Title Renaissance Fun: The Machines Behind the Scenes
Year All Fools Day, 2021
Publisher UCL Press

Renaissance Fun: The Machines Behind the Scenes

This is a book about the technology of Renaissance entertainments in stage machinery and theatrical special effects; in gardens and fountains; and in the automata and self-playing musical instruments that were installed in garden grottoes. The period covered is roughly 1400 to 1700. The geographical focus is on Italy, with excursions into Northern Europe. The book is conceived as an entertainment in itself. But behind the show is a more serious argument, centred on the enormous influence of two ancient writers on these subjects, Vitruvius and Hero. Vitruvius’s Ten Books on Architecture were widely studied by Renaissance designers. Hero of Alexandria wrote the Pneumatics, a collection of designs for surprising and entertaining devices that were the models for 16th and 17th century automata. A second book by Hero On Automata-Making – much less well known, then and now – describes two miniature theatres that presented plays without human intervention. One of these, I argue, provided the model for the type of proscenium theatre introduced from the mid-16th century, the generic design which is still built today. As the influence of Vitruvius waned, the influence of Hero grew.


Part I: The Machine in the Theatre
Chapter 1: Changing the scenes
Intermezzo: Moving pictures  

Chapter 2: Theatres of machines
Intermezzo: Artificial weather  

Chapter 3: The automata of Hero of Alexandria 

Part II: The Machine in the Garden
Chapter 4: Artificial creatures
Intermezzo: Talking heads  

Chapter 5: Water in the air
Intermezzo: Surprise soakings  

Chapter 6: Artificial music  

Part III: A Garden and and Opera
Chapter 7: The ‘garden of marvels’ at Pratolino

Chapter 8: Mercury and Mars in Parma, 1628