Drawing of a woman operating a suction pump

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris

A woman operating a suction pump; drawing by Paolo Santini, after Taccola, circa 1459

Let’s say you’re under siege in your castle, surrounded by an unseen enemy just outside the walls, unable to leave home for weeks or months, your strength and hope waning, your desperation growing. (Even if you’re not a fifteenth-century Sienese nobleman, you may have no trouble imagining this at the moment.) You badly need reinforcements, but none arrive. Here’s something you can do: first, have all your horses shod backward, then evacuate the castle in the dead of night. When the enemy soldiers awaken in the morning to find hundreds of hoofprints heading toward your castle, they’ll believe you’ve called in legions of cavalry and flee in a panic.

This advice comes to you courtesy of Mariano di Iacopo, known as Taccola (1382–1453), a Sienese government official, writer, and artist. Taccola was no doubt inspired by Hermes, who, as a newborn infant, stole Apollo’s cattle by craftily having them walk backward, tricking Apollo into thinking they’d been coming rather than going.

In The Italian Renaissance of Machines, Paolo Galluzzi—a distinguished historian of science and technology, director of the Museo Galileo in Florence, and retired professor at the University of Florence—describes Taccola as a “humanist of machines.” “Humanist” here refers to the Renaissance cultural movement that began in Italy in the late fourteenth century; umanista in contemporary Italian academic slang referred to a scholar of classical culture. Renaissance humanists sought a cultural rebirth by going back to the philosophical, literary, and historical writings of ancient Greece and Rome, restoring them from the compilations and commentaries of the intervening centuries.

By calling Taccola a “humanist of machines,” Galluzzi means that, like other early Renaissance humanists, Taccola wrote in Latin and labored to recover ancient knowledge from fragmentary and corrupted sources. Galluzzi’s project in this erudite and beautifully illustrated book is to consider Renaissance humanism from the relatively unfamiliar perspective of machine design. The ancient ideas that interested Taccola and his fellow humanists of machines principally concerned contraptions and devices, Galluzzi says, but their methods were typical humanist ones, drawing upon ancient texts as sources of renewal.

But there’s a deeper and more interesting sense in which Taccola and his fellow travelers were humanists: they assumed a fundamental unity of all forms of knowledge and creation, a unity to which they considered ancient sources a key. When people use the phrase “Renaissance man,” they generally mean someone of many talents and occupations. But to the original models of this way of life, it wasn’t just a matter of cultivating diverse interests. They assumed that their various endeavors came together in a single, whole, human enterprise, just as the Renaissance cosmos was all interlinked, microcosm and macrocosm, by a web of common symbolism and meaning. Accordingly, Taccola and his fellow humanists of machines treated the design of machines as integral to an all-embracing philosophical and artistic undertaking.

The manuscript recommending the backward-shod horses, De machinis (On Machines, 1449), defies present-day bookstore shelving systems by belonging in virtually every section—science and technology, arts, action and adventure, classics, comic books and graphic novels, fantasy, humor, fiction, and definitely politics—as would De ingeneis (On Devices), the earlier manuscript that Taccola first produced in 1433 and to which he added material throughout most of his life. De ingeneis was dedicated to Emperor Sigismund of Hungary, who spent much of 1432 in Siena negotiating his promotion to Holy Roman Emperor. Taccola, to drive home his political message, accompanied the dedication in De ingeneis with an illustration of Sigismund gazing heavenward while stomping blithely on the tail of a diminutive, annoyed-looking lion. The lion was (and still is) the heraldic symbol of Florence, Siena’s then archenemy; Sigismund is receiving a divine command to protect Siena.

De machinis contains no explicit dedication but lavishes praise on a mysterious and perhaps fictional figure identified as Dux bataliarum, the Lord of War. Almost every page is a window on the bellicose world Taccola inhabited: a state of continuous warfare raging not only between the Holy Roman and Ottoman Empires but among Christian dukedoms and republics, culminating in the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople and collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire around the time of Taccola’s death in 1453.

