blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1


ELIZABETH KING | Clockwork Prayer

Part II: Don Carlos and the Two Monks (continued)

The Attribution of the Monk
In none of the historical sources we've found is there any reference to the mechanical monk, nor apparently does the monk appear in the royal inventories of the emperor or his son. On the other hand, an automaton very similar to the above-mentioned lady lute player in Vienna was described in 1575 by, again, Ambrosio de Morales as being made by Turriano, and this has provided a continuing hypothesis for her attribution (see figs. 16, 17). [35] In 1966 the historian Silvio Bedini, whom I paraphrased at length above, referred to her in the context of the pieces Turriano made in the emperor's final years at San Yuste, but said that if she was made by Turriano, she is the only surviving specimen of his automata. [36] Indeed, not even Turriano's great planetary clock survives (although a modern reconstruction of the de' Dondi clock was completed in 1960 for the Smithsonian). As far as we know at this point, the monk seems to surface only in our own century, in the 1970s, and José A. García-Diego saw it for the first time in 1975.

García-Diego himself must have at first thought the monk was Turriano's work, for his name is mentioned in the very Geneva catalog he cites in his book (although in the book he footnotes a disclaimer). I later located a copy of this 1976 catalog, and it names José Antonio García-Diego as "le grand spécialiste de l'oeuvre de Turriano" and quotes him attributing the automaton to Turriano based on its similarity to the lute-playing lady. [37] And here indeed in the catalog is the attribution by Father Servius Gieben (here spelled Servus Gieben), in a reference to research undertaken on the identity of the monk at the Historical Institute of the Capuchins in Rome. Father Gieben's words are quoted from a document identified only as "a communication of November 16, 1975." And the catalog also reproduces the two images pairing the automaton's face with that of San Diego de Alcalá, identifying the latter as an engraving produced in 1588, the year of the canonization of the saint. It appears that the images were compared as part of the research by Father Gieben. Thus the Geneva catalog identifies the monk as being by Turriano, based on the opinions of Father Servus Gieben and of García-Diego. But by 1982, when García-Diego published his book, he had decided against his stated first impressions.



figure 7

The Smithsonian Institution acquired the monk in 1977. Smithsonian Conservator W. David Todd, who joined the Institution staff in 1978, has made it possible for me to study recently some of the acquisition papers from the Smithsonian archives. To my astonishment and his, we found among the papers a copy of a letter written in French, dated November 16, 1975, by none other than Father Servus Gieben, Directeur de l'Institut Historique des Capucins. It is the precise document quoted by the Geneva catalog and later by García-Diego. The letter is directed to a Monsieur Georges Sedlmajer, in Geneva, who in turn quotes it in a letter of his own, dated April 4, 1977, to Otto Mayr, then Acting Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of History and Technology. And with the letter, a copy of the engraving of San Diego, two engravings in fact, showing the full composition with images from the life and death of the saint, fig. 7. [38] (Each engraving includes a panel depicting Don Carlos' sickroom. Perhaps we can begin to reidentify other panels with the help of Villalon's "Miracle Book." One of the two engravings is dated between 1595 and 1600; the other, the one that was compared to the automaton in the Geneva catalogue, is 1614). In discussing the likeness between automaton and saint, Father Gieben explains in his letter that the cross and the rosary are San Diego's emblems, and that the near-shaved head, rather than the tonsure, would be accounted for by the fact that the saint was a Franciscan lay brother rather than an ordained priest.

figure 7 detail

The letter itself seems to be a communication between friends, and there is no indication as to how Father Gieben came to perform his research, or what may have prompted his work. As far as I could tell at this point, the entire weight of the story of how and why the little machine came to be made seems to rest on this 1975 letter. "But then where did you hear the story, David?" I asked Todd! "Otto told me," he replied, "and remember, my job was to keep the monk running, regardless of where he started!" It dawned on me that I had only scrupulously repeated in reverse order the steps taken by Father Gieben in deducing a history for the monk. He determined a 1562 date for its manufacture, based on Don Carlos' illness; and later I see that date next to the monk in the museum and set out to learn if anyone was sick in 1562! While I felt no little chagrin that most of what I "uncovered" was right there in the museum all along, at least my backwards journey earned me a view of each of the landmarks from both directions! Knowledge always seems to come at the price of humiliation. I could now see a part of how the story itself had turned up, having already observed its role in the subsequent charisma accumulating around the monk. And certainly this "history of the history" of a thing, shows us a little of what happens when a mysterious object makes its appearance on the world antiquities market. Plus, at last I had the text of the original letter in full (and the correct spelling of Servus Gieben's name). Clearly the next step would be to try and track down Father Gieben himself. His letter bore no return address.

At present the Smithsonian register reads simply "Automaton figure of a monk: south Germany or Spain, c. 1560," and in smaller print "Figure: head of poplar wood; head and limbs rendered naturalistically; modern habit. Movement: iron; height: 39 cm. (15 3/8 in.)."  

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Part III: A Sixteenth-Century Mechanical Masterpiece

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