In the Renaissance, impressive weather features inspired considerable interest among artists. The depiction of a tornado and other weather features are discussed that appear on a sixteenth-century series of 12 huge tapestries (“Conquest of Tunis”) woven by the carpet manufacturer Willem de Pannemaker in Brussels, Belgium, between 1549 and 1551. The outstanding depiction of the tornado is presumably the earliest pictorial presentation of a tornado, at least in the Latin west.
During the Renaissance, tapestries were an obligatory fixture of a European court and were used as an instrument for political propaganda and dynastic demonstration. The “Conquest of Tunis” tapestries are important pieces of European art commissioned by the Habsburgian emperor Charles V (1500–58), one of the most important ruling personalities in European history. In 1535, he undertook a crusade to Tunis, Tunisia, in order to diminish the Ottoman emperor's power in the western Mediterranean region. Charles V wanted to ensure that the expedition would not be forgotten. In order to guarantee this, the emperor took along the Flemish painter Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen who painted sketches that were used as prototypes for the “Conquest of Tunis” tapestries. These present a highly detailed narrative of the expedition to Tunis.
The depiction of a tornado, along with heavy rain and a sandstorm, raises the question of why these meteorological features are included in the scene. To the authors' knowledge, no mention is made of them in the art literature (except for the sandstorm, which actually occurred). This is particularly surprising because the tornado, at least, appears so prominently in one of the tapestries. Therefore, the weather features are discussed in terms of their meteorological, decorative, and symbolic importance. The tornado and the heavy rain seem to have been rendered in order to emphasize symbolically the beginning and ending of the military campaign. Although these weather elements are depicted naturalistically, they are portrayed not for their own sake, but to support the related historical event in an emblematic manner.
Institut für Physik der Atmosphäre, DLR, Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany
Departamento Ciencias Ambientales, Universidad Castilla-La Mancha, Toledo, Spain