Before the industrial revolution clever inventors sometimes devised elaborate and amazing machines. The Antikythera mechanism is a famous example. Though these machines amaze us, they usually did little to improve the lives of those who lived at the time of invention. Why? Maybe the answer is that just before the industrial revolution, entrepreneurs were encouraged and enabled (through property rights and patents) to apply amazing inventions to the betterment of the people.
(p. C9) What kind of a book do we have in “Miracles and Machines: A Sixteenth-Century Automaton and Its Legend”?
. . .
The authors call the book a “clockwork”; its many disparate parts are joined in scrupulous devotion to a 16th-century automaton—an object, they write, which is at once “a sculpture, a machine, an icon, and a messenger.”
The figure is of a Franciscan friar, about 16 inches tall, carved out of wood, cloaked in a modern replica of the garb he once wore. His 5-pound weight is due to an intricate iron mechanism that fits inside his wooden body; it is wound with a key.
. . .
Imagine, Ms. King and Mr. Todd suggest, what it would have been like to see this automaton at the time of its creation. He is placed upon a candlelit table. His feet take steps under his tunic—but he actually glides on three wheels, making his movement seem ethereal. He is deliberately slow. This is not a mechanism meant to thrill us with speed and virtuosity. His movements are graceful, solemn.
As he moves, the friar raises and lowers a cross in his left hand and strikes his chest with his right, as if declaring “mea culpa.” He also lifts the cross to his lips and fixes his gaze steadily, perhaps at an observer at the opposite end of the table. He looks down at the cross, up at the observer, and begins to turn: “You let out half a breath,” the authors tell us, “but as his full body pivots on the table, feet in motion, head forward, his eyes slide left in their sockets to stay fixed on you!” Then he changes direction, staring at what might be another observer. There is no doubt about his seriousness; the impact on believers, in the half-light, would have been considerable.
. . .
In seeking to learn more about the friar’s provenance, Ms. King contacted Servus Gieben, a Dutch-born Franciscan who served as the director of the Franciscan Museum in Rome. In his correspondence with Ms. King, Gieben, who died in 2014, reaffirmed his theory that it may have been commissioned by Philip for his son Carlos. In 1562, at the age of 17, Carlos fell down a flight of stairs and so gravely injured his skull that he was not expected to survive (either the injury or the era’s “treatments”).
. . . The corpse of a Franciscan friar, Diego de Alcalá (ca. 1400-63), had remained free of decay after his death that it was thought to have healing powers. And behold: Once it was laid upon the dying prince, Carlos soon began to recover. Philip II spent 26 years petitioning four consecutive popes to recognize the miracle and declare Diego a saint. (He ultimately was, as the city of San Diego now affirms.)
Gieben suggested that the facial resemblance between the automaton and Diego was evident. And what better way, he thought, for Philip to honor Diego than by providing his often wayward son with an admonitory reminder in the form of the penitential friar himself, created by the most brilliant clockmaker in the empire. As Don Carlos was brought back to life, so an inanimate automaton would turn animate.
Even today, the authors suggest, the friar remains “a small miracle. Or the image of a small miracle. Or the metaphor of a large miracle. Or an artificial miracle.”
For the full review see:
Edward Rothstein. “A Wonder of Another Age.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, December 23, 2023): C9.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date December 22, 2023, and has the title “‘Miracles and Machines’ Review: Mystery of the Clockwork Man.”)
The book under review is:
King, Elizabeth, and W. David Todd. Miracles and Machines: A Sixteenth-Century Automaton and Its Legend. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2023.