The Devil as Automaton: Giovanni Fontana and the Meanings of a Fifteenth-Century Machine

Anthony Grafton

in Genesis Redux

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print August 2007 | ISBN: 9780226720807
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226720838 | DOI:
The Devil as Automaton: Giovanni Fontana and the Meanings of a Fifteenth-Century Machine

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This chapter addresses the harmonious coexistence of mechanism and mechanisms with ideas about soul and spirit. Giovanni Fontana was largely disdainful of traditional magic and used his automaton devils to deflate stories told by magicians and theologians. No engineer of the fifteenth century thought harder about automata or devised more ingenious specimens of the genus than him. Fontana made clear that he could produce a figure that moved and spat fire—a figure exactly like the devils that beat and spat fire at Santa Francesca Romana in the fifteenth-century frescoes of her miracles that line the upper chamber of the Tor de' Specchi convent in Rome. The devilish appearance of his automata is as revealing as their mechanical interiors, and he took a serious interest in magical as well as mechanical contrivances. Fontana treated magical traditions with scathing disdain, and lavished ingenuity on his devils and fire-farting birds.

Keywords: soul; spirit; Giovanni Fontana; automaton; devils; magical traditions; fire-farting birds

Chapter.  6795 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of Science and Technology

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