Keith Richards and Mick Jagger as dancing pirates, by Guy Peellaert, from Rock Dreams (1970-1973).

Matteo Guarnaccia, a multi-hyphenate artist, writer, and costume historian who counts among Italy's foremost connoisseurs in pop mythology has produced one of the most original coffee-table books of the year, a visual delight destined to become a cult classic and the de facto authority on a fascinating subject : the enduring allure of pirates and their representation in Western culture from the Fifteenth Century to the present. 

This lavishly illustrated tome, entitled Pirates, Cultures and Styles takes a kaleidoscopic view of buccaneers, corsairs, and scallywags to reveal the sense of unbridled freedom and exoticism that has shaped their legend and sustained it in the modern era, where even as internet hackers surfing the dark waters of the web they have lost none of their revolutionary appeal. 

While Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island cemented the legend as early as 1883, the movies, of course, have played a crucial part in catapulting pirates into popular culture : long before Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow captured hearts and minds in Pirates of the Caribbean by capitalizing on the eponymous Disneyland attraction, Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckled his way to the top of the Hollywood food chain as The Black Pirate in 1926, paving the way for such iconic characters as Captain Hook, Blackbeard or even Albator, the animated « space pirate » from Japan.

Guarnaccia, whose recent projects have included books on radical fashion in the past century and an in-depth study of 1960s style, has injected his research with a great dose of fashion imagery, with Vivienne Westwood and Jean-Paul Gaultier among the designers most frequently inspired by the intoxicating blend of rebellion and romanticism that characterizes pirate style. Is it any wonder that David Bowie wore an eyepatch in his Diamond Dogs days—with Madonna never far behind ? 

Which brings us to Peellaert and his famous Rock Dreams portrait of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger depicted in full corsair regalia dancing atop a mysterious coffin, which Guarnaccia cleverly includes in his book. It has been reported that the picture seems a strange anticipation of Richards’ Pirates of the Caribbean cameo by nearly 40 years. Although Peellaert never publicly offered a satisfying answer to the picture’s burning question—who is inside the coffin? as Jagger himself once inquired, to no avail—he explained that Rock Dreams’ series of six Rolling Stones portraits (of which the « pirates » painting is number five) was inspired by Agatha Christie’s classic novel Ten Little Niggers, the murder mystery in which the main characters are killed off one after the other for their sins, until only one is left : « And then there was none ». 

Peellaert’s closing image of Jagger as a lone Dorian Gray figure leaves little doubt as to who the ultimate survivor may turn out to be, but the Jagger-Richards « dream » remains a dead on encapsulation of the dynamic duo’s unique interplay.

Matteo Guarnaccia, Pirati. Culture e stili dal XV secolo a oggi (24 Ora Cultura).