Review of “The Italian Renaissance of Machines”
Paolo Galluzzi is the director of the Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy. A historian of science, he’s published extensively on the Galileo, Leonardo, and Italian Renaissance aspects of the scientific revolution. He is a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, and has teaching appointments at the Universities of Siena and Florence.
In “Machines”, Galluzzi profiles the emergence of a particular historical archetype familiar to us even today on the TED Talk stage — the artist-engineer. Before Da Vinci, engineers were mostly anonymous, but the Renaissance established draftsmanship as a high art in and of itself, and cultivated rockstar reputations for the many engineers who emerged in the tradition of Leonardo. None of the works of these engineers were ever printed, but their manuscripts were circulated and widely read. Galluzzi argues that these manuscripts represent the first systematic recourse to illustrations in engineering text, and prose largely in dialogue with them. The sciences of architecture, anatomy, hydraulics, geology, and military engineering all required skilled draftsmanship, and these documents introduced a new concept of learning — characterized by observation and visual expression — which was distinct from traditional knowledge, which was based on eloquence and rhetoric. Later generations of the movement built on this foundation with increasingly abstract geometry, incorporating the emerging science of mechanics, and culminating in Galileo’s bright line between those practicing mechanics with and without mathematical skill.
Galluzzi compiles source drawings from national libraries in Florence, Madrid, the British Museum, and the Vatican. Chapter one profiles Taccola (1382-1453), dubbed the “Sienese Archimedes”, who was the first effective promoter of a movement for the cultural recognition of technical knowledge and practice. Taccola’s last compilation was found in Paris in the early 19th century, having been preserved at the Ottoman court until 1687. It contains over two thousand drawings, and while they were perhaps intended for eminent patrons, it appears that none of them ever left his study. These were neither presentational works, nor workshop notebooks, instead constituting a new literary genre. They contained Taccola’s interview with Brunelleschi, with illustrated methods for laying bridge foundations underwater, the earliest documented visual representation of the three-speed hoist which was critical to Brunelleschi’s construction of the dome at Il Duomo (the Florence cathedral).
Francesco Di Giorgio, also Sienese, adapted many of Taccola’s designs, including machines for moving and lifting obelisks and columns, raising water, and wagons with complex transmissions — worm screws, metal racks, and reduction gears. Galluzzi explains that it is unclear if any of Giorgio’s designs were ever built; they may constitute a kind of experimental archaeology interpreting ancient Roman sources. Giorgio’s work contains the first-ever known depiction of a human descending under a parachute, military subjects combining traditional war machines (ie. siege engines) with depictions of firearms and artillery, as well as instructions for targeting them. Methods for moving and filtering water were omnipresent, given Siena’s reliance upon complex hydraulic culture. Landscape and animals appear in a manner more realistic than the machines, since mathematical perspective is not yet present.
In chapter two, Galluzzi surveys Leonardo’s machine-oriented output, and describes how it lays a conceptual foundation for his later anatomical work. Leonardo’s earliest drawings of machines date from the 1470s. These are now in mathematical perspective, a significant advance over the work of Di Giorgio, but retain occasional deliberate distortions which appear to be intentional, so as to better expose the inner workings of various mechanisms. Galluzzi characterizes this as Leonardo’s “anatomical approach”, which constitutes a major shift from the traditional analysis of machines as indivisible entities to one more focused on a limited number of basic mechanisms, which can be combined to yield a variety of devices. He explains that there is significant disagreement among scholars as to whether or not Leonardo, in these machine studies, was in fact grappling with principles of mechanics in a manner that prefigured and anticipated Galileo.
Galluzzi presents ample evidence of Leonardo’s virtuosity here — this is the first documented evidence of the use of plan and elevation perspectives, exploded views, and lettered/numbered components. Leonardo further uses many sequences of drawings to depict kinematic relationships between components, in the style of modern animation. Shadows are employed to depict spatial relationships, and he uses hatching with curved lines to demonstrate patterns of wear. Galluzzi contends that this is evidence of Leonardo attempting to gain insight into the sources and directions of the forces being applied inside the machines. All of this “density of information” is almost impossible to communicate with text, and from 1490 onward, drawings occupy more space in Leonardo’s written work than text.
Next Galluzzi draws a causal line between the machine studies and Leonardo’s anatomical illustrations after 1500. Galluzzi believes that Leonardo perceived the human body as a series of “motor contrivances”, pointing to vivid examples like depictions of the action of the intercostal muscles in breathing, the reduction of jaw movements to the laws of levers, and the replacement of muscle with lines of force, representing them as wires. He describes Leonardo’s plan for a “visual anatomical encyclopedia” of the body, at various structural levels (musculature, circulation, membranes, skeletal, etc.). Indeed, Leonardo boasted that drawings were superior to direct observation during dissection. Here he claimed illustration as capable of visualizing a level of reality screened from the distorting effects of sensory input.
In chapter three, Galluzzi surveys attempts by Giocondo (1511, a frequent collaborator of di Giorgio), Cesariano (1521, a member of Bramante’s circle), and Barbaro (1567) to render Escheresque illustrated editions of the rediscovered works of the Roman architect Vitruvius. In many cases, these engineers could not figure out how Vitruvius’ catapults, ship speedometers, and water pumps worked, but they published their interpretations, hoping that others would build on their efforts. Cesariano was notable for publishing the first printed edition of Vitruvius in Italian (rather than Latin), and a short manifesto praising the function of a “science of representation — painting and drawing”, as a prerequisite for any form of knowledge. Barbaro’s aim was not to offer a realistic depiction of any of Vitruvian devices, but rather to speculate on the principles governing their operation.
Galluzzi closes the book by asserting the influence of these engineer-draftsmen on Galileo himself. After encountering a somewhat hostile reception to the abstract geometric renderings in “Two New Sciences”, his treatise on mechanics, Galileo replaced the illustrations at the beginning of the book with engravings set at a construction site, the Venice Arsenal. These engravings have concrete realism; an irregular stone hangs from an iron hook at the end of a wooden cantilevered beam anchored in a ruined stone wall. Having thus anchored the reader in reality, Galileo returns to his geometrical diagrams, but the continuity with the tradition Galluzzi identifies is clear.
“The Italian Renaissance of Machines” is a monumental curation effort. In contrast to works compiling the complete notebooks of Leonardo, the depiction of a coherent, focused slice of Leonardo’s work in the context of his progenitors and successors is refreshing. Galluzzi’ s work reveals how art slowly came into the service of science and engineering throughout the 15th century.