Clockwork Prayer: A Sixteenth-Century Mechanical Monk
"El movimiento se demuestra andando,"
we say in Spanish: You demonstrate movement by moving.
Carlos Fuentes 
In the Smithsonian Institution
is a sixteenth-century automaton of a monk, made of wood and iron, 15
inches in height. Driven by a key-wound spring, the monk walks in a square,
striking his chest with his right arm, raising and lowering a small wooden
cross and rosary in his left hand, turning and nodding his head, rolling
his eyes, and mouthing silent obsequies. From time to time, he brings
the cross to his lips and kisses it. After over 400 years, he remains
in good working order. Tradition attributes his manufacture to one Juanelo
Turriano, mechanician to Emperor Charles V. The story is told that the
emperor's son King Philip II, praying at the bedside of a dying son of
his own, promised a miracle for a miracle, if his child be spared. And
when the child did indeed recover, Philip kept his bargain by having Turriano
construct a miniature penitent homunculus. Looking at this object in the
museum today, one wonders: what did a person see and believe who witnessed
it in motion in 1560? The uninterrupted repetitive gestures, to us the
dead giveaway of a robot, correspond exactly in this case to the movements
of disciplined prayer and trance.
In the history of European
clock technology, the monk is an early and very rare example of a self-acting
automaton, one whose mechanism is wholly contained and hidden within its
body. Its uncanny presence separates it immediately from later automata:
it is not charming, it is not a toy, it is "fearfully and wonderfully
made," and it engages even the twentieth-century viewer in a complicated
and urgent way.  It has duende, the dark spirit Federico García
Lorca described.  Myself a sculptor, negotiating competing ways of
representing human substance and spirit, I wanted to know more about this
hypnotic object, and the legend connected to it.
The monk had arrived in Washington
via Geneva in 1977, into the care of Smithsonian Conservator W. David
Todd, who has made an extensive study of its mechanism. Conversations
over time with Mr. Todd, together with research of my own, have helped
me learn a little more about the monk.  I began with these primary
questions: Could I confirm the story about how the monk came to be made
(a story David Todd told me one day on the telephone in response to my
early queries)? And if so, what was the nature of King Philip's commission
for it? Who was Juanelo Turriano, and how unique was this little artificial
man in terms of the mechanical arts of the time? Where was the line between
religion and magic in such an object? What can be said about it within
the context of sixteenth-century Catholicism, but also sixteenth-century
science and alchemy? How was the monk used once it was made, who operated
it and who would have seen it? Above all, how was it seen, and
what beliefs might have been crucial to its effect on spectators? This
essay narrates the chronology of my search for answers to these questions.
I am not a historian, and I have preferred to let the search itself be
visible as a part of my subject. Driven as much by the physical presence
of the monk as by the legend of the bedside promise, this work is ultimately
an artist's homage to the human attempt to model an act of the spirit.
children had Philip II, and what records exist of any serious illnesses
among them, especially around 1560, the year estimated in the Smithsonian
catalog for the monk's manufacture? What seemed like a wincing long shot
of an opening question almost immediately yielded descriptions of the
accident and subsequent illness sustained by Don Carlos, firstborn of
eight children by four successive wives, whose mother, María of
Portugal died in childbirth. Heir to the Spanish throne, Don Carlos was
17 years old in 1562 when, possibly on an illicit errand, he took a fall
down a flight of little-used stairs in his royal lodgings in the university
town of Alcalá de Henares, and struck his head against a closed
door in the passageway below.
Don Carlos himself? The hero of Giuseppe Verdi's great
nineteenth-century opera, infamously murdered (in Verdi's portrayal) by
his father only six years later in 1568?
The great historian William H. Prescott, in his 1874
History of the Reign of Philip the Second , describes what happened
to Don Carlos after the fall:
He was taken up senseless, and removed to
his chamber, where his physicians were instantly summoned, and the necessary
remedies applied. At first, it seemed only a simple contusion on the
head, and the applications of the doctors had the desired effect. But
soon the symptoms became more alarming. Fever set in. He was attacked
by erysipelas; his head swelled to an enormous size; he became totally
blind; and this was followed by delirium. It now appeared that the skull
was fractured. The royal physicians were called in; and after a stormy
consultation, in which the doctors differed, as usual, as to the remedies
to be applied, it was determined to trepan the patient. The operation
was carefully performed; a part of the bone of the skull was removed;
but relief was not obtained. 
All accounts of this illness, including one in the
recently published volume Philip of Spain by Henry Kamen , describe
a grief-stricken king rushing to Alcalá from Madrid with his Councils
of State and the best physicians in the land, among them the great anatomist
Andreas Vesalius, to attend Don Carlos. Prescott continues:
Meanwhile, the greatest alarm spread through the
country at the prospect of losing the heir-apparent. Processions were
everywhere made to the churches, prayers were put up, pilgrimages were
vowed, and the discipline was unsparingly administered by the fanatical
multitude, who hoped by self-inflicted penance to avert the wrath of
Heaven from the land. Yet all did not avail.
A magnificently detailed recent article entitled "Putting
Don Carlos Together Again: Treatment of a Head Injury in Sixteenth-Century
Spain" by L. J. Andrew Villalon takes us through day by appalling
day of the ordeal, from April 10 to May 9, quoting from the written accounts
of the prince's surgeon and his personal physician.  On the afternoon
of May 9, as Villalon tells it, in the aftermath of an attempt to trepan
the patient's skull (a full trepanation was not carried out), the townspeople
of Alcalá gathered at the Church of Saint Francis.
With Franciscan friars in the lead, they marched
toward the palace, carrying with them the remains of a fifteenth-century
member of the order, Diego de Alcalá, for whom they had long
hoped to win sainthood. They entered the sickroom, and in the presence
of their kneeling monarch they set down beside the patient the remains
of Brother Diego. Although Carlos was only semiconscious and blinded
by infection, he asked for his eyes to be forced open in order to see
the blessed remains. The chief steward, hoping to spare the young man
further pain, refused to allow this; however, the desiccated corpse
was moved close enough for Carlos to reach over and touch it, after
which he drew his hands across his diseased face. (p 356)
Prescott transmits the story a little differently,
having the king himself and his court fetching "the mouldering remains
of the good father, still sweet to the nostrils, as we are told."
Laying the corpse on the prince's bed, they removed the cloth that wrapped
the dead man's head and placed it on Carlos' forehead (p 469). And yet
another accountmore about this one laterrefers to the mummy
of the friar being placed in the sick boy's bed with him.
So certain did Don Carlos' death seem on the evening
of May 9, that the king took his closest advisors and departed at midnight
rather than watch his son slowly die, and he began the journey back to
Madrid in despair. But that night Don Carlos slept peacefully for the
first time in weeks. And the very next day commenced a sudden, extraordinary
recovery. He regained his sight a week later, his fever disappeared soon
thereafter, and within a month, he was completely healed. 
In the aftermath of Don Carlos' stunning recovery,
Villalon tells us, there was no small controversy about how the cure was
brought about. Vesalius was praised by some, and among the ten attending
physicians who had labored so hard over the prince there were a few who
felt they were due the major part of the credit. But very soon attention
came to focus on Fray Diego de Alcalá, with a groundswell of feeling
that here was the agent of a miracle: a corpse 100 years dead. We ourselves
can look back and be sure that the physicians' prodigious efforts, complete
with the usual bleeding and purging, and the continual probing of the
wound with nonsterile instruments, would have accumulated more against
than in favor of the chances for survival (. . . "[the doctors] went
on placing upon the exposed portion of the skull a powder made of iris
and birthwort, and on the lips of the wound a mixture of turpentine and
egg yolk." ) But the most dramatic evidence came from Don Carlos
Upon regaining his senses, the patient [. . . reported]
an apparition which had appeared to him while he was still near death.
According to Don Carlos, on the night of May 9, this apparition, dressed
in Franciscan habit and carrying a small wooden cross, had entered the
sickroom and assured the prince that he would recover. Later, having
concluded that the night visitor must have been Brother Diego, the prince
convinced his father, and both of them vowed to work for the friar's
In Counter-Reformation Spain, a physician would risk
heresy to contest such royal testimony to divine intervention.
Don Carlos and the Two Monks
Was it too much, in searching the descriptions
of the secular and religious celebrations following Don Carlos' return
to health, to hope for a mention of a small promised clockwork automaton?
Yet I did find something: a volume in Spanish by José A. García-Diego:
Los relojes y autómatas de Juanelo Turriano. The Clocks
and Automata of Juanelo Turriano. Madrid, 1982. Published by Tempvs Fvgit,
Monografías Españolas de Relojería. Among
the plates are photographs of two small automata associated with Turriano,
one a dancing lady with a lute (figs. 3, 4),
now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the other the figure
of the monk (fig 2) now at the Smithsonian.
García-Diego writes: "This second
automaton represents a friar. In contrast with the musical woman, I would
say that its personality is, for me at least, considerably unpleasant."
