The Fantastical Sketchbook of a Medieval Inventor: See Designs for Flamethrowers, Mechanical Camels & More (Circa 1415)

His­to­ry remem­bers, and will like­ly nev­er for­get, the name of Renais­sance Ital­ian inven­tor Leonar­do da Vin­ci. But what about the name of Renais­sance Ital­ian inven­tor Johannes de Fontana? Though he came along a cou­ple of gen­er­a­tions before Leonar­do, Johannes de Fontana, also known as Gio­van­ni Fontana, seems to have had no less fer­tile an imag­i­na­tion. Where Leonar­do came up with every­thing from musi­cal instru­ments to hydraulic pumps to war machines to self-sup­port­ing bridges, Fontana’s inven­tions include “fire-breath­ing automa­tons, pul­ley-pow­ered angels, and the ear­li­est sur­viv­ing draw­ing of a mag­ic lantern device.”

Those words come from Port­land State Uni­ver­si­ty’s Ben­nett Gilbert, who takes a dive into Fontana’s note­book of “designs for a vari­ety of fan­tas­tic and often impos­si­ble inven­tions” at the Pub­lic Domain Review.

Filled some time between the years 1415 and 1420, its 68 draw­ings meant to entice poten­tial patrons include plans for “mechan­i­cal camels for enter­tain­ing chil­dren, mys­te­ri­ous locks to guard trea­sure, flame-throw­ing con­trap­tions to ter­ror­ize the defend­ers of besieged cities, huge foun­tains, musi­cal instru­ments, actors’ masks, and many oth­er won­ders.”

It would seem that Fontana lacked the sense of prac­ti­cal­i­ty pos­sessed by his suc­ces­sor Leonar­do — and Leonar­do dreamed up not just a vari­ety of fly­ing machines but a mechan­i­cal knight. That may have to do with the era in which Fontana lived, “more than two hun­dred years before the dis­cov­er­ies of New­ton,” a time “of tran­si­tion from medieval knowl­edge of the world to that of the Renais­sance, which many now regard as the ori­gin of ear­ly mod­ern sci­ence.” And so his designs, many of them lib­er­al­ly dec­o­rat­ed with unearth­ly-look­ing crea­tures and bursts of flame, strike us today as at most half plau­si­ble and at least half fan­tas­ti­cal.

Fontana’s draw­ing style, too, reflects the state of human knowl­edge in the ear­ly fif­teenth cen­tu­ry: “The tow­ers and rock­ets, water and fire, noz­zles and pipes, pul­leys and ropes, gears and grap­ples, wheels and beams, and grids and spheres that were an engineer’s occu­pa­tion at the dawn of the Renais­sance fill Fontana’s sketch­book. His way of illus­trat­ing his ideas, how­ev­er, is dis­tinct­ly medieval, lack­ing per­spec­tive and using a lim­it­ed array of angles for dis­play­ing machine works.” Yet this makes Fontana’s note­book all the more fas­ci­nat­ing to 21st-cen­tu­ry eyes, and throws into con­trast some of his more plau­si­ble inven­tions, such as “a mag­ic lantern device, which trans­formed the light of fire into emo­tive dis­play.”

Will some bold schol­ar of the ear­ly Renais­sance one day argue that Fontana invent­ed motion pic­tures? But per­haps the man who designed “an awe-inspir­ing fire-illu­mi­nat­ed spec­ta­cle, most like­ly serv­ing as a pro­pa­gan­da machine, for use in war and in peace” would­n’t approve of a medi­um quite so ordi­nary. We might say that the most valu­able lega­cy of Johannes de Fontana, more so than any of his inven­tions them­selves, is the glimpse his note­book gives us into the the human imag­i­na­tion in his day, when fact and fan­ta­sy inter­min­gled as they will nev­er do again. And in the case of some tech­nolo­gies, we should prob­a­bly feel relieved that they won’t: Fontana’s “life sup­port sys­tem for patients under­go­ing grue­some surg­eries” may be fas­ci­nat­ing, but I can’t say I’d be eager to make use of it myself.

See his man­u­script online here.

via the Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Vision­ary Note­books Now Online: Browse 570 Dig­i­tized Pages

Leonar­do da Vin­ci Draws Designs of Future War Machines: Tanks, Machine Guns & More

Buck­min­ster Fuller Cre­ates Strik­ing Posters of His Own Inven­tions

Mark Twain’s Patent­ed Inven­tions for Bra Straps and Oth­er Every­day Items

The 10 Com­mand­ments of Chindōgu, the Japan­ese Art of Cre­at­ing Unusu­al­ly Use­less Inven­tions

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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