blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1


ELIZABETH KING | Clockwork Prayer

Part III: A Sixteenth-Century Mechanical Masterpiece

W. David Todd is himself a consummate clockmaker. When he became Conservator of Timekeeping at the Smithsonian's National Museum of History and Technology in 1978, he took up the care of the newly acquired monk and produced a complete set of diagrams of its internal mechanism (figs. 8 - 12), parsed out the exact play-by-play of the movement cycle, and then built a fully working model for the museum to display next to the original.



figure 8   figures 9-12

He found that he could not open the head to observe the machinery inside without damaging the fragile carved and painted wood, so he had it x-rayed (fig. 13). And throughout this scrupulous examination, he searched for signs, cleaning marks, any signal that would give a clue to the automaton's history. He found no such thing. Its history would have to be gleaned solely through material and design comparison with kindred clockworks. The immediately distinguishing features: the mechanism is made almost entirely of iron (later mechanisms of similar design are brass); and the parts are assembled largely with pins, not screws. These features, together with a particular decorative style of workmanship in the internal mechanism, point to the second half of the sixteenth century, according to Todd, who compares the monk's anatomy with the clocks of this period.

  figure 13


Todd has helped us to appreciate the complexity of the monk's movements. The internal mechanism propels the figure forward on three hidden wheels, its two feet stepping forth from beneath the cassock. The figure turns approximately every 20 inches to walk in a new direction. The head is moving now to the left, now the right, now straight ahead; the eyes roll right and left independently of the head but they also look towards the cross when it is raised. The mouth is opening and closing as if repeating the Mea Culpa or the Hail Mary: either one, for the right arm is beating the breast, and the left arm is raising and lowering the cross and rosary. As if this were not enough, every few moments, the automaton brings the cross to its mouth and kisses it. This last gesture involves a more complex motion of the left arm and shoulder, together with the lowering of the head and an abrupt motion of the lips. All this in a self-regulating internal assembly of iron cams and levers about the size of your open hand.

figure 14   figure 15

Today we know of the existence, around the world, of two other monk-like automata, and four lady musicians, all sharing the same basic chassis design and body mechanism, and all dated to the second half of the sixteenth century. Of the two monks, one arrived in the Deutsches Museum in Munich in 1985 (fig. 14), the other is found in the Iparművészeti Muzeum (Museum of Applied Arts) in Budapest, purchased in 1915 (fig. 15). [39]

These two figures differ from the Smithsonian monk in appearance and gesture. Instead of the cross and rosary, both automata hold in their hands small bells, shaking them and appearing to make them ring. The actual bell sound comes from a tiny glockenspiel within the body, still functional in the case of the Budapest figure. [40] The Budapest museum lists its figure not as a monk but a saint, for framing the head is a gilded halo, and the body was dressed in ornamented damask robes (the cloth considered an eighteenth-century addition). Moreover, this one is a stationary, not a walking figure. Yet the internal iron clockworks of the three automata are strikingly similar, and have been dated accordingly to the mid-century. Head, mouth and eye movements are comparable, and the overall sizes of the three figures are almost exact: 39 centimeters in height for the two monks; the saint is 2 cm. taller—perhaps that is his halo? Such similarities could suggest a single maker, or perhaps one figure became a prototype later copied by others. Significant mechanical differences appear in the motions of the arms, and only the Smithsonian monk interrupts what he is doing to periodically bow his head to touch the cross to his lips. Neither the Munich nor the Budapest figure, I want to argue, performs the act of prayer. One might point out that the ringing of a bell signals a call to prayer, or marks the sacred moments of the Catholic Mass; yet this is not, strictly speaking, a personal enactment of solitary entreaty or worship, the defining labor of a monk. The very word "monk" derives from the Greek word monos, alone.

