Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Visconti "Semideus"


Among the most remarkable illuminated manuscripts to survive from the fourteenth century is a copy of the Semideus or Demigod, a tract on military matters by the humanist Catone Sacco. It's one of the works featured in Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel. Sacco presented this copy to Duke Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan in 1438. That's the duke above, watched over by the Virgin.

The text is half military history, half flattery of the "Semideus," that is, the Demigod, who of course in the Duke himself. The point seems to have been to convince the Duke to go on crusade and save Constantinople from the Turkish hordes.


The charming illustrations show historical battles, half taken from ancient authors and the rest from chronicles of the crusades. That's our old friend the ship casting post full of snakes at its enemies, a story which Sacco of course accepted without reservation, as any good humanist would.

Interesting way to batter down a fortress. Leonardo wasn't the only Renaissance Italian hatching wild military schemes.



I find these paintings delightful and original. I've never seen anything else quite like them, and they form a great picture of how a humanist scholar imagined the world of war.


1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

"Interesting way to batter down a fortress. Leonardo wasn't the only Renaissance Italian hatching wild military schemes."

To my eye, they don't appear to be battering down anything in that image. They seem to just be scaling the walls.

At first glance, I assumed that it was depicting the use of seige ladders and elevated platforms to scale the walls. But upon reflection, it occured to me that it may be depicting scaling walls via ship masts and spars. The Venetians famously (and successfully) did exactly that in 1204, during the 4th Crusade when assaulting Constantinople.

That said, it's a very odd and abstracted image. While the devices look a lot like masts and spars, they do appear to be on solid ground rather than on a ship deck. Perhaps they dismounted their masts and set them up on solid ground? The moat around the castle seems to suggest that ordinary seige ladders or towers might have difficulty reaching, and thus compel the use of something like ships masts instead.

The crusades had a history of seeing ships disassembled and rebuilt elsewhere, or their components repurposed and used in ways they were never intended. If you were deep in hostile territory with limited resources and didn't have the materials or the time to build seige engines like trebuchets, it would make sense to use existing ships masts as long-reaching siege ladders.