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The lost cannon of Venice

The Wallace Collection’s library holds a number of rare books, which our visitors can view on request. In this blog by Helen Jones, Library Cataloguer, she explores Domenico Gasperoni’s Artiglieria veneta [1782]

This eighteenth century book is another that is quite unprepossessing without but contains unanticipated treasures within. It is fairly battered, the thin mottled paper over the card cover worn away around the edges and flaking gently at a touch. The contents however are very special as the book is part printed and part manuscript and is filled with wonderful illustrations. The author is Domenico Gasperoni, Superintendent of Venetian artillery. In this book, he records many of the types of cannon held at the then recently founded Venetian artillery museum and shows how they were used in battle. This book contains little in the way of text, consisting of 24 leaves of engravings, a folded leaf with a numerical table and 21 folded leaves of plates. The 19 folded leaves of plates showing different types of cannon were originally issued in 1779 along with some additional engravings but this version has further engravings and plates, most with handwritten captions in the author’s hand. Other copies of the original 19 plates and additional engravings with handwritten notes exist elsewhere, which is somewhat puzzling as it seems odd that the author commissioned such beautiful plates and then wrote on them rather than preparing printed text pages to accompany the images. This is especially strange as, in comparison to the great expense of producing the plates, the cost of printed text would have been tiny. In our copy, the title page is also handwritten and although space has been left for a dedication and a preface, they were never added. The date on the title page is 1782, which is, as far as we know, unique to our copy of the work. If other similar copies did not exist elsewhere then I would say that these papers had all the appearance of a book being prepared for publication rather than the finished article. Even the basic binding of paper over fairly soft card encourages this impression, as it seems likely that a far superior leather binding would have been chosen for the completed book, particularly given the quality of the plates. All in all it is a bit of a mystery. Venice was a much-embattled city state for many centuries and artillery, whether on land or at sea, was its first and major line of defence. Fortifications, both on the coast and inland, and the Venetian navy protected the state from its enemies and guarded the commerce that had made it rich. Therefore, superior ordnance (mounted guns) had long been of great importance to Venice and the city had its own state run foundry at the Arsenal. The quality of the ordnance produced there was famed throughout Europe. Historic examples of the foundry’s work were kept at the Arsenal, in the artillery museum founded in 1772. Most of the images in the folded plates depict cannon held in this collection. Sadly, these cannon now no longer exist, as the majority were taken and melted down when the French took over the city in the final years of the eighteenth century. These plates are therefore one our main sources of knowledge about Venetian cannon. The 19 original plates show many different sizes and shapes of cannon. I had no idea that such a variety of types even existed. Many must have been for use on the different sizes of ships (a ship of the line must had larger cannon than a frigate, for example), in different placements in fortifications and under different firing conditions. Some would have been portable, while others would have had more fixed positions. Different calibres existed for the various sizes of cannonball and varying amounts of firepower. Some, I have to say, look more like pieces of plumbing than functioning ordnance but if they were depicted here then no doubt they must have worked, however unlikely they may seem! The additional engravings are much smaller than the folded plates and not quite as beautiful, but they are still just as, if not more interesting, because they show artillery and ordnance in action. Many of the engravings depict fortifications and the emplacement of the cannon, while others show cannon on board ship or at the firing range. Some of the images even show the handheld cannon that Gasperoni had himself invented. It is vaguely reminiscent of a modern rocket propelled grenade launcher or shoulder launched missile but without the modern engineering that gives these weapons at least a vestige of safety for the handler. I would not have wanted to be the soldier to use one of Gasperoni’s inventions – what with the weight, the heat and the sheer proximity to extremely explosive materials… ???????????????????????????????Three other folded plates, which were not amongst the original 19 issued in 1779, are also very interesting. One shows tables of figures giving the specifications of different types of cannon (such as weight, length, firepower etc.), the second has images of gunners’ instruments necessary for correct calibration of cannon[1], and more tables, which appear to be for working out calibres of cannon and cannon balls, and the third, numbered XX presumably as an addition to the 1779 plates (although it is somewhat confusingly dated 1774), shows the component parts of a rifle, with specific attention to its lock (firing mechanism). ???????????????????????????????We do not know who was commissioned to complete the drawings for the plates, though they must have been an accomplished draughtsman, but we do know who the engraver was for most of them, as they are signed. Guiliano Zuliani (ca. 1730-1814) was a Venetian engraver whose work held in other libraries includes maps and images for literary or religious works. It is possible that he also engraved the copper plates for the additional engravings showing the cannon in use but as they are not signed, no definitive statements can be made. The Wallace Collection Library purchased this wonderful and rare item with the invaluable assistance of the Friends of the National Libraries in 2013. Unfortunately, we have no information on its provenance before that time. Gasperoni’s work is important for our collection because we have a small Venetian cannon from the foundry of Giovanni Mazzaroli in our European armoury.

A1245 left 3-4His work features in several of Gasperoni’s plates. Much like these cannon, our specimen is highly embellished and, like many other pieces in our armouries, can count as an art object as well as a deadly weapon.

This fragile book is now housed in a made-to-measure solander box (a protective box in the form of a book; made to hold papers, maps, botanical specimens etc.) to protect its delicate cover. This will enable us to preserve this item and make it available to future generations. Hopefully, many more readers will experience the joy of opening the unassuming cover and then coming across such wonderful plates. If we are lucky, they might answer some of the many questions that still surround this unpolished yet magnificent publication, Gasperoni himself and Venice’s lost cannon. By Helen Jones


[1] For more information on geometry and warfare click here.


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