HMS Victory
HMS Victory

Anatomy of the ship of the line
Anatomy of the ship of the line

Evolution of the ship of the line
Evolution of the ship of the line

Sovereign of the Seas
Sovereign of the Seas


In the Mediterranean, wind is generally either very strong or very feeble for the large sailing ships. Because of this the heavy merchant ships without an escort were easy prey for the pirate galleys, which could maneuver independently of the wind, and always, since the Classical Age, the large rowing units, triremes, biremes and liburnias, were the predominant warships. In the Mediterranean, naval combats with strong swell were rare, for galleys were not suitable for that matter.

As their names and representations indicate, those warships from the Classical Age were impulsed by oars disposed in two or three rows, with one or more men in each oar. Still in the Middle Age, until the mid 14th century, the warships had two rows of oars. But in the late century a change happened. A contemporary painting, depicting a naval battle between the Venetian Fleet and that of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, shows galleys which could be considered biremes, but the oars are not distributed in two rows, but arranged in pairs over a large beam, secured by some sort of straps.

Other than that, these ships probably differed little from the last Greek biremes. As in the Ottoman counterparts, the ram was above the waterline and it had probably lost its former purpose, to be used only as a boarding platform. The inclined flag pole, perhaps a reminiscence of the bowsprit for the former "artimon" sail, was already present in the old Byzantine dromon. In Italy, this galley with the oars disposed in pairs was called "fusta". Not much later, circa the mid 15th century, we find galleys with the oars disposed in groups of three, all in the same plane. These triremes were called "galia sottil".

Galleys on the 15th century

Galleys were built not only for war. In Jacobi Aurie Annales ad annum MCCXCI (James Aurie Annals of the year 1291) we can read the first attempt to find a course towards India along the African coast. The brothers Ugolino and Guido Vivaldi departed that year from Genoa to Ceuta with two galleys, but after passing Cape Gozora (in the south of modern Morocco) their trail was lost forever. It is unknown how their gallys were, but a treaty about naval construction from the mid 15th century contains a depiction of a transport galley. She is a large "galia sottil" with nineteen groups of three oars per bank, with a total of 114 oars. She is rigged like Portuguese caravels, and the flag pole at prow rests in a large yoke in the stem. Leaving apart the oars and the shape of the stern, this ship could be considered as a caravel and it is very little what we know about the origin of this type. But we know that Mediterranean merchant galleys traveled annually to England.

In the "Atlas of Grazioso Benincasa" from 1482 there is, among other ships, a "fusta" with 23 pairs of oars per side, with a total of 92 oars and oarsmen. Roughly from the same time are the paintings from which was made the reconstruction of a large galley with three oars per bank. In the large galley depicted by Carpaccio we can count 84 rowlocks, which means 84 oars and 168 oarsmen per side. It is not very clear how the rowers sat, but in 1881 it was built in Venetia a model of a galley which gave an aceptable disposition for the rowers. In the prow there are two curved catheads, typical of galleys. In the centerline, as in the ancient Greek galleys, there is a long corridor between the rowing banks, called "corsia", actually a prominence of the hull with robust side pieces which granted a high longitudinal resistance to the ship. The sterncastle has poles to support the awning reserved for the officers and a fork in which the long lateen yard could rest. The galley depicted by Carpaccio shows for the last time the inclined flag pole.

Venetian galley, circa 1480

Galleys on the 16th century

It is possible that on the early 16th century a new propulsion system were introduced in galleys. It had been acknowledged that propulsion would be made simpler and more effective by reducing the number of oars while increasing that of oarsmen, generally five on each oar. These rowers would sit at the same level and the oarsman handling the end of the oar would control the rythm. Pinturicchio, deceased in 1513, included in a painting a large galleass (a combination of a galley and a large sailing ship), with oars which rested at regular intervals on a long beam, indicating that the new system had been already introduced.

