Tag Archives: shipwreck

Starvation, cannibalism and madness – The Raft of the Medusa


(best viewed large)

The Raft of the Medusa (Le Radeau de la Méduse) is an early 19th century oil by French Romantic painter Théodore Géricault (1791–1824), and an icon of French Romanticism. At a whopping 5 x 7 metres, it shows the horrifying aftermath of the wreck of the French naval frigate Méduse, which ran aground off the coast of Mauritania on July 5, 1816.

At least 147 people were set adrift on a hurriedly constructed raft; all but 15 died in the 13 days before their rescue, and those who survived endured starvation, dehydration, cannibalism and madness. The event became an international scandal, in part because its cause was widely attributed to the incompetence of the French captain perceived to be acting under the authority of the recently restored French monarchy.

In choosing the tragedy as subject matter for his first major work, Géricault consciously selected a well-known incident that would generate great public interest and help launch his career (something modern artists aren’t exactly strangers to – a bit like painting the Twin Towers today). The event fascinated the young artist, and before he began work on the final painting, he undertook extensive research and produced many preparatory sketches. He interviewed two of the survivors, and constructed a detailed scale model of the raft.

His efforts took him to morgues and hospitals where he could view, first-hand, the colour and texture of the flesh of the dying and dead. As the artist had anticipated, the painting proved highly controversial at its first appearance in the 1819 Paris Salon, attracting passionate praise and condemnation in equal measure. However, it established his international reputation, and today is widely seen as seminal in the early history of the Romantic movement in French painting.

Fear and loathing on the Costa Concordia

The BBC has an extraordinary recording of a conversation between the Italian coast guard and Francesco Schettino, the captain of the Costa Concordia, who has been accused of abandoning ship.

“This is DiFalco,” it begins. “Am I speaking to the captain?”

“Yes, good evening, DiFalco.”

“Tell me your name.”

“This is Captain Schettino.”

“Schettino, listen, there are people trapped on board. You need to go with your lifeboat under the bow of the ship. Go right around. There’s a ladder. Go up the ladder, get on board the ship. You have to get on board, report back how many people there are. Is that clear? Look, I’m recording this conversation.”

Schettino stalls. The conversation escalates, as DiFalco tries to roust him out of complacency.

“Tell me if there are women, children, or anyone that needs assistance. Report back. How many in each of these categories. Look, Schettino, get on board now!*”

“Commander, please!”

“No, not please! You will get on board. Will you assure me that, that you are going on board now?”

Over the course of the three-minute tape, Schettino resorts to all manner of excuses: he’s coördinating with another boat, he’s with the second-in-command, it is getting dark. His fear is as palpable as it is pitiable. He sounds like a teen-ager trying to get out of doing his homework, but what he doesn’t want to do is die.

*UPDATE: Pier Andrea Canei, from Milan, writes that the BBC translation, while accurate enough, misses something in tone: “More like ‘get the f**k back on board.’ It is Italy’s top trending hashtag: #vadaabordocazzo.”

(By Lauren Collins in the New Yorker)