Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Source of the Theatrum (it's not a publisher)

The role of the publisher is mysterious when we consider Besson's - and later, Ramelli's - technological treatises. Besson didn't have a publisher per se. In some ways he could be considered his own publisher: he created the work and negotiated the funding through a grant from the king. For later editions, Berould certainly emerged as a publisher well after Besson's death in 1573. The character that we would recognize as "the publisher", however, is largely missing from the playbill of Besson's story.

If one particular individual didn't cause the work into being, we can at least look to some of the key factors that contributed to the emergence of Besson's theatrum machinery. Reflecting the split between various approaches to book history (as so enthrallingly described in the acrimonious dialogue between Johns and Eisenstein), these factors are loosely lumped into technical and human factors. Eisenstein in quite famously in the technical camp: the printing press caused change. One could quibble about the role of agency (disregarding, of course, Pickering's thesis in The Mangle of Practice), but the role of existing artefacts and the impact of material matters remains an important consideration. Johns is the champion of the human approach, inspired by the work of his mentors Shapin and Schaffer.

I've briefly mentioned one of the technical factors, namely the emergence of a particular genre of prints that depicted architectural features largely devoid of human presence. Another factor, discussed at length by [I forget who actually discussed it but it was in book published in Germany] is the emergence and popularity of other "theatres": books with plates of images dedicated to both mundane things like furniture and ornamental things like grotesques. Another factor could be the limited nature of existing works. Pamela Long, for example, describes early mining treatises as largely literal works often lacking plates. Indeed, some of the earliest depended on a dialogue format reminiscent of Socratic questioning to describe aspects of mining, assaying, and ore processing. Other researchers such as Pellechia (1982) have noted that technical works were far too limited for fifteenth century craftsmen. Early editions of Vitruvius, for example, used arcane vocabulary and lacked diagrams of any sort, rendering them practically useless to practitioners.

There are certain issues that span the human and technical issues. Mukerji (1979), for example, maintains that the increased demand from craftsmen actually led to improved methods of production and representation: "The demand for this practical information created a demand for accuracy in prints, resulting in a kind of naturalism in print design, but not the naturalism sought for by fine artists. Accurate prints of practical pictures were simply more useful than ones with less information." (pg. 257) Notably, Mukerji also notes that the print-makers were outside of artisan guilds and may have had more opportunity (and need) to innovate. Indeed, Dürer famously noted that people are incapable of telling the difference between good and bad content but they can recognize quality in execution.

Other human issues are related to the trends representing the zeitgeist of the era. Ramelli's work, for example, features a number of devices clearly intended for siege warfare (not surprising given his own experience at Rochelle!). He may have found readers among those with a new interest and respect for treatises dedicated to war. John Hale (1962) describes a growing tendency throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries for humanists to despise war, driven by prolonged sieges and the controlled atrocities of the Turks and Spanish:

"This tendency to despise the soldier, which grew throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, was met by a vigorous reaction, a deliberate re-inflation of the military virtues and splendours, which amounted to a positive cult of war." (pg. 24)

Ramelli's work in particular may have been a staple of this "cult of war."

Perhaps the greatest influence on these new works was the printing of Aristotle's Mechanica (even if not actually composed by Aristotle). Ramelli makes direct comment on it by referring to his machines as "useful in peace and war, as can be seen in the Mechanics of Aristotle. In the Mechanica are included all the principles of the many machines and instruments which have been made and will be made in the future." (97 CHECK REF) Zonca also made reference to the Mechanica. Rose and Drake (1971) maintain that the Mechanica posed crucial questions about statics such as "why objects thrown never stop moving" or "why of two men carrying a beam, the man near the centre of the beam feels more of the weight."

There is no evidence of a fifteenth century translation indicating that the great manuscript engineers such as Leonardo or Taccola never had access to the work. While humanists had some interest in machines as demonstrated by the Giorgio Valla of Venice's translation of Hero's Pneumatica in 1501, access to Mechanica had to wait for the first Italian translation by Antonio Guarino (1504-1590). Earlier translations existed: Manutius had printed it in Greek in 1497; Fausto in Latin (1517); and Leonico in Latin (Venice 1525, Paris 1530). As noted by Rose and Drake, these translations may not have been useful:

"It appears that for them [engineers] generally the Mechanica remained inaccessible in Greek, nearly so in Latin, and only belatedly became know in vernacular translation." (pg. 96)

Ramus was a fan of the Mechanica. Indeed, Ramus may have been the vector linking the Mechanica to Ramelli. Another interesting reference to the Mechanica was Pedro Nuñes, who discussed the work in his navigational treatises of 1566 and 1573. Interestingly, he specifically referred to the problems of oars and rudders. Perhaps it was from Nuñes that Amboise Bachot - assistant to, and plagiarizer of, Ramelli - drew the titles for his own works on mechanics: Le Timon (the Tiller) and Le Gouvernail (the Rudder).

Henry Heller presents yet another perspective. He attributes the innovations of Besson and Ramelli to underlying economic factors:

"Besson was attempting to find technological solutions to meet underlying economic needs. However, it should be pointed out… there is an impractical and fantastical element in many of the machines that he devised. Thus the original impetus to create these mechanisms may have been economic, but it seems that in many of them a sense of fantasy and whimsy has taken over." (pg. 107)

While there certainly doesn't appear to be any role for a publisher who caused these works to be, they certainly came from somewhere. The causes for their emergence are social and individual, economic and technical.

[UPDATE: September 1, 2006]. Heller's commentary on the works of Besson and Ramelli speak to an underlying assumption that these works were produced due to socio-economic factors i.e., there is an economic need and new technology appears to address that need. My contention is that these works have a far more complicated history and that they operated in many different ways. They not only address economic concerns but they appease various requirements: they deal with a problem of credibility by qualifying engineers, they satisfy an ethos of collection as demonstrated by the kunstkammer and other types of "theaters," and they satisfied the new courtier aspirations of artifice. In this way, these works operated as "boundary objects" in that they were strongly structured in very particulary settings but were also able to move between these setting. As boundary objects, they made ideal tools of recruitment and served the needs of "heterogeneous engineering."

There's my thesis.


Hale, John. (1962) War and opinion: War and public opinion in the Fifteenth Sixteenth Centuries. Past and Present 22: 18-35.

Heller, Henry (1996). Labour, science, and technology in France, 1500-1620. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Mukerji, Chandra. (1979) Mass culture and the modern world-system: the rise of the graphic arts. Theory and Society. 8(2): 245-268.

Pellecchia, Linda (1982). Architects read Vitruvius: Renaissance interpretations of the atrium of the ancient house. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. LI: 377-416.

Rose, Paul Lawrence and Drake, Stillman (1971). The pseudo-aristotelian questions of mechanics in renaissance culture. Studies in the renaissance 18: 65-104.


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