Regarding the monk's attribution, he cites two
catalog entries for it, from sales exhibitions, one in Geneva and another
in Zurich in 1976, prior to the Smithsonian purchase. The Zurich source
speculates a south German origin. But in 1980 the Smithsonian Institution,
having acquired the monk, included it in the ambitious show "The
Clockwork Universe"the golden age of German clockmaking, 1550
to 1650, and here the monk is labelled as being of either German or Spanish
origin.  García-Diego comments:
"The affirmation that it could be of Spanish origin is based on 'the
conception and realistic modelling of the head of the monk'; that to my
understanding is only mediocre and (although I am not an expert) without
special connection to the art of our country" (p 105). Then he adds
But in the cited catalog
of Geneva a hypothesis was given about when the figure of the religious
one could have been fabricated, of which I think I should record mention.
It is supported in an announcement by Father Servius Gieben, Director
of the Historical Institute of the Capuchins in Rome. According to him,
it would represent San Diego de Alcalá, a Franciscan who died
That would permit connecting it to the Spanish Court, since the episode
of how his mummy was placed in the bed of Prince Don Carlos was known,
wounded in the head in a supposedly fatal fashion, having fallen down
stairs (1562); which had the effect of an immediate cure and later,
upon petition of Philip II, the canonization of the friar.
Father Servius continues and I copy:
"In this climate of religious exaltationprocessions, public
prayers, pilgrimages for obtaining a cure for the Princeit is
in that which the fabrication of the automaton found itself as a kind
of votive offering andwhy not?in order to urge the young
prince to a more serious life (he was very capricious). The date should
be 1562 or a little later, and the author Juanelo Turriano (or de la
Torre, dead in 1585) who was chief engineer for Philip II." (pp
Here was encapsulated the
very story David Todd at the Smithsonian had told me years ago! Mummy
or no mummy, here is the notion of a votive offering, a promise, an act
of gratitude. But who was Father Servius Gieben? And when did he write
his hypothesis? In great excitement I read on . . . and found García-Diego
concluding several pages later that he could not agree with either the
attribution or the date. In fact he groups several automata linked to
Turriano, the monk included, and places them instead in the eighteenth
century, 200 years later! According to this author, only the beautiful
lady with the lute in Vienna is spiritual enough to remain in Turriano's
But he does include another
plate: a close-up of the face of the monk is paired with an engraving
depicting, we're told, the head of San Diego de Alcalá, fig. 5.
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  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.  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. 
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.  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. 
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.
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.  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
CAPILLA Y ALTAR
DIEGO DE ALCALÁ
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.  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.
Juanelo Turriano is indeed a mysterious
figure. "La selva juanelesca"the jungle of juaneloa
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. 
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. 
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?  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,"  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."
 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.  As García-Diego has written, "the
astronomer who at the same time worked with his hands [. . .] was then,
and also later, a rare phenomenon."  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
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. 
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.
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.  But to this day, the street in Toledo where Turriano
lived is called calle del hombre de palo, "the street of the
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. 
The Attribution of the Monk
In none of the historical sources we've
found is there any reference to the mechanical monk, nor apparently does
the monk appear in the royal inventories of the emperor or his son. On
the other hand, an automaton very similar to the above-mentioned lady
lute player in Vienna was described in 1575 by, again, Ambrosio de Morales
as being made by Turriano, and this has provided a continuing hypothesis
for her attribution (see figs. 16, 17).  In 1966 the historian
Silvio Bedini, whom I paraphrased at length above, referred to her in
the context of the pieces Turriano made in the emperor's final years at
San Yuste, but said that if she was made by Turriano, she is the only
surviving specimen of his automata.  Indeed, not even Turriano's great
planetary clock survives (although a modern reconstruction of the de'
Dondi clock was completed in 1960 for the Smithsonian). As far as we know
at this point, the monk seems to surface only in our own century, in the
1970s, and José A. García-Diego saw it for the first time
must have at first thought the monk was Turriano's work, for his name
is mentioned in the very Geneva catalog he cites in his book (although
in the book he footnotes a disclaimer). I later located a copy of this
1976 catalog, and it names José Antonio García-Diego as
"le grand spécialiste de l'oeuvre de Turriano" and quotes
him attributing the automaton to Turriano based on its similarity to the
lute-playing lady.  And here indeed in the catalog is the attribution
by Father Servius Gieben (here spelled Servus Gieben), in a reference
to research undertaken on the identity of the monk at the Historical Institute
of the Capuchins in Rome. Father Gieben's words are quoted from a document
identified only as "a communication of November 16, 1975." And
the catalog also reproduces the two images pairing the automaton's face
with that of San Diego de Alcalá, identifying the latter as an
engraving produced in 1588, the year of the canonization of the saint.
It appears that the images were compared as part of the research by Father
Gieben. Thus the Geneva catalog identifies the monk as being by Turriano,
based on the opinions of Father Servus Gieben and of García-Diego.
But by 1982, when García-Diego published his book, he had decided
against his stated first impressions.
The Smithsonian Institution acquired the monk in 1977.
Smithsonian Conservator W. David Todd, who joined the Institution staff
in 1978, has made it possible for me to study recently some of the acquisition
papers from the Smithsonian archives. To my astonishment and his, we found
among the papers a copy of a letter written in French, dated November
16, 1975, by none other than Father Servus Gieben, Directeur de l'Institut
Historique des Capucins. It is the precise document quoted by the Geneva
catalog and later by García-Diego. The letter is directed to a
Monsieur Georges Sedlmajer, in Geneva, who in turn quotes it in a letter
of his own, dated April 4, 1977, to Otto Mayr, then Acting Director of
the Smithsonian's National Museum of History and Technology. And with
the letter, a copy of the engraving of San Diego, two engravings in fact,
showing the full composition with images from the life and death of the
saint, fig. 7.  (Each engraving includes a panel depicting Don Carlos'
sickroom. Perhaps we can begin to reidentify other panels with the help
of Villalon's "Miracle Book." One of the two engravings is dated
between 1595 and 1600; the other, the one that was compared to the automaton
in the Geneva catalogue, is 1614). In discussing the likeness between
automaton and saint, Father Gieben explains in his letter that the cross
and the rosary are San Diego's emblems, and that the near-shaved head,
rather than the tonsure, would be accounted for by the fact that the saint
was a Franciscan lay brother rather than an ordained priest.
The letter itself seems to
be a communication between friends, and there is no indication as to how
Father Gieben came to perform his research, or what may have prompted
his work. As far as I could tell at this point, the entire weight of the
story of how and why the little machine came to be made seems to rest
on this 1975 letter. "But then where did you hear the story,
David?" I asked Todd! "Otto told me," he replied, "and
remember, my job was to keep the monk running, regardless of where he
started!" It dawned on me that I had only scrupulously repeated in
reverse order the steps taken by Father Gieben in deducing a history for
the monk. He determined a 1562 date for its manufacture, based on Don
Carlos' illness; and later I see that date next to the monk in the museum
and set out to learn if anyone was sick in 1562! While I felt no little
chagrin that most of what I "uncovered" was right there in the
museum all along, at least my backwards journey earned me a view of each
of the landmarks from both directions! Knowledge always seems to come
at the price of humiliation. I could now see a part of how the story itself
had turned up, having already observed its role in the subsequent charisma
accumulating around the monk. And certainly this "history of the
history" of a thing, shows us a little of what happens when a mysterious
object makes its appearance on the world antiquities market. Plus, at
last I had the text of the original letter in full (and the correct spelling
of Servus Gieben's name). Clearly the next step would be to try and track
down Father Gieben himself. His letter bore no return address.
At present the Smithsonian register reads simply "Automaton
figure of a monk: south Germany or Spain, c. 1560," and in smaller
print "Figure: head of poplar wood; head and limbs rendered naturalistically;
modern habit. Movement: iron; height: 39 cm. (15 3/8 in.)."
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.
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
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.
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 Múzeum (Museum of Applied Arts) in
Budapest, purchased in 1915 (fig. 15). 
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.  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. tallerperhaps 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.  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
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. 
She too came to light only in this century, in 1934, from a private collection.
 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.  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.
 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.
A drum rather than a lute . . . but everything else
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.  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 mindare 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.
A Short History of the Relations Between
Machines and Divinity (Deus ex Machina)
An automaton is defined as a machine that contains
its own principle of motion. Strictly speaking, a clock is an automaton.
The notion of an artificial human figurean "android" as
it has come to be calledderives in part from the tradition of the
striking jack in the great medieval town clocks, in which the hour would
be sounded by a mechanical figure springing into motion with a hammer
and gong. That this employment once fell to a living person, the town
watchman , suggests that here were our first labor-saving robots.