From within this maelstrom, Taccola’s remedies are charmingly gentle. For a besieging army, he proposes the “thirst stratagem”: send a herd of thirsty sheep or oxen into an enemy castle to drink up the water supply, forcing the enemy to surrender. For a castle under siege, there’s the more elaborate “enogastronomic stratagem”: build a low stockade, making sure it’s easy to climb over. Next, heap delicious food and wine just inside. Finally, flee, pretending you’re hastily abandoning your feast in terror at the enemy’s approach. The enemy soldiers, climbing effortlessly over the low fortifications, will fall victim to their own gluttony, eating and drinking themselves into a stupor, and you can retake your castle. The illustration shows a man insouciantly tending a gigantic pot of stew just inside a fence so rickety one hopes he hasn’t added too much pepper, or his stratagem could be ruined by a sneeze. A roast piglet on a spit projects over the wobbly fence to entice even the most recalcitrant enemy.


Some of Taccola’s stratagems were less peaceful, such as setting enemy castles ablaze by unleashing armies of cats or mice soaked in alcohol with torches tied to their tails or adding small doses of poison to the food of adolescent boys, rendering their breath and sweat lethal to any military officer trying to molest them. But they share an aura of mythical and often humorous unreality, like the infant Hermes cunningly appropriating Apollo’s cattle.

Sometime in the early 1440s, Galluzzi recounts, Taccola met the renowned Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446), known as “Pippo,” whose designs had transformed Florence over the previous decades. Pippo had recently finished supervising the construction of the Florence cathedral dome and was working on its lantern. Taccola took careful notes during their conversation, which he wrote up as a full transcript to add to De ingeneis. We eavesdrop across the centuries as the irascible Pippo complains in salty language of critics who disparage his ideas and then plagiarize them, warning Taccola never to reveal his inventions to “blockheads.” Pippo recommended a policy of secretiveness, advice that Taccola took to heart, frequently reminding his readers that certain aspects of his designs never appeared in his writings but remained solely in his mind.

Regarding himself as an undercover operator, moving covertly, Taccola was captivated by the underwater realm. He designed fanciful diving equipment, such as a waterproof lamp using a vinegar-soaked sponge to remain lit underwater, and a helmet featuring “glass eyes” and a breathing tube, its end attached to a float. Taccola adopted as attributes the water buffalo, which is able to remain submerged for long periods, and the silver mullet fish. He depicted himself astride a water buffalo, wearing a bag of secrets, his right leg apparently engulfed in the mouth and body of a mullet; in another self-portrait he sits astride a mullet, wringing a sponge saturated with the oil of invention into its mouth, his body protected by elaborate armor, a feather floating jauntily from his helmet (see illustration below).

Cavalry fleeing an enraged ostrich? Armor to protect a boat against rock-throwing enemies lodged in gargantuan treehouses? Just what are all these schemes? Obviously, Taccola didn’t intend them literally as technical or strategic proposals. Imagine a Venn diagram showing the intersection of technical designs with philosophical explorations, stories, poems, jokes, and science fiction. Also, subtly subversive political commentary: Taccola depicted a utopian world of leisure for laborers and temperate labor for the leisured. A miller dozes beside a waterwheel-driven grindstone; a boatman lounges, trailing a lazy oar in the water, while automatic paddlewheels propel his boat upstream; a fine lady with a red plume in her cap uses a hydraulic pump to draw water from a well without even rumpling her elegant gown. Taccola also offered his devices as aids for the politically worthy, condemning all sorts of power grabs, from expansionism, notably in the land-greedy duchy of Milan, to church attempts to dominate secular rulers.

Asked to name a humanist engineer of the Italian Renaissance, most people would think of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519). Born the year before Taccola died, Leonardo plays a significant though secondary part in Galluzzi’s genealogy. He shared Taccola’s penchant for fantasy devices, such as an elaborate flying machine requiring the operator to use every limb and even his head. Leonardo’s drawing of it shows a man crouched uncomfortably amid a tangle of spools and belts. A headache and stiff neck might be small sacrifices to soar through the air like a bird, but the imaginary device and others like it led Leonardo to conclude that a flying machine would never work. Any artificial instrument, he decided, would crucially lack the soul of a bird, that which allows one to respond to the wind, “balancing oneself in air.”

