Elcano and his representations

Discover how the first person in history to circumnavigate the world has been commemorated over five centuries in Getaria.

By Fundación Elkano

Museo Marítimo Vasco

Panorama of Getaria (2020)Fundación Elkano

Throughout time, the creation of these works has reflected certain individuals’ and institutions’ desire to position themselves as part of the glorious seafaring history that the figure of Elcano represents, in pursuit of honour and, on occasion, political goals.

The commemorations that took place in the 20th century followed the same course as that of the context of his direct successors.

Juan Sebastián Elcano Cenotaph (1671) by Joseba UrretabizkaiaOriginal Source: Xibarit

This cenotaph was erected in 1671, in the atrium of the parish church of San Salvador de Getaria, by Don Pedro de Echave Asu, to assert his relationship with Elcano.

The monument’s patron, a major shipbuilder and merchant, owed his fortune to the route to the Indies.

For centuries, several powerful families disputed being Elcano’s descendants, the honorary value of which was incalculable for the residents of Basque seafaring regions, all of whom were considered noble.


Sculpture of Elcano (Early 19th century) by AnónimoOriginal Source: Archivo General de Indias

Another native of Getaria, Manuel de Agote y Bonechea (1755-1803), a great seafarer, scientist and, until 1797, first overseer of the Royal Philippines Company, commissioned Alfonso Giraldo Bergaz (1744-1812), director of sculpture at the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts, to create the first statue, which he sculpted in marble in 1800.

This sculpture made the statement that the seafarers of Getaria and the rest of the Basque Country were still the noble descendants of Elcano and the other historic navigators.

Here you can see a plaster model of it.

Statue of Elcano (1825/1837) by Fernando SelmaFundación Elkano

The sculpture was positioned in front of the main gate on the inland side of Getaria’s city walls.

At that time, the exclusively Basque government and legislative institutions were being called into question. With that, in the course of the First Carlist War, the sculpture was seriously damaged in 1835-1836.

It was eventually transported to the town of Zestoa, where its trail went cold.

Juan Sebastián Elcano (1791/1814) by Luis Fernandez NoseretOriginal Source: Museo Marítimo Vasco

Inspired by that statue, Luis Fernández Noseret created this engraving around 1805, based on a drawing by José López Enguídanos. It appeared in the eighteenth volume of the collection ‘Portraits of Illustrious Spaniards’, published under the auspices of the State Secretariat.

Its purpose is clearly political and propagandistic: to alert foreign powers to the Spanish people’s main cultural and historical contributions.

Bronze Statue of Elcano (1824/1886) by Antonio Palao y MarcoOriginal Source: Ayuntamiento de Getaria

This new statue, commissioned to replace the first one, is the work of the sculptor Antonio Palao y Marco (1824-1886) and it was installed at Getaria’s sea gate in 1861.

It was commissioned by the Getaria Town Council and the Regional Government of Gipuzkoa in their efforts to reconstruct the town after it was ravaged in the period 1835-1836.

The figure of Elcano continued to be one of the main rhetorical tools used to defend the region's secular rights, which were eventually taken away in 1876.

Transporting Elcano's Statue (1942) by Fundación KutxaOriginal Source: Fondo Kutxateka

As part of the revocation of the last vestiges of regional legislation, the Francoist authorities removed the statue from its original location in 1941, and transported it to San Sebastián, to the monument to the fallen of the Baleares cruiser which was sunk during the Civil War.

It would not return to its original location until 1978, three years after the dictator’s death.

Statue of Elcano at the Spanish Ministry of Overseas Territories (Ministerio de Ultramar) (1881) by Bernando RicoFundación Elkano

This statue was produced in Rome in white Carrara marble by Ricardo Bellver (1845-1924), and was commissioned by the Ministry of Overseas. It was due to be exhibited at the General Exhibition of Fine Arts in Madrid in 1881.

However, due to a turbulent journey by ship, it arrived at the event late so it could not be awarded a prize, despite its great popularity with the public.

Marble Statue of Elcano (1934) by Ricardo BelverOriginal Source: Ayuntamiento de Getaria

Until 1934, it remained on the Elcano Patio of the ministry's offices, which later became the Ministry of State (and later Foreign Affairs).

It was then donated to Getaria in commemoration of the fourth centenary of the first circumnavigation of the world, and today it stands on the square in front of Getaria Town Hall.

Relief of the Getaria Elcano Monument (1887/1966)Fundación Elkano

Fourth centenary commissions

The main purpose of the Board of the Fourth Centenary, formed in 1919, was to recover, vindicate and raise awareness of the first person to circumnavigate the world and his contribution to the history of humanity, an achievement which is attributed in most countries to Magellan.

Juan Sebastián Elcano (1921) by Ignacio ZuloagaOriginal Source: Diputación Foral de Gipuzkoa

Ignacio Zuloaga (1870-1945) painted what is possibly the best-known portrait of Juan Sebastián Elcano, as commissioned by the Board of the Fourth Centenary.

It is a full-body representation, with the port and town of Getaria in the background. He is portrayed in a heroic stance, his right hand resting on a map of the world he has just voyaged around, and he is dressed in courtly robes.

“This is how I suppose our great Sebastián del Cano was.”