But the animated figure, or moving sculpture, can be traced back to ancient
Egypt. "At Thebes accordingly, there were statues that spoke and
made gestures. The priests made the heads and arms move by devices not
as yet clearly explained" we are told by Egyptologist Alexandre Moret
, invoking the same combination of mystery, divine intervention, human
ingenuity, and mechanics of deception our own monk exhibits. Theater has
always been the partner of religion.
The sixteenth century was a period of tremendous mechanical sophistication:
the dawning of the scientific revolution. Clockmaking was to become a
profession in its own right, separate from its origin in the blacksmith's
art, and its former association with gun- and locksmithing. Precision
timekeeping in centuries to come would become crucial to the world shipping
trade for its use in determining navigational longitude.  But
in its early form, clockmaking was driven less by the problem of measuring
time, and more by the astronomer's efforts to model the locations and
motions of "the fixed and moving stars," that is, to capture
the animating principle of the universe. 
A significant developmentperhaps the significant
developmentfrom the medieval town clock, driven by enormous systems
of weights, was the emergence of the spiral spring combined with the fusee.
A fusee is an ingenious device for making the driving force of a spring
constant. Once attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, earlier examples of the
fusee have now been found. When wound, a mainspring could now deliver
a steady application of tension, rather than a stronger and then progressively
weaker force as it ran down.  An early fusee, made of wood, is found
in the mechanism of the monk (fig. 18).
The other important development in the mechanical
arts was the cam. An ancient device attributed to Archimedes, 
the cam reached broad use in the fifteenth century in the striking trains
of clocks. A cam is simply a barrel or disk of metal rotated by the gear
train. Its outer edge is either studded with short pins, or cut to a calculated
profile, and as it turns, one end of a lever, riding against that uneven
edge, is set in motion. Called a following arm, the lever translates the
cam's calculated profile into reciprocating movements that can be highly
precise and carefully timed. Numbers of such levers can operate for example
the spring-tensioned linkages to the monk's arms, legs, head, eyes. The
cam is thus the memory of the machine, and its profile is the analog information
base for generating the exact movements of a given part.  Figure 19
shows the cam that generates the movements of the monk's mouth. Note the
thin solitary spike on one side of the disk, distinct from the regular
teeth cut around the best of the perimeter. This is the kiss!
But even though the spring and fusee consolidated
the drive system of a device into a much smaller area, and the cam could
store a great deal of information in one component, the early clockmakers
did not strive for portability per se. Of the automata that appeared with
the rise of clockmaking, most were mechanical elaborations of the striking
jack. Or, if they were not connected to a timepiece, they performed in
elaborately constructed settings, or on ornate bejewelled pedestals. For
me, one of the virtues of the monk, and the few automata like it in history,
is that the animating mechanism is entirely contained in the body of the
figure. The automaton moves in our world, of its own accord, and
not in a miniature world apart, or upon a console we know is full of hidden
cams and gears. There is no intermediary prop or set for our imagination,
assuring us of the boundaries of what we are about to feel. And of course
this is a much more difficult technical feat for the clockmaker.
Further still, the monk's motions unfold over time
and are compounded, i.e. the automaton continues to do new things from
one moment to the next: this would intensify and prolong the duration
of its confrontation with a spectator.
For all the lack of any identifying information inside
this machine, Todd's drawings of its parts show us the work of a master
mechanic with a restrained sense of style. Many components are decoratively
chamfered and shaped beyond the necessity of function (figs. 9-12, 19).
The complex design of the monk's left arm, with the elbow moving independently
of the shoulder, alone is worth respect, and here it is done with an elegance
only God was meant to see. There are, in fact, two orders of concealment,
for the spectator was not meant to observe the act of winding the drive
spring. Todd points out a hidden lever to be used secretly by the operator
of the automaton: once wound, the machine would only begin moving after
the release of this lever (see fig. 11 "stop work, interrupts fly,"
and figs. 18, 20). We must envision a scenario, Todd advises us, where
a powerful person, or an emissary from that person, is seen to hold the
miniature man in his hands, then set it down on the table or floor. Whereupon,
very slowly, very deliberately, very irrevocably, it would set out on
For Whose Sake?
Why was this monk made? My
early questionswho operated this small machine and who would have
seen it, how would a spectator in the sixteenth century have interpreted
its performanceall hung on the influence of the legend surrounding
it. A dying boy, a holy corpse, the bedside miracle, the royal promise,
the brilliant clockmaker . . . but we've seen that the story is only an
hypothesis, though one with a sure life of its own. The possibility that
the monk is a portrait of San Diego de Alcalá, or at least bears
some commemorative relation to the saint, is more within reach. But at
this point we can't prove it. And if the automaton hardly resembles the
contemporary image of the saint (a complaint of José A. García-Diego's),
then perhaps he resembles San Diego's remains! He is, himself, now no
more than a set of remains, with his cracked paint and clouded eye . .
. but like the saint's, an effective set, a working set. Was he made by
Juanelo Turriano? It seems that even this must remain a tantalizing conjecture.
 Whoever made the monk, he certainly wasn't cheering anyone up. I
look again at the photographs . . . the other two figures do seem beneficent
by comparison, with bell and glockenspiel. Our monk looks emaciated, fierce,
dead set. He is not ringing bells. And if the Smithsonian dating is correct,
he is made during the great upheaval of Reformation and Counter-Reformation,
where definitions of divinity, authority, heresy, and the line between
religion and magic were fought with blood.
What kind of a social setting
could be appropriate for such an object? By comparison, the lady with
the lute might very successfully have made an after-dinner appearance
at any number of royal occasions, and drawn a mixture of amazement and
delight. There is a long tradition of later automated figures that played
musical instruments and imitated other courtly graces. Perhaps the monk
was meant for a single viewer, as suggested by the image of Turriano diverting
the emperor's declining spirits at San Yuste. Maybe he was to appease
the Father Superior, though the simulated act of prayer carries some fearful
implications.  In posing the question of audience, we enter a complex
caste system of potential spectators, from educated to merchant to laboring
classes of persons, secular and religious contexts, public and private
display. Ultimately I must leave to the historian the task of an informed
guess . . . I long for that historian to appear. I think again about those
beautifully made hidden levers and cams inside the monk, gestures seen
by no one but its maker. One appeal of Father Gieben's theorythat
the monk was a votive offeringis that God himself becomes the intended
audience. As is the case, ultimately, for the act of prayer the monk mimes.
But then I remember that secret lever David Todd pointed out, to permit
the winding to be done out of sight.
These were my thoughts when
I suddenly discovered an address for Father Servus Gieben.  He responded
to my letter with miraculous dispatch. Alive and well, the President of
the Istituto Storico dei Cappuccini in Rome and the Director of its Museo
Francescano, he wrote saying "I certainly will be pleased to read
your paper on the 'Mechanical Monk' of which I preserve nice photographs
and curious memories." At long last!
Born in the Netherlands in
1924, Servus Gieben entered the Capuchin novitiate in 1942, and was ordained
priest in 1949.  He completed a PhD at the Università
Gregoriana in Rome in 1953, and in the same year was made associate of
the Istituto Storico dei Cappuccini, itself founded in Assisi in 1930
and moved to Rome during World War II. The Institute's mandate is the
pursuit of scholarly research on the history of the Franciscan Order,
and in particular its Capuchin Family, formed during the sixteenth-century
Counter-Reformation. Father Gieben was President of the Institute from
1970 to 1977, as he is again at present (since 1999). For 25 years, as
a specialist in the depiction and iconography in art history of the lives
of the saints, he has been responsible for developing the collections
now housed in the Institute's Museo Francescano. He is a scholar of medieval
theology and has written in depth on the life and works of the thirteenth-century
Oxford scholar Robert Grosseteste, contemporary of Saint Francis. Among
Father Gieben's published works are numerous editions of primary manuscripts
from the history of Franciscan thought. He is fluent in Dutch, German,
French, Italian, English, and Latin.
How did the Father come to
perform his research on the small automaton in 1976? I quote his own words,
from his letter to me of September 25, 1999:
In the summer of 1975 I
was approached by the antiquarian George Sedlmajer from Geneva, who
had a problem. Thinking that his monk represented a Jesuit preacher,
he had approached the Jesuits in Rome. But they pointed out to him that
his automaton was wearing sandals, which was not a Jesuit but a Franciscan
fashion. So they sent him on to our Museo Francescano. His letter was
accompanied with good photographs. His question was: who is this monk
and what is the meaning of his movements. The intense expression of
the face convinced me at once that it must be the portrait of a famous
preacher or of a Saint, probably a Spanish one. Iconographic indications
(cross and rosary, shaved head) pointed to San Diego, a lay brother,
not a priest. But I racked my brains for finding a motive that might
have caused [the representation of] San Diego in that way. On the 12th
of November arrived the feast of San Diego and reading about his life
I struck upon the miracle which caused his process of canonization to
be completed. The article in Archivo Ibero-Americano 2 (1914) 424-446
depicted, in my opinion, the right setting for the origin of the automaton
as an admonition to the unruly young Carlos. I would even like to imagine
the Emperor's family sitting around the table, praying with the boy,
while the mechanical monk is muttering his prayers and doing his admonishing
walking around. I could not think of anybody else who could have made
this automaton unless Juanelo Turriano the Emperor's mechanician. Hence
my attribution of the monk to him. There is no tradition of this kind
of automata in the Franciscan Order and I would exclude that the monk
could have been made for the friars.
