A mechanical bestiary

Automaton Clocks of the Renaissance


The appearance of automaton clocks during the Renaissance was made possible by technical advances that allowed small mechanical figures to be created. Thus, miniature and portable versions could be produced of the large mechanical figures that had adorned theatres and gardens since the time of Hero of Alexandria, and of the creations of al-Jazari, an ingenious maker of automata who worked during the 13th century, in the time of the Abbasid Caliphate, and of the pleasure gardens that were created in Hesdin the 15th century for the Dukes of Burgundy. Important discoveries, as well as the development of commercial relations with Asia and America, stirred up a new fascination for exoticism that led to the development of Kunst and Wunderkammern, fantastic curiosity cabinets containing both man-made and natural wonders. While only princely and imperial menageries could boast of live lions, elephants and monkeys, collectors could satisfy their taste for exoticism with mechanical versions of these animals thus creating their own mechanical bestiaries.

The vivid imagination of Augsburg clockmakers was curbed only by the technical limits of automata themselves. In their workshops, these clockmakers created all sorts of animals – domestic, exotic, and fantastic. Their work covered a wide spectrum, from the grotesque and trivial characters who animated drinking games at banquets to the most edifying and virtuous: crucifixions, enthroned Madonnas, and scenes of the flagellation of Christ, which demonstrated their owners’ piety. However, religious automata are not included in this book. The principal component in these objects is not the clock itself. The annular balance, which improved clocks’ regularity, was modified to drive the eye movements. The friction generated by the automaton’s motion tended to hinder the clocks’ precision.

The thirty-one automaton clocks presented in this book are the largest group ever displayed.

21.2 x 30 cm
200 pages
255 illustrations

Edition of this book available in french

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ISBN: 979-10-96561-00-1