With this text, Zuloaga gives his response to a great question that remains unanswered: the iconographic reconstruction of a figure of whom there are no original portraits or later representations that are satisfactory.

Zuloaga imagines the hero with a coarse complexion that gives evidence of his life at sea, and a gaze that is lost in the depth of his thoughts, full of distant memories and future projects.

Portrait of Juan Sebastián Elcano (1922) by Ignacio ZuloagaOriginal Source: Ayuntamiento de Getaria

This large charcoal drawing was the sketch for the portrait of Elcano that Ignacio Zuloaga painted, dedicated and signed at the request of the Board of the Fourth Centenary of the First Circumnavigation of the World.

Given its large format and high level of finish, it must be considered a genuine final work of art from the moment in which, having fulfilled its purpose as a sketch, the artist painted the face in oils and donated it to Getaria with a new signature and dedication, this time written in Basque.

The text in the dedication says: “To the town of Getaria. Offered in memory of its greatest son.”

A curious and perhaps amusing detail is the fact that the model who posed for Zuloaga was not a seafarer or fisherman from Getaria, but rather the veterinarian of the neighbouring town of Zumaia, the artist Ignacio Zuloaga’s place of birth and work.

Elcano's Gift (1922) by Elias SalaverriaOriginal Source: Centro de Colecciones Patrimoniales de Gipuzkoa - Gordailua

The painting titled “The Offering of Elcano” by Elías Salaberria (1883-1952) is another of the three masterpieces commissioned.

It portrays the historic event of 8th September 1522, capturing the precise moment in which, on arrival, having completed the great seafaring feat, Elcano disembarked from the La Victoria by a ramp from the ship's deck with his crew and placed his right foot on the dock of Seville.

Elcano's Gift (1883/1952) by Elías SalaberriaOriginal Source: Ayuntamiento de Getaria

This sketch also conveys the harshness of the voyage, symbolised by the rags worn by Elcano and the other 17 battered survivors.

With great dignity, they walk barefoot and hold lit candles offered to them by the astounded spectators on the dock, to give their offering to the Virgin of Antiquity.

The Naval Museum of Madrid has an almost identical copy of the painting in large format.

The Loaisa Expedition (1921) by Pablo UrangaOriginal Source: Diputación Foral de Gipuzkoa

This painting by Pablo Uranga (1861-1934) is the third of the commissions and it brings together perfectly what the board hoped to achieve by showcasing the figure of Elcano.

In La Coruña, the point of departure for a new voyage to the Moluccas in 1525, Elcano addresses Captain Jofre de Loaisa and the other leaders of the expedition, all of whom are aristocrats destined for the court, instructing them on the practical details of the voyage.

Listening to Elcano with admiration is a young Urdaneta, who displays a blasé attitude compared to the other expedition leaders, reclining on a globe emblazoned with the motto “Primus Circumdedisti Me”.

In short, it represents the great Basque seafarers instructing the supposed great men and masters of the Spanish Empire.

Portrait of Juan Sebastián Elcano (1922) by Pablo UrangaOriginal Source: Diputación Foral de Gipizkoa

Pablo Uranga and Ignacio Zuloaga were firm friends, and it is likely that this half-body portrait of Elcano, painted outside of the Board’s commission, emerged on Uranga’s easel at the same time that Zuloaga painted his famous great portrait.

It is a virtually unknown work of art, as it has been in private hands until it was recently acquired by the Regional Government of Gipuzkoa in the context of the fifth centenary of the feat of navigation.

Relief of the Getaria Elcano Monument (1887/1966)Fundación Elkano

Victorio Macho (1887-1966) is one of the key precursory figures to contemporary sculpture in Spain in the early 20th century, and he was in charge of the Monument to Elcano sculpture programme by request of the Board of the Fifth Centenary.

On the monument's steps, there is a bas-relief that represents Juan Sebastian Elcano on the navigation bridge of La Victoria in a thoughtful pose.

The Death of Juan Sebastian Elcano on Board his Ship (1920) by Guevara, F.Original Source: Centro de Colecciones Patrimoniales de Gipuzkoa - Gordailua

Is this painting another commemorative commission? It is the work of F. de Guevara, about whom we know little more.

Elcano is portrayed in his cabin, surrounded by the signatories to his will. They are all Basque men, including Urdaneta.

Just as the cause of his death is unknown (scurvy or ciguatera?), there are many unanswered questions about this painting: where were they going? when was it painted?

Elcano With His Dog, Magellan (2020) by José Ramón AmondarainOriginal Source: Diputación Foral de Gipizkoa

A contemporary view of the painting of history

The recent commission of a new work of art for the fifth centenary of the first circumnavigation reflects the interpretive freedom of contemporary artists.

“Elcano with his dog Magellan” (2020) results from the Regional Government of Gipuzkoa’s commission to the painter José Ramón Amondarain (Donostia, 1964) to devise and create, with complete creative freedom, a work of art to mark the fifth centenary of the first circumnavigation of the world.

Using a novel painting technique, and with an X-ray of Zuloaga’s 100-year-old painting, the artist “discovers” a supposed pentimento or trace of a previous design: two hunting dogs ennoble the famous navigator with their presence.

Credits: Story

Exhibition curator:

Xabier Alberdi Lonbide
Doctor of History

Basque Maritime Museum

This exhibition is part of the First Voyage Around the World project.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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