Magical and Mechanical Evidence: The Late-Renaissance Automata of Francesco I de’ Medici

Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas Archives internationales d'histoire des idées book series (ARCH, volume 225)


In the realization of moving automata for Francesco I de’ Medici’s sixteenth-century Villa Pratolino outside of Florence, the memory of antiquity informed both the practical and theoretical operations of these “living statues.” The 1587 description of the villa and its wonders, Delle Maravigliose Opere di Pratolino, & d’Amore by Francesco de’ Vieri, associates magical traditions of statue animation with Renaissance automata in a passage that cites Aristotle’s description, rooted in atomism and sympathetic magic, of the physical process by which Daedalus animated his legendary wooden Venus. From the fifteenth century onwards, the rediscovery and popularity of Neoplatonic and Hermetic philosophical texts in the Renaissance perpetuated Greco-Egyptian methods of investing man-made vessels, typically cult statues, with some kind of “life” from received celestial influences, thus manufacturing the “living gods” of antiquity. Simultaneously, mechanical texts which preserved mechanical devices and principles from ancient Alexandria were being assimilated to the engineering repertoire of Western Europe, and air and water were harnessed to impart movement to the early modern automata which graced Italian Renaissance hydraulic villas and gardens. For the court of Francesco I de’ Medici, the division between our modern scientific concept of air and a metaphysical “spirit” was not yet drawn, and manipulating this occult “influence” was invested with a mastery of a far broader, unseen sphere. For the court philosopher De’ Vieri, Neoplatonic and Hermetic writings furnished alternative and not necessarily contradictory understandings of various hidden forces which could cause statues to move. In the late sixteenth century, a much broader conception of “nature” allowed for the confirmation of invisible or “occult” phenomena which did not preclude the magical philosophy of antiquity from being related to the empirical discoveries being made via the production of new mechanical devices. De’ Vieri’s 1587 panegyric to Pratolino demonstrates that the mastery of mechanical as well as esoteric magical philosophy came to feature in the propaganda of the newly-invested Medici Grand Duke.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Tulane UniversityNew OrleansUSA

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