Engineer as Artist in 1588

When it comes to books we all have our preferences… I appreciate a story that draws me in so fully that I forget to eat dinner. And, as a visual artist, I am naturally enticed by drawings and prints. Since my first summer on the job, one of my favorite books here at The Alice has been Agostino Ramelli’s, “Dell’ Artificiose Machine”. This tome first caught my eye because of its strong cream-colored leather binding. It has simple, elegant, gold foliate designs on the spine framing the author, title, and “Parigi 1588.” Bindings like this are relatively rare due to the skill and attention it takes to create them.


As soon as I opened the cover and looked at some of the illustrations within, my curiosity was piqued – I had to know more. The book is comprised primarily of images, with the text serving mainly to explain the objects that occupy well over a third of the pages. The illustrations, intricate in their detail and precision, are comprised of very detailed drawings of machines – among them are whimsical designs for water pumps, derricks, mills, bridges, and even looms!


The above image illustrates a very specialized library table Ramelli imagined. This revolving table is designed for someone who, suffering from gout, could not get around easily. In each compartment one would place a different book to study or enjoy!

Agostino Ramelli was a military engineer who obviously had an eye for artful detail. In his youth he studied mathematics and architecture. He was a product of the Renaissance, with its emphasis on education through classical sources combined with a search for realism and human emotion in art. The beautiful details Ramelli included in his works illuminate his desire to include a human element in each diagram. They often include whimsical spouts on illustrations of wells, generally in the shape of a mythical creature or animal head, with the water pouring out of the mouth. Many of the etchings involve humans – sometimes powering the machines by walking on huge wheels to turn the cogs and gears, or at other times collecting the water as it pours from the spout.


In the above illustration the creature’s head that forms the spout even has flowers in its hair! Presumably, these would have been conceived of by Ramelli as carved stone sculptural elements serving to enhance the beauty of his machines.

Ramelli’s work was one of the first of its kind to have drawings so finely and accurately detailed that you could actually construct the machines by using his images as a reference. He wrote this volume for the French royal court, thus the text is in French and Italian.

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