blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1


ELIZABETH KING | Clockwork Prayer

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

Juanelo Turriano
Juanelo Turriano is indeed a mysterious figure. "La selva juanelesca"—the jungle of juanelo—a phrase from the editor's preface to José A. García-Diego's book about him. And García-Diego gives us the whole jungle, adding many vines of his own. As he readily declares, we have had to track down the facts of Turriano's life through a maze of indirect reference and surmise. But García-Diego gathers together many primary and secondary accounts of a man whose distinctions variously include the design and construction of one of the finest astronomical clocks of the Renaissance; a role in the calculation of the calendar reform of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582; the construction of the great waterworks which provided water from the River Tagus to Toledo and the Alcázar; the invention of history's first known gear-cutting machine; and a close friendship and association with Juan de Herrera, chief architect of the great palace and monastery of El Escorial. [24]

The best part of our knowledge of Turriano dates from the time he enters the employment of Emperor Charles V. For the following sketch I draw from two works from the 1960s, both in García-Diego's bibliography, by the historian Silvio A. Bedini, Curator and later Assistant Director of the Museum of History and Technology at, indeed, the Smithsonian Institution. [25]

Gianello Torriano, as his name is spelled in his native country, born between 1500 and 1515 in Cremona, was an Italian engineer and master clockmaker. He was brought to the attention of Charles V at the time of Charles' coronation at Bologna in 1530 as King of Lombardy. A printed edict had been sent out by the emperor to the major cities of north Italy, calling for a skilled clockmaker who could repair the famous astrarium built in the fourteenth century by Giovanni de' Dondi in Padua. Celebrated as one of the greatest astronomical clocks ever built, it remained, even in disrepair, state-of-the-art technology in sixteenth-century Europe. Could Turriano have conceivably still been a teenager when his reputation carried him forward for this extraordinary task? [26] Moreover, in examining the remains of the clock, he found that corrosion had caused irrevocable damage, and he thus undertook to build a new and similar machine for the emperor in the ensuing years. And this machine in its turn, like de' Dondi's, was considered an almost superhuman technical accomplishment. Contemporary accounts, referring to Turriano's "depiction of the universe," [27] praise his innovations to its mechanism. Ambrosio de Morales, annalist to Philip II, wrote in 1575 that it took Turriano twenty years to design the clock and three and a half years to fabricate it by hand: "the clock had all of 1800 wheels, without [counting] many other things of iron and brass that are involved." [28] In a 1570 reference to this clock, the English alchemist John Dee exclaims over the fact that one of its wheels takes 7000 years to make a full revolution. [29] As García-Diego has written, "the astronomer who at the same time worked with his hands [. . .] was then, and also later, a rare phenomenon." [30] Turriano signed his clock with an engraved inscription in Latin as follows: "QVI. SIM. SCIES. SI. PAR. OPVS. FACERE. CONABERIS" (see fig. 17) which can be very roughly translated as "you will know who I am if you try and make this."

When the infirm Charles V abdicated his throne in 1555 and retired to the monastery at San Yuste, Turriano accompanied him and

devoted himself to averting the Emperor's moods of depression by creating little automata for his diversion. Tradition relates that Turriano's little figures often appeared on the dinner table after the Emperor's meal in the form of armed soldiers which marched about, rode horseback, beat drums, blew trumpets, and engaged in battle with lances. At another time Turriano is said to have released little birds carved of wood which flew about the room, out of the windows and returned, to the great disapproval of the Father Superior, who considered them to be works of the devil. [31]

One can trace this story back to a seventeenth-century text by Famianus Strada, De bello Belgico, here paraphrased by Sir William Stirling-Maxwell, in his 1891 book The Cloister Life of the Emperor Charles V:

Other puppets were also attributed to [Torriano]; minute men and horses which fought, and pranced, and blew tiny trumpets, and birds which flew about the room as if alive; toys which, at first, scared the prior and his monks out of their wits, and for awhile gained the artificer the dangerous fame of a wizard. [32]

When the emperor died in 1558, Turriano entered the service of Philip II, in Toledo, where he further distinguished himself with works of hydraulic and civil engineering. Turriano died around 1585. García-Diego in his book demonstrates that King Philip did not share his father's interest in planets and clocks, and Turriano's life after the emperor's death was difficult. This is the first of García-Diego's reasons for disbelieving the story of the automaton monk, that it would have been an unlikely assignment to his engineer from this king. [33] But to this day, the street in Toledo where Turriano lived is called calle del hombre de palo, "the street of the wooden man,"

in memory, says tradition, of a puppet, of his making, which used to walk daily to the archiepiscopal palace, and return laden with an allowance of bread and meat, after doing ceremonious obeisance to the donor. [34]


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