Friday, March 10, 2006

From the French

I have a stack of papers written in French that need summarizing. Here goes...

Dolza and Verin: Figurer la mecanique: l'enigme des theatres de machines de la Renaissance

The theatres of machines haven't yet answered the questions posed by historians and yet they are particularly amenable to the work of Gille, Bloch, and Febvre. The authors provide an introduction to these works using the wordsof Beroald, in his introduction to Besson:

"Voici un theatre de labeur immense, rempli de machines et d'instruments plaisants a considerer et tres-utiles a practiquer."

They note that these works were typically printed in folio, with a grand dedication and introduction, followed by a series of printed pages. Each page contains a short description and a representation of some device located in a landscape, workshop, or abstract space. The theatres were published between 1570 and 1770. Their heyday was between 1570 and 1620. A number of different descriptors apply to these works including "theatres," des "livres," des "recueils," des "modelles," des "dessins," or des "inventions." They are--for the most part--French or Italian. Dolza and Verin note that the only exception to this rule is Zeising.

In the second half of the seventeenth century, most of the theatres were either German or Flemish. They point to the work of Leupold and Boeckler, and to two works that I haven't actually explored: Van Zyl's Theatrum machinarum universale (1724, 2nd ed. 1761), and Van der Horst Tileman's Theatrum machinarum universale (1736, 1737, 1761). Apparently these low landers needed some help in naming their books!

The authors note that this second generation of works contained considerably more text and that the text itself became an important complement to the plates. The overall presentation of these works was very similar to what would appear in later works such as the Encyclopedie and Machines et inventions approuves par l'Academie Royale des Sciences.

Dolza and Verin make a very important point about this change. They note that the theatrical esthetic of the works was gradually effaced by the arts and trades:

"L'esthetisation theatrale de la mchine s'efface devant le serieux de l'inventair des arts et metiers. Au service des royaumes et des leurs preoccuptions mercantilistes, au service de l'administration camerale allemande ou encore, avec l'Encyclopedie de Diderot et d'Alembert, dan des vues de progres de l'industrie humaine, le repertoires de machines du XVIIIe siecle sone des oeuvres collectives que ont pour but de faire et de presenter un etat de la situation des art mecaniques." (p. 10)

The theatra machinarum were collected by a wide variety of expert mechanics, and by educated men and savants. Their underlying form depends largely on the example set by Giulio Camillo's Idea del Teatro, a popular mnemonic system described in Yates's The Art of Memory.

Illustrated works were flourishing in Europe during the era of the theatram machinarum. Books on emblems, anatomy, flora and fauna, numismatics (as demonstated by Di Strada), and architecture were very popular. New technical innovations such as the rolling press (as demonstrated by Errard) and new ways of inscribing plates and cutting wood blocks drove the production process.

The authors were careful to dedicate their works to great men in order to both establish credibility and gain patronage. They also made strong claims about the sincerity of their works and the depth of their experience. The validity of the depicted machines was established by invoking the names of Archimedes, Pappus, Hero, Aristotle, Plato, Pythagoras, and Euclid. Their understanding of these authors, however, is somewhat suspect as demonstrated by Besson's rather incomplete comprehension of Aristotle.

Three main themes have emerged from commentary on the theatra machinarum: plagiarism, the operational viability of the depicted machines, and the issue of the scientific content of the works. Academic interest in the works began in the late 19th century through the explorations of Reuleaux, Beck, and Marcellin Berthelot.

Practices of technological development differed in England and on the continent. While Europe was embroiled in the wars of religion--and the pomp of various courts--England was influenced by Bacon's proposal to study the practical sciences. This difference is evident in the many projects of William Cecil and Walsingham. An interesting case in point is Sir Hugh Platt's Jewel House of Art and Nature. While of the same era as the theatra machinarum, it is clearly different.

The Renaissance books of machines have received some bad press through the years. Gille, for example, remarked on the "purility" of the authors' florid imaginations. Edgerton called them "coffee-table books" for aristocrats (Ther Hiertiage of Giotto's Geometry). Basalla also compared them to the work of Rube Goldberg.

Dolza and Verin maintain that the works require additional study. They recommed two methods: "La premiere est l'histoire du livre, de l'ecriture et de la lecture." "La deuxieme approched, qui a pris ajourd'hui un grand assor, est l'histoire sociale, economique, institutionelle, des inventions, et, plus genereralement, des savoirs." (p. 28) They describe the varied conditions that dominated the creation of these works:

"C'est dans le contexte de ces exigences et obligations socioprofessionalles , mais aussi religieuses et intellectuelles, que de developpe la litterature technique que nous evoquee: livres d'architecture, de fortfication, de geometrie pratique, de macanique et d'hydraulique." (p. 29)

Get: "Archives, objets, et images "

The authors also include an extensive appendix detailing various editions and reprints in chronological order.


Dolza, Luisa and Helene Verin (2004). Figurer la mecanique: l'enigme des theatres de machines de la Rensaissance. Revue d'Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine 51.2 (avril-juin): 7-37.


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