Several things are striking
about Father Gieben's letter. His immediate thought that the figure was
a portrait of a particular person: this confirmed my own sense of the
individuality of the monk's features. Yet why "probably Spanish?"
Had Monsieur Sedlmajer mentioned the Vienna automaton and Turriano in
his letter to Father Gieben? I wrote and asked Father Gieben this. He
replied that no, Sedlmajer had certainly not indicated any link with another
automaton, and he learned of such a connection only from reading the very
draft of my essay I had just sent him. At most, Sedlmajer may have suggested
a possible sixteenth-century origin for the piece. His opinion that the
monk represented a Spanish figure was based on the physiognomy of the
carved face, a judgement confirmed by his search through the Museo Francescano
print archives and the match, not just with the person of San Diego, but
with the saint's symbols, lay status, and gestures (he sent me photographs
of the two engravings of San Diego). Father Gieben also mentioned in this
reply that he had no idea of how his research was to be used, or of its
later consequences in identifying the automaton. 
Thus, Servus Gieben arrived
at his conclusion without an awareness of the attribution to Juanelo Turriano
of any similar automaton figures. His opinion comes not from the history
of technology, but from the history of theology. It is significant that
these two separate tracks converge upon so close an explanation of the
Father Gieben sent me something
else: a photograph of a death mask kept in the Church of Santa Maria La
Nova, in Naples, identified as being the face of S. Giacomo della Marca,
who died in 1475 at the age of 84 (fig. 21). The
mask, cast in wax, was a private gift to the Church at the end of the
nineteenth century. Could this truly be the face of a man of 84, known
to have lost all his teeth, Father Gieben wondered? Noticing a remarkable
resemblance to images of San Diego, and to the carved face of the automaton,
he allowed himself to speculate on the possibility that the mask could
have been used as the model for the automaton. 
And if the automaton is a
portrait of San Diego, one is tempted to think twice about its repeating
gesture with the cross and rosary. It is almost as if the clockmaker meant
to acknowledge the miracle of Fray Diego on his deathbed raising a paralyzed
left arm to bear the cross aloft. Two inert left arms come to life. 
Looking at the Monk Now
The monk is, like all automata, a recording, a kind
of artificial memory. What can he tell us?
David Todd winds the mainspring
and we watch the monk perform on a table in Todd's workshop. While we
both agree that this is a serious object, a haunted object, Todd believes
his purpose was to intimidate and warn. I believe he instructs by example.
Todd thinks the eyes and head move to make confrontational contact with
onlookers, "You! You! And you!" I think the eyes are rolling
in the head in trance. Though I have to admit, when he advances in my
directioncomes at meit is with such steady and unswerving
forward momentum that my animal flight urge stirs. Just when I ruefully
smile, he turns away, finished with me. I nervously postulate that the
square path of the walk is the invisible cloister around which the monk
shuffles in prayer. Todd thinks this is the clockmaker's device to "keep
the fellow from falling off the table and knocking his head. (!)"
He reminds me that some of the musician automata walk in squares too.
The monk moves slowlyunnaturally so. But the fusee keeps his progress
steady. (How much does he weigh, I suddenly wonder, this 15 inch tall
homunculus? When the play is over, I ask Todd if I may pick up the actor,
a bold request to make with so antique a clockwork. Over a cushion, with
museum gloves, and absolute concentration, I lift him with both my hands
by the torso, like a baby . . . just for the space of a second. He is
heavy! But not in the way of an organic thing, more like a little tank.)
Would the measure of the monk's power have come from the sight of a king
setting him in motion? But Todd and I agree the power flows in the opposite
direction, so that once the tiny man is seen to move independently, the
operator's status takes a leap, he becomes a kind of god. Either
way there is a mutual transfer of authority and magic. Todd, jesting only
a little, likens the possession of the monk to owning the pentium chip
a couple of years ago. Who commands the highest technology possesses the
highest power. I'm fascinated, but am yet absorbed by how the monk possesses
Sigmund Freud's now famous
definition of the uncanny: ambiguity about the extent to which something
is or is not alive.  I like the notion of a sliding scale, a greater
or lesser degree of doubt. We are biologically driven by this distinction,
which we can observe every time a coat rack in our peripheral vision startles
us as an unexpected guest. It can be of a very very tiny duration, this
uncertainty, and still register a measurable shock. Might an unsuspecting
viewer long ago have believed it to be alive, this small figure moving
on the table? This is not a question with a hard yes or no answer. It
is a rolling question.
But perhaps one could ask
it differently. To what extent would a viewer's response to the monk be
an emotional response, and as such, a response as if to a living
thing?  We are reminded of the puppet's power to enchant us,
not only by the illusion of autonomy and agency, but by the illusion of
personality. Even if just a crude bit of wood and cloth, a puppet's
movement transforms it into something with a complicated psychology. We
understand right away that it is, say, embarrassed, or lying, or hatching
a plan: it exhibits intent.
A storyteller once said,
to secure the immediate attention of children, begin a story with a contradiction.
It hypnotizes them. The puppet itself is a contradiction: while one part
of our mind carefully observes the techniques of the illusion, another
part fully, involuntarily, participates in the masque. With the monk,
there are several overt contradictions. It has the shape of a man, and
a very individual one at that, with delicate, protruding ears and direction-finding
nosebut it's much too small. It moves by itself, and as an animate
thing the gestures of arms and legs and head are familiar, but they are
much too slow, unnervingly slow. This is what the monk possesses that
the Hollywood robot or the wax museum figure lacks: something seriously
wrong right away. The paradox is that it holds our attention longer. ("It"
or "he" . . . ? throughout the essay I've used both, for the
monk is truly a thing one moment, a being the next.) In
fact, the very constraints on the clockmaker, which include things like
limits on speed and range of motion to preserve center of gravity and
thus stability on three wheels: these very limitations give rise to qualities
we interpret on a completely different level. The slowness becomes loaded,
as if the figure marshals a kind of extreme concentration. Once we are
willing to invest a thing with independent agency, and this is where the
starting shock ignites our credulity, our very faculty of rational thought,
once ready to detect the deception, suddenly skips a beat and is arguing
instead for the utterly implausible. The mechanical repetition? But the
monk enacts something that is repetitive by mandate, by definition. It
is when the monk turns, for here the motion is its most three-dimensional
to our eye, that he is most uncanny. As he turns away from you, it is
with the most profound disdain. He is clearly not real, and yet we are
wanting to believe and believing he is real. Just for the moment, to want
is to have. And now it is we who are in the trance.
In her recent book, Art
and Ritual in Golden-Age Spain, Susan Verdi Webster examines the great
Spanish tradition of penitential processions during Holy Week, occasions
in which elaborately dressed and decorated wooden figures of patron saintssome
even with hidden mechanisms for animating the arms and headswere
carried through the streets, in a commingling of theater and devotional
passion. Among classes of objects remotely connected to the monk, these
articulated sculpturesimágenes de vestir as they are
calledoffer some productive comparison. Webster describes the powerful
emotional responses they drew from onlookers, and of particular interest
is the contrast she marks in comparing the figures as they were seen throughout
the year in repose in the churches, with their animated appearance in
the street during Holy Week. She writes:
The spatial and temporal
status of the sculptures in procession significantly enhance their mimetic
effects, and their unique kinesthetic character allows them dramatic
entrance into the realm of human experience. They are able to move both
physically (through articulated limbs) and spatially (through the streets
of the city). Furthermore, the incorporation of sculpture within a processional
context acts to change a most fundamental aspect: the sense of time.
No longer static, eternal images of altars and retablos, their
temporal state is extended so that they merge with the spectators' own
experience of space and time. 
Our emotional engagement
with the monk, as he performs in our own time, bears comparison with Webster's
portrayal of this penitential spectacle. The distinction between the moving
and the still effigy is crucial in understanding the nature of its claim
on our attention, especially in the case of an object that is first or
primarily seen to be immobile, and which then begins to move. Not only
does such a transformation irrevocably alter essential relations between
all parties, but it also makes an interesting fellowship of all viewers
across time who have experienced it: something close to our hearing the
same music our forebears heard in centuries now gone. The great difference
between the imagen de vestir and the monk of course is size: the
former is defined always as being carved to human scale. The monk's miniature
height, coexisting with the immediacy and purpose of his motion, may be
the most disturbing contradiction of all, for the combination of "small"
and "moving" holds ancient, almost primal anxiety for us. He
can play to only so large an audience, but his relation to a spectator
Looking at the Monk Then: Some Historical Speculations
The story of Don Carlos gives
us a glimpse of sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism, as well as a glimpse
of the contemporary relations between religion, politics, magic, and medicine.
