Friday, August 11, 2006

Ramelli's Book Wheel

The book wheel contained in Ramelli's famous book of machines has been cited many times as evidence of an explosion of primitive information technology in the sixteenth century. The representation of the wheel contains its own lessons in information and how it breaks down.

1. Ramelli. 1588. The original. It's unclear who engraved the plate, possibly a young Jean de Gourmont. Ambroise Bachot may also have had some involvement in the creation process. Another possibility is that the plate was created by an unknown artist from an atelier associate with Gourmont.
2. Zeising. 1611. Heinrich Zeising compiled the work of several earlier authors. The volume was printed by Henning Grosse, who also reprinted a complete translation in 1620. The plates may have been etched by a young Andreas Bretschneider. Many of the plates contain the "AB" monogram, but the flourish differs from his later work. Bretschneider settled in Leipzig in 1611 and began working with Grosse almost immediately. He also engraved the plates for the Septentrio Novantiques of Hieronymous Megiserus in 1613. Perhaps a comparison would shed some more light on the possibility that he served as Zeising's engraver.

3. Ramelli. Schatzakammer... (1620). Henning Grosse printed an almost complete copy of Ramelli's work in 1620. The plates were clearly engraved by Bertschneider although it's unclear who actually did the translations or how they differ from Zeising's commentary of nine years ealier. It's interesting that Grosse elected not to use the earlier plates especially given the high costs of engraving. Grosse may have only served as the printer for Zeising and had little control over the original plates. It's also possible that Grosse was trying to appeal to a new up-scale market for the work. UPDATE: I just noticed the details in the glazing. The Grosse plate shows a circle pattern that is present in the Zeising version but absent in the original.

4. Schreck. 1627. Terrence Schreck was a Jesuit missionary working in China. He was also an astronomer who corresponded with Galileo about his observations. While in China, he worked with Wang Cheng to create a work to describe western technology. The Chinese copy of Ramell's wheel is far from perfect. It seems that the engraver had little understanding of epicyclic gearing and described a device that would be very effective at dumping books to the floor. It's possible that the engraver worked from Zeising's version rather than Ramelli's original. UPDATE: I've changed my mind. It seems likely that the engraver worked from the original. Note the number of door latches. The Zeising and Grosse versions show only one latch on the door but the original has three. The Schreck version also has three.

5. Grollier de Serviere. 1719. The book wheel makes its final appearance in the eighteenth century. Instead of the complicated gearing mechanism employed by Ramelli, this version employs a much simpler gimbaled design. Whereas Ramelli used his work to demonstrate his prowess with gearing assemblages, Grollier de Serviere appealed to utility.

6. A Bookwheel at Wolfenbuttel. Perhaps Liebniz used something similar to this recreation of Ramelli's design.

7. And at the Smithsonian.

8. And Anthony Grafton's office.

I suspect that this wheel was the one featured in "New Worlds, Ancient Texts", a 1992 exhibition at the NYPL. According to a review in the Journal of American History (80.1: 187) the wheel was designed by Dante Gnudi and was built by "Design Models" (???). According to both Bert S. Hall and Ladislao Reti, Gnudi had also built a reduced scale version of the wheel.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Price of Patronage

Through my meanderings on the theatrum machinarum I’ve come across a few questions: Why did Besson really want to write a machine book? Why was Ramelli so pissed off at Bachot? What were the stakes? The answer may come from a brief review of the life of the Duc de Sully.

Sully was a Protestant in France at the end of the sixteenth century and beginning of the seventeenth century. He rose to prominence as one of the chief advisors of Henri of Navarre. He was seriously wounded at the Battle of Ivry but received numerous estates after Henry’s rise to power as Henry IV. He counselled Henry’s conversion to Catholicism and eventually became Henry’s sole superintendent of finances.

His reforms were dramatic. He authorized free exportation of grain and wine, standardized tax collection, streamlined the government, and removed many of the monetary abuses in governmental channels. In 1599 he was appointed grand commissioner of highways and public works, superintendent of fortifications, and grand master of artillery. In 1602 he became governor of Nantes and Jargeau, captain-general of the Queen’s gens d’armes, and governor of the Bastille. By 1604 he was governor of Poitou and was make duke of Sully in 1606.

Sully was aggressive on agriculture and trade, yet paid little attention to industry. He fought in Savoy with Henry IV and represented France at the court of James I of England. He also arranged the marriage between Henry and Marie de Medici. Following Henry’s assassination in 1610, he quickly lost influence and retired in 1611. He eventually died in 1634.

Sully’s influence from 1598 to 1610 marked a dramatic change in France’s finances. Before the turn of the seventeenth century, France had been racked by religious and civil wars and was just beginning its age of consolidation. The years from 1605 to 1609 were particularly remarkable ones for infrastructure funding. Sully embarked on program of bridge and canal building and instituted a full system of accountability for infrastructure projects. This effort was truly remarkable considering that the corps d’engénieurs would not emerge until 1747.

His efforts were primarily orchestrated through the very influential ingéneurs du roi. Although primarily artillery engineers, individual such as Jean Errard, Claude de Chastillon, and Humphrey Bradley all rose to prominence as military engineers. Their efforts extended beyond canals and bridges to fortifications. Compared to Italy or the Low Countries, France was particularly poorly equipped with fortifications. Also of importance for these engineers were administrative capabilities and particularly the ability to make maps.

In each province, Sully appointed an ingéneurs du roi and their deputy: the conducteur des desseins. These engineers were primarily artisans since there was no formal training programs in place. Jean Errard, Jean de Beins (with Raymond de Bonnefons as conducteur), and Lois de Foix all served in this capacity.

Their job was to tour the countryside taking notes and recording their observations. The had to plan work for the next year’s work according to Sully’s états des fortifications. The rest of their responsibilities bear considerable resemblance to the work of modern engineers. They had to get approval for the projects from the provincial governor, draw up plans, and create contracts that were let by the provincial contrôleur-général. They then had to check progress (and report defaulters). Upon the completion of the project (or winter), the accounts were settled.

During Sully’s time the prominence of Italian engineers declined. Chastillon’s deputy, for example, was “Bartolomeo Ricardo.” Buisseret maintains that this individual may have been one of the last Italian engineers to work within the French administration. The decline of the Italians afforded the rise of several French engineering dynasties, notably the Errards, the Chastillons, the Bonnefons, and the Martelliers.

Some of the machine book authors were able to navigate Sully’s regime quite well. Errard, for example, was enobled and rose to considerably prominence. Others, such as Ramelli may not have been able to make such a clean transition. Of particular interest is the move from machine books to works on fortifications. Errard, for example, is most well known for his later treatise on fortifications rather than his early work on machines. Similarly, Bachot’s Le Gouvernail contains a considerable section dedicated to the design of fortifications, which serves as a preface to the sections on machines (which came from the earlier Le Timon and were likely stolen from Ramelli). It remains unclear if Ramelli was working on his own work of fortification but lost his designs to Bachot.

There is a remote possibility that a lost Ramelli on fortification may have existed. Consider the section of fortification from Ephraim Chambers Cyclopedia:

“The fist Authors who have wrote of Fortification, consider’d as particular form’d Art, are Ramelli, and Cantaneo, Italians. After them Errard, Engineer to Henry the Great of France; Stevinus, Engineer to the Prince of Orance, Marolois, the Chevalier de Ville, Lorini, the Count de Pagan, and the Marcshal de Vauban : Which two last Noble Authors contributed very greatly to the Perfection of the Art.” (pg, 79)

Chambers’s observations were repeated in Tristram Shandy. The protagonist discusses his Uncle Toby and his recovery from a war injury:

“The more my uncle Toby drank of this sweet fountain of science, the greater was the heat and impatience of his thirst, so that, before the first year of his con- finement had well gone round, there was scarce a fortified town in Italy or Flanders, of which, by one means or other, he had not procured a plan, reading over as he got them, and carefully collating therewith the histories of their sieges, their demolitions, their improvements and new works, all which he would read with that intense application and delight, that he would forget himself, his wound, his confinement, his dinner.

In the second year my uncle Toby purchased Ramelli and Cataneo, translated from the Italian ; ---- likewise Stevinus, Marolis, the Chevalier de Ville, Lorini, Coehorn, Sheeter, the Count de Pagan, the Marshal Vauban, Mons. Blondel, with almost as many more books of military architecture, as Don Quixote was found to have of chivalry, when the curate and barber invaded his library.”

Given the influence of the new fortification builders, Ramelli stood to loose a significant amount of both influence and income from Bachot’s treachery.


Buisseret. Sully and the growth...

Monday, August 07, 2006

Hagiography: Giovanni Branca

Branca gave the world a different take on the theatrum machinarum genre. Whereas the works of Besson and Ramelli were beautifully engraved and expensive, Branca created an octavo filled with relatively comparatively shoddy woodcuts. Gone are the intricate designs of Ramelli/Bachot and the detailed architectural renderings of Besson/Androuet du Cerceau. As noted by Keller, “Branca’s Le Machine is less rich in material and less beautiful, but not without repute.” (496) Unfortunately, most of Branca’s fame lies in his depiction of what some commentators have taken to be an early steam engine. He deserves more notoriety.
  • 1571, 22 April. Branca is born and baptized at San Angelo in Lizzola, Pesaro.
  • 1616. He begins employment at the Sacra Casa (Virgin’s Holy House) in Loreto. His work was typical for a Renaissance engineer. He supervised repairs to the structure, designed funeral monuments, and improved fortifications. He also took a role in the local government and acted as a land agent in the administration of the Sacra Casa’s properties. His work also takes him frequently to Assisi and Rome.
  • 1622. Made a citizen of Rome.
  • 1645, January 24. Branca dies in Loreto.
Branca created two works of particular note for historians of architecture: Le Machine (1629) and the Manuale d’Architettura (also 1629), a popular and frequently reprinted introduction to the field of architecture. Despite its popularity, this manual remains largely unstudied.

Le Machine is still a very rich source of material. It’s unclear why Branca created the work. His patronage at the Sacra Casa seemed to be secure and the work itself is largely backward looking. The theory for the work seems to emerge from the pseudo-Aristotelian “Mechanical Problems” and notes the work of Heron of Alexandria, as developed by Giovanni Battista della Porta. Unlike earlier authors, Branca doesn’t claim to be the creator of many of the machines and in one instance even expresses some uncertainty over how the machine in question is supposed to function.

The theoretical innocence of the work is somewhat surprising. As evidenced by two extant letters, Branca communicated with Benedetto Castelli and references his work in the last chapter of his architectural manual, a chapter about rivers. Castelli, often considered to be the founder of the field of hydrodynamics, wrote to Branca urging him to defend himself against naïve or interested parties (such as the Venetians who had rejected Castelli’s opinions as to why their lagoons were silting). On another occasion, Branca wrote to Castelli regarding a design for a nozzle for an inverted siphon to be installed in a fountain. Castelli also witnessed the ecclesiastical innocence of Le Machine for the inquisition.

While Branca may have been unaware of new trends in theoretical and methodological approach, Castelli certainly was. He was a personal friend and student of Galileo’s. He became an abbot of the Benedictine monastery in Monte Casino and was appointed as a mathematician to the University of Pisa. One of his students was Evangelista Toricelli, inventor of the barometer and early proponent of the air pump.

Branca’s machine book stands as an interesting mid-point in the spectrum of the genre’s development. As an octavo with woodcuts, it was clearly destines for less well appointed libraries. It also lacks the detail of later works. It does not, for example, contain the measurements provided by Zonca (n.b., Keller also notes that Ramelli didn’t even bother to count teeth in his gearing mechanisms!). According to Keller, his machines “look like armchair inventions which seldom ever had any three-dimensional working counterparts,” (503) although this same complaint could be levelled against other machine works.

It’s unclear how influential Branca’s work was. Hooke owned a copy (and the auction list may even contain a price which could be compared to Besson). Bernini also owned a Branca, an Agricola, and a Ramelli (McGee, 2000)


Keller, A.G. (1978). Renaissance Theatres of Machines. Technology and Culture.
McGee, Sarah (2000). Bernini’s Books. The Burlington Magazine. 142.1168: 442-448.