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Reviewed by:
  • Renaissance Fun: The Machines behind the Scenes by Philip Steadman
  • Joseph Wachelder (bio)
Renaissance Fun: The Machines behind the Scenes By Philip Steadman. London: UCL Press, 2021. Pp. xix + 398.

This book about Renaissance diversions was written primarily for the sake of entertainment, according to its author, and it is a joy to read indeed. Its ingenious composition, tailored to the book's contents and argument, significantly contributes to this. The first part deals with Renaissance stage technologies, such as ropes and drums, for presenting swiftly changing sceneries, waving waters, or angels flying through the air. The second part addresses technologies used for entertainments in Renaissance gardens, such as fountains, water jokes (hidden intermittent fountains), and artificial bird songs. The third part discusses two famous cases: the Garden of Marvels at Pratolino near Florence, created in the 1580s by Bernardo Buontalenti, and the staging of Mercury and Mars at the Teatro Farnese in Parma by Giovanni Battista Aleòtti in 1628. The main chapters are interspersed with short intermezzos, a reference to a Renaissance innovation in the theatrical genre out of which opera developed. The intermezzo in fact spurred the development of new stage machinery. The intermezzos in between this study's chapters serve to provide additional perspectives on interrelated developments in modern times. The different technologies used for stage performance and garden entertainment come together in automata proffering small-scale, autonomous performances in grottoes.

All of the abovementioned entertainments were inspired by or related to the book's hero: Heron of Alexandria. Steadman supports the claim that Heron's works served as key reference for—in current terms—technologically mediated entertainment in Renaissance Italy. This claim has been made before, among others, by Marie Boas in an article from 1949 on Heron's Pneumatics. In 2004, Alexander Marr specified and located Heron's relevance for understanding automata in the Late Renaissance to Italy in [End Page 239] particular, based on an in-depth analysis of the availability of printed translations and, interestingly, the ongoing dissemination of manuscripts dealing with Heron's work, mostly made for high-ranking individuals. In his new study, Steadman contributes to Heron's relevance for Renaissance artificial wonders in a different manner. He focuses on the machines behind the scenes and explains—using Heron as a guide, while referring to numerous illustrations—how they worked, thus sharing the pleasure of understanding the trick. Moreover, he argues that although Heron's Pneumatics has been acknowledged as of major importance, his work On Automata has received much less attention. An English translation became available only in the 1990s. Steadman maintains that Heron's On Automata was crucial for small automatic theatre pieces in grottoes because it allows one to understand the emergence of more elaborate scenic machinery in theatres. So far, Vitruvius has served as the main reference for Renaissance theatre design. Steadman claims that both Aleòtti and Buontalenti must have read Heron's On Automata, for which he credits Victor Prou's Les Théâtres D'Automates en Grèce (1881). Last but not least, the author skillfully reviews and combines a wealth of literature from different fields, covering a large time span (including recently discovered source materials) and many different languages.

This new study by Steadman has a clear focus and thesis. Although he explicitly addresses the limitations of some of his major argumentative decisions, more sustained reflection on their implications is lacking. By zooming in on the Italian Renaissance (1400–1700), understood in its more literal sense of being a revival of classical texts and ideas, the book's central focus is on machines and mechanical devices aimed at entertainment. As a consequence, the author's main interest is in reconstructing continuities rather than studying changing technological landscapes. Steadman discusses pneumatics and hydraulics, yet leaves aside fireworks and clocks, "because of their complexity," mentioning clockwork automata only in passing (p. 5). Given the emergence of mechanistic worldviews at the time, Steadman should have given the implications of such choices more thought. Moreover, if Renaissance Fun provides great insight into the machines behind the stage, it pays little attention to the reception by audiences. Who had access to the entertainments, and what...


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pp. 239-241
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