A Neapolitan Niche in Americana
As an historian of 19th-century maritime lore and wooden boat naval architecture,
I approached the world of fine art with great trepidation.
The USF Constellation Foundation in Baltimore, keepers of the historic warship, soon to celebrate its 200th birthday,
asked my advice relative to the controversy surrounding the chronological and geographic origins of the ship,
a debate that has flared with varying degrees of intensity since the mid- l 940s.
The present incarnation of Constellation is best illustrated in an oil painting executed by a Neapolitan ship portraitist.
My task relative to this work of art was to examine the quality of the artist’s rendering of the ship’s architectural details to establish their accuracy. The painting is signed “Tillegible, but possibly Tom.
De Simone 1856,” a time when Constellation made her first Mediterranean cruise after an extensive conversion from a frigate to a modernized mid-19th-century sailing sloop of war.
The saga of De Simone Americana begins much earlier than 1856.
It has origins in Tripoli, North Africa, principal harbor and capital of the nation of the same name (modem Libya), the oldest foreign power enemy of the United States.
Our frrst war with Muammar Qadaffi’s domain lasted from 1801 through 1805.
Later, between 1821and1824,afternearly a score of peaceful years,
the US naval ship Ontario, which, like Constellation had been built at Baltimore,
served a lengthy Mediterranean patrol, during which time she called at Tripoli.
Her skipper was Wolcott Chauncey of Connecticut, but her young fourth lieutenant,
New Yorker Charles Heyer Bell, is the focus of our interest.
Lieutenant Bell, while in charge of one of Ontario’s boats, had just pulled away from the town’s stone quay when an uproarious commotion echoed across the harbor.
A young European man raced down to the waterfront and burst out on the quay hotly pursed by an angry Arab throng.
Seeing the man’s plight, Bell quickly reversed his cutter’s course and swept her along
the quayside close enough for the fellow to leap to safety and escape his onrushing pursuers.
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