Medieval Sketchbook Showcases the Maverick Designs of Renaissance Italian Engineer

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Previously, we talked at length about the conceptions, ranging from the Flying Machine to the Self-Propelled Cart, put forth by the eminent Leonardo da Vinci in the famous Codex Atlanticus. Well, this time around, we have decided to focus on yet another Renaissance-era Italian inventor, the oft-overlooked Johannes de Fontana (also known as Giovanni Fontana) from the 15th century – who made his mark in the engineering field decades before the advent of da Vinci. The legacy of innovation is evident from an early 15th century sketchbook currently kept at the Bavarian State Library. The manuscript presents around 68 of de Fontana’s conceptions (made between 1415-1420 AD), mostly belonging to the fantastical category.

Interestingly enough, while the book in itself has no title surviving from de Fontana’s time, it was endowed with the compelling label of Bellicorum instrumentorum liber or the Book of Warfare Devices by a later owner, in spite of having very few military-oriented designs in its contents. And talking of designs, most of them, while being appealing in their conception, pertain to the outlandish and even bizarre side of affairs, with examples like a wind-up toy that would show human resurrection or an automaton that could breathe fire.

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In terms of history, Johannes de Fontana lived during the early phase of the Renaissance. Now by its strictest definition, Renaissance or Rinascimento is conventionally regarded as the era in Europe following the Middle Ages that was characterized by the renewed interest in Classical art, philosophy, and values. This was complemented by advancements in both science and technological avenues – and it was the latter that is uniquely mirrored by de Fontana’s designs, albeit in a transitional manner. Simply put, while his ideas do allude to the dynamic and innovative outlook of the Renaissance period, they are presented in a rather 13th century medieval fashion with limited context and technicality.

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Interestingly enough, the element of fire (and its application) is prominent in many of de Fontana’s designs. For example, he made the earliest surviving drawing of a magic lantern device that could provide an affective display. Similarly, a myriad designs were conceived as spectacles for churches and cathedrals, including angels with pulley mechanisms and ‘heavenly cloud’ illusions for popes. Some of the conceptions also went beyond spectacles to account for awe and shock, like an imposing fire-projecting mechanism that was to be used in siege battles. But the piece de resistance arguably relates to an entire structure with various illuminated facades (pictured above). As Portland State University’s Bennett Gilbert, who studied the Bellicorum instrumentorum liber, describes –

This fascinating idea draws on many of the arts of spectacle practiced in the late Middle Ages. Drawings on thin-beaten vellum turn in endless loops on spindles. A light source shining through the translucent medium projects shadows onto temporary walls overshadowed by a tower bearing mighty emblems. The visitor is led through a series of doors into the labyrinth of a fantastic world. The structure was most likely meant to stand as an enormous edifice that represented the personal abode of a prince or lord.

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And lastly, beyond just fire and light based conceptions, de Fontana also dabbled in hydraulic, wind power, and water-based designs. Incredibly enough, one of them takes the conscientious route as a solution for lifting sunken ships. In case one is interested, he can take a gander at the 600-year old manuscript online.

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fontana
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Source: Public Domain Review

About the Author

Dattatreya Mandal
Dattatreya Mandal has a bachelor's degree in Architecture (and associated History of Architecture) and a fervent interest in History. Formerly, one of the co-owners of an online architectural digest, he is currently the founder/editor of Realmofhistory.com. The latter is envisaged as an online compendium that mirrors his enthusiasm for ancient history, military, mythology, and historical evolution of architecture.
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