Thursday, August 17, 2006

The French Books of Machines: Not Theatres

Besson published the first book of machines and determined the ultimate name for the entire genre. His Théâtre des instrumens mathématiques, later published as the Theatrum instrumentorum et machinarum was the wellspring for subsequent works. I find it interesting that subsequent French authors elected to not refer to theatres in their titles. Ramelli published Le diverse et artificiose machine del Capitano Agostino Ramelli, Bachot had Le timon and Le gouvernail, and Errard printed Le premier livre des instruments mathematiques mechaniques. Later, de Caus released Les Raisons des forces mouvantes.

Except for Besson, there are no “theatrums.”

It’s possible that this resistance may have been part of a general rise in French anti-Italianism during the late sixteenth century. This movement was particularly noticeable in towns with significant Italian nations, such as Lyon. This resistance may have been due to the universal role of Italians as moneylenders, at both the national and street levels. A number of other factors may have contributed: the political meddling of the de’ Medicis, the Machiavellian views of the Italian humanists, and Huguenot dislike for the popish ways of Catholic Italians.

Throughout the sixteenth century Italian influence over France grew considerably. In addition to the rapid expansion of the trading houses, there was a rapid expansion in the number of Italian courtiers. Francis I, for example, imported notable figures such as Camillo, Serlio, and Leonardo. Henri II continued to appoint Italians to important household positions. Charles IX appointed 90 while Henri III increased that number to 178. In 1549, 77 Italians had royal pensions and by 1577, Henri III was pensioning 243. The influence of Italian artists, architects, engineers, and musicians continued to grow. This rise of royal influence was countered by an increase in anti-Italian sentiment among minor nobility, the emerging middle class, and the common people. The Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacres targeted Italians in addition to Protestants.

This rise of anti-Italianism contributed to the decline of the influence of Italian engineers in France. Not all Italians, however, were ostracized. Ramelli, for example, was made supervisor of the fortification of Paris in 1585. Heller notes that the minutes of the Burea de Ville “resentfully” describe him as a “so-called engineer.” Somewhat surprisingly, Ramelli kept this appointment during the ascendancy of the Catholic league (Heller, pg. 204).

The influence of Giulio Camillo wasn’t safe from French xenophobia. Heller cites letters written by the humanist printer and Calvinist, Etienne Dolet, who specialized in printing works in the French vernacular. Dolet reacted strongly to the popularity of Camillo, calling him “that portentuous specimen of the Italian character… There is one thing which does vex me much; it is that our countrymen are so eager after, and so partial to what is barbarous and foreign that they neglect those things which they have at home most worthy of praise, and with a ridiculous folly admire and purchase at a great price whatever is foreign.” (Heller, pg. 38-39)

In a different letter, Dolet refers to Camillo and notes: “I know many in France by whose talents and attainments I hope the Italian will be made to understand that eloquence and literary renown (of which his countrymen claim a monopoly for themselves) are also common to the French, and that they will then cease to treat us as dumb children who, having neglected the study of literature, tend beyond other to weakness, and may be deluded into any scheme however mad.” (Heller, pg. 39)

Dolet’s comments were likely made in the early to mid 1530s, well before Besson first put pen to paper.


Heller, Henry. Anti-Italianism in Sixteenth Century France.


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