But some of Leonardo’s fantastic machines did come to be. He built an automaton lion commissioned by one of his patrons, Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, governor of Florence, to honor the newly crowned twenty-year-old King François I of France. Like Taccola’s De ingeneis, the lion was a work of mechanical-humanist diplomacy. Lorenzo’s uncle Pope Leo X was eager to cozy up to France to forestall aggression against the Papal States; for instance, he had recently married off his brother Giuliano, another of Leonardo’s patrons, to François’s aunt Philiberta.


In July 1515, a few months after ascending to the throne, François made a triumphal entry into Lyon, where the city’s community of Florentine merchants and bankers greeted him with Leonardo’s mechanical lion, which reportedly “walked several steps and then opened its breast, showing it full of lilies.” The lilies represented the fleur-de-lis, the heraldic symbol of the French throne, and the lion represented Lyon, and Florence, and Leonardo himself, whose name means “lionhearted.” The diplomatic efficacy of Philiberta’s betrothal and Leonardo’s mechanical lion was dubious, since François promptly invaded Italy, in alliance with Venice and against Florence and the Papal States. But he also brought the elderly and ailing Leonardo from Rome to Amboise, where he spent the last three years of his life as “Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect to the King.”

Leonardo’s projects, like Taccola’s, combined philosophy, art, experimental science, performance, politics, diplomacy, and fantasy. It’s not that these engineer-humanists did many different things, but that they regarded all things as one. To Leonardo, drawing machines was a philosophical and experimental act: as Galluzzi shows, a medium for imaginative contemplation. By means of his designs, Leonardo took the measure of the organizing principles of the cosmos: the necessity of soul, such as a bird’s, to forms of movement such as flying; the eternal struggle between force and “attrition” (resistance or friction); the circulation of humors within the Earth, which he saw as a living being; the interactions of sunlight, fire, and air, evident in the function of burning mirrors. Leonardo was after not just discrete devices but cosmic knowledge.

An important model for such knowledge was the Roman architect and military engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (circa 90–20 BC), who provided the inspiration for one of Leonardo’s best-known drawings: the “Vitruvian Man” (circa 1490), which depicts a male figure inscribed in a circle and a square, representing the cosmic geometrical perfection of the human form. Vitruvius served in Julius Caesar’s army, traveling throughout Greece, North Africa, and Gaul; after Caesar’s assassination, he worked for Caesar’s adopted son and successor, Octavian Augustus, for whom he wrote the ten-volume De Architectura. In the opening chapter, treating the education of an architect, Vitruvius explains that architecture requires vast learning, encompassing every subject: drawing, geometry, optics, history, philosophy, music, medicine, law, and astronomy. This might seem daunting, but Vitruvius assures Augustus that it’s feasible because “all studies have a common bond of union and intercourse with one another.”

The Vitruvian model of learning and building commanded intense interest among Leonardo’s contemporaries. The first printed edition of De Architectura appeared in 1486, while Leonardo was hard at work painting Virgins for the Duke of Milan. Its editor was the fastidious Giovanni Sulpizio of Veroli (1444–1503), a teacher, editor, grammarian, and poet driven to great feats of scholarly activity apparently by the desire that things be made trim and tidy all around him. His preoccupations were purifying the Latin language to rid it of unseemly medievalisms, using poetry to imbue children with proper habits of hygiene and table manners, and cleaning up Vitruvius’s treatise, besmirched by centuries of copying and commentary. Sulpizio’s edition had no illustrations, but he left extra-wide margins for readers to sketch them in neatly.

Galluzzi tours subsequent printed editions of Vitruvius as they came to include illustrations (1511), translated the text from Latin into Italian (1521), and took on timely annotations on topics such as how to bend nature to human purposes and how to live ethically in society, with illustrations showing waterwheels and other machines set into a landscape of cultivated fields and classical buildings, peasants walking along in conversation, birds flying overhead: a social world built in accordance with cosmic harmonies (1567).

This 1567 edition was the work of Daniele Barbaro (1514–1570), a member of Venice’s ruling elite, patron, diplomat, and scholar who participated in the Council of Trent and represented the Venetian Republic to the English court, whence he brought back to the Senate the dire news that religion had ceased to regulate the lives of the English. His attempts to become a cardinal were thwarted, but he dedicated his annotated edition of Vitruvius to Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, governor of Tivoli.

