A Spanish three-decker at anchor off Naples

This painting adopts an unusual upright format and shows a Mediterranean harbour. The scene is perceived from a high viewpoint and bathed in milky golden sunshine. In the foreground a cobbled quay overlooks a bustling harbour. A grand lighthouse, in the background on the right, dominates the scene and a Spanish ship is seen, in starboard-bow view, at anchor. The vessel has an ornately carved stern and there is a figurehead of a prince on a leaping white horse on the bow. She flies the Spanish flag, a religious pennant from the mainmast, a red flag from the stern, the Spanish Burgundian cross from the foremast and a small jack on the sprit topmast. There is considerable activity both on the ship and in the rigging. One figure is climbing the foremast. The artist has paid particular attention to lively details. Small craft are shown in the surrounding water. The barge rowing towards the left, in the foreground, has three sets of oars. As well as what appear to be hinged deck sections over a small cargo space in the stern. The deck sections are raised and three men, including the helmsman, are standing or sitting within the small cargo space. In the distance, to the right, a small ceremonial barge with a canopy in the stern is going past the anchored ship. Another ship at anchor, probably flying the Dutch flag, can be seen in the distance. The bay is full of activity and shipping.

Figures are standing on the balconies and terraces of the lighthouse. While others line up on the quay beside it. Figures can, also, be seen standing with fishing rods on the rocks. At the landing steps below the quay, in the bottom right corner, men with oars are standing in a second barge. The mooring lines of the ship at anchor are clearly visible on the steps. In contrast with this busy scene are the three larger figures, in the foreground, which cast long shadows on the cobblestones. Two are shown wearing swords and in European dress. The figure, on the left, looks down onto the water. While the one in the middle converses with a third man on the right. He wears a white turban and a curved sword or scimitar. These details suggest that he is likely to be a Turk or an Ottoman official. Compositionally the figures introduce the spectator, who seems to be sharing their viewing point on the quay, into the picture space. Also their calm and contemplative mood sets the overall tone of the composition. Although, the purpose of the painting is unclear, it suggests concerns with nations trading at a port where West meets East. The presence of the Ottoman figure hints at the trading activity around the Mediterranean at the time but, also, adds a touch of exoticism to the scene which would have appealed to the Dutch customers of the artist. Many of whom would have been merchants with interests in the region. There are indications that the painting was probably cut down on the left-hand side which emphasizes the unusual shape. The indistinct inscription of the artist and the date '1669' are on the hatch of the barge in the foreground.

As this painting shows, Abraham Willaerts shared an interest in figure-rich waterside scenes with his father, Adam (see BHC0803). Here, however, he has transferred the setting to an imaginary Italian harbour. It has been traditionally identified as Naples which was under Spanish rule throughout the seventeenth century and had a somewhat similar lighthouse. However, the lighthouse in Naples was a much simpler structure than the tower depicted in this painting. As such there are doubts over the location. Alternatively the scene maybe located in Genoa. The artist has paid close attention to the details on the lighthouse suggesting it is specific and known to him rather than imaginary.

The artist, Abraham Willaerts, was born and died in Utrecht and was one of the sons of Adam Willaerts (1577-1664). Abraham and his younger brother, Isaac, took up their father's profession and became marine painters. Abraham worked under Simon Vouet in Paris and then went into service of Prince Maurits in Holland. If the inscription is correct, then this painting was executed after Willaerts returned from Italy to Utrecht and in the same year as his death.

Object Details

ID: BHC1899
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Willaerts, Abraham
Date made: 1669
Exhibition: Art for the Nation; Ingram Collection Turmoil and Tranquillity
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Painting: 865 x 545 mm; Frame: 1070 mm x 748 mm x 80 mm

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