It is possible that the new rowing method quickly spread. Two watercolors by Rafael seem to depict the new system. Until few decades ago the only model of a 16th-century galley was that exhibited on the Museo Storico Navale of Venice. Unfortunately it was severely damaged and the sterncastle is missing, as well as the ram, the corsia and the rowing banks, but the preserved parts give a good idea of a Venetian galley, specially if we are able to complete it by using a depiction of a very similar galley, like that in the fresco by Andrea Vicentino, on the Barbarigo Palace of Venice. This galley shows three masts, whereas the model shows signs of only one, but we can see the same arcuated holes in the bulwark above the rowing beam and the same windows in the quarters.

Also during the 16th century it seems to have started the utilization of cannons in galleys. In an engraving by Pieter Brueghel the Old, which allegedly depicts a Portuguese galley from 1565, we can see seven artillery pieces. In the painting of the invasion fleet of Francois I, from 1545, there are galleys as well, but it cannot be seen if they are armed with cannons, and it seems that the disposition of the oars is the old one. Also the English put galleys into service and, during the 17th century and the early 18th century, the Swedish and the Russians used them in the Baltic, but these vessels were never successful in the northern waters.

On the mid 16th century, the Venetian galley builder Pre Theodoro de Nicoḷ wrote the instructions for his successors in a manuscript preserved in the Marciana Library of Venice. Among other data, he gave the dimensions of different types of galleys: a "fusta" had 26.97 meters from stem to sternpost, 3.96 meters in beam and 1.37 meters in draught, whereas in an ordinary galley the respective dimensions were 39.93, 5.03 and 1.68 meters, and those of a "bastard" galley were 46.02, 7.47 and 3.03 meters.

The corsia (the corridor running between the rowing banks) had a width of 83.8 centimeters and the planks that formed its sides had 20 cemtimeters in width. The distance between the corsia and the beam in which the oars rested was 4.42 meters. The following reconstruction of a Venetian galley from the second half of the 16th century was made attending to several data sources, including the aforementioned paintings and model and the dimensions given by Pre Theodoro.

Venetian galley, circa 1570

Galleasses on the 16th century

The largest battle fought by galleys on History took place the 7th October 1571, in Lepanto (Greece), when the combined fleets of Spain, Malta, Venice and of the Pope - in total 208 well equipped galleys and galleasses - achieved a sound victory over the fleet of 273 Turkish galleys, not so well equipped. The great victory, naturally, was depicted by many contemporary artists and seemingly the main point of interest for many of them were the heavy and powerful galleasses. In these vessels it was made an attempt to combine the maneuverability and independence from the wind with a greater artillery power and the utilization of the wind when required.

The galleasses shown in the paintings of Lepanto seem to match the representation of a Spanish galleass in a fresco on the Escorial which illustrates the Battle of the Azores, in 1582. In the representation of the English fleet in 1545, by Anthony Anthony, we can see galleasses as well, but, as we could expect from a northern country not familiarized with galleys, they were sailing ships, somewhat longer and lower than usual, fitted with oars. The Mediterranean galleasses, on contrary, seem to have been galleys of tall freeboard.

In his manuscript, Pre Theodoro also described the construction of rowing gallions, the largest of which had 44.20 meters from stem to sternpost, 8.23 meters in beam and 2.74 meters in draught, with two men on each oar and two oars on each bank, returning so to the old system. Perhaps these rowing gallions were like galleasses. Albeit gallions made their first apparition not much before Pre Theodoro wrote his manuscript, it is possible that his writings could give a clue about their origin.

The following reconstruction is based in the galleasses which fought on Lepanto and the Azores, along with dimensions given by Pre Theodoro. We can see eight heavy cannons in the rounded forecastle and another two heavy pieces on carriages in the sterncastle. We can see as well the possibility of another twelve or fourteen light cannons and perhaps also falconets. The large galleasses in Lepanto were rigged with three lateen masts and a sort of bowsprit supporting a square sail. The ram is so robust, apart from being reinforced with iron, that it could have been used for its original purpose. The rowers and troops were protected by a long oblique bulwark.

Galleass, circa 1570

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