Ippolito, as consolation following his own unsuccessful bid for the papacy, was building himself a magnificent palace and gardens at Tivoli. To decorate the estate, he plundered what was left of the Roman emperor Hadrian’s fourteen-century-old country retreat on the Tiber after the Ostrogoths and Byzantines had been through it. In addition to ancient statuary, Ippolito installed cutting-edge feats of humanist engineering. Michel de Montaigne, arriving there on his grand tour in 1580, described Ippolito’s water organ with its toothed barrel arranging the melody. Nearby, Montaigne reported, another such barrel directed a scene based on a design by the Greco-Egyptian engineer Hero of Alexandria (circa 10–70 AD) from his Pneumatica: a group of automaton birds fluttered and twittered until frightened into stillness by an automaton owl appearing at the top of a rock; then the smaller birds resumed their song as the owl receded from view.

Humanist engineers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries delighted in bringing ancient designs and classical mythology to hydromechanical life, displaying Taccola’s mixture of humor, fantasy, philosophy, storytelling, and technical virtuosity. They translated his playfulness into a roguish engagement with spectators, turning classical antiquity into the Renaissance version of a theme park. The automaton gods and mythical figures in palace displays teased and flirted, attacked and fled their delighted viewers, sticking out their tongues, launching jets of water, and hiding behind the scenery.

Like Leonardo’s devices, these amusements served as a medium for experimental thinking about all aspects of the cosmos. In the mid-seventeenth century, René Descartes cited automaton gods in support of his momentous idea that living bodies were essentially machines and could be understood as assemblages of moving parts. He recounted a visit to a hydraulic grotto in which a mechanical bathing Diana fled to hide in the reeds at visitors’ approach; when they pursued her, an automaton Neptune advanced to threaten them with his trident, followed by a sea monster emerging to spew water in their faces. The responsiveness of these machines was crucial not only to the fun but to the philosophy: if artificial devices were capable of responsiveness, Descartes reasoned, why mightn’t living beings be devices of the same kind, made of matter in motion?

The hydraulic grottoes Descartes described were probably the royal ones at Saint-Germain-en-Laye. These were the work of two Florentine designers, Tommaso and Alessandro Francini, engineers to Ferdinando I de’ Medici, then Grand Duke of Tuscany, who sent them as a diplomatic gift to Henri IV. Although they don’t appear in Galluzzi’s book, the Francinis, who centered their projects around ancient themes, seem to epitomize humanist engineering. In the late 1590s they traveled from Florence to Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where they mechanized a small throng of classical gods and heroes: Mercury delivering the gods’ messages via trumpet; Orpheus playing his lyre for an audience of moving animals; a towering Perseus swinging his sword to behead a dragon arising from beneath the waves, whereupon, farther back in the grotto, Andromeda loses her chains.

Such contrivances became ubiquitous not only in palace gardens but in a new genre of best-selling books, essential to Galluzzi’s tradition of humanist engineering, the “theater of machines.” A leading author was the Italian military engineer Agostino Ramelli (1531–1610), who moved to France to serve with the royal army under Henri, duc d’Anjou, brother of King Charles IX and later to become King Henri III, against the Huguenots. Although Ramelli was wounded and captured at the siege of La Rochelle, he made a D’Artagnan-like escape and managed several months later to tunnel beneath a fortification, impressing Henri, to whom he dedicated his theater of machines, Le diverse et artificiose machine del Capitano Agostino Ramelli (1588). The book includes a fountain of birds based on another design from Hero’s Pneumatica, with the intermittent action of a network of siphons causing the birds to flutter and trill. It also presents an eight-station bookwheel ideally suited to humanist triangulation among sources. With its vertical rotation and an epicyclic gearing arrangement holding each book at a constant angle to the reader, the bookwheel was especially convenient, Ramelli claimed, for those suffering from gout.

