Historical Context

Among the many ships seen plying the waters of the Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean in Fra Mauro’s world map, we find the characteristic galleys of the “Serenissima Repubblica” of Venice. Long and tapered, with a comparatively low hull, they were driven by numerous oarsmen and featured a large lateen sail raised on a retractable mast. The galleys were the principal vessel of Venice’s military and mercantile fleets.

The form, measurements, and numbers of rowers of the three main types of galleys built in the Venice Arsenale are documented in the precious manuscript of Michael of Rhodes (?-1445). A simple oarsman who rose to become an admiral of the Venetian fleet, Michael of Rhodes accumulated vast technical knowledge which he employed in writing what is considered the world’s first treatise on ship-building. The treatise describes and illustrates three types of galleys: the largest and most capacious, the galley of Flanders, used for Bruges-London routes, was almost 37 meters long, 6 meters wide, and 3 meters high (roughly 121 feet x 20 x 10). The galley of Romania, slightly smaller and less capacious, was specialized for routes to Constantinople, Tanais, and Trebisond. Lastly, “galia sottil”, or light galleys, were military vessels used for the protection of mercantile ships and war operations.

The biggest galleys could accommodate a crew of up to 250 men, 150 of them rowers, who handled oars almost 8 meters long, weighing nearly 58 kilos (128 pounds).