There’s something missing in our appreciation of the Renaissance, says Paolo Galluzzi, professor of the history of science at the University of Florence-something very important. While we rightly glorify this period as an extraordinary flowering of humanism and the arts, most of us have overlooked the engineering accomplishments that were just as much a part of the Renaissance as the “Mona Lisa.” Granted, we marvel at Leonardo da Vinci and his technological dreams of helicopters and scuba equipment, but our instinct is to consider him a preternatural, almost freakish figure plopped down in fifteenth century Italy-the definition of that aberration, “a genius.” In fact, Galluzzi explains, Leonardo represents the culmination of a century-long transformation of the technical arts and those who practiced them. To understand the Renaissance from an engineering perspective, he says, we must realize that Leonardo was no “lone visionary prophet in the desert.”
As curator of the exhibit “Mechanical Marvels: Invention in the Age of Leonardo,” which is on display at the Liberty Gallery in New York City until March 1, Galluzzi has provided us with the perfect opportunity to reassess the Renaissance. The exhibit focuses on the careers of four great artist-engineers of the Italian Renaissance: Filippo Brunelleschi, Mariano di Iacopo, Francesco di Giorgio, and Leonardo da Vinci. It features 50 working models of machines they devised as well as dozens of large-scale reproductions of their drawings and designs for these devices. The “mechanical marvels” include a three-speed hoist driven by oxen and capable of lifting loads of more than a ton to a height of 270 feet, a revolving crane, a mobile siege bridge, and a paddleboat, as well as such architectural masterpieces as the dome of the cathedral of Florence, 100 feet high and 165 feet across-a daring piece of engineering and construction that remains an enduring symbol of the Renaissance.
This remarkable exhibit depicts a transformation not only in the techniques available for modeling technology, but also in the profession of engineering. While the Middle Ages could claim impressive achievements and technological advances-from the great Gothic cathedrals to technologies like the heavy- wheeled plow and the horse harness and stirrup-the artisans who were responsible for these accomplishments remain anonymous and unsung. But by the height of the fifteenth century, Galluzzi explains, the artist-engineer had become “a socially prominent and respected figure, commissioned by powerful and wealthy patrons, well paid, and often regarded as one of the brightest ornaments in sovereign courts.”
What initially drove this transformation was rapid growth in commerce, intense urbanization, and-perhaps most important-a climate of great rivalry among the Italian city-states. The exigencies of competition, aggression, and security during this era were “a great engine for [technological] change, which is always the rather bitter irony of war,” notes Nicholas Adams, professor of the history of architecture at Vassar College and one of a number of experts who will lecture on various aspects of the Renaissance in conjunction with the exhibit. In this context, the engineer was greatly valued as a maker of military technology, says Adams. Even the young Leonardo promoted himself to potential employers by boasting of his abilities as a military engineer and designer of siege apparatus.
As the artist-engineer grew in social prominence, he sought to present himself as a learned member of the court, a philosopher, and perhaps most important, an author of texts. The Renaissance artist-engineers patterned themselves on such celebrated figures as Vitruvius, a Roman engineer and architect of the first century B. C. who codified the principles of architecture in a monumental work titled De architectura; they sprinkled their works with quotations (or more often, says Galluzzi, misquotations) from classical sources. But unlike Vitruvius and other classical scholars, whose treatises were long on text but short on illustration, the Renaissance engineers integrated text and images in a revolutionary manner. In doing so, they developed many far-reaching innovations in graphic representation.
The artists-engineers of the Renaissance discovered the laws of perspective and the techniques of cutaway, exploded, and rotating views. They pioneered the thinking sketch, the working drawing. As Eugene Ferguson wrote in Engineering and the Mind’s Eye, this “series of fundamental graphic inventions … greatly enhanced the precision with which a vision in one person’s mind might be conveyed by material means-drawings-across space and time to another person’s mind.” This crucial development both enabled and reflected the evolution of engineering from a workshop-based, case-by-case approach to a discipline rooted in principle and theory.
Prior to the Renaissance, design and construction were based almost solely on scale models fashioned by the hands of artisans. “Models are great,” Adams says, “because they show you in three dimensions how things are going to look and work.” Drawing, however, is quicker, cheaper, and more portable; it allows ideas to be transmitted across distances. “What’s interesting,” he adds, “is that the intellectual and conceptual effort that drawing involves becomes the engine for further development. It becomes a means of invention, of innovation.”