Since the engineer-humanists appeared to use special powers to force nature out of her accustomed path, they also belong, Galluzzi tells us, to a long tradition of natural magic. The Venetian doctor and technical wizard Giovanni Fontana (circa 1395–1455) included terrifying mechanical witches and devils in Bellicorum instrumentorum liber (circa 1420), a survey of ancient and modern machines encompassing much more than the “war instruments” of the title. The diabolical mechanical creatures were like horror-movie monsters with swiveling heads, fire streaming from their mouths and ears, and flailing wings, arms, horns, and tails.

At the close of Galluzzi’s book, Galileo (1564–1642) makes a cameo appearance, arriving on the scene as a sober seventeenth-century rationalist. Galileo insisted, Galluzzi tells us, that no art could trick nature into acting against herself. If natural magic and fantasy figured in Galileo’s thinking, neither appeared in his writing. Instead, he set his imagination to the task of idealization. Galileo predicated his physics upon a fictional world of infinite frictionless surfaces, geometrically perfect objects, and absolute vacuums. This idealized world allowed him to articulate laws of dynamics such as the law that all objects, regardless of size, shape, or weight, would fall at the same speed in the absence of air resistance.

Despite these indications of post-humanist scientific rationalism, Galileo had deep connections to humanism. He cast aside Aristotelian physics, true, but he did so within the humanists’ classical tradition, using Socratic dialogues to present his heliocentric system of astronomy and physics. Galileo also shared the humanists’ cosmic orientation, combining literature, philosophy, physics, astronomy, and engineering. His favorite author was the humanist poet Ludovico Ariosto (1474–1533), much of whose poetry he knew by heart. According to Galileo’s disciple and biographer Vincenzo Viviani, Ariosto helped Galileo “in reading the heavens and revealing the earth” by showing how imagination could guide philosophy. Galileo especially loved Ariosto’s 1516 epic poem Orlando Furioso, a fantastic tale borrowing its hero from the eleventh-century French epic La Chanson de Roland. Orlando Furioso combines classical literary themes with chivalric romance and science fiction. At one point, the paladin Astolfo rides a flaming chariot to the moon, where all lost things end up, to recover Orlando’s lost wits in a bottle. Astolfo’s journey hovers between the lines of Galileo’s description of the Earth-like world his telescope had revealed on the moon.

Galileo’s method of imaginative idealization irked the French engineer and military fortifications expert Antoine de Ville (1596–1658). Galluzzi tells us that de Ville read the manuscript of Galileo’s Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences (1638) and protested that Galileo had excluded real-world considerations: friction, impediments, irregularities. Such abstractions as Galileo’s, de Ville argued, could never give rise to actual devices. Galileo adroitly parried this criticism in the published version of the Discourses by setting the opening scene on a construction site—and not just any old construction site but the Venice Arsenale. It was like saying, Ha! you want practical, worldly concerns: how about the world’s largest-scale industrial production of ships, guns, and empire, with my physics at its center?

In the Arsenale setting of Galileo’s last work, we glimpse a post-humanist sort of engineering: directed, specialized, imperial rather than cosmological in ambition, deliberately detached from humanistic concerns. To be sure, even as this new approach was gathering speed, people continued throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to engage in “humanist engineering,” designing machines that were also stories, jokes, riffs on historical and literary themes, and cosmological or philosophical experiments. My favorite examples from the mid-eighteenth century are the notorious android flutist and defecating duck by the French engineer Jacques Vaucanson, which went on display in Paris in February 1738 and became the toast of the town. They charmingly entertained spectators while enacting age-old questions about the nature of life and mind, digestion and emotion. But the Industrial Revolution, that tsunami of post-humanist engineering, left in its wake a changed world in which engineers addressed discrete problems rather than cosmic questions, and did so without reference to ancient and abiding historical, literary, or philosophical themes.