In this period the high Catholic Church recoiled both from corruption
within its own orders, and from the onslaught of the Protestant revolt.
The Counter-Reformation, with the founding of the powerful new Jesuit
Order, the Council of Trent, and the new Inquisition, responded with a
reinvigoration of Catholic doctrine, tightening strictures against heresy,
and reinscribing the authority of the sacraments. This was an age in which
physical objects and inanimate things were believed by many to possess
supernatural powers. The Mass itself, and the central belief in the transubstantiation
of the Host, enacts the penultimate miracle of the quickening of inanimate
substance. Keith Thomas, in his 1971 book Religion and the Decline
of Magic, locates in the power of the Mass "the magical notion
that the mere pronunciation of words in a ritual manner could effect a
change in the character of material objects."  Literalism, metaphor,
and symbol in the liturgy were zealously debated, but always with the
Church attempting exclusive jurisdiction over the realm of miracles. Yet
the ur-science of alchemy, winding itself through medieval Christianity,
also was flourishing in the sixteenth century: Paracelsus wrote his most
famous treatises on metallurgy, theosophy, anatomy, medicine, astronomy,
among which the work De Natura Rerum, Of Natural Things, was completed
in 1537. This text contains the controversial recipe for making a homunculus,
a very different method for generating body and blood from "material
objects."  The intermingling of alchemy and orthodox religion
is magnificently laid out in Marguerite Yourcenar's historical novel The
Abyss.  Yourcenar's central character, Zeno, a fictional
portrait based on aspects of the life of Paracelsus, pursues knowledge
of body and universe under the constant threat of heresy, as he moves
from city to city through the Europe of the sixteenth century's second
quarter. Indeed, the auto-da-féthe public burning of heretics
at the stakeis seen to be a routinely attended state event in the
court life of King Philip II. When we remember that alchemy, for all its
long association with forbidden knowledge, is the mother science of modern
chemistry, and that Paracelsus was among the first to propose a theory
of metabolism against the entrenched "four humours" view of
the body, we understand something of the paradox and complexity of this
transformative period in history. (And we wonder what kind of gentler
treatment Don Carlos might have received from the great Swiss physician.)
The alchemist moreover, sought equally a knowledge of the cosmos and an
understanding of the living organism: these truths would be elementally
interwoven. The astrarium and the automaton could likewise be seen as
linked works in the technological sphere: the search for the Primum
The monk shares with the
alchemist's homunculus his small size, self animation, and intended role
as servant. For us, he particularly shares with the homunculus his artificiality
as a "man-made man"  capable of performing the most
complex and distinctly human transactions, and perhaps possessing some
superhuman abilities as well. In literature, the fabrication of the homunculus
is always a forbidden act, Part Two of Faust the best known example.
 And likewise, we have some record that automata too roused the disapproval
of the Church, as when Turriano gains "the dangerous fame of a wizard."
Keith Thomas, quoted above on the magical transformation of the Host,
speaks in his book about how such changes could be effected mechanically,
and the following passage has a peculiar ring to it in the context of
the monk [italics mine]:
For the essential difference
between the prayers of a churchman and the spells of a magician was
that only the latter claimed to work automatically; a prayer
had no certainty of success and would not be granted if God chose not
to concede it. A spell, on the other hand, need never go wrong, unless
some detail of ritual observance had been omitted or a rival magician
had been practising stronger counter-magic. A prayer, in other words,
was a form of supplication: a spell was a mechanical means of
manipulation. [. . .] In practice, however, this distinction was repeatedly
blurred in the popular mind. (p 41)
But Thomas also uses the
word "mechanical" in discussing the Church's assurance of the
cumulative power of a repeated prayer: "Salvation itself could be
attained, it seemed, by mechanical means, and the more numerous the prayers
the more likely their success." One could even hire members of the
clergy to repeat prayers on one's behalf (pp 41-42). The rosary, to this
day, is an abacus for counting prayer repetitions. The mechanical monk,
with his rosary, is thus a doubling of repetitive devices. In this light,
his clockwork performance becomes a petition and re-petition to Catholic
eternity, a conjunction of two systems of time-keeping.
The monk, an object which
has been invisible to all these histories as they have been written, has
something to tell us about each. He walks a delicate line between church,
theater, magic, science. He circulates amongmurmurs aboutall
of them. He is a synapse, transmitting a host of simultaneous signals.
Here is a machine that prays. Is it a divine machine? Or, man-made, a
miracle in its own right? Or again, as a votive offering, a machine made
if not for God alone, then one meant to appear to be made for God
alone? Certainly the same beliefs that animated the corpse of a friar
with the power to heal could likewise animate a miniature man seen to
be performing the authorized and orthodox gestures of devotion.
What did a person see and
believe who witnessed the monk in motion in 1560? We, who see him today
in a glass case at a museum, must imagine him less securely confined and
named. I think, finally, that it is the touching of the two wiresreligion
and magicthat might generate an unstable definition of aliveness,
and spark a response of shock in a viewer to a miniature man who is moving,
who is coming in your direction.
Judging the quick from the
dead: all three bodies we have examined in this story are ambiguous. Unconscious
Don Carlos with his suppurating head wound, hovering near death; Brother
Diego's life-giving corpse, "still sweet to the nostrils;" and
an automaton whose own head, x-rayed, shows us an image of the machine
in the ghost. In each case, we can roughly compare a sixteenth-century
with a twentieth-century definition of aliveness, discovering our own
uncertainties in the balance. What is living stuff made of? All the players
here are busy with ideas about the hidden matter within the corpus.
"And if the automaton
hardly resembles the contemporary image of the saint, then perhaps he
resembles San Diego's remains. He is, himself, now no more than a set
of remains, with his cracked paint and clouded eye . . . but like the
saint's, an effective set, a working set."
Now, just a few threads to tie up.
What was Don Carlos
doing on those little-used stairs? He was certainly not on his way to
a clandestine rendezvous with his father's new wife, the young Elizabeth
of Valois, who was Don Carlos' same age. Nor was he preparing to depart
for the Netherlands to lead an insurrection against the Spanish Crown.
These are Verdi's conceits, and Schiller's before him, and before Schiller
the seventeenth century French writer César Vischard de Saint-Réal,
and yet other legends before that.  In fact, according to William
H. Prescott, Don Carlos was sneaking down to a tryst with the daughter
of the garden porter.  And King Philip's well documented grief over
the fall: how do we reconcile it with his arrest of his own son six years
after the miracle, for which he was in the midst of efforts to win sainthood
for Friar Diego? Only now are we beginning to extricate truth from myth
concerning the death of Don Carlos. The latest version of history is carefully
told in the book mentioned above, Philip of Spain by Henry Kamen.
In 1980, the Smithsonian changed the name of its National
Museum of History and Technology. It would now be called the National
Museum of American History. And some changes started to take place, subtle
ones at first, but in recent years there have been shifts in institutional
priority that have alarmed many historians and scholars. For one thing,
the monk, as of December 1997, is now removed from view. The old instrument
and timekeeping displays have been redesigned with a new theme in mind:
the meaning of time to Americans and its influence on American life. But
it isn't just politics as usual: not only is the monk unAmerican, he slips
through all kinds of identification parameters. He isn't a clock, he isn't
a calculator, he isn't a sculpture, he isn't an icon, he isn't a plaything:
he doesn't fit anywhere! We still don't know how to look at him. And he
I am indebted to W. David Todd, Conservator of Timekeeping
at the Smithsonian Institution, for his continuous and generous input
at every stage of this story, in many ways his story. "Write no wrongs!"
he cheerfully e-mailed me at one point. I began this work while a Fellow
at the Bunting Institute at Harvard University in 1997, where I had the
help of two capable research assistants: Harvard students Syau-Jyun Liang
and Bulbul Tiwari. The following year Virginia Commonwealth University
student Adam Meuse worked for me, and it was Adam who found the article
"Putting Don Carlos Together Again: Treatment of a Head Injury in
Sixteenth-Century Spain" by L. J. Andrew Villalon. Librarian Jean
Scott in the VCU Interlibrary Loan Department tracked down an extraordinary
amount of archival material. German translation and much help in understanding
German sources was provided by Susanne Böer. Mary Flinn, writer and
editor, articulated for me the notion of a link between two kinds of time:
Catholicism's perpetuity, and technology's clockworks. Joe Seipel recited
on demand whole tracts of the Catholic Mass. The historian Jane Kamensky,
whom I met at the Bunting Institute, closely read the paper and helped
me detect the assumptions behind my own twentieth-century definition of
prayer. She wrote in a letter: "is it possible that the automaton
is praying, perpetually, for its own (Diego's) canonization? . . . perhaps
the monk is not celebrating Diego's canonization, but is somehow part
of the campaign to make it happen?" It was Jane who directed me to
Keith Thomas' book Religion and the Decline of Magic. Most recently,
Fredrika H. Jacobs, Cultural Historian at VCU, offered crucial suggestions
about the interrelationship of Church and theater. L. J. Andrew Villalon
himself, whose work on Don Carlos and San Diego is central to this paper,
agreed to read my final drafts, and gave essential criticism and comment.
