 19th century rostral columns were erected all over Europe:
- in 1811: a pair in Saint Petersburg;
- in 1828: a pair in Bordeaux;
- in 1830: a pair in Rome, between the Piazza del Popolo and the Pincian Hill;
- between 1836 and 1846: the lamps in form of rostral columns on the Place de la Concorde in Paris;
- in 1876 in Pula; that column was later moved to Venice.
- In 1879, another Austrian column, in Vienna.
About our painting
Our painting dates from the 19th century.
Its subject is a real mystery: a Rostral Column of the Roman emperor Trajan. He reigned between 98 and 117 AD, as one can read on the base of our column.
Trajan was a successful conqueror and a wise and just emperor. Through his military triumphs the Roman empire attained its maximum territorial extent. But, and this is strange in the context of our painting, he is not known for having won any naval battle.
After painfully looking for a clue I was able to find two historic elements related to “water” in his life:
- on his famous Column of Trajan, during the conquest of Dacia, there is a representation of ships crossing the Danube;
- under his reign was built a basin for Naumachia, just outside Rome (between Ostia and the Vatican). In this basin were staged naval battles for mass entertainment.
About its former owner, Charles de Beistegui
Our painting comes from the collection of the eccentric multi-millionaire Charles de Beistegui (1895 – 1970).
He was one of the best-known grand decorators of France. He was born in France into a family of Basque origin that had made fortune in Mexico with silver mines.
He was a nephew of the famous collector and patron of the arts Carlos de Bestegui, who donated his famous collection of 18th and 19th century paintings to the Louvre.
Our Charles de Beistegui owned two important properties:
- the Château de Groussay was a Palladian house dating from 1815. It is situated near Rambouillet in the Yvelines, some 50 km SW of Paris. De Beistegui bought this grand mansion in 1939 and transformed it into a castle by adding two aisles, a cupola, a theatre, a ballroom and a garden with so-called ‘fabrics’.
- In 1948 he bought the Palazzo Labia on the Canal Grande in Venice, where he gave The Ball of the Century in 1951. The palace is famous for its ballroom decorated with frescoes by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.
Our dandy decorated both properties with a mixture of period pieces and designs that he had Alexandre Serebriakoff make water-colours of.
In the 1960s he sold the palazzo, so much artwork was transferred from Venice to the castle. Charles died in 1970.
In June 1999 Charles’ nephew sold the contents of the Château de Groussay in a five days sale, holding 2000 lots by Hervé Poulain, Rémi Le Fur and Sotheby’s. The sale made a total of 167 million French Francs = 25.458.982 €. Our painting was sold by Poulain – Le Fur in a separate sale.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because it is an absolutely unique and extremely decorative design.