blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1


ELIZABETH KING | Clockwork Prayer

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

Mise en Scène
From the start, I had asked myself, what kind of a thing is this small mechanical monk? And who was Juanelo Turriano? Learning the story of Don Carlos and Brother Diego de Alcalá, my attention suspended among mummies and miracles, I got a glimpse of an exquisite complication of science and religion. Now I wondered: who is Father Servius Gieben? And certainly: who is José A. García-Diego? Because we will only learn who García-Diego's Turriano is, and Servius Gieben's Turriano. The historian's dilemma: which speakers win our trust? To "tell what actually happened" as Leopold von Ranke promised history would do [17] is impossible! We will always get a story inside a story. A few short biographies follow, background to some of the persons introduced thus far.

I ultimately learned that José A. García-Diego passed away in his native Madrid in 1994 at the age of 75. He was a civil engineer who became deeply involved in the history of science and technology in Spain, with a particular focus on the history of hydraulic engineering. Working with Alexander Keller of the University of Leicester, he arranged for the publication of transcriptions of several important historical manuscripts, including The Twenty One Books of Engineering and Machines, long thought to be the work of Turriano, and a volume entitled Giovanni Francesco Sitoni: Ingeniero renacentista al servicio de la Corona de España, a forgotten Renaissance treatise by an Italian engineer on the principles and practice of hydraulic technology ("Trattato delle virtù et proprietà delle acque, del trovarle, eleggerle, livellarle, et condurle [. . .]"). His book on Turriano, though not a work of scrupulous scholarship, is nonetheless an invaluable effort to assemble the fragments of the life of a sixteenth-century engineer, mechanician, and prodigy. García-Diego's Turriano is a man of humble origins, who distinguished himself under Charles V as a maker of astronomical clocks and instruments, and was later the designer of a historic system of waterworks in the city of Toledo, for Philip II. The chapter on automata, in spite of the title of García-Diego's book (Los relojes y autómatas . . .), is a brief one, entitled "Interlude on Automata," and comes across more as an engaging aside. García-Diego later produced a second edition of his book, this one translated into English, with the title Juanelo Turriano, Charles V's Clockmaker, The Man and His Legend. [18] Though only four years apart, there are substantial differences between the two books in addressing the subject of automata, as we will see, and the second book drops the word altogether from its title. García-Diego founded the Fundación Juanelo Turriano in 1987, for the purpose of furthering the study of the history of civil engineering. [19]

Brother Diego de Alcalá was born in the small village of San Nicolás del Puerto, near Seville, around 1400; and died in 1463 in the monastery of Santa María de Jesus in the town of Alcalá de Henares. He lived a life of uninterrupted poverty, first as an anchorite hermit, then as a Franciscan lay brother known for the perfection and asceticism of his practice. He remained illiterate his life long; perhaps this may have prevented him from advancing beyond a lay affiliation to the Franciscan Order. Attempts to bring him to Papal notice in the fifteenth century were lost in the welter of political power struggles during the declining reign of King Henry IV and the rise of Ferdinand and Isabella. Historian L. J. Andrew Villalon, who provided the bedside description of Don Carlos' illness quoted above, has also given us a clearer portrait of Diego himself, through his recent discovery of a copy of a forgotten manuscript in the archives of El Escorial, the original (now lost) written between 1463 and 1467 in the four years just after the monk's death. [20] The copy, made a century later at the orders of Don Carlos, transcribes the compiled testimony of witnesses of miracles attributed to Fray Diego, observed at his deathbed and afterwards in the chapel where his remains were preserved. Compiled by the Archbishop of Toledo and by Fray Juan de Peñalver, the guardian of the monastery of Santa María de Jesus, the testimony had been recorded in formal language in the presence of a notary. This remarkable document, which Villalon has dubbed "The Miracle Book of Diego de Alcalá," together with Villalon's interpretation of it, gives us our first contemporary glimpse of San Diego. Some 159 individuals, 18 of whom had known him personally, had come forward with depositions. We learn, for example, that Fray Diego died of an immobilizing ulceration of the left arm, and that at the moment of death he overcame the paralysis of the infection to raise, with both hands, a small wooden cross, speaking a prayer in Latin, "a language he had never been heard to use." That night, the monastery cook, Fray Pedro de Maturaba, holding vigil over the body in the church, "saw such a great light surrounding the corpse of Brother Diego that it appeared to him lighter than the sun and rendered the chapel as light as day." The corpse never stiffened into rigor mortis, but preserved the flexibility of life, the face expressive and warm. Following Diego's burial in the small monastery cemetery

. . . the guardian Peñalver [according to his later testimony], was so distraught at his friend's death that he could neither eat nor sleep for several days. There is even some hint that given the remarkable condition of the body, he worried about the possibility of a premature burial. In this distracted state, and apparently acting without permission from his ecclesiastical superiors, Peñalver ordered the body disinterred.

On Tuesday [two days after burial], in the dead of night, he sent a young brother out into the cemetery with instructions to lock the doors behind him and dig up Diego. In his hurry to complete the macabre task assigned him, the young man struck the corpse a blow with his shovel, thereby severing the left hand from the body, at which moment, he later told the guardian, he had felt the monastery walls tremble. (The severed hand would thereafter be preserved separately in the sacristy.) Badly shaken by the experience, the young friar finished the digging with only his hands, after which he hurried to inform Peñalver, who in turn rushed to the graveside and, falling to his knees, embraced his old friend's body. [21]

Moved to the altar of a side chapel in the church, the corpse lay on display for six months, appearing yet so alive that one visitor, Villalon quotes us, tried to take its pulse. And there now began a steady procession of pilgrims with ailing relatives and dying children, come for miraculous cures brought about by virtue of contact with Diego's body.



figure 6

Over a century after his death, Brother Diego was canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 1588. It took Philip II, the Franciscan Order, and the Spanish people 26 years of respectful petitions to four consecutive popes to bring about the institutional confirmation of the miracle of Don Carlos' cure. [22] San Diego is the first Counter-Reformation saint. His symbol, a humble one, is a small wooden cross. His life is portrayed in religious paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán (fig. 6), Bartolomé Estéban Murillo, and Annibale Carracci. (San Diego de Alcalá mission was established in the new world in 1769, and later became San Diego, California.) His remains are still in Alcalá de Henares, moved now to the Iglesia Magistral. I visited the tomb on a cold November Sunday in 2000. Alcalá de Henares, its bell towers and roof tops bearing huge untidy storks' nests: La Magistral itself was first built in the twelfth century. A side chapel is devoted to the display of San Diego's small tomb. Over it, a recent inscription appears on the wall:

†1463            1975

But Don Carlos died in suspicious circumstances in 1568, only six years after his ordeal. In truth plagued by ill health since birth, he had drawn up a will in 1564 and in it asked his father to continue their campaign to recognize Brother Diego, should his own life end before it could come to pass. [23] But even as Philip worked to establish the credibility of one myth, another was unfolding around him. The story of infanticide reaches its extreme form in Verdi's opera Don Carlos. But that is another tale! Let us return to Turriano.  


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