I am grateful to Historian Alex Keller at the University of Leicester
for his view of aspects of the work of Juanelo Turriano. I must again
thank Teresita Fernandez for helping me find Father Servus Gieben. The
website, let me mention here, for the Istituto Storico dei Cappuccini
in Rome is http://istcap.org. My suspense on sending Father Gieben this
manuscript was met with impeccable scholarly generosity. His theory about
the monk is as astonishing a thing as the monk itself. And my own father,
physicist John S. King, helped me create a sense of structure in this
(as he calls it) dendritic tale. For Evelyn Lincoln, as ever, my daily
gratitude. As I completed the manuscript, I felt I finally knew enough
to telephone the distinguished historian Dr. Silvio Bedini, now retired
from the Smithsonian Institution, to ask him if he still believes the
lute playing lady in Vienna is the only automaton that may have come from
Turriano's hands. "No," he said, "I think there's a chance
the monk is made by Turriano."
1. Carlos Fuentes, "Velázquez, Plato's
Cave and Bette Davis," The New York Times 15 Mar. 1987.
2. "I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and
wonderfully made," Psalm 139, Verse 14.
My phrase "in a complicated and urgent way" is borrowed from
Michael Baxandall, The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980) p 153. "The devotional image
is often a special case because acts of devotion involve urgent and complicated
kinds of expectation and desire [. . .]."
3. Federico García Lorca, Deep Song and
Other Prose, ed. and trans. Christopher Maurer (New York: New Directions,
1980) "Play and Theory of the Duende."
4. I first saw the monk in 1989, when Christopher
Furman, then a student in my advanced sculpture class at Virginia Commonwealth
University, arranged a trip to the Smithsonian to see it and meet David
5. William H. Prescott, History of the Reign of
Philip the Second, King of Spain, ed. John Foster Kirk, 3 vols. (Philadelphia:
J. B. Lippincott, 1874). It is interesting to compare this publishing
date with the first performance of Verdi's opera in Paris in 1867.
6. Prescott, vol. II, pp 467-8. Erysipelas,
also called St. Anthony's fire, was a spreading inflammation of the skin
and subcutaneous tissues, now understood to be caused by a streptococcus.
7. Henry Kamen, Philip of Spain (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1997) pp 91-2.
8. L. J. Andrew Villalon, "Putting Don Carlos
Together Again: Treatment of a Head Injury in Sixteenth-Century Spain,"
Sixteenth Century Journal 26.2 (1995): pp 347-65. Among the versions
of the story of Don Carlos' illness I compare here, it is Villalon's particular
contribution to base the account on an extensive study of the direct testimony
of the prince's attending physicians.
9. Villalon, pp 357-8.
10. Villalon, p 354.
11. Villalon, pp 361-2.
12. José A. García-Diego, Los relojes
y autómatas de Juanelo Turriano (Madrid: Tempvs Fvgit, Monografías
Españolas de Relojería, 1982) pp LV-LX, figs 6.3-6.9.
13. García-Diego, p 104. I thank Adam Meuse
and Carlena Kirkpatrick for translation from the Spanish of this and the
following quotes from García-Diego's book.
14. Klaus Maurice, Otto Mayr, eds., The Clockwork
Universe: German Clocks and Automata 1550-1650 (New York: Neale Watson
Academic Publications, 1980) p 170.
15. García-Diego, p 109. "If Charles V
or Philip II had made the request, [Turriano] would have modeled [the
monk's] features at least with a certain spirituality."
16. García-Diego, p LXI, fig 6.10.
17. Leopold von Ranke, preface, Geschichten der
romanischen und germanischen Volker von 1494 bis 1535 [History of
the Latin and Teutonic Nations . . .], written in 1824. Sämmtliche
Werke, vol. 33 (Leipzig: 1868-1890) p vii. "History has had assigned
to it the office of judging the past and of instructing the present for
the benefit of the future ages. To such high offices the present work
does not presume: it seeks only to show what actually happened."
Translation from Leopold von Ranke, The Secret of World History, Selected
Writings on the Art and Science of History, ed. and trans. Roger Wines
(New York: Fordham University Press, 1981).
18. José A. García-Diego, Juanelo
Turriano, Charles V's Clockmaker, The Man and His Legend, trans. Charles
David Ley (Sussex: Antiquarian Horological Society; Madrid: Editorial
19. The Fundación, according to its recent
website, preserves García-Diego's library, publishes papers on
the history of engineering, produces facsimile editions of historical
scientific manuscripts, and promotes the protection and reconstruction
of historical engineering works as cultural monuments. The website address
20. When I contacted Prof. Villalon, at the University
of Cincinnati, for permission to quote from his account of Don Carlos'
illness, I learned that he had written several subsequent papers on the
life of Diego de Alcalá: "San Diego de Alcalá and the
Politics of Saint-Making in Counter-Reformation Europe" in The
Catholic Historical Review LXXXIII.4 (October, 1997): pp 691-715;
and "Conflicting Views on Sainthood and the Canonization of Diego
de Alcalá: A Working Paper" presented at the Sixteenth Century
Studies Conference in Toronto, Canada in October, 1998, and available
on Villalon's website, Wire Paladin http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/9507.
In addition, he generously made available to me his just-completed paper
"The Miracle Book of San Diego de Alcalá, or, the Fifteenth
Century Failure to Canonize the First Counter-Reformation Saint,"
forthcoming from Mediterranean Studies. My sketch of Brother Diego's
life, drawn initially from the Bibliotheca Sanctorum vol. IV (Rome:
Città Nuova Editrice, 1995) pp 605-9, has been deeply informed
by Villalon's work. Passages here on Diego's illiteracy, and on the fifteenth-century
attempt at canonization, come from Villalon's "The Miracle Book .
. ." See also Thomas E. Case, La historia de San Diego de Alcalá.
Su vida, su canonización y su legado [bilingual edition in
Spanish and English], (Alcalá de Henares: Universidad de Alcalá,
21. Villalon, "The Miracle Book . . ."
22. Villalon, "Putting Don Carlos Together Again
. . ." pp 361-2.
23. Villalon, "Putting Don Carlos Together Again
. . ." p 362.
24. Among the recognized historians whose works have
included accounts of Turriano are Sir William Stirling-Maxwell, The
Cloister Life of the Emperor Charles V, 4th ed. (London: John C. Nimmo,
1891); Ernst von Bassermann-Jordan, Alte Uhren und Ihre Meister
[Old Clocks and Their Masters], (Leipzig: Verlag Wilhelm Diebener G.M.B.H.,
1926); Enrico Morpurgo, Dizionario degli orologiai italiani (1300-1880)
(Rome: Edizioni "La Clessidra," 1950); Ernest L. Edwardes, Weight-Driven
Chamber Clocks of the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Altrincham: John
Sherratt and Son, 1965); Hans von Bertele and Erwin Neumann, Die Kaisermonument-Uhr,
Monographie einer historisch bedeutungsvollen Figurenuhr aus der Spätzeit
Kaiser Karls V. (1500-1588) [Monograph of a Historically Significant
Figure Clock from the Time of Emperor Charles V . . .], (Lucerne: Buchdruckerei
Keller & Co. AG, 1965); and Silvio A. Bedini, who is cited below.
25. Silvio A. Bedini and Francis R. Maddison, Mechanical
Universe: The Astrarium of Giovanni De' Dondi (Philadelphia: The American
Philosophical Society, 1966) pp 56-8; and Silvio A. Bedini, "The
Role of Automata in the History of Technology," Technology and
Culture 5 (1964): p 32. My gratitude to David Todd for introducing
me to Silvio Bedini's superb work. I have depended heavily on it.
26. García-Diego places Turriano's birth date
27. Bedini and Maddison p 37. The authors quote the
great Girolamo Cardano, De subtilitate [. . .] (Lyons: 1554) pp
611-12, who concludes a description of Turriano's clock, saying ".
. . so that the machine really depicts the whole universe."
28. Ambrosio de Morales, Las antigüedades
de las ciudades de España (Madrid: 1575) pp 91-3; quoted by
Bedini and Maddison p 40.
29. Bedini and Maddison p 38, note 120.
30. García-Diego, Juanelo Turriano p
31. Bedini and Maddison p 57.
32. Stirling-Maxwell p 180. Famianus Strada, De
Bello Belgico [. . .] ab excessu Caroli V imp. [. . .] ad an. MDXC
[Concerning the Belgian War . . . from the abdication of the Emperor Charles
V . . . to the year 1590], 2 vols. (Rome, 1632-47). Translated into English
in 1650 by Sir Robert Stapylton, the passage can be found on p 7 of Book
For often, when the Cloth was taken away after dinner,
he brought upon the board little armed figures of Horfe and Foot, fome
beating Drums, others founding Trumpets, and divers of them charging
one another with their Pikes. Sometimes he fent wooden fparrows out
of his chamber into the Emperours Dining-room, that would flie round,
and back again; the Superiour of the Monaftery, who came in by accident,
fufpecting him for a Conjurer.
