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Giovanni de Fontana sketch

Check out a Catalog of Fantastic 15th-Century Inventions


A collection of fantastic and sometimes impossible inventions leaps from the sketchbook made in 1420 by an Italian engineer...


Few other minds are more fascinating than the mind of an inventor. The plans for building an automaton which emits fire from its mouth, a mechanical angel, and a magic lantern are just some of the objects found in the 1420 sketchbook of engineer, Giovanni de Fontana (ca. 1395-1455), made public by Public Domain Review. The catalog contains plans for machines and objects conceived long before the laws of mechanics had been discovered and described. For this reason, the creation of any object essentially from nothing was, at that time, an exercise relying equally on both fantasy and reality.

Among the shelves of the State Library of Bavaria —at the singular meeting point of engineering with technological ignorance, art, imagination and commercial demand— this unique volume stands. It’s the notebook of the Italian inventor (and artist) from the 15th-century, and within it are 68 sketched drawings intended to sell inventions to wealthy patrons. Although the book was never titled by the author, one later owner rather arbitrarily called it the Bellicorum instrumentorum liber, meaning the Book of Warlike Instruments, although very few of the illustrated objects are in fact related to war.

Among the many inventions born of Fontana’s mind there are a mechanical camel for the entertainment of children, cryptic locks for the guarding of treasures, flamethrowers to scare off enemies during the siege of a city, giant fountains, musical instruments (some resistant to water), medical clothing, theatrical masks, and many other wonders. The usefulness of many of the inventions is largely impossible to determine, as are the coded texts accompanying several of the designs.

Fontana lived at a moment when the Middle Ages were moving quickly in the direction of the Renaissance, or in other words, in a direction toward the birth of modern science. While the Italian created these eccentric objects, also in Europe, the notion of linear perspective was being developed, the first attempts at a machine to reproduce texts were undertaken, and a way was sought to reproduce images in series. Engineers and architects were looking for ways to build more stable and lighter buildings, which defied gravity and took advantage of the qualities of their own materials. But despite their Renaissance essence, Fontana’s drawings are closer to medieval art for their lack of linear perspective and for the limitations of his angles.

Fire is one of the elements most constant in Fontana’s collection. Some of his inventions were, after all, intended to be used in battle. Still others were of an entirely different nature. Fontana was the creator of one of the oldest surviving diagrams for the making a magic lantern, a device which emits light and which is used even today for the projection of figures for entertainment purposes. Some of the other objects using fire were created for religious festivities and theatrical performances and these were mounted outside cathedrals and churches: mouths spitting fire, mechanical angels to fly over an audience, and celestial clouds which rose with ropes and pulleys.

Finally, Fontana designed a good number of fountains and hydraulic devices, long before the hydraulic infrastructure that was to abound during the European Renaissance. He invented a crane to extract sunken ships from the bottom of the sea (a common problem at the time). But undoubtedly, the most charming elements of Fontana’s notebook of inventions are those which simply cannot be built; those which are materially or mechanically unattainable. (They are designs which, by the way, remind us of the great Leonardo Da Vinci in their polymathic and fantastic qualities.) The mere existence of such impossible inventions, in the mind or in a notebook are, in themselves, a wonderful demonstration of the human imagination.

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