Drawing of a diver with bellows for breathing and a lantern with a sponge and lit candle

Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Florence

A diver with bellows for breathing and a lantern with a sponge and lit candle; artist unknown, late fifteenth century

The posthumous career of Taccola epitomizes the decline and ultimate disappearance of engineering humanism. After his death, Galluzzi writes, Taccola sank into obscurity for several centuries, although De machinis had a more complicated destiny: a magnificently illuminated copy landed in the collection of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in Constantinople, part of its opening passage—in which Taccola urged Christians to unite against the infidels—neatly censored with brushstrokes of watercolor. In 1687 Louis XIV’s ambassador in Constantinople, Pierre de Girardin, pinched the manuscript in the customary French imperial manner and brought it with him to Paris. This allowed the future Napoleon III, a century and a half later, during his period of genteel imprisonment at Ham Castle between attempting a coup and becoming emperor, to pass the time by studying Taccola’s manuscript, though knowing nothing of Taccola himself. Napoleon III later described Taccola’s De machinis in the multivolume history of artillery that he compiled with the general and military historian Ildefonse Favé. Next, in 1891, the French chemist and politician Marcellin Berthelot reconnected De machinis with the manuscript of De ingeneis, which was in Munich, and both manuscripts with Taccola himself.

The rediscoverers of Taccola, including Napoleon III and Berthelot, were preoccupied with the history of weaponry and the early development of firearms, and apparently took Taccola’s proposals—rampaging ostriches, gargantuan treehouses, and all—to represent the real state of military technology and strategy at the dawn of the modern era. “I am convinced,” Galluzzi comments drily, “that Taccola himself would have been astonished.” Their remarkable misapprehension measures the gulf between Renaissance humanist engineering and the industrial engineering of the mid- to late nineteenth century.

Emerging from a world of enogastronomic strategems, automaton lions, and siphon-operated bird flutes into the harsh light of late 2020, I learned about an exhibition then at the Newberry library in Chicago. Entitled “Renaissance Invention: Stradanus’s Nova Reperta” (New Discoveries), it displayed a series of prints by Johannes Stradanus (1523–1605) alongside accompanying materials from the Newberry collection. Stradanus was a Flemish artist who moved to Florence to work for the Medici. The prints in the Nova Reperta series were made after he received a commission, sometime around 1588, from Luigi Alamanni (1558–1603), a mysterious figure about whom little is known except that he was a member of a secretive literary society called the Accademia degli Alterati (Academy of the Transformed). Alamanni’s academy nickname was Il Rinnovelatto, the Renewed One. Stradanus’s prints reflect the sorts of subjects discussed by the Transformed at their Monday and Thursday meetings: ancient and modern artillery, the discovery of the New World, the cultivation of olives.

Lia Markey, director of the Newberry’s Center for Renaissance Studies, edited the exhibition catalog, through which—since formerly ordinary actions like traveling to Chicago and entering a museum have been unthinkable—I wandered in virtual beguilement. Markey introduces the series of prints as “self-consciously modern,” all about innovation, technology, and globalization. Daniel Greene, president and librarian at the Newberry, observes in his foreword that the Renaissance had in common with the present moment a sense of upheaval caused by “continual innovation,” represented in the Renaissance by the printing press, the cannon, and other mechanical inventions.

Exploring Stradanus’s prints in the silent stillness of a pandemic lockdown, though, the first thing I noticed was not an augur of our current trinity of innovation, technology, and globalization. Instead, I saw hives of activity at close quarters. Workers bustle cozily about a printshop making books; clockmakers are busy in a tidy studio filled with gears and wheels; the distillers cluster around a furnace, one leaning on a seated companion’s shoulder to point out something in a book. “Oil painting” shows the collaborative labor involved in rendering Saint George slaying his dragon. In “Spectacles,” people crowd around an optician’s market stand, peering delightedly through their new eyewear at books, leaflets, capering children, and one another. The images connect each scene to glimpses of a larger world in the background; their compilation represents the cosmic interconnectedness of knowledge and creation.

Certainly, these images, as Markey, Greene, and the other catalog contributors emphasize, address what we have come to call “innovation” and “globalization.” Therein also lies their evil shadow, lurking just off the page, or sometimes right on it. The frontispiece of Stradanus’s work shows a figure representing the future, pointing to America on a map encircled by the names of Vespucci and Columbus; the second plate depicts “Americus” landing on a savage shore (in the background, cannibals are roasting a human leg on a spit) and startling the naked “America” to wakefulness in her hammock. As in the Venice Arsenale setting of Galileo’s Discourses, here again in Stradanus’s images we glimpse a kind of engineering with imperial rather than cosmological ambitions. We have premonitions of innovation and globalization, those rough beasts slouching toward modernity.