And thus the scene is reset by successive generations
of historians, from Famianus Strada to William Stirling-Maxwell, on to
later versions such as Ernest L. Edwardes' in his 1965 Weight Driven
Chamber Clocks, p 100, (see above note 24). By the time Bedini recreates
it, it is tradition speaking. García-Diego in his turn quotes Strada
too, calling it "a short passage full for wonders."
33. García-Diego, Los relojes y autómatas
34. Stirling-Maxwell p 444. Comparison here with the
Jewish Golem is irresistible.
35. Morales p 93; quoted by García-Diego, Los
relojes y autómatas pp 99-100.
36. Bedini and Maddison p 57.
37. Très importante collection de tableaux
Espagnols du XIIIe au XVIIIe siècle [. . .], catalog, (Geneva:
1976) pp 83-4.
38. Copies of letters and engravings referred to in
this paragraph are among documents from the Registrar's Office of the
National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution.
39. The information on the Munich monk comes from
Peter Frieß, "Restaurierung einer Automatenfigur," Alte
Uhren und moderne Zeitmessung 4 (August, 1988): pp 40-50. For the
Budapest figure, I thank curator Ágnes Prékopa, formerly
of the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest, for providing me with information
via private correspondence. A detailed account of the restoration of this
figure, published by the two conservators who performed the work, is:
Katalin Soós and Jenö Rácz, "Eine Automatenfigur
in Budapest," Zeitschrift für Kunsttechnologie und Konservierung
4 (1990): pp 207-214.
40. One can even hear a recording of it over the internet
from the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences:
41. A serious comparison would require determining,
as with any sculpture, whether or not these carved components had suffered
repair or restoration in the intervening centuriesrepair that might
have significantly altered their original appearances. Studying the recent
restoration records available for each figure (see above note 39), I find
that the Munich figure is listed as showing signs of evident prior repair
and repainting of the head. The Budapest figure is described as arriving
in the museum collection with the head in good condition, with no comment
on the likelihood of its having been repainted. The photographs of this
head show a face surprisingly clean and bright for a 400 year old object,
one described as being damaged in other respects. Both figures, at purchase,
had missing hands or fingers, and these have been recarved in recent restoration.
The Smithsonian monk by contrast shows no sign of significant alteration
to either body or mechanism, and only the garment, cross and rosary are
more recent. The painted face is cracked and peeling, but David Todd has
identified the paint as demonstrating full age. On all points, one longs
to bring these three figures together in one laboratory for a more detailed
comparison. That all three have appeared only in this century, and without
documents or provenance, would render a close comparison all the more
welcome. Because automata have been classified as machines and not works
of art, they have received one kind of analytic attention at the expense
of another. Could these carved faces now earn the kind of analysis of
style available for, say, Renaissance wood sculpture?
42. The three other ladies are: a very extensively
reconstructed lute player, smaller in height (34 cm.), whose iron clockwork
is dated to 1550, in the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers,
Paris; another smaller lute player in the Smithsonian Institution whose
clockwork is of brass, this one dated to 1600; and the clockwork only
(also brass and also dated 1600) of a lute player in the Bavarian National
Museum in Munich, which has been given a head, arms, etc. in the last
century. Note the dates of the last two: because of their brass works
they must be considered to be later technology, for the metallurgical
development of the brass alloy as a non-corrosive, very machinable preference
to iron was only then becoming affordable.
43. But she is described in 1926 by Ernst von Bassermann-Jordan,
Alte Uhren pp 66-9. "The doll is old Austrian private property,
having been inherited from the Netherlands." (p 67). And interestingly,
she is also described and pictured in Alfred Chapuis and Edouard Gélis,
Le Monde des Automates 2 vols. (Paris: 1928, reprinted Geneva:
Editions Slatkine, 1984) pp 215-17. My thanks to Dr. Rudolf Distelberger
of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, for correspondence about this
automaton. She may be seen on the Museum's website: http://www.khm.at.
44. The choice of a linear or circular movement path
is mentioned in Chapuis and Gélis, vol 2, p 215.
45. A partial list:
1988: Peter Frieß p 42
1982: García-Diego, Los relojes y autómatas pp 99-100
1966: Bedini and Maddison p 57
1965: Edwardes pp 99-100
1926: Bassermann-Jordan p 68
1891: Stirling-Maxwell pp 179-180
46. Morales p 93; translated from the old Spanish
and quoted by García-Diego, Los relojes y autómatas
pp 99-100. This English translation in turn, from García-Diego,
Juanelo Turriano, Charles V's Clockmaker p 101. A tercia,
about 11 inches, is one-third of a vara, or rod, a Spanish linear
measure of .84 meter.
47. Since the English edition of García-Diego's
book in 1986, Peter Frieß's 1988 article on the Munich monk, and
the Soós/Rácz article on the Budapest figure in 1990, there
is a more recent comparison, this one difficult to obtain as it is an
unpublished Master's Thesis: Adelheid von Herz, "Androiden des 16.
Jahrhunderts" Universität Hamburg, 1990.
48. Bedini, "The Role of Automata . . ."
pp 29-30, note 15. See also Ernest L. Edwardes, Weight-Driven Chamber
Clocks pp 1-69; and Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers (New
York: Random House, 1983) pp 26-53.
49. Alexandre Moret, "Les statues d'Égypte,"
Revue de Paris (May, 1914): pp 130 et seq.; as quoted in Alfred
Chapuis, Edmond Droz, Automata: A Historical and Technological Study
(Neuchâtel: Editions du Griffon, 1958) p 15. This book, together
with the original two-volume edition in French by Alfred Chapuis and Edouard
Gélis, Le Monde des Automates (see above note 43), constitute
the most comprehensive history in print of the automaton in all its myriad
forms. To my mind, the most elegant short history of the automaton is
the above noted work by Silvio Bedini, "The Role of Automata in the
History of Technology." A recent volume by Horst Bredekamp The
Lure of Antiquity and the Cult of the Machine, trans. Allison Brown
(Princeton: Markus Wiener, 1995) initiates a welcome and broad multi-disciplinary
interpretation of the automaton in the European Kunstkammer tradition.
50. A story made popular in the book Longitude
by Dava Sobel (New York: Walker, 1995). King Philip's ultimate heir to
the Spanish throne, Philip III, inaugurated the offer of a prize in 1598
to whomever could solve this problem, a prize only bestowed 175 years
later by the British Parliament to the clockmaker John Harrison.
51. Bedini, "The Mechanical Clock and the Scientific
Revolution," Maurice, Mayr, eds. The Clockwork Universe pp
52. Peter Honig, "History and Mathematical Analysis
of the Fusee," Maurice, Mayr, eds. The Clockwork Universe
The solution was developed in the form of the combination
of a cord or chain [. . .] with a sort of cone called a fusee. Qualitatively
it works in the following manner. When the clock is unwound, the chain
or cord is wrapped on the outside of the mainspring barrel with one
end of the cord anchored in a slot in its side; the other end is anchored
in the fusee. As the timepiece is wound, the chain becomes wrapped along
the spiral grooves of the fusee as it is unwrapped from the spring barrel.
While this is happening, the tension in the chain increases as a result
of the growth in spring force. Since the fusee is the first member of
the gear train, the torque or twist which it develops must be constant
if timing is to be accurate. As the tension in the chain increases,
the radius of the fusee where the chain makes contact decreases to compensate
theoretically for force changes. A lot of force acting on a small radius
is equivalent to a little force on a large radius. That is why the fusee
possesses its unusual shape. (Honig, p.114)
Fusees were first made of wood, in a painstaking trial
and error method in which the grooves were carved into the surface of
a cone blank, following a gradually diminishing radius calibrated to the
successive points of wind of the mainspring to be used. One would imagine
it could be a regular conical path, but the metallurgy of a spring generates
a more complex torque geometry, as reflected in the fusee's typical arced
53. Bedini, "The Role of Automata . . ."
54. For an interesting discussion of the cam as an
ur-computer memory, see James M. Williams, "Antique Mechanical Computers,
Part 1: Early Automata," BYTE Publications, Inc. 3.7 (July
55. The possibility that the monk was made not on
the occasion of Don Carlos' recovery, but instead on the occasion of the
1588 canonization of the friar who cured him, deserves consideration.
This idea emerged in a conversation between Todd and myself in the museum
cafeteria one day. Todd had spoken before about pushing the date forward
a bit, because of the several later automata made of brass on a similar
design, and because contemporary clockmaking practices would bear it out.
