Books & Manuscripts

An Elizabethan Explorer and the Mysteries of the Sea

By Martin Dean

A uthored by Robert Dudley — the illegitimate son of Elizabeth I’s infamous court favourite, Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester — Dell'Arcano del Mare was a truly groundbreaking work in its time. A 17th century maritime encyclopedia, it comprises 130 original maps created by Dudley himself and guidance on every conceivable aspect of seafaring, from shipbuilding to navigation, military manoeuvres and even notes on drawing accurate charts. Sotheby’s upcoming sale, The Erwin Tomash Library on the History of Computing, includes 5 of the 6 books of this historic text.

The story of the work’s author, and its creation, is as compelling as the work itself. Robert Dudley was born in 1574 of an affair between his father, the Earl of Leicester and the daughter of Baron Howard of Effingham. His brother-in-law was Thomas Cavendish, a famed English explorer and privateer, known as ‘the Navigator’, after his successful circumnavigation of the globe. Dudley was fascinated by the sea and sailing from around the age of 17, studying ship design and navigation with his Oxford tutor, Sir Thomas Chaloner. Later, he would continue his studies aboard ship with famed mariner Abram Kendall.

Despite Dudley’s illegitimacy, his father recognised him and was fond of him: Dudley grew up in his father's houses and received a sizeable inheritance on his father’s death. In 1594 his naval career began, and he saw considerable success as a privateer, sailing in ships of his own design and capturing Spanish gold and ships for the Crown. He was knighted for his role in the capture of Cadiz, and even claimed an island in the Caribbean (he named it 'Dudleiana').

Around 1604 Dudley attempted to pursue a claim to inherit the peerages of Earl of Leicester and Earl of Warwick, basing his suit on a suggestion that his parents had married in secret. A lack of firm evidence — his mother could remember neither the date of the wedding, nor the name of the minister — meant his attempt failed, and he left England for Tuscany in 1605. Here he became naval advisor to Ferdinand I, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and worked for him designing and building warships.

Upon the death of his wife from plague in 1631, a 57 year old Dudley withdrew to work on the Arcano del Mare. It demonstrated the state of the technical art of the period and would become the principal source of his fame. It was a monumental and totally original task, the charts, representations of instruments and diagrams all engraved on huge quantities of copper over many years with an exactitude incorporating the minutest detail and printed on the best paper available. It surpassed anything published before and was unrivalled in quality.

Dudley employed engraver Anton Francesco Lucini to engrave the plates. Lucini was born in Florence around 1610. He was a pupil of important baroque engravers Jacques Callot and Stefano della Bella. Before entering Dudley's employ, he had already published engraved views of Florence and scenes of the Turkish Wars. Lucini put the stamp of his personality on the finished work as much as Dudley himself; the delicacy and strength of the engraving and the embellishments of the lettering "alla cancellaresca", make it a true example of Italian Baroque art. In a printed introductory leaf found in one copy in the British Library, Lucini states that he worked on the plates in seclusion for twelve years in an obscure Tuscan village, using no less than 5,000 lbs of copper. According to the engraver, Dell'Arcano del Mare took forty years to prepare and twelve to execute.

Stylistic trends soon moved on after the creation of Dell'Arcano del Mare, so the distinctive style of its engravings was not copied by subsequent encylopaedias. The work therefore stands alone as a baroque masterpiece of nautical wisdom and precision engraving.

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's