Adam Piggott

Gentleman adventurer

Corto Maltese – Beauty & Masculinity.


the elegant storyboards and captivating narratives of Hugo Pratt.

It’s Sunday morning, a spring Sunday morning in my corner of the world, and so it is time for another entry in my series of the habits of the modern man. Today I have something a little different for you. Many of you will pass up the opportunity to explore the astounding world of Corto Maltese, but for those of you who do decide to dip your toe in the salty sea water, a tantalizing journey awaits you.

Corto Maltese was a character in a series of comic books by the Italian artist and writer Hugo Pratt. I discovered the series when I lived in Italy. Struggling with my efforts to grasp the language I found that comic books were an ideal method to bridge the gaps in my knowledge. But Corto Maltese was something more. I kept coming back to the books again and again.

Corto Maltese was a mariner, an adventurer of the high seas in the first three decades of the 20th century. He is often described as a “rogue with a heart of gold” but this is a far too simplistic appraisal of a character who is as well rounded and complex as any hero of any major literary work that you care to mentiuon. Corto’s character is supposedly based on the Polish adventurer and diplomat Ferdynand Ossendowski who himself led a somewhat unbelievable life in the traumatic years of the early 20th century.

A quote from Umberto Eco is a neat summation of the attraction of Corto Maltese:

When I want to relax, I read an essay by Engels. When I want to read something serious, I read Corto Maltese.

Corto smuggles goods, fights pirates, befriends his enemies, gets the girl, loses the girl, makes and loses his fortune, all the while traveling the globe, at times on his own ship and by other methods when circumstances force his hand. He reads books by Conrad, Meville and More, and quotes Rimbaud. In the course of his adventures through twelve comic novels he meets famous historical figures such as Hemingway, Butch Cassidy, Rasputin, Gabriele D’Annunzio, and the Pasha of Turkey. He participates in the Great War, the Russian revolution, the rise of Fascism in Italy and the Spanish Civil war. He is a man of his times.

The narratives are concise and beautiful. But they are lain over the elegant and wistful graphic drawings that imbue the stories with an aura of mystery and wonder. The storyboards are carefully laid out, (which is why you must be careful when you purchase an English edition of the comics as some have neglected this important consideration. My copies are the Italian publications but here is an appraisal of the 2012 English publications that got many things wrong. I have heard that the comics were reissued last year but I do not know as to their pedigree).


The first comic published in the series in 1967 is The Ballad of the Salt Sea, a tale of smugglers and pirates in the South Pacific in the years of the Great War. But the chronological order is different with The Early Years which takes place in 1905 being the first in order. My personal favorite is Fable of Venice, a mysterious tale of secret societies in that moody city.

These books are meant to be savored over. Corto is a real man, a man who follows his own path which is symbolized when as a boy he discovers that he has no fate line on the palm of his hand. Using his father’s razor he carves out his own, signifying that his destiny is in his own hands. In truth we all have the capacity to do likewise but so few of us ever risk the chance. Corto is a fitting example of a man who exists squarely in his own frame. The books are elegant and beautiful and the stories captivate the reader, propelling him into a world of mystique and adventure. They are best enjoyed with a glass of something fine and a good cigar. A fitting undertaking on a lazy Sunday afternoon when searching for some inspiration.


Fathers guilty until proven innocent.


The fourth estate has abandoned its sanctity.


  1. Interesting post. Few can doubt the elegant style of it, the spirit, and the admirable characterisation, the problem with the Corto Maltese series is, most of the time, the plot. There are some brilliance in the Ballad of the Salt Sea, but most of the time the Corto Maltese series is just so lacking in interesting and fascinating plot development.

    • Adam

      I disagree. One aspect of the storytelling that I admire is the restraint shown by Pratt. The stories evolve slowly, and often you think that nothing is happening, and yet the pieces build up like a jigsaw. For me they are an analogy of life. I think that is also why Umberto Eco was such a big fan of them.

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