Photographs show the carved wooden heads and faces of these two figures to be stylistically different from the one in the Smithsonian, and from one another as well. [41] Yet one wonders, could this carving be from the same hand? Having seen only the one figure in the flesh, I hesitate to offer an opinion. I would wish to compare ears, necks, teeth, insides of nostrils, to see if there is any signature manner of depiction. Each face, in its own way skillfully and sensitively formed, possesses a particularity and a differentiation of feature almost to suggest an intent of portraiture. Looking at the Smithsonian figure, one can see that the head is far from a generalized or idealized physiognomy, with its deeply fluted upper lip, and large delicate nose. And although I want to say the Smithsonian monk looks fiercer, more ascetic than the other two, photographs of sculpture can be very misleading.

And what about the much-referenced Vienna lady? The most famous of the several lady musicians, she is displayed in the Kunstkammer of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. [42] She too came to light only in this century, in 1934, from a private collection. [43] She is taller than the monk, 44 cm. to his 39; but the iron clockwork dates her to the same period. The mechanism design appears similar in principle, though with major differences in the layout, axes, and workmanship of components (compare fig. 4 with fig. 20). She is described in the museum catalog as a "Cister-Spielerin" (lute player), and though no longer able to actually function, she is said to move with small tripping steps, strumming the lute with her right hand, and turning her head from right to left. She can advance in a straight line, or follow the path of a circle. [44] Numerous accounts have linked her to Turriano, and one can trace one author quoting another all the way back to the 1575 text by Ambrosio de Morales, resulting in a kind of momentum of proof by repetition. [45] Like the monk, she is indeed so splendidly constructed, that she truly inspires such grand historical rumors. Morales, court annalist to Philip II, professor at the University of Alcalá de Henares, and close friend of Turriano, wrote the following passage in his great history of the antiquities of Spain (figs. 16, 17):

Juanelo as a diversion also wanted to create anew the ancient statues which moved and, on that account, were called automata by the Greeks. He made a lady more than one tercia high who, placed on a table, dances all over it to the sound of a drum which she meanwhile beats herself, and goes round in circles, returning to where she started from. Though it is a toy and fit for mirth, it is nevertheless a great proof of his high intelligence. [46]

figure 16   figure 17

A drum rather than a lute . . . but everything else resoundingly similar.

For an attribution to Turriano of the Smithsonian monk, this link, together with Servus Gieben's connection of it to San Diego, are the two most compelling pieces of informed speculation.

José A. García-Diego must be credited with beginning the work of comparing all these automata. [47] By the time he finished the newer English edition of his book in 1986, he had seen at auction the monk later to be acquired by the Deutsches Museum in Munich, and he had learned more about the Budapest figure. The chapter still titled "Interlude about automata" in the updated book now discusses all three monk-like figures, as well as the Vienna lady and the several similar musician ladies. His conclusions differ in important respects from those of the earlier book. Gone, to his credit, is the opinion that the date of the Smithsonian automaton be advanced to the eighteenth century. But he now removes ("once and for all") the attribution to Turriano of the Vienna lady, declaring that Ambrosio de Morales is "not a very trustworthy author on points of detail." He concludes that none of the automata can be the work of Turriano, and we've seen that the newer book drops "autómatas" from its title. As fascinated as he is by these figures, García-Diego bases his conclusions on an underlying belief that such objects were only (after Morales and Strada) "toys," beneath the genius of Turriano, the dignity of the emperor, and the tolerance of the king. A disappointing conclusion, not because of its withdrawal of the automata from Turriano's oeuvre, but because it misses the fact that such objects (biological automata, Silvio Bedini calls them) spring from the same ambitious impulse as the great astrarium itself: the ancient human urge to understand by imitation the works of nature. The mechanical principles of the clock were paradigmatic in Descartes' philosophy of the workings of the living body and mind—are we driven from without or from within?—and the automaton forms an important chapter in the histories of philosophy and physiology, and, now, the modern histories of computer science and artificial intelligence.

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A Short History of the Relations BetweenMachines and Divinity (Deus ex Machina)

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