I quote my own day's notes from April 17, 1998:
At lunch we talked about San Diego. 1588 for his
canonization . . . and David said "1588, hmmm. that is a neat year,"
and I say, why? He says he likes the later date for the automaton, puts
him closer to the others: 20 or 25 years is a long time, a whole generation.
Perhaps he was made on the occasion of the canonization, rather than
the miracle itself? We'd lose Turriano, who dies in 1585, but gain the
saint! And it is interesting to think of a votive offering and commemorative
object made on that very triumphant date . . . Maybe not made for Charles
or commissioned by Philip?
South Germany must continue to be considered a potential
alternative to Spain for the manufacture of any of the automata mentioned
here. Augsburg and Nuremberg were important centers of clockmaking development
in the sixteenth century. Traffic between the lands of the Austrian Habsburgs
and the Spanish holdings at the time of Philip IIall earlier united
under Charles Vwas steady enough that it may even be that the monk
was made in Spain and Germany, or otherwise commissioned in Spain
and constructed in Germany. David Todd agrees that this is quite conceivable.
Moreover, the more we think about these complex automata, the more possible
it seems that the wood carving was produced by one kind of artisan, the
clockwork by another, certainly the clothing by still another.
56. An outstanding recent essay, on the imitation
of the sincerity of prayer in both Church and Theater in the 16th century,
is by Ramie Targoff, "The Performance of Prayer: Sincerity and Theatricality
in Early Modern England," Representations 60 (Fall 1997):
pp 49-69. It would be fascinating to know what she would say about an
automaton, rather than a human actor, engaging in this holy deceit.
57. Teresita Fernandez, friend and colleague, found
the address for me, while she was a resident at the American Academy in
Rome, in August, 1999.
58. The biographical sketch in this paragraph is based
on information published in: Vincenzo Criscuolo, ed., Quarant'anni
di servizio nell'Istituto Storico dei Cappuccini (1953-1993): Isidoro
da Villapadierna, Mariano D'Alatri, e Servus Gieben (Rome: Istituto
Storico dei Cappuccini, 1993) pp 69-84.
59. Reading over this letter, able at last to picture
some of the events preceding the Smithsonian purchase, I wondered once
more about the Geneva transaction. From whose hands had the monk originally
come onto the market? There had been no mention, as there is, for example,
for the Vienna figure, of a prior collection. These are the mysterious
proprieties of the market itself, which can so mock the attempt to trace
back the journey an object has travelled through time.
60. The photograph is reproduced in the book Iconografia
di S. Giacomo della Marca nell'ambiente napoletano lungo i secoli
by Daniele Capone, (Naples: S. Francesco al Vomero, 1976) p 39. San Diego's
age at death was approximately 63. There are, apparently, no written records
of a death mask having been made from either corpse; moreover, I've found
other photographs of this mask that look very different, and indeed quite
toothless. I think it must be a trick of light, yet there are some strong
similarities to the carved head of the automaton, especially the nose,
ears, and structure of the skull around the eyes.
61. I ultimately sent a draft of this paper to L.
J. Andrew Villalon for his opinion. It was he who pointed out the parallel
between the automaton's arm and the saint's arm.
62. In fact, this definition was first formed by Ernst
Jentsch in "Zur Psychologie des Unheimlichen," Psychiatrisch-Neurologische
Wochenschrift 22 (1906): p 197. See Robert Plank, "The Golem
and the Robot," Literature and Psychology XV.1 (Winter 1965):
p 25. The Freud essay is "The 'Uncanny'" in On Creativity
and the Unconscious, ed. Benjamin Nelson (New York: Harper, 1958)
pp 122-161, see p 132.
63. I thank my husband, Carlton Newton, for this insight
into how such a question might be weighted.
64. Susan Verdi Webster, Art and Ritual in Golden-Age
Spain (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998) p 167. I thank
Fredrika H. Jacobs for pointing me towards this book.
65. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic
(New York: Scribner's, 1971) p 33.
Let the semen of a man putrify by itself in a sealed
curcurbite (gourd glass) with the highest putrefaction of the venter
equinus (horse dung) for forty days, or until it begins at last
to live, move, and be agitated, which can easily be seen. After this
time it will be in some degree like a human being, but nevertheless,
transparent and without body. If now, after this, it be every day nourished
and fed cautiously and prudently with the arcanum of human blood, and
kept for forty weeks in the perpetual and equal heat of a venter
equinus, it becomes, thenceforth a true and living infant, having
all the members of a child that is born from a woman, but much smaller.
This we call a homunculus; and it should be afterwards educated with
the greatest care and zeal, until it grows and begins to display intelligence.
Now, this is one of the greatest secrets which God has revealed to mortal
and fallible man.
Arthur Edward Waite, The Hermetic and Alchemical
Writings of Aureolus Philippus Theophrastus Bombast, of Hohenheim, Called
Paracelsus The Great (London: James Elliott, 1894) p 124. I first
encountered Paracelsus' recipe in John Cohen's wonderful book Human
Robots in Myth and Science (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1966).
But there has been debate about whether the work De Natura Rerum
is authentic to Paracelcus. Its attribution is discussed in William Newman's
recent excellent essay "The Homunculus and His Forebears: Wonders
of Art and Nature" in Anthony Grafton and Nancy Siraisi eds., Natural
Particulars: Nature and the Disciplines in Renaissance Europe (Cambridge:
MIT Press, 1999).
67. Marguerite Yourcenar, The Abyss, trans.
Grace Frick and the author (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976).
68. Cohen, Chapter 3 "A Man-made Man," pp
69. Plank ("The Golem and the Robot"). I
must recommend this entire essay as perhaps the most elegantly presented
case for the links between the alchemy, folklore, and technology of artificial
beings. See pp 17-19 for his discussion of Goethe's homunculus. For a
synopsis of the Faust homunculus scene itself, see Walter Kaufmann,
Goethe's Faust (New York: Anchor Books Edition, Doubleday, 1963)
70. Villalon, "Putting Don Carlos Together Again
. . ." pp 348-9.
71. Prescott p 437, note 16.
Table of Figures
figures 1, 2 Automaton figure of a monk, South
Germany or Spain, c. 1560; National Museum of American History, Smithsonian
Institution, Washington, DC.
figure 3 Automaton, Cister-Spielerin [Lute Player],
Spain (?), middle or second half 16th century; Kunsthistorisches Museum,
figure 4 Mechanism, Automaton, Cister-Spielerin
[Lute Player], Spain (?), middle or second half 16th century; Kunsthistorisches
figure 5 Comparison of the automaton's head
with an engraved portrait of San Diego de Alcalá, from the auction
catalogue Très importante collection de tableaux Espagnols du
XIIIe au XVIIIe siècle [. . .] (Geneva, 1976) p 84; rpt. in
José A. García-Diego, Los relojes y autómatas
de Juanelo Turriano (Madrid, 1982) p LXI.
figure 6 Francisco de Zurbarán, Portrait
of Diego de Alcalá; Museo de la Fundación Lázaro
Galdiano, Madrid. The portrait may also be seen on the Fundación
figures 7, 7-detail Cornelius Galle, Diego
de Alcalá (vita), engraving, first published 1614; Museo Francescano,
Istituto Storico dei Cappuccini, Rome.
figures 8-12 Drawings by W. David Todd: components
of the internal mechanism of the monk; National Museum of American History,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
figure 8 "Mechanism
for the eyes and jaw."
figure 9 "Movements of the
figure 10 Individual levers to the
head, and the cam generating the motion of the mouth.
Drawing by W. David Todd: components of the internal mechanism of the
monk; National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington,
figure 11 Note the parts of the stop
work assembly, which permit the drive
spring to be wound ahead
of time by an operator wishing to set the
automaton in motion on
figure 12 Parts for foot stepping
motion, and left arm movement.
figure 13 X ray of the interior of the monk's
head revealing the mechanism of the eyes, mouth and neck; National Museum
of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
figure 14 Automaton monk, South Germany or Spain,
c. 1560; Photo: Deutsches Museum, Munich.
figure 15 Music automaton, figure of a male
saint, Juanelo Turriano (?); Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest.
figures 16, 17 Ambrosio de Morales, Las antigüedades
de las ciudades de España (Madrid: 1575) Title page excerpt
on Turriano's automaton ("La dama que tañe y dança"),
By permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University.
figure 18 Internal mechanism of the monk showing
mainspring drum and fusee; photograph by W. David Todd, National Museum
of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
figure 19 Mechanical components for head, mouth,
eyes (compare with fig. 10); photograph by W. David Todd, National Museum
of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
figure 20 Drive train and linkages to the head;
photograph by W. David Todd, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian
Institution, Washington, D.C.
figure 21 Death mask, wax, identified as that
of S. Giacomo della Marca, 1391-1475, collection of Convento S. Maria
La Nova, Naples.
figure 22 Photograph by W. David Todd, National
Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
figure 23 National Museum of American History,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.