It’s unclear to me why the genre has become known as the theatrum machinarum. It may have derived from Eugene Ferguson’s article in Science or perhaps from the work of Alex Keller. The expression “theatrum machinarum” certainly appears in the titles of many of the later authors (Bockler, Strada, Leupold, Nartov, Van Zyl, Tileman) and in one of the early works (Zonca). The first of the genre, Besson’s contribution, also contained the word “theatrum.”
The root of this naming trend may lie in the era’s fascination with collecting, particularly as realized by the German Wunder- and Kunstkammer. Nobles and men of distinction created these early museums to contain their collections of the world’s wonders, both man-made and natural. The Fuggers were a family who specialized in acting as agents that supplied rare items to the sixteenth century nobility. Hans Jacob Fugger employed two great collectors as specialists: Jacopo Strada—the author of one of the books of machines, and Samuel Quiccheberg.
Quiccheberg is widely cited as the author of one of the world’s first treatises (1565) on collecting: Inscriptiones vel Tituli Theatri Amplissimi (“Labels and Titles for A Full Theatre”). He used the word “theatre” to mean display. It also evokes the earlier work of Giulio Camilio: Il Teatro della Memoria. Camilio attempted to recapture the classical and medieval art of memory as an element of rhetoric. He imagined a classical amphitheatre filled with various objects, each intended to serve as a memory aid. Francis I convinced Camilio to relocate to France (n.b., Francis also imported Leonardo) and actually executed his design (Pearce, On Collecting).
By combining the work of Camilio with the passion for collecting, Quiccheberg extended the meaning of theatre well beyond a simple display. According to Pearce:
“Quiccheberg had made the jump which brought together in an organized fashion the notion of collecting, already, as we have seen, imbued with much metaphysical lore, and the notion of cosmic rationale which the memory theatre expressed. He, as it were, used a collection to fill the boxes and coffers which Camillo’s Theatre contained and, by bringing the two together, achieved both the organisation of collected material in classificatory terms and fuller realisation of the nature of the universe.” (Pearce, On Collecting. Pg. 114)
Quiccheberg’s work mandates that collections should contain five main classes, each with about ten inscriptions per class. The classes covered: religious art, and pictorial material related to general or regional history; sculpture, numismatics, the applied arts; natural history with original specimens and artefacts; science and mechanics, material relating to games, sports and pastimes, arms and armour, costume; paintings and engravings, genealogy, portraits, heraldry, textiles, fittings and furnishings (Pearce, On Collecting). This system may have been influenced by the work of Conrad Gesner, who wrote the preface for one of Besson’s earlier works. One of Gesner’s later works was even published post-humously with the work “theatrum” in the title: Insectorum, sive, Minimorum animalium theatrum.
He viewed the collection as a royal responsibility, and quoted from the Bible (book of Kings) in emphasizing the importance of collections and treasure chests:
“For I sense that it cannot be expressed by any person’s eloquence how much wisdom and how much use for administering the state—in the civil and military spheres and the ecclesiastical and literary—can be gained from examination and study of the images and objects that I have described.” (Meadow, pg. 194)
The importance of these “theatres” extended well beyond just physical objects. Images were equally important as objects of study. Quiccheberg went so far as to recommend that collections should be attended by libraries, printing facilities, workshops, and ateliers. This recommendation wasn’t realized until the reign of Peter the Great of Russia with his Academy of Science (and through considerable intervention from Liebniz). Nartov’s proposal for an Academy of Crafts, if it had been accepted, would have complete Quiccheberg’s vision.
Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge.
Meadow, Mark A. Hans Jacob Fugger and the Origins of the Wunderkammer. In Pamela Smith and Paula Findlen (Eds.) Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science and Art in Early Modern Europe. (pgs. 191-195)
Pearce, Susan (1990). Museums and Their Development: European Tradition 1700-1900.
Pearce, Susan. On Collecting.
Schulz, Eva. Notes on the History of Collecting and of Museums. In Susan Pearce (Ed.) Interpreting Objects and Collections (pgs. 175-187)