Agostino Ramelli

Curiosity is the key to problem-solving.
Galileo Galilei

Agostino Ramelli (1531–ca. 1610)
Agostino Ramelli (1531–ca. 1610)

The Italian military engineer Agostino Ramelli (1531–ca. 1610) produced a remarkable illustrated book in 1588 describing a large number of machines that he devised, called Le diverse et artificiose machine del Capitano Agostino Ramelli (The various and ingenious machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli). The book, published in Paris at his own expense, contains 195 superb engravings of various machines along with detailed descriptions, written in Latin, French, and Italian. Ramelli’s book had a great influence on future mechanical engineering as can be seen in Georg Andreas Böckler’s work, Theatrum machinarum novum (1662), where he copied eighteen of Ramelli’s plates. Ramelli’s influence can also be seen in the well-known works of Grollier de Servière (Recueil d’ouvrages curieux de mathematique et de mecanique, 1719) and Jacob Leupold (the multi-volume set Theatrum machinarum, 1724-1739).

One of the 195 designs in the book is for the so-called bookwheel (also known as a reading wheel), a type of revolving bookcase that allows one person to read multiple books in one location with ease. The bookwheel was an early attempt to solve the problem of managing increasingly numerous printed works, which were typically large and heavy in Ramelli’s time. It has been called one of the earliest “information retrieval” devices and has been considered a precursor to modern technologies, such as hypertext and e-readers, that allow readers to store and cross-reference large amounts of information.

An illustration of a bookwheel (figure CLXXXVIII in Le diverse et artificiose machine del Capitano Agostino Ramelli)
The illustration of bookwheel (figure CLXXXVIII in Le diverse et artificiose machine del Capitano Agostino Ramelli)

Ramelli himself described the bookwheel as:
This is a beautiful and ingenious machine, very useful and convenient for anyone who takes pleasure in studying, especially those who are indisposed and tormented by gout. With this machine, a man can see and turn through a large number of books without moving from one spot. Moreover, it has another fine convenience in that it occupies very little space in the place where it is set, as anyone of intelligence can clearly see from the drawing.
This wheel is made in the manner shown, that is, it is constructed so that when the books are laid on its lecterns they never fall or move from the place where they are laid even as the wheel is turned and revolved all the way around. Indeed, they will always remain in the same position and will be displayed to the reader in the same way as they were laid on their small lecterns, without any need to tie or hold them with anything. This wheel may be made as large or small as desired, provided the master craftsman who constructs it observes the proportions of each part of its components. He can do this very easily if he studies carefully all the parts of these small wheels of ours and the other devices in this machine. These parts are made in sizes proportionate to each other. To give fuller understanding and comprehension to anyone who wishes to make and operate this machine, I have shown here separately and uncovered all the devices needed for it, so that anyone may understand them better and make use of them for his needs.

Biography of Agostino Ramelli

Agostino Ramelli was born in 1531 in the village Ponte Tresa near Lugano, Switzerland. Growing up amidst war and political turmoil, the young Agostino had begun studying mathematics and military architecture around 1551 when he enlisted in the army of famous Milanese condottiero Gian Giacomo de Medici, with whom he would fight the Parma war (1551-1552), the siege of Metz ( February 1553), the siege of Siena which began in August 1554, and the capture of Porto Ercole (1555). Medici’s death in November 1555 left Ramelli without a protector. He probably then came into contact with Emanuele Filiberto, Duke of Savoy, or with some of his assistants in Piedmont: he appears to have been paid by Emanuele Filiberto from 1559 to 1565. Ramelli soon developed into a key military engineer and provided his expertise in fortification and machinery used for assaulting enemy cities.

In 1565, the Catholic Ramelli, like other Italian builders and engineers, went to France and fought against the Huguenots under the Duke of Anjou. In 1572 he took part in the occupation of La Rochelle as a military engineer. In November 1572, Ramelli was seriously wounded and was taken prisoner for months. In this difficult situation, the Duke took care and protection of his son, who lived in Paris, and paid the ransom for Ramelli’s release. With the coronation of the Duke of Anjou as king in 1574, Ramelli’s position at the French court strengthened.“The Great Engineer”, as he was called, served as the French magistrate until the death of Henry III.

In a document from 1576, it is indicated that “sieur Augustin Ramelli, engineer of the king, residing in St Germain des Prés”. In 1582, Ramelli received a pension of 500 crowns, to work on the fortifications of Paris. Ramelli was also receiving commissions from Queen Mother Catherine de’ Medici, who on 16 September 1587 wrote to M. de La Salle to have Paris fortified with barricades and trenches employing Captain Agostino Ramelli. After the death of Henry III (2 August 1589), Ramelli was charged with preparing fortifications for the defense of the city of Paris from the attack that Henry of Navarre was about to bring. In the late 1580s, Ramelli designed the water features of Villa Visconti Borromeo Arese Litta (today located in the Milanese municipality of Lainate), according to an original project by Leonardo Da Vinci, who left the drawings in La Rochelle. In 1594 Ramelli participated in the siege of Paris on the side of the leagues. He then joined King Henry IV because he was qualified in 1601 as “the king’s engineer captain”.

The only other known work by Ramelli (besides his book from 1588), this one never printed, is a manuscript entitled La fabrica, et l’uso del triangolo del capitan Agostino Ramelli dal Ponte della Tresia ingegniero del Christianissimo Re di Francia et di Polonia. It is an undated manual for land measurement and fortification.

Ramelli had a daughter, Susanna, who had married the ducal butler Giovanni Andrea Mignata, and in 1607 sold to Carlo Emanuele I, Duke of Savoy, for 4000 scudi, “books, ingenuities and instruments of architecture of fortresses, and other miscellaneous” most likely to be identified with the library and tools of her father. Ramelli also had a son, whose name is unknown, who was also an engineer captain and author of a design for the fortifications at Angoulême in 1588.

Coming back to work for his native Italy for some time, Ramelli died somewhere in his late 70s, probably in Paris. Although the date of his death is unknown, property documents with his signatures have been found dated as late as August of 1608, although it is not believed that he lived for terribly long after that.