Existing Caravel Iconography

What we know about the physical appearance of the caravel--including the shape of its hull, the slope of the bow, how it rides in the water, etc.--is severly limited to iconograhic representation from the era under examination. This is a mixed blessing, since without these remnants from the past we would have no visual aid for what this vessel looked like. However, as with all artists' renditions, there exists the possibility of inaccuracy due to ignorance, misinterpretation of data, or personal embelishment. Thus, although the value of iconographic representations of ancient ships can be inestimable, they must be studied carefully and with a critical eye.

The following images are a compilation of much of the existing graphic representations of the caravel. The first ten are some of the depictions that contain the most prominent features of the vessel, and short descriptions have been included below the iconography.

 

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1. Caravels from the signatures of 15th-century Portuguese fishermen

Assinatura de Joao de Liao

On 5 December 1488 master Joao de Liao signed an order for a supply of biscuits which were bound for Pero Vaz da Cunha's caravel. Accompanying his signature is a drawing of a small sailing vessel. Presumably, this craft is the caravel to which these supplies were to be sent. This being the case, this drawing provided by Joao de Liao is the first known representation of a Portuguese caravel. Three other signatures of fisherman from Puerto de Santa Maria likewise contain simple depictions of vessels from this period, and are likened to the caravel from the signature of Joao de Liao. The vessels have low freeboards, delicately sloping bows, single forecastles, and are single-masted with lateen rigged sails. Although these depictions provide little along the lines of structural characteristics, these rudimentary sketches nevertheless contribute to our perceptions of early caravels with regard to shape and primary traits that the artists attributed to the ships.

 

2. Caravel from Livro das Fortalezas de Duarte Damas

Caravel from Livro das Fortalezas de Duarte Damas

This image comes from a page of the early 16th-century book called Livro das Fortalezas de Duarte Damas, and clearly shows a caravel with an elongated hull and single sterncastle. Unfortunately, like most ship iconography, the caravel's hull is only shown from the waterline up. This makes it difficult to analyze the lower part of the hull, but does show the relatively low freeboard these vessels employed. All the sails are furled in this representation, and the caravel is shown fairly close to the shore in the original representation. Note the similarities between this image and those from the above signatures of the 15th-century fishermen.

Caravel from Livro das Fortalezas de Duarte Damas

3. Two-mastered caravel from Livro das Fortalezas de Duarte Damas

Caravel from Livro das Fortalezas de Duarte Damas

On the far left is another caravel from the same book, although this one wields two lateen-rigged masts instead of three. Nonetheless, this caravel has the same elongated and low-riding hull, with a single sterncastle and gently sloping bow. Again, the sails are furled, and here the vessels are anchored by the fortress.

Caravel from Livro das Fortalezas de Duarte Damas

 

4. Caravels from a luminary in the Chronicles of King D. Afonso Henriques

 

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