Saturday, March 26, 2005

Hagiography: Agostino Ramelli

This week we continue the project started last week: building out the hagiography of the theatrum machinarum. We now turn to the life of Agostino Ramelli, a contemporary of Jacques Besson. Unlike Besson—a protestant—Ramelli seems to have been a devout Catholic.

Ramelli’s work represents one of the greatest of the theatrum machinarum. As noted by Keller (1978): “Ramelli’s was the most splendid and comprehensive of all early books in the genre, with almost 200 plates, more than twice as many as its nearest rival.” While Ramelli’s work was extensive and popular, his inventions were not necessarily created solely on his own. The influence of earlier engineers, notably Franceso di Giorgio and Leonardo, are quite notable in his work (Keller, 1978). Reti (1972), for example, makes quite a credible case that Ramelli was influenced by the work of Leonardo (and therefore di Giorgio) as evidenced through various creations such as the double noria for raising water, cofferdams made of interlocking piles, and pumps with curved cylinders and conical valves.

It can be argued that no technical creation is born without the influence of earlier technologies. As noted by Basalla, “Any new thing that appears in the made world is based on some object already in existence.” (1988 pg. 45) Reti (1972) provides a list of the extant books dedicated at least in part to mechanical technology at the time of Ramelli’s work. They were Biringuccio’s Pirotechnia (1540), Agricola’s De re metallica (1556), Besson’s Theatre des instruments (1578), Errard de Bar-Le-Duc’s Instruments mathématiques (1584), and perhaps Carbano’s De subtiliatate (1550). Reti doesn’t necessarily pour the praise on these works noting that, “While Biringuccio’s and Agricola’s works are based on sound practical experience and reflect the true contemporary state of metallurgical and mining technology, Besson’s and Errard’s books belong to a different kind of technical literature; they deal with dreams more than facts, even if some of their dreams come true in a more or less distant future.” (pg. 602) Other technical manuscripts such as the work of Taccola or Kyeser may have also had an influence on Ramelli but the most obvious influence is Leonardo. Indeed, Leonardo’s ideas may have been introduced to the western world through the work of Ramelli.

Perhaps the most interesting example of Leonardo’s influence on Ramelli is the epicyclic gearing in his revolving bookcase. The bookcase has some notoriety in LIS circles, being mentioned by Petroski (1999) in his history of books and shelving. The gearing of the shelf, as clearly demonstrated by the models of Dante Gnudi (husband of Martha Teach Gnudi), is almost identical to a sketch that appears in Leonardo’s Codex Madrid I. The question now becomes, could Ramelli have seen Leonardo’s sketches? It’s certainly possible. Leonardo wrote the Codex Madrid I between 1490 and 1496, and the Codex Madrid II between 1503 and 1505. Leonardo himself entered the service of the French king after Francis I took Milan in 1515. Leonardo left for France the year after, and died in Ambroise in the year 1519. At the time of his death, his manuscripts fell into the care of Francesco Melzi who returned them to Italy. After his death, however, Melzi’s ancestors scattered the manuscripts. Many of them appear to have accumulated in Spain. In 1630 Antonio Mazenta talks of the dispersal of the manuscripts at the hands of Pompeo Leoni, the court sculptor of Spain. Could Ramelli—the engineer of the French king—have viewed a copy of Leonardo’s works at some point? It seems possible.

The revolving bookcase tells some of the story of the day’s technical manuscripts. As noted, Ramelli’s epicyclic gearing appears similar to those in Leonardo’s manuscripts. However, epicyclic gearing was not unknown to the engineers of antiquity and Ramelli’s contemporary horologists (as described by the other body of work of that LIS hero Derek J. de Solla Price). Similarly, revolving bookcases in general were not unknown at the time. As noted by Hall (1970), the Chinese used horizontally revolving bookcases from about the 6th century to store Tripitaka, or Buddhist scripture. They are also evident in early Renaissance paintings of St. Jerome in his study. Of note in Ramelli’s work is the detail he gives to the epicyclic gearing, an unnecessary feature for realizing the goal of the device. Grollier de Serviere, for example, designed a revolving bookcase that functioned by gravity. Ramelli’s depiction had a different goal:

“In defense of Ramelli, we might note that gearing arrangements are his forte; he tends to use gears to perform even such tasks as converting rotary to reciprocal motion, where a simple crankshaft would serve better. This habit in Ramelli is consistent with the tendency of authors of ‘Theatres of Machines’ to show off a certain virtuosity in their works, just as we today would expect an artist to demonstrate a particular ‘style’ in his paintings.” (Hall, 1970 pg. 392)

Despite all the ink spilt on such a peaceful creation as a bookshelf, Ramelli’s work is notable for its military flavour: “Skirmishes and surprise attacks echo through his work: No other contemporary book of machines devotes so much ingenuity to military devices.” (Keller, 1978 pg. 502) The martial nature of his work perhaps explained its continued popularity. Ramelli’s work ended up traveling outside of Europe when Jesuit missionaries carried it to China at the end of the 16th and at the beginning of the 17th century (Hall, 1970). The work of Ramelli, and a number of other authors, ended up in three Chinese works: Thai Hsi Shui Fa [Hydraulic machinery of the West] by Sabatino de Ursis and Hsü Kuang-Chhi (1612), the Chhi Chhi Thu Shuo [Diagrams and explanations of wonderful machines] by Johan Schreck and Wang Chêng (1627), the Chu Chhi Thu Shuo [Diagrams and explanations of a number of machines] by Wang Chêng (1627), and eventually the enormous compendium Ku-chin T’s-shu Chi-ch’êng [Synthesis of books and illustrations of ancient and modern times] from 1726. The work of earlier engineers such as Francesco di Giorgio is clearly evident in some of these manuscripts (Reti, 1963). Unfortunately, the actual mechanical representation of Ramelli’s inventions is often bungled in their Chinese reproductions. Hall notes that the Chinese draftsman, “regardless of his native abilities had not models within his own culture on which to base a knowledge of Ramelli’s gearing; thus he misinterpreted the drawing.” (Hall, 1970 pg. 386)

Timeline of Agostino Ramelli

  • 1531. Ramelli is born in the town of Lake Lugano, on the border between Switzerland and the Duchy of Milan. He quickly adopts the military life (Keller, 1965).

  • 1571. Amboise Bachot enters the service of Ramelli likely as the engraver of Ramelli’s drawings (Gnudi, 1974).

  • 1572. The year that Besson pulls stakes for England, Ramelli—apparently the apprentice of the Marquis of Marignano—appears in the sage of La Rochelle in the service of Henri, Duke of Anjou, and future king of France (Hall, 1970; Keller, 1965)

  • 1572, April 7. The king’s forces attack the bastion of l’Evangile using a wooden bridge that may have been a Ramelli design (Keller, 1978)

  • 1572, November 8. He is captured with a party of surveyors measuring the harbour and is held for a short time, perhaps four months (Gnudi, 1974).

  • 1573, March. The count de Nevers’s journal notes that Ramelli has breached the counterscarp of the bastion of l’Evangile.

  • At some point between 1572 and 1588 Ramelli publishes a manuscript about his own patent mathematical instrument (Keller, 1965).

  • 1585. In a list of the artillery engineers of the king, Ramelli’s name does not appear perhaps due to a systematic prejudice against the Italian engineers by French nobility (Keller, 1978).

  • 1587. Bachot publishes Le Timon, containing several plates reminiscent of Ramelli’s work. Le Timon also extensively lauds Ramelli.

  • 1588. Ramelli publishes his masterpiece, Diverse et Artificiose machine in which he calls himself “engineer of the most Christian King of France.” (Keller, 1965) The preface contains a prolonged accusation of plagiarism directed towards an unnamed person. Gnudi (1974) maintains that this person may have been Ambroise Bachot.

  • 1588, July. The Duke of Épernon was attacked by a group of extremists in the castle of Angoulême. Ramelli, as a member of the escort of a duchess, escaped to the city wall. It is unclear, however, whether the Ramelli in question is Agostino or his son. As noted by Keller (1978, pg. 501): “It does cast new light on Ramelli’s machines if we think that when he finished his book his son was on active service and in peril of his life hundreds of miles away, but certainly that is more likely than to suppose he was down in the southwest himself that summer.”

  • 1588, post Day of the Barricades. He joins the extreme Catholic party after Henri’s assassination. (Keller, 1965)

  • 1595. In another list of artillery engineers, Ramelli’s name again fails to appear (Keller, 1978)

  • 1595. A Captain Ramelle, perhaps another son of Agostino, is accidentally killed along with the Duke of Longueville during an honour salute in Doullens (Keller, 1978).

  • 1595, September. Paul de Ramel, king’s engineer and son of “Augustin” marries Claudine Prévost (Keller, 1978).

  • 1596. Ambroise Bachot, an architect and engineer to Henri IV, is director of fortifications of Melun.

  • 1598. Bachot publishes Le Gouvernail, a treatise bearing considerable similarities to Ramelli’s work. It appears that Bachot was Ramelli’s engraver but his own work demonstrates an ignorance of mechanical principles. Bachot holds the title of “captain engineer to the king” (Gnudi, 1974).

  • 1603. Claudine Prévost signs over property to Marie, “daughter of the late Nicolas de Ramel.” Nicolas was perhaps the brother of Paul who died at Doullens (Keller, 1978).

  • 1603. Levinus Hulsius, dealer of mathematical works, offers Ramellis for sale.

  • 1604. Ramelli, seemingly having made peace with the new king Henri IV, appears as “grand architect of the king.” (Keller, 1965)

  • 1620. Henning Gross offers a German translation with “appalling plates” (Keller, 1978) in Leipzig.

  • 1648. John Wilkins’s Mathemtaical Magick cites Ramelli.

  • 1703. The Bibliotheca Hookeana indicates that Robert Hooke owned Besson and Branca, but not a Ramelli. Apparently Galileo made no reference to Ramelli (Keller, 1978).

The importance of Ramelli’s work cannot be underestimated. Reti perhaps best describes his contribution:

“His drawings are a distinct advance over the fanciful sketches in earlier publications purporting to describe machines. Ramelli’s designs are practicable and show sufficient detail to satisfy most questions of construction and mechanism.” (Reti, 1972 p. 592)

Unfortunately, the significance of Ramelli’s work has often been diminished or underplayed. Hall notes:

Le diverse et artificiose machine has suffered, along with other ‘Theatres of Machines,’ from being considered an unimportant or even playful aspect in the history of technology. Though the type of machines often found in the ‘Theatres’ tends to lead one to that conclusion at first glance, it is nevertheless false to assume that these works are worthless for the understanding of our technological past. Instead, they are important and demanding sources for the study of early technology.” (Hall, 1970 pg. 400)

Keller extends Hall’s ideas and reiterates the importance of these works.

“If we maintain that books like these opened a new era in history, we ought to look for evidence of both their impact on the consciousness of the times that followed…” (Keller, 1978 pg. 507)

As a final note, I must excuse myself. This biography was written without reference to some of the more important works on Ramelli, notably: Ferguson and Gnudi’s edition of The Various and Ingenious machines of Agostino Ramelli (1976), Gille’s Engineers of the Renaissance (1966) and Parsons Engineers and Engineering in the Renaissance (1939).


It has been a while since I last revisited this biography. It is still substantially complete although I have extended my own knowledge of Ramelli. For example, I now own Gnudi's proof copy of the Ramelli reprint (it's a small thing for my very small budget).

Of interest, however, is the emergene of a highly annotated copy of Ramelli's work. Keller (1978) refers to it as the Honeyman Ramelli:

"One early annotated copy, the Honeyman Ramelli, was discovered by Gnudi. Since Furguson and Gnudi give such extensive details on the proof copy and extraneous drawings, it is a pity that we are only given a few tantalizing references to this annotated copy, little more than a footnote, for this material would surely have illuminated Ferguson's chapter notes. Perhaps that is a treat to come." (pg. 508)

This copy now resides at Yale University. The librarian was kind enough to give me some details:

"I had a good look at the Ramelli yesterday afternoon. There are notes on the front endpaper and fly, notes and underscoring in the text, and quite a few pages bound in at the end. Some pages have been excised. The writing often goes to the margins, which are often somewhat frayed. The notes in the text are faded brown and often blurry, while the added notes are dark and more legible. These pages are bound pretty tightly, but I imagine that quite a bit could be read in microfilm, ...but not in xerox which would harm the volume. The notes are in Engllish. In short, I really think that the reader needs to examine the book to fully understand it. Thanks for responding to him."


Basalla, G. (1988). The evolution of technology. Cambridge [England] ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gnudi, M. T. (1974). Agostino Ramelli and Ambroise Bachot. Technology and Culture, 15(4), 614-625.

Hall, B. S. (1970). A revolving bookcase by Agostino Ramelli. Technology and Culture, 11, 389-400.

Keller, A. (1965). A theatre of machines. New York,: Macmillan.

Keller, A. (1978). Renaissance theatres of machines. Technology and Culture, 19, 495-508.

Petroski, H. (1999). The book on the bookshelf (1st ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House.

Reti, L. (1963). Franceso di Giorgio Martini's treatise on engineering and its plagiarists. Technology and Culture, 4(3), 287-298.

Reti, L. (1972). Leonardo and Ramelli. Technology and Culture, 13, 577-605.

UPDATE. December 31, 2006.

Langins discusses Ramelli in his work on Vauban. In particular, Langins notes Ramelli's odd understanding of mathematics as an early engineer:

  • Mathematics meant different things to different people since there was a split between practical and constructive mathematics. Even engineers were a bit unclear on their use of mechanics. Langins notes that “Ramelli's curious and somewhat incoherent preface to his great theatre of machines is a eulogy to the importance of mathematics and the mechanic arts. Ramelli blithely blurs the distinction between 'pure' mathematics and engineering. For him, Archimedes the mathematician is Archimedes the military engineer, with no sign whatever of Plutarch's implicit condemnation of the mechanic arts and their decided inferiority to mathematics. In his magnificently illustrated plates on various machines there is not a trace of what we would call mathematical or even quantitative considerations, yet they are presented as an example of this 'foremost art of mathematics.' Here mathematics seems nothing more than a rational approach to nature and problem solving.” pg. 36


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