Thursday, April 12, 2007

Engineers in England: Jacopo Aconcio

One of the most famous English engineers wasn't even English, he was Italian. Jacopo Aconcio was far more than an engineer. He was also a courtier, theologian, and humanist. Schullian notes: "He who would study Aconcio needs infinite patience and delicately balanced judgement. Doughts and enigmas abound through the reformers's career..." (202)

England became a welcome haven for reformers during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI. Mary's bloody reign temporarily slowed the immigration but it regained vigour with the open policies of Elizabeth. People with very specific skills came from France and Italy to start a new life. As learned Protestants flooded into England, they exceed the carrying capacity of institutions such as the church, the bureacracy, and academia. Many had to explore new opportunities. Aconcio, a noted academic and reformer, was just such an individual. White notes that he embodied two of the greatest societal changes of the 16th century: the Protestant Reformation and new military technology driven by the advent of mobile cannon.

The details of his birth are unknown. By 1548 he was working as a notary at Trent. Between 1549 and 1556 Aconcio was in the retinue of Count Francesco Landriano. He would have come into contact with other associates of Landriano such as the engineer Francesco Ferretti (author of Dell'osservanza militare. Venice 1568). Landriano went on to represent Pius IV in the spring of 1563 in his dealings with Philip II. This connection suggests a potential link between Aconcio and Ramelli but Pius IV was made pope in January 1560, well after Medeghino's death and Aconcio's departure for England. In 1556 he was the secretary to cristoforo Cardinal Madruzzo, Charles V's governor of Milan. Things seemed to have turned for Aconcio and he fled his home in 1557. He first went to Switzerland, then to Alsace, and then ultimately to England at the invitation of the new Queen in early September of 1559.

England was in desperate need of skilled engineers as demonstrated by the fall of Calais in January 1558. Fortification was still a new thing at the time. The first works on fortification had only appeared in Venice in 1554 and in France in 1556. William Cecil was an avid collector of books. White notes that he wrote to the English ambassador of France asking for books on architecture and the new military science. Cecil wrote that he had read Vitruvius, Leo Baptista Alberti, and Durer but is interested in other works as well.

One of his most important learned treatises is a work devoted to method. De Methodo was published in Basel in 1559. As noted by McKeon, this work was an attempt to rationalize the use of method in both medicine and philosophy. It's indicative of a far broader interest in both science and philosophy.The process revealed in this work is also indicative of Aconcio's approach to all activities. White writes: "Aconcio's mental process was permeated by the mathematical method of starting from clear and concrete principles, and passing step by step to greater generality and simplicity." (426)

Aconcio's start in England was far from stellar. He had associated with individuals who had conspired against Mary and the taint transferred to the new monarch. He was excommunicated by Edmund Grindal, the Bishop of London, due to his association with Anabaptists and Arian principles.

He was a man of many talents and decided to pursue the course of an engineer. But first, he needed to secure some degree of protection for his intellectual property. In 1559, he worte to Elizabeth: "I have discovered most useful things, which when known will be used without my consent, except there be a penalty, and I, poor with expenses and labor, shall have no returns. Therefore I get a prohibition against using any wheel machines, either for grinding or bruising or any furnaces like mine." (Jones 243)

His petition called for a patent on "new designs of machines of all sorts that use [water] wheels, and a new design for building funaces for dryers and those who make beer, and for other uses, with a great saving of fuel." (White 432) Patents were relatively unknown in England at the time. Aconcio would surely have been aware of the success of one of Cardano's mill designs due a patent granted by Charles V. From this start Aconcio began to develop a reputation as a builder of machines. He was eventually granted a pension of 60 pounds on February 27 1560.

Subsequently, he divised a plan for draining lands flooded by the Thames. In early 1563 he petitioned the Queen for the right to reclaim 2000 acres in Lesnes, Erith, and Plumstead. The bill was introduced to parliament on February 25 1563. On June 23 1563, he received a commision from Elizabeth and began draining Plumsted Marsh near Erith. Due to a precedent established by Henry VIII, part of his compensation was title to one half of the drained territory. In 1566 Aconcio turned his share of the project back to the original investors. Although the project had met with many challenges, Aconcio may have just had too little time to devote to the project due to his growing responsibilities. The success of his project started a wave of efforts in such as the work of Peter Morris in the 1580s to drain the fens of Ely.

Having established his reputation as an entrepreneur, Grindal recieved Aconcio back into the church.

In the summber of 1564 Aconcio adopted one of the other mantles of sixteenth century engineers: builder of fortifications. The building of certain fortifications had met with excessive administrative problems throughout the 1560s. During his review of the ongoing building at Berwick-upon-Tweed he came into contact with powerful patrons such as Francis Russell, the Earl of Bedford, and William Cecil, Secretary of State and Elizabeth's most trusted aid. He also met Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. He was also a friend to Giovanni Battista Castiglione, the Queen's physician, and corresponded with Emperor Maximillian II.

In his approach to fortification Aconcio felt that it was important to learn everything possible since besieged cities fell so infrequently: "Moreoever, my mind was long since vexed with plans to flee whither I might freely profess the Gospel, and I thought it possible that if I might learn this art it would thereafter give me a living. So I set myself in earnest to learning it. Whenver I had a chance I carefully questioned everyone what they had tried to do, and what they admird or condemned in every fortress." (White 440)

In 1564 Aconcio also returned to the world of humanist scholarship by writing an Italian work on how to apply method to the study of history. It was published by Blundeville and represents the first of an entire series of works that applied method to various fields of human endeavour. White mentions that one of these works may have been devoted to fortification but that it had become a "bibliographic ghost." Stephen Johnston may have found it in an English translation.

In 1566 he penned perhaps his most famous work, Satanae Stratagematum and dedicated it to Elizabeth. She in turn pushed through a 1566 bill that granted him permission to continue draining sections of Plumsted Marsh. Elizabeth's reponse represents a very interesting reward for a book of such theological importance!

Aconcio died in 1566 or 1567.


Jones, William M. 1955. Two learned italians in Elizabethan England. Italica. 32.4: 242-247.McKeon, Richard. 1966. Philosophy and the development of scientific methods. Journal of the History of Ideas. 27.1: 3-22.
Schullian, Dorothy M. 1956. Review: Jacopo Aconcio by Charles Donald O'Malley. Isis. 47.2: 201-203.
White, Lynn. 1967. Jacopo Aconcio as an Engineer. The American Historical Review. 72.2: 425-444.


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