Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Some more thoughts on sketchbooks

Sketchbooks are an interesting topic. But most of our general awareness is about the relatively famous works of authors like Taccola, di Giorgio, and Leonardo. There is a richer thread. I've been trying to write this note for quite some time but I keep getting bogged down by Stanley Cup playoffs and the windup of Heroes; An 18-month old doesn't help either. Regardless...

There are several different paths for engineering sketchbooks. The first is the path of works created by artisans primarily for artisans. I'm thinking of the works of the master gun smiths. There are also the sketchbooks of the master masons (such as Villard) that may have fulfilled a different role, perhaps as a type of aide de memoire. As noted, the works of Leonardo and his near contemporaries are in a league of their own. There are also those sketchbooks that clearly have some relationship with securing privileges, such as the manuscript of Besson or even the much later work of Nartov. There are also seemingly anomalous works such as Gentillatre's effort or the fascinating anonymous engineering sketchbook of the Rosenwald collection that Lamberini attributes to a member a Giulio Parigi's cirle.

It is actually Lamberini's work that most interests me. She starts her chapter with a note from Liebniz to the duke of Hanover--and future king George I of England--in which he praises German machines above their Italian counterparts which, in comparison, are "lifeless, unmoving, made to be contemplated from the outside." (pg. 213). Lamberini explains her perspective on the Italian depictions of machines:

"The Italian machine is conceived in terms of representation; it is a machine in a drawing and as such is compared with the living, functioning machines, with their mass, weight and noise, which the philosopher-engineer could see and produce in reality. There can be no doubt that the language in which Italian machines were described was by this point inadequate to the production needs of the new world that was coming into being with the discoveries of Galileo and Descartes and being theorized by Leibniz." (pg. 213)

Representing machines posed more challenges than representing buildings. The "triad" of profile, plan, and section just isn't effective for representing moving components. Engineering drawing progressed due to the increased use of perspective and the scientific use of optics, the rediscovery of works by Hero, Archimedes, and Vitruvius, and faith in the Aristotelian emphasis on sight as the primary sense:

"Like every form of mimesis, technical drawing does not reproduce reality indiscriminately but seeks out and emphasizes specific aspects particular to its purpose." pg. 216

"Rapidity of measurement was highly appreciated in teh tragic urgency of war, and the compass became a fundamental tool for sixteenth century military engineers, as it was also for hydraulic engineers, who made the most use of military axonometry, and for cartographers." pg. 216

Lamberini refers to the depictions of machines as "symbolic portraits of machines" that lack typical views such as plans and sections--or the ichnographia and orthographia of Vitruvius. They also employee atypical perspectives and are indifferent to scale. The net result is that "it is impossible to take the natural step of going from such plans on paper to actual construction of the machine. This is especially true in the case of a new invention, even when the drawings are accompanied by detailed explanation, which are always insufficient." (pg. 218)

The net effect of these representations is to improve the social standing of the designer in the eyes of both patrons and society: "No longer a humble mechanic, he is a cultivated engineer and Vitruvian architect, a universal Renaissance man, the interpreter and reinventor of techniques of antiquity, capable of dialogue on the same level as humanists and royal patrons." (pg. 219-220) The theatres of machines are an extension of this ethic. They embody the same values but were available to a much wider range of potential patrons. They not only document existing technology but capture the quest for the new and the novel. They capture "the mannerist and baroque search for the marvelous, the unusual, the impossible." (pg. 222) This same movement in the Kunstkammers that spread throughout the royal buildings of Europe. Many of the Kunstkammers prominently features books devoted to novel discoveries, including new military and hydraulic devices. Authors were quick to fulfill the demand with dedicated presentation copies. Their works captured "not so much the functionality and methods of construction of the machines as the idea, the potentiality, the technological timeliness they embodied, that is to say, the culture, or the Archimedean soul, of the Italian machine." (pg. 223)

The princely works seem different from depictions created by engineers and artisans for engineers and artisans:

"The principal characteristic of these princely products is the high quality of their draftsmanship, in which the rules of perspective are faithfully respected, the shadows correctly inserted, often with the machines placed in pleasant landscape settings, where color is used, but with great economy, and letters of the alphabet, captions, or brief descriptions help to explain a drawing that is already quite explicity by itself, with the machine looming majestically in the center of the sheet, veritable portraits of machines: machines for a prince." (pg. 225)

The engineer's works differ considerably:

"Here the figurative language is reduced to the essential: there is no use of perspective, no patron to attract or astound, but a pure dialogue between initiates made up of summary two-dimensional drawings alluding to plans or sections, quick sketches with vaugue hints at perspective, simple aids to memory, with notations of rules of geometry and recipes meant for use in daily practice and experimentation on-site." (pg. 225-226)

Lamberini makes one other point that seems very important. In her conclusion, she notes:

"separating de facto the planning stage from the production process, that is to say, the designer from the builder, the engineer from the architect--would lead western Europe from the ancien regime to the modern industrial revolution, a new world where machine design would be the driving force for the changed relationships of production and the division of labor." pg. 231


Lamberini, Daniela. Machines in perspective: technical drawings in unpublished treatises and notebooks of the Italian Renaissance. In Lyle Massey. 2003. The treatise on perspective: published and unpublished. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art. pg. 213-231

Next Steps

I still have to take a look at some of the Spanish sketchbooks, notable those of pseudo-Turiano. Perhaps a refresh of both Nartov and Besson would also be in order. I'm also intrigued by the background figures that appear in the Shatzkammer. Are they in the original Ramelli? What about Zeising?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Sketchbooks I: Jacques Gentillâtre

I'm still going through some old papers and books that I have yet to really document. Many of them seem to have some bearing on one of the most important inputs to the theatrum machinarum: engineer's sketchbooks.

Sketchbooks are a well-studied element of the history of technology. Unfortunately, the purview of the most popular studies is limited to the hagiography of early engineering: Leonardo, Francesco di Giorgio, and Taccola. The sketchbook genre was very long lived and had ongoing significance. We can take the starting point to be Villard's famous book. An arbitrary end point could be the anonymous military sketchbook that was part of the Rosenwald collection and is held by the Library of Congress (Daniela Lamberini attributes the work to a member of the circle of Giulio Parigi). There are even sketchbook versions of Besson's work and some manuscript versions of Ramelli's designs.

One interesting contribution to the sketchbook genre is the book of Jacques Gentillâtre. He was born in 1587 and worked in the atelier of Jacques II Du Cerceau--why do these guys just keep cropping up?--at the side of a young Salomon de Brosse. He left Paris in 1603 to work as an architect and engineer in Sedan, Lorraine, and in Franche-Comte [nb. he would have overlapped with Errard and may have known him. This fact might explain the remarkable resemblance between some of his sketches and Errard's hodometer]. He served as an "architect and fortficateur" in Montbeliard in the service of the duc de Wurtemberg and then worked for the Seigneurie de Geneve. He appears in Lyon in 1622 but all traces of him end in 1623.

He maintained a sketchbook between about 1615 and 1625 which seems to have been intended as a manual of practice for architects and engineers (MS. fr. 14727). Like the Rosenwald book, it contains a variety of sections, many of which are incomplete. The writing is elegant but the vocabulary and syntax are limited. But its the many images that draw the reader's attention. It has four main sections: mathematics, fortresses and machines of war, buildings, and mechanical inventions. His use of mathematics is remarkable for the time. The book opens with long mathematical tables for common activities like multiplication and addition. He then provides six books on geometry that includes guidance on surveying and instruction on weights, measures, and forces. He then continues with sketches of fortifications and of war machines. Chatelet-Lange notes that influence of Errard's book on fortification but seems unaware of his earlier book on machines. Gentillatre mentions several earlier authors on fortification, but not Errard. He then moves into civil architecture and borrows liberally from Vitruvius.

In addition to Jean Martin's Vitruvius, Gentillatre also borrows from Palladio, Alberti, Durer, Vignole, and Jacques I Du Cerceau: Livre d'architecture (1559 and 1582). In addition to architecture, he focusses on the trades, devoting pages to both masonry and carpentry. Gentillatre demonstrates solutions to complicated geometrical problems like the masonry design of spherical niches or spiral staircases, and the wooden falsework to support masonry spans, arches, and bridges. He then devotes a few pages to perspective and optics and then moves on the machines, borrowing several designs from Salomon de Caus. Chatelet-Lange notes that his machine descriptions are dry and scientific. In this manner, he emulates de Caus but differs from both Ramelli and Besson.

Notably, Chatelet-Lange claims that Genillatre's work is syptomatic of an overall shift in architecture and the affiliated work of the early engineers. The importance of mathematics and science is gradually recognized as a great art. This trend is reflected not just in the sketch book of Gentillatre but also in the prefaces of Besson and Ramelli, and in a manuscript by de Caus that describes a conversation between an architect, an engineer, and a mathematician. This trend towards mathematization is most reflected in the emerging science of mechanics, fortification, and land surveying. Overall, the work has a whimsical nature. Chatelet-Lange compares the depictions to the "fantastic and anecdotic" depictions of Sambin and Boillot. Similarly, the work of both Gentillatre and the modern engineers is completely free from depictions of ruins or ancient orders. In their pages, the Renaissance man recreated the ideals of antiquity.


L. Châtelet-Lange: 'L’Architecture entre science et pratique: Le Cas de Jacques Gentillâtre', Actes du colloque. Les Traités d’architecture de la Renaissance: Tours, 1981. Paris, Picard